As the World Series heads to New York, the Mets find themselves in a desperate situation. Down 2–0 to Kansas City, they are in a hole that just 10 teams have managed to climb out of in Fall Classic play. Among all best-of-seven series, just 17% of teams that lost the first two games have managed to battle back to win that series, the last being the 2004 Red Sox, who famously trailed 3–0 in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees. The last team to overcome a 2–0 deficit in the World Series, meanwhile, was the 1996 Yankees. The last National League team to do so was, coincidentally, the 1986 Mets (another coincidence: the Royals won their only title in 1985 by coming back from 2–0 and 3–1 deficits in both the ALCS and the World Series).
The knowledge that their most recent championship team did what the Mets must now do—after losing the first two at home, no less—could provide the team with some inspiration as New York looks to save its season over the next three days. For more practical considerations, here are three things the Mets need to do to get back in the World Series.
1. Third time's not the charm
The Mets held leads in the middle innings in both of their World Series losses. In Game 1, they were up 3–1 in the middle of the sixth inning; in Game 2, they were up 1–0 in the middle of the fifth. In the bottom of those innings, however, the Royals scored two and four runs, respectively. In both cases, that was the final inning of work for New York's starting pitcher, Matt Harvey on Tuesday and Jacob deGrom on Wednesday. Neither pitcher had looked particularly vulnerable prior to that frame: Harvey had retired 11 in a row, and while deGrom had gotten into a jam in the previous inning thanks to an error by first baseman Lucas Duda, but he got out of it without giving up a run. Neither had particularly high pitch counts, either, with Harvey at 62 pitches and deGrom at 59 heading into their respective fateful frames.
Both innings, however, found the Mets’ starter facing Kansas City's relentless lineup for the third time in the game. Much has been made of the advantage New York might derive from the fact that the Royals’ hitters have not faced its young starters before. That advantage appears to be evaporating the third time through the order, at which point every Kansas City hitter has seen the pitcher in question twice. That phenomenon is not unique to this World Series. Consider the league-wide splits for each time a hitter faces an opposing starter in a game:
The Royals actually fared nearly as well the first time through the order as the third during the regular season, but the splits of the Mets’ starting pitchers show a dramatic decline in effectiveness the third time through the order:
There’s obviously a lot of Bartolo Colon and Jonathon Niese in that latter table; those two, now relegated to the bullpen, started 60 games for New York during the regular season. Still, Harvey’s opponents’ OPS jumped from approximately .565 and .564 each of the first two times through the order to .704 the third time. DeGrom’s didn’t increase as dramatically—going from .494 the first time to .611 the second time to .629 the third—but the pattern held.
As for Noah Syndergaard, the Mets’ Game 3 starter: Opponents went from .667 the first time to .465 the second time to .860 the third time, including an alarming .543 slugging percentage. In his NLCS start against Chicago, he allowed just one hit and one walk his first two times through the order but was pulled after allowing hits to two of the first three batters after the Cubs’ order turned over a third time. Steven Matz made only six regular-season starts, so there's not enough of a sample to draw a meaningful conclusion. But in Game 4 of the NLCS, he gave up hits to the first two batters he faced the third time through Chicago's lineup and promptly got the hook from manager Terry Collins.
Collins would be well-advised to use a similar approach with Syndergaard and Matz in the next two games, as well as with Harvey in Game 5 should the Mets last that long. The first and most important step to getting back in the Fall Classic is locking down those middle innings when the Royals are coming to the plate for the third time in the game armed with detailed, first-hand knowledge of New York's starting pitcher.
There’s no reason for Collins to be hesitant about going to his bullpen. Colon has posted a 2.35 ERA in five appearances this postseason. Niese ran into trouble in the eighth inning of Game 2 but had retired five of the six batters he had faced prior to that, three of them by strikeout. Hansel Robles, who hadn’t pitched since the Division Series, and Sean Gilmartin, who hadn’t pitched at all in the postseason, both retired every Royal they faced in Game 2. Addison Reed has retired 13 of the last 14 men he has faced. Of the six men below closer Jeurys Famlia on the bullpen depth chart, only setup man Tyler Clippard has given Collins reason to avoid him this postseason, with a 5.06 ERA in six outings.
2. Turn off the conga music
We've written before about Kansas City's conga-line offense this postseason. On multiple occasions, the Royals have staged game- and series-changing rallies without the benefit of what one would call a big hit simply by keeping the line moving around the bases. They did it against the Astros to fend off elimination in Game 4 of the Division Series, scoring five runs in the eighth without an extra-base hit. They did it against the Blue Jays in Game 2 of the ALCS, scoring five runs in the seventh via five singles and a double. And they did it against deGrom and the Mets in Game 2 of the World Series, scoring four runs in the fifth on five singles and a walk.
Those rallies seem to lure opposing managers to sleep. Houston’s A.J. Hinch watched Kansas City string together four singles before removing Will Harris. Toronto’s John Gibbons let four runs score before he replaced David Price. Collins never did pull deGrom in the fifth inning of Game 2.
Much like Alcides Escobar’s tendency to jump on first-pitch fastballs, this is something Collins, the Mets’ coaching staff and catcher Travis d’Arnaud have to be vigilant about. They cannot let the Royals crank up that conga line. That means taking control of the tempo of the game when K.C. puts a couple of hits together and being ready and willing to make a pitching change before the line gets moving.
3. Manufacture a big inning
Despite holding early leads in both games thus far, the Mets' offense has largely been shut down. A lot of that was due to Johnny Cueto pitching up to his abilities in Game 2 with a two-hit, complete game effort. Nonetheless, New York has scored a total of four runs in 23 innings in the Series, and the team is hitting .165/.230/.203 overall. The Mets' only extra-base hit came on Curtis Granderson’s solo home run in Game 1, and they are also averaging fewer than one base runner per inning. New York has put more than two men on base in a single frame just twice, doing so in the fourth inning of each game, and it hasn't scored multiple runs in any inning in the World Series.
Tellingly, the Mets have not forced a pitching change at any point in the Series. The only mid-inning pitching change Royals manager Ned Yost has made came in the seventh inning of Game 1 because he decided to play matchups with no one on base, bringing in righty Kelvin Herrera to face righty David Wright with two outs. That’s an indication of how infrequently the Mets have mounted a serious threat.
It’s obvious to say the Mets need to score more runs to win, but the problem has been too widespread for fine-tuned solutions. Granderson, Daniel Murphy and Duda have each reached base four times, but the rest of the team has contributed a total of one walk and six singles. Wright, Yoenis Cespedes, d'Arnaud, Michael Conforto and Wilmer Flores, the Nos. 2, 4, 6, 7 and 8 hitters in the lineup, are a combined 4-for-42 with one base on balls. So even with Granderson (leadoff hitter; one hit and three walks), Murphy (No. 3; two singles and two walks) and Duda (No. 5; four singles and no walks) reaching base a decent amount, rallies have been hard to come by.
The bench is also thin. Kelly Johnson, the Game 1 designated hitter, is 1-for-7 in the postseason. Michael Cuddyer is 0-for-11 with seven strikeouts. Kirk Nieuwenhuis is 0-for-3. Juan Uribe made the roster but hasn't had an at-bat since Sept. 25 because of a chest injury. Backup catcher Kevin Plawecki hasn't played yet in October. Take out the 7-for-19 postseason showing from outfielder Juan Lagares, and the other five bench members are 1-for-21, with two not having seen the field at all.
Unfortunately for New York, coming home to Citi Field for the first time in 10 days may not help their lack of offense. They scored 57 fewer runs at home than on the road during the regular season.