The Royals and the Mets. One team you thought in March had a pretty good chance to still be on the field on Oct. 27, one you thought had zero chance even as late as when the calendar hit August.
But that’s what we get as the World Series kicks off Tuesday night in Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium for an intriguing matchup between two teams that have pretty much no history with each other. Still, for the final act of what’s been a dramatic postseason, this figures to be a pretty good show.
The Royals are baseball’s first repeat team in the Series since the 2010-11 Texas Rangers and are hoping to go just a shade past where they ended last year. They dropped Game Seven to the Madison Bumgarner-led Giants, 3-2, by leaving Alex Gordon on third base with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Their mission from the time they convened in Arizona more than eight months ago was to be playing this week.
“They have a lot of confidence, a lot of determination,” Royals manager Ned Yost said Monday as the teams met the national media in advance of Tuesday’s opener. “They’ve had determination from day one of spring training. I think this time last year we were really excited to be here. I don’t think we really expected to be here, but we were excited . This year we expected to be here . . . They’ve accomplished everything that they’ve set their minds to up to this point, and we’ve got one big series left.”
The Mets, meanwhile, haven’t played in Kansas City since 2004 and haven’t been to the Series since losing the Subway matchup against the Yankees in 2000.
“Certainly I think they have a little bit more of an advantage that they’ve been through this before,” manager Terry Collins said Monday. “They’ve been through all the hoopla and jumping through all the hoops before the game starts.”
But don’t think for a second the Amazins are going to be intimidated in the least. They’re throwing Matt Harvey on the mound in Game One against Kansas City’s Edinson Volquez.
“We’re kind of sitting around the locker room, all talking to each other, and I don’t think anything has really set in for us yet, which in our minds I think is a positive,” Harvey said Monday. “We still realize that it’s a baseball game. And for me this is another start. Obviously, it’s a start on a different level but it’s still baseball, and we have to go out and do our jobs.”
A look at some key aspects in the series:
Power vs. Precision: The Mets’ rotation of Harvey, Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz features flamethrowers that can blow lineups away. But the Royals simply don’t strike out – fanning 134 fewer times than any other team in baseball during the regular season. They make contact, extend at-bats and pretty much drive pitchers crazy.
“They’ve got short, simple approaches,” Yost said of his team. “We play in a big park, which is not conducive to power. We don’t swing for the fences. We have power, we can hit homers, but for the most part we just try to stay short and quick and drive the gaps. Our guys do a good job.”
A study by Newsday showed what Yost means. The Royals hit .284 during the season against fastballs 95 mph and above, which they’ll see plenty of in this series. Against those pitches, their .436 slugging percentage was second in the American League and their strikeout rate of 15.1 percent was easily the lowest rate in the big leagues.
Royals bullpen: The Mets have the kind of left-handed power the Blue Jays didn’t have, so that means Kansas City lefties Danny Duffy and Franklin Morales could be a bigger factor in this series than they have in this postseason. It could mean a lesser role for Ryan Madson, who gave up Jose Bautista’s tying home run in the eighth inning of Game Six of the ALCS. The eighth and ninth innings are locked for Kelvim Herrera and Wade Davis.
“They get the lead after six, you’re in trouble,” admitted Collins, who has an ace closer of his own in Jeurys Familia. “We certainly are aware of that. And so we don’t plan on being behind.”
Murphy Effect: It seems inconceivable that the Royals will pitch to red-hot Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy anywhere near as much as the Cubs and Dodgers foolishly did. Murphy has home runs in six straight games and has seven overall in the postseason. It’s an astonishing October for a solid player whose career high for an entire season is just 14 home runs.
Long wait is over I: Collins, the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer, has been a manager at all levels, starting in 1981 at Class A Lodi (Calif.) and eventually with the Bisons from 1989-1991. He never made the big leagues as a player, starting his career in 1971 for the Class A Niagara Falls Pirates and building a legacy of respect through the minors as a manager and farm director. It’s taken him nearly 1,700 big-league games as a manager to finally reach the pinnacle of his sport.
“I’m thrilled to death to be here,” Collins said. “I can honestly tell you, baseball for 45 years, it tells you how hard it is to get here, so you better enjoy it ... It’s the ultimate when you’re a manager or you’re a player to play in this setting. It’s hard to get here, so you’ve got to have some fun with it. Even though it’s as pressure-packed as it may be, you’ve got to try to enjoy it, and we’re going to.”
Long wait is over II: Someone will be breaking a long title drought. The Royals’ lone championship came in 1985 over the Cardinals after they beat the Blue Jays in the ALCS, just like they did this year. The Mets haven’t won since their Buckner Special over the Red Sox in 1986.
Weird foreshadowing: MLB releases its schedule for the following season in September and, incredibly, what is one of the Opening Day matchups slated for Monday, April 4, 2016? Mets at Royals. Seriously.
Historical footnotes: Kauffman will become the first park to host Game One in consecutive years since Detroit’s Navin Field in 1934-35. Until 2003, of course, homefield advantage had alternated between the leagues for many years. ... The Mets are the first team in major league history to reach the World Series after ranking last in baseball in runs scored through July 31. ... This is the first World Series ever where both teams are from the expansion era of baseball, considered the period after 1961.
The prediction: The Mets have not seen a team near the caliber of the Royals in the postseason. The Dodgers were underachievers and the moment of making the NLCS proved too large for the Cubs with a roster full of young players. The Royals work counts, play impeccable defense and have an almost impenetrable bullpen.
And the Mets have to worry about being stale. For six straight years and eight of the last nine, the team that won its pennant first lost the World Series (the exception being the 2008 Phillies). Teams such as the 2006 and 2012 Tigers and 2007 Rockies combined to go 1-12 in the World Series after sweeps in the LCS like the one the Mets just completed. Hitters cool off and pitchers get out of their routines, with bad results.
It’s been an Amazin’ year in Queens but the train won’t get to the final stop on the station. Look for the Royals to win this one in six games.