Three Strikes: Hosmer plays hero, Collins costs Mets, Colon delivers
It wasn't the winning run, but it was the decisive play, the one that will lead any highlight package or commemorative film, the one that will endcap the ceremonies on Eric Hosmer Day a decade from now.
With one out in the ninth inning on Sunday ngiht, with the Royals trailing the Mets, 2–1, in Game 5 of the World Series, Hosmer edged off third base for Kansas City with Salvador Perez at the plate. Perez fisted a one-hopper about 75 feet down the line and 25 feet inside the bag. New York third baseman David Wright, positioned in, crossed in front of shortstop Wilmer Flores to make the play. Wright looked back at Hosmer; Hosmer, with a healthy secondary lead and no one close to the bag, never went backward. Again: He never went backward. Wright, comfortable with the idea that Hosmer would not head to the plate, threw to first base.
Hosmer headed to the plate.
First baseman Lucas Duda caught Wright's throw and rushed a throw home, one that missed the plate, missed catcher Travis d'Arnaud and nearly missed the backstop, as Hosmer dived across the plate with the tying run.
Duda made a terrible throw. If he makes a good throw, one over the plate that allows d'Arnaud to move into a tag, Hosmer is probably out. If he makes a moderately bad throw—say hitting d'Arnaud on the first-base side of the plate and forcing d'Arnaud to come back across his body for the tag—Hosmer may still be out. The ball was past the area of home plate before Hosmer got to the cut-out circle of the plate. If you're evaluating the decision based on whether Hosmer beat the ball, you have to conclude that he made the wrong choice.
That's not the right standard. First, Hosmer gave himself the best chance possible to score. He shuffled his feet, but he never really went back toward third base. If he had, he would have lost both ground and momentum, and he probably not have been able to make his break. Hosmer made a great read of Wright, as well, starting for home after Wright checked on him and once Wright turned back to throw to first. Hosmer is moving before Wright releases the baseball. This was great baserunning. Hosmer was also aware that Wright's throws to first hadn't exactly come from the Manny Machado catalog of late, something that would afford him an extra split-second to score.
There was a lot of hype in this World Series about the Royals, even giving them full credit for the most nonsensical of Mets misplays, as if a four-hopper to second base was anything but a bad thing for a hitter to do, or as if a fly ball to medium-deep left-centerfield reflected a skill we should be teaching just because Yoenis Cespedes played it like a striker. Kansas City's aggressive baserunning, though, is a real skill, one that has helped the team win games over and over this postseason. This play by Hosmer was right there with his steal attempt in Game 2 of the ALDS, with Lorenzo Cain's mad dash home in ALCS Game 6, with the Cain steal in Game 1 of the World Series. You're not "putting pressure on the defense" with weak contact; you are putting pressure on the defense when you say, "I'm going to take this base, and you're going to have to try to stop me."
Duda made a bad throw, but he made a bad throw because Hosmer forced him to make a play. That's an uncommon play for a first baseman, having to field a routine throw to first and then throw home. It comes up in a game situation just a few times a year for anyone, usually when a fast runner on second is trying to steal a run on a grounder that becomes an infield hit. Duda was clearly taken by surprise; he sailed the throw because he came across his body, flipping a sidearm throw rather than taking an extra beat and stepping into it. Saying "he'd have been out with a good throw" is factually correct while missing the point: The circumstances increased the chance that the throw would be poor.
Statistically speaking, the breakeven for this play—and let's not pretend these are much more than approximations—is about 30%. Hosmer has to score more often than Alex Gordon gets a hit or reaches on an error against Jeurys Familia, plus the chances of a passed ball/wild pitch or sequences in which Gordon walks and then Kendrys Morales, who would have pinch-hit, drives in the run.
When looking at the whole play, from Hosmer's lead and his break plus the surprise factor and the rarity of that play, I conclude that it was a good decision and a good play by Hosmer. He just beat Wright and Duda. This isn't canon; there are enough variables in play that it's reasonable to call it a mistake. It's 80/20 for me, and if you say it's 20/80 for you, that makes sense.
For Royals fans, however, this will always be the Eric Hosmer Game.
2. Breaking down the Matt Harvey decision
Terry Collins had a very, very bad weekend. In all three games at Citi Field, he made a mistake related to the handling of Familia, his closer. He used him when he shouldn't have in Game 3 (up by six runs in the ninth), then he failed to bring him when he should have in the next two—both games in which the pitcher he chose put the tying run in scoring position.
As with the eighth inning of Saturday's Game 4, what happened in Sunday's Game 5 was entirely predictable. There is no "is" with pitchers, just what's happened in the past and the next pitch. The in-game performance of a pitcher is a lousy predictor of what will happen next. Using "he's dominant" or "he's cruising" or "he looks great" to make decisions, rather than all the better information that's out there, is a mistake. We've seen many examples of "cruising" pitchers suddenly coughing up baserunners just this postseason.
