It’s been five months since Lucas Duda threw a baseball from Flushing to Astoria in the 9th inning of the World Series. Five months since Wilmer Flores watched a Wade Davis fastball slice through the strike zone. Five months since the Kansas City Royals leapt into one another’s arms in Citi Field and trampled on the souls of the New York Mets and their fans on their home turf. Yes, it still stings. Opening Day in baseball, like the first day of any sports season, revitalizes fan bases (everyone is tied for first place!) and gives teams an opportunity to build from previous success and correct errors from season’s past — except for Terry Collins and his players. They were forced to relive the heartbreak they tried to leave behind in November, just five months ago.
The Royals raised their 2015 championship banner on Sunday, April 3 on ESPN as the Mets were forced to watch their blunders displayed on Kauffman Stadium’s jumbotron. Major League Baseball released the 2016 schedule last September, so the league must have loved the serendipity of a World Series rematch to open the season. Game 1 of the season mirrored the Fall Classic from start to finish. Edinson Volquez and Matt Harvey, starters for the final game of 2015, reprised their roles in this matchup. So too did Cespedes, only, instead of committing an error in center field in the 1st inning, he let a fly ball clank off his glove in left field, gifting Mike Moustakas first base to get things rolling.
Travis d’Arnaud compounded the error by allowing a passed ball to bounce around the backstop, advancing Moustakas 90 feet. Eric Hosmer followed the Royals motif, “hit ‘em where they ain’t” and knock a dribbler past the shortstop hole, driving in the game’s first run. Harvey did not perform to his All-Star pedigree, giving up four runs (three earned) on eight hits and two walks to just two strikeouts in 5.2 innings. The Mets could not decipher Volquez and his wild delivery through six innings, producing two hits and three walks.
Surprisingly, it was the Royals bullpen who opened the door for the Amazin’s. Joakim Soria, returning to K.C. after bouncing around the league, filled the bases in the top of the 8th. Duda landed a soft pop up onto the left-field grass, sending two runs home and a Neil Walker groundout cut the deficit to 1 run.
An irregular off-day had the familiar foes completing their two-game series on Tuesday. The Royals decided to split their championship celebrations because national broadcasts don’t air pregame festivities, thereby preventing K.C. fans from enjoying the ceremony. This meant the Mets were onlookers to what could have been theirs for the second time in three days when the Royals received their championship rings. They might own the hardware, but the Mets brought the hammer.
The last time Noah Syndergaard toted the mound against the Royals, a 98 MPH fastball blurred over Alcides Escobar’s head, infuriating the shortstop’s teammates. Powered by the 112 Barbie dolls stuffed in his cap, Thor pounded the strike zone early and often Tuesday. Escobar exacted his revenge in his first at-bat as he laced an elevated fastball to right field for a triple. Syndergaard hunkered down and struck out the next three batters, especially impressive considering the Royals whiffed in 16 percent of their plate appearances, the lowest rate in baseball last year.
Mets second baseman Neil Walker rewarded his pitcher’s determination in the 4th inning as he pulled a Chris Young fastball over the fence for his first home run with the team. Handed a two-run lead, Syndergaard dealt with adversity like a veteran. Kendrys Morales launched a double to straight-away center to start the 5th, but Thor blew away Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez and forced a slow roller to himself to stunt a comeback. The following inning proved most treacherous for Syndergaard as a passed ball by d’Arnaud negated a punch out to begin the frame.
The Mets infield failed to turn double plays on consecutive opportunities, granting Moustakas third base. Lorenzo Cain hit a bloop single and stole second while Hosmer walked to load the bases. Syndergaard devastated Morales with an onslaught of sliders that topped out at 95 MPH, faster than the average fastball velocity in the majors. His final tally of three hits, one walk and nine strikeouts in six innings led the team’s effort to neutralize the persistent Royals lineup.
Jim Henderson made an emphatic return to the big leagues nearly two years after his last appearance. Displaying some oomph behind his fastball, Henderson sat the 6-7-8 hitters down in order, punctuated with two strikeouts. Addison Reed, last seen floating a slider over the plate to Christian Colon in Game 5, maintained the lead in the 8th, adequately setting up closer Jeurys Familia.
The sinker-ball thrower carved through the heart of the Royals order, getting Cain to swing-and-miss on his patented pitch and Hosmer and Morales to hit two balls into the dirt to dispel their ghoulish tormentor (zero hyperbole here).
The Mets’ road trip to Kansas City might have been exactly what the team needed. Getting the chance to cope with the agony of 2015 head-on allows them to move forward and focus on the next 160 games — the next six months. Jacob deGrom is slated to pitch on Friday, but an expected newborn son keeps things in flux. Beginnings are nerve-racking, but they can lead to something beautiful. The only thing you gotta can do is believe.
Published in The Ticker