KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Somewhere in the hills of North Carolina, Madison Bumgarner is spending his October hanging out at the nearest hunting stand. Or is it the nearest fishing hole? Whatever. The Kansas City Royals don’t seem to miss him.
If there was a secret to what MadBum did to them last October, nobody has discovered it this October. And if the New York Mets don’t stumble onto that secret formula really soon, the whole sport will be looking for the nearest fishing hole.
The Houston Astros couldn’t stop the Royals. The Toronto Blue Jays couldn’t oust the Royals. Then the Mets sent Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom out to squash them in the first two games of this World Series. And what did they learn?
This is a team you just can’t squash. Apparently.
So the Royals are now two wins away from their first parade in three decades. They put a 7-1 hurting on deGrom and the Mets on another pulsating Wednesday night at Kauffman Stadium. And whaddaya know, they’re now up, 2 games to zip, in the World Series for the first time in franchise history.
But it isn’t so much what the Royals do as how they do it. No team in baseball paints crooked numbers the way the Royals paint them. And if the Mets thought they were going to be the team to restore order to the baseball universe, now they, too, understand that it’s going to be a lot harder than just pouring in a bunch of 97-mph smokeballs on the black.
“That’s a swing-and-miss group over there,” the Royals’ Jonny Gomes was saying Wednesday night, of that fabulous Mets pitching staff. “But this [lineup] is NOT a swing-and-miss group. So something’s gotta give.”
Well, something’s gotta give, all right. But it hasn’t been the most unorthodox, most unstoppable offensive juggernaut in baseball.
“We’re relentless. Deep. Aggressive. All of the above, man,” said the local center fielder, Lorenzo Cain. “I love our lineup.”
And at the moment, there isn’t a whole lot not to love. Unless you’re a Mets fan.
Mets starting pitchers came into this World Series with a strikeout/walk ratio of 69 strikeouts to 18 walks. After two days of dealing with a lineup full of guys who are allergic to strike three, that strikeout/walk ratio in this World Series — and this is for Harvey and deGrom, remember — looks this way: four strikeouts/five walks.
Really? Yeah, really.
On Tuesday, Harvey threw 30 fastballs. The Royals swung at and missed two of them. On Wednesday, deGrom threw 54 fastballs. The Royals swung at and missed none of them.
But wait. There’s more. On Tuesday, Harvey threw 18 pitches with two strikes. The Royals swung at and missed one of them. On Wednesday, deGrom threw 28 pitches with two strikes. The Royals didn’t swing at and miss a single one of them.
And let’s make sure the population of Queens understands something right now, before panic sweeps the streets and subway platforms: This isn’t about what the Mets are doing wrong. It’s about what the Royals are doing right, what they’ve been doing right for two years now.
“They did exactly what people said,” was how Mets manager Terry Collins described the lineup his sensational pitching staff hasn’t been able to shut down. “They put the ball in play.”
And they put it in play no matter who’s standing 60 feet away from them. Before he arrived in Kansas City, for instance, Harvey was getting the opposition to swing and miss on 37.2 percent of the pitches he threw in this postseason. It was 17.9 percent Tuesday.
And deGrom’s miss percentage against the Dodgers and Cubs was 36.5 percent. On Wednesday, he threw 94 pitches and got exactly three swings and misses — the fewest in his career. That comes to a 6 percent whiff rate. Six.
But it isn’t just those two guys. The Mets’ pitching staff, as a whole, had a swing-and-miss rate in the first two rounds of 31.7 percent. Against the Royals, it has plummeted to less than half of that — to 15.4 percent.
And there’s nothing accidental about that. It’s the philosophy of the house. Swing early. Shorten up. Be aggressive. Don’t surrender. And everybody, says hitting coach Dale Sveum, is on board.
“When we get to crunch time, we can’t strike out,” Sveum said Wednesday, “because we’re not going to walk very much. It’s a mindset, and to everybody’s credit, everybody buys into it — just to battle and see if we can hit outfield grass with men in scoring position.”
They’ve been fighting and winning that battle against everybody not named Bumgarner for two postseasons now. And on Wednesday, they found themselves back on that battlefield again against the heretofore awesome deGrom, when the fifth inning rolled around.
One moment, deGrom had a 1-0 lead and was working on a one-hit shutout. The next, the nightly line-drive parade was starting, and there was no stopping it. Even if the man on the mound was a Cy Young trophy collection waiting to happen.
An Alex Gordon walk and Alex Rios single started it. Then Alcides Escobar spent the first two pitches of his pivotal at-bat trying to bunt, fouled both of them off, dug an 0-and-2 hole and … promptly smoked the next pitch, a hanging slider, into center for a tying single.
Asked if he likes hitting with two strikes, Escobar’s face scrunched in pain.
“Nobody wants to hit with two strikes,” he said. “It’s not easy to hit with two strikes.”
But you’d never know it to watch this team. They went 6-for-20 in two-strike counts in this game. And that’s not supposed to happen, right? Especially against a team like the Mets.
No Mets starter had given up four runs in a game in 37 days. Then deGrom gave up four in a span of six hitters in the fifth inning. There wasn’t an extra-base hit against him all night. But there was a whole lot of contact. Because, well, are you familiar with the Royals’ work?
Asked if he has ever seen a team that could score in bunches the way this team scores in bunches, with bloops instead of blasts, Gomes replied: “No. And it’s a quick no.”
“I mean, I’ve been part of big innings,” he said. “I’ve been part of big innings and big games. But the majority of the time, it’s walk, walk, homer. … But you look at some of these rallies — and the only outs are the sacrifices.”
And don’t go thinking the other 29 teams should all start emulating what you see here, because it’s not for everybody.
“Don’t get used to it and look to build your club around that,” said Gomes, who has played for enough other clubs (seven) to know. “This is an extremely unique situation. … Unique players. Unique philosophy.”
It fits this group. It fits this park. It fits this team, in this moment in time. And that’s by design, not coincidence.
“You’re not going to take this philosophy with the Toronto Blue Jays,” Sveum said, laughing at the thought of it. “And it’s not something we had when I was the hitting coach in Milwaukee. We had guys, and we were in a ballpark where we would, and could, do different things with two strikes. But we don’t play in those ballