KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In theory, Game 1 of the World Series is supposed to be a kind of introduction to the drama, a feeling-out between two exceptional teams that might compete seven times in nine days. In reality, sometimes it’s the swing game, the contest that both teams know they could have won, but that only one did.
And that game can hang over the rest of the Series, especially since 27 of the last 33 World Series have been won by the team which captured Game 1.
Few teams have pulled out a more inspirational win, on more levels, than the Kansas City Royals did in 14 innings here Tuesday night, 5-4, over the New York Mets, who must wonder what hit them, from how many angles and what remarkable deeds, and strokes of luck, the Royals required to beat them in a marathon of will.
The Royals starting pitcher Edinson Volquez worked six strong innings, in large part because his family and his team both kept it a secret that his father had died earlier in the day. Much of the world knew. The man on the mound didn’t. When he left the game, he got the news and left the park, his good work done.
“The family said, ‘Let Eddie pitch,” Royals Manager Ned Yost said. “He didn’t know. . . . We had a plan if he found out. It’d almost be impossible to do that before Game 1 of the World Series. We went to [veteran] Chris Young and told him to be ready – in case. He also lost his father [this year]. He understood.”
The Royals potential goat, Eric Hosmer, whose error at first base prevented a nine-inning K.C. win, was provided an opportunity to atone in the 14th inning – and did with a walk-off sacrifice fly. Instead of being a poor-man’s Kansas City version of Bill Buckner, he was mobbed like a hero by teammates as a crowd of 40,320, which stood for at least two hours of the final three hours of this 5:09 game, roared its praise and (almost) forgot he had ever sinned.
Hosmer’s buddy, left fielder Alex Gordon, provided him with that chance at redemption with a game-tying one-out home run off the Mets stellar closer Jeurys Familia with one out in the bottom of the ninth. Familia has been lights-out, door-closed, go-home-you’re-done, all season. The Royals have the deeper, better bullpen. But Familia can match almost any K.C. fireman. But not on this night.
“Baseball is about adversity and overcoming it,” said Gordon, who claimed that Hosmer owed him no eternal debt of gratitude and had said nothing, though cameras caught Hosmer hugging and thanking Gordon profusely and profanely when he returned to the dugout. “Tough hop. He usually makes that play.”
Gordon was far more focused on Familia.
“He tried to quick-pitch me, and he left it right over there [down the middle], and I hit it,” said Gordon, whose ball traveled about 440 feet, his maximum down-range limit, dead to centerfield.
“It’s part of the game now,” Gordon said of the despised but entirely permitted hurry-up delivery, often used against hiters with deliberate rituals at the plate. “A lot of guys do it now. We’ve got one: [Johnny] Cueto. I wouldn’t have known, but I saw him do it to [the previous hitter] Salvi [Perez]. I got ready for it.”
You can hardly top all that for inspiration, even in a game that ends at 1:18 a.m. Eastern time and equals, in innings, the longest World Series game ever played. Except that the Royals did top it. Their winning pitcher – 10 up, nine down, working deep into extra innings – was a 6-foot-10 right-hander. Long ago, he graduated from Princeton. Once, he was a star. In recent years, he has been washed up three times, including a brief out-of-respect tryout with the Nats. At 34, he went back to the minors, yes, for love of the game.
Finally, in this Game 1, Chris Young, razor-sharp and dealing to every hitter at age 36, had the postseason moment – a World Series moment – for which he’d waited all his life. Eight times he punched the radar gun above 90 m.p.h., something he hadn’t done in this decade. “Yeah, World Series adrenalin,” Yost said, grinning.
This coin has two sides, a bright and shinning one and a dismal dark one for the Mets who have a day to recover and retaliate or fall behind by two games, which seals the fate of almost all Series teams that also must face potential Games 6 and 7 on the road.
Few teams have taken a gut punch on more levels than the Mets, who misplayed a fly ball into an inside-the-park home run on the first pitch of the first inning. “Michael [Conforto] in left field thought he heard [centerfielder Yoenis] Cespedes call for it. He wasn’t sure,” said Mets manager Terry Collins. “But he gave way. Cespedes didn’t catch it.”
In fact, the ball almost hit Cespedes in the hip pocket, then ricocheted off his foot far away as swift Alcides Escobar circled the bases and scored standing.
“It should have been caught,” Collins said, not accusingly. “It was a little bit stunning on the first [defensive] pitch of the game.”
Watching your star closer blow a lead on a titanic bomb in the ninth can be a little stunning. So can finding out that the other guys are successfully keeping a parent’s death a secret from their starting pitcher.
“We had our opportunities,” Collins said.
In Game 1 of a World Series, those can be a heavy weight, even with so much time still to play. Those were the same thoughts as Tony LaRussa after his 105-win Cardinals lost a complex tormenting 11-9 game to the Red Sox to start the ’04 Series. Such games, those that obviously could have and probably should have been won, don’t have to remain a haunt to the losing team. But they can. An extremely high-quality St. Louis team never seemed to recover and was swept.
The Mets have a prime chance in Game 2 with superb Jacob deGrom working against Cueto, a star for years, but frequently abysmal in recent starts, including allowing eight runs in two innings in his last start.
The Game 2 drama, and the sense of near-exhaustion in both teams after the final pitch, likely won’t approach this night with tens of thousands of blue-clad fans standing and cheering by the hour.
“There are two things you don’t want to do in the first game of the World Series,” Yost said. “One: play 14 innings. Two: lose.”
Only one team had to bear that weight. Now they must respond.