We know that pitchers become less effective each time they face a lineup, a combination of their fatigue and hitters' familiarity. The quality of a pitcher, the quality of the available relievers and the importance of the game all feed into the decision of when to go to the bullpen, but in the postseason, where run prevention is paramount, that decision almost always bends toward pulling the starter. There can be little question that Matt Harvey, 102 pitches in and facing Lorenzo Cain for the fourth time, was likely to be less effective than Familia, zero pitches in and facing Cain for the first time. Everything we know about starters and relievers, about in-game fatigue, about familiarity, about Harvey and Familia themselves pointed to putting Familia on the mound with nobody on base and a two-run lead.
Collins chose Harvey. Cain walked on seven pitches. Collins chose Harvey again. Eric Hosmer rocketed a double off the left-field wall.
Blame Harvey for the pitches he threw. Blame Harvey for having the gall to want to stay in the game andthe guts to say so, as if that's the kind of behavior we never clamor for in our athletes. He never should have been out there, and that's on Collins. It's the manager's job to put his players in position to succeed, and Collins, by sending Harvey to the mound in the ninth inning, failed to do that.
I'm coming around to the idea that fans under 35 or so just have no idea what a good tactical manager looks like. We've given ourselves over to this notion that a manager's job is almost entirely in the clubhouse, in managing the people. There's always been that element to the job, but there used to be a lot more baseball to it and a lot less babysitting. All of the trends over the last generation or so have taken the thinking out of managing—set bullpen roles, set lineups, strict five-man rotations, small benches with few tactical options—in a way that leaves fans who don't remember Earl Weaver and Whitey Herzog and Billy Martin and Davey Johnson with no frame of reference. Most fans didn't grow up playing Strat-O-Matic, so they don't get why walking the bad No. 8 hitter to face the pitcher is a bad idea. They just see the out, and not the difference between the pitcher leading off the next inning and the leadoff man doing so. It becomes harder and harder to explain why these things are important when not only are there so few managers doing it better, the industry is so obviously not selecting for those skills.
Collins's World Series experience shows the limits of having a people-manager rather than a baseball one in the dugout. He used Familia in Game 3 in part because Familia wanted to pitch, even though using his closer for that meaningless inning would affect his availability in subsequent games. He let Cespedes bat with the bases loaded in the sixth inning of Game 5 after Cespedes fouled a ball off his knee so hard that he had to leave the game after popping out. He let Harvey talk him into starting the ninth even though he'd already made the decision to take his starter out. Individually, maybe you give any of these a pass. Collectively, they're the pattern of someone who is more concerned with keeping his players happy than with making hard decisions.
Maybe this is the way it should be, and I'll admit that I am far enough removed from any clubhouse that my opinion on this should be taken with a grain of salt. By and large, however, the shift over the last 30 years or so has been a net negative for everyone involved. Maybe the times won't allow for a Billy Martin any more. However, it's hardly clear to me that manager-as-camp-counselor model is producing better baseball or better baseball players. On Nov. 1, 2015, the Mets lost in part because they didn't have decisiveness in the dugout.
For Mets fans, this will always be the Terry Collins Game.
3. Last man standing
If extra innings in a World Series game can possibly be considered "anti-climactic," this was how. Once the Royals tied the game, there was just no sense that the Mets would win it. Even with Wade Davis limited to one inning, Kansas City's bullpen continued its mastery of New York's hitters. The Royals' bullpen wasn't perfect in this series, but when the games were close, it was at its best. The Mets got one unearned run off the bullpen in eight innings of Game 1. They picked up a solo homer off Danny Duffy in Game 4. They got nothing in six innings last night. There was a pretty good case for Luke Hochevar, who threw five shutout innings in the series, to be the MVP. Davis threw four shutout innings. Kelvin Herrera threw three shutout innings last night and allowed just a single unearned run in 5 1/3 frames over three games.
Kansas City had enough arms to outlast the Mets, and it was just a matter of getting a run on the board. That happened in the 12th, when Salvador Perez singled and was pinch-run for by Jarrod Dyson. Dyson stole second and went to third on a grounder by Alex Gordon. The Royals, with a shallow bench, sent up Christian Colon. Colon is one of four top-four draft picks among the team's position players. Like the other three (Gordon, Hosmer and Mike Moustakas), he's made slow and unsteady progress in his career. He couldn't beat out the decaying Omar Infante for the second-base job this year and spent most of the summer in Triple A. However, he's a career .303 hitter in 152 MLB at-bats; he's not Raul Mondesi Jr., a rookie who made his big league debut in Game 3.
Colon hadn't had an at-bat the entire postseason, and he fell behind New York's Addison Reed 0-2. But Colon then lined the fifth pitch he saw, a terrible slider, into left-center for an RBI single. The World Series, for all intents and purposes, was over, won by the player who, at age 26, was the veteran backup infielder on this team.
I'd like to think that in some corners of the world, this will be always be the Christian Colon Game.