When the World Series was the Big Show, before football overtook baseball in the national consciousness, there were heroes and there were goats whose careers were forever defined by how they performed during those few days in October. We mostly remember the heroes because there have been more good deeds than bad. Since Bill Buckner’s miscue in 1986, can you name one player who is blamed for his team’s World Series loss?
But in the World Series just concluded there was an abundance of goat horns to be dispensed after the Mets’ deflating 4-1 defeat by Kansas City . The Royals were so balanced in their excellence that it was difficult to name an MVP (catcher Salvador Perez got it); but there was no shortage of Mets who tanked at critical moments.
And the irony of it is that the bearers of the blame were four Mets, including manager Terry Collins, who were experiencing career highs following the Amazins’ triumphs over the Dodgers and the Cubs in the NLDS and NLCS, respectively.
Most prominently, second baseman Daniel Murphy went from setting a playoff record for hitting home runs in six consecutive games during the playoffs to making two critical errors on routine grounders which cost the Mets game four and deprived them of a chance to come back in game five. Forget about his homer off Grienke to give the Mets the lead in their pulsating game 5 win over LA. The memory of Murphy as he enters free agency is of Eric Hosmer’s slow bounder slipping under his glove into right field as the Mets’ game 4 lead evaporated.
Following Murphy’s home run explosion there was pressure on the Mets to re- sign him, notwithstanding his reputation for bad defense. But Murphy’s World Series miscues have likely stamped his exit visa from Flushing. Murphy Goat No. 1.
Yoenis Cespedes was acquired by the Mets at the trading deadline from Detroit and promptly led them to the pennant. In his first 41 games with the Mets, he hit 17 homers and drove in 42 runs. His presence in the middle of the lineup almost overnite transformed the Mets from weak sisters to dangerous.
En route to winning the NL Player of the Week award for 9/7 to 9/13, Cespedes crushed Drew Storen for a 3-run triple and homer on successive nights, ending the Nats’ playoff hopes. He continued strong through the first two rounds of the playoffs. There was speculation that Cespedes, a free agent, would command six years at $25 million per year. How could the notably penurious Mets fail to sign him without angering their fan base? After his World Series, Cespedes may still get his money; but it won’t be from the Mets. They will leave Cespedes to the rest of us, including perhaps the Giants, who desperately need an outfielder with pop.
Cespedes’ devaluation began on the first pitch of the series when Alcides Escobar smashed a drive to deep left center. Cespedes tracked it, seemed to defer to left fielder Michael Conforto, then made a failed attempt at a backhanded basket catch. Had the process stopped there, the damage might have been contained to a double. But Cespedes kicked the ball into deep left center and Escobar waltzed home without a slide for an inside the park homer. The Mets lost in the 14th inning, 5-4.
In game 4, Cespedes misplayed a drive by Perez into a double and KC scored its first run. Then, he killed a last gasp rally in the ninth by being doubled off first on a soft liner to the left side. Throughout the Series, he swung at bad pitches, struck out often, and left a dozen runners on bases. His line was 3 for 20 (all singles) with one run batted in. He had disappointed in all phases-at bat, in the field, and on the base paths. Cespedes Goat No. 2.
Entering the Series, Mets’ closer Jeurys Familia had not blown a save since July. Following Familia’s six out save in Game 5 against the Dodgers and three perfect outings against Chicago, Familia’s 97 mph sinker was drawing comparisons to Mariano Rivera’s cutter. Unlike the Royals, who were content to get 5 or 6 innings from their starters before turning matters over to their very deep bullpen, the Mets looked for their starters to go deep, and to get the ball to Familia.
Game 1 at Kansas City, a see-saw affair, could not have worked out better for the Mets. When KC first baseman Hosmer let a grounder go through his legs a la Buckner, the Mets took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the eighth. Familia cleaned up Tyler Clippard’s mess to end the eighth and retired the first batter in the ninth. At this time, the Mets had a win probability above 90%. But on a quick pitch attempt by Familia, Alex Gordon smashed a high fastball over the centerfield fence to tie it, and the Royals won in 14. Said Alex Rodriguez commenting for Fox, “That was like a win and a half for the Royals. They won the game and they know they can get to Familia.”
With the help of Murphy’s 4th game error, and Lucas Duda’s wild throw to home plate in Game 5, Familia went on to give up two more leads, becoming the first pitcher ever to blow three saves in a World Series. This label is not entirely fair since Familia inherited runners in blown saves two and three; and Gordon’s homer was the only earned run charged to him in the Series. But belying his reputation, he was far from unhittable against the contact-hitting Royals. Familia Goat No. 3.
But no Met had a worse World Series than manager Terry Collins. Following a magical last two months of the season, and two playoff series in which he pushed all the right buttons, everything was coming up aces for the 66 year old Collins, who was experiencing his first post-season after eleven years as a manager.
He did nothing wrong when the Mets lost the first two games at Kansas City. But he was questioned for using Familia to pitch the ninth inning of the Mets’ 9-3 third game blowout, and then again for letting starter Steven Matz begin the sixth inning in Game 4. When he summoned Tyler Clippard to protect the Mets’ 3-2 edge in the eighth inning of that affair, Mets fans cringed. In the decisive moment of the Series, Clippard went wild high, walking two consecutive batters with one out. Familia could not put out the fire, and the Royals won the critical swing game to take a 3-1 Series lead. When questioned on inserting Clippard over Familia to start the eighth, Collins cited his use of Familia the day before.
In Game Five, Matt Harvey was brilliant for eight innings. The Mets took a 2-0 lead in the ninth when Collins told Harvey, through his pitching coach, that his night was over. Harvey beseeched Collins to send him out for the ninth. Collins relented. Harvey walked the first batter and Collins, in mistake number two, let him face another batter, Hosmer, who slapped a double to left . Collins admitted later that he allowed Harvey to change his mind, and that he was up all night ruing his “mistake.” Collins Goat No. 4.
Honorable Mention goat horns go to Clippard, who was simply awful at the most critical moment of the Series, and to Duda, .
whose wild throw home in the ninth inning of Game Five allowed the Royals to tie the score with two out.
Collins’ bullpen uncertainty at crunch time was remindful of former Nat Manager Matt Williams’ decision-making. The difference, of course, is that Collins’ faux pas were limited in time and place while Williams’ were ongoing. Recognizing that, and apparently appreciating that no amount of good strategy could have overcome the Royals decided superiority over the Mets, Mets brass signed Collins after the series to a two-year extension.
Williams has been so discredited that he is unlikely to sniff a managerial opportunity during the next several years. His successor, Dusty Baker, was celebrated at a festive press conference on Thursday. The Nats, to their considerable embarrassment, were reported to have first offered the job to Bud Black. But in the wake of Baker’s demonstration of charm, wit, and communication skills, qualities rarely exhibited by Williams, there will be no recriminations over the clumsy hiring process. The Nats have upgraded big time at manager.
For reporters who endured two years of metronomic answers by Williams about game strategy after tough losses, the sight of Baker at the press conferences expounding on a variety of issues must have been refreshing. No more are the days when all the manager has to say is “We’ve got to get them tomorrow.”
Even Baker may have a problem replacing the key parts which the Nats are sure to lose over the winter, including Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmerman, Dan Fister, and Dennard Span. The feeling here is that Jason Werth will continue to spiral downward, and that Ryan Zimmerman will remain injury prone. The front end of the bullpen requires a complete re-working and the back end is manned by question marks Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon. The Mets will challenge even an improved 2016 Nats for the NL East title.
But the good thing about having Baker as manager is that if things do go wrong, we’ll at least get an explanation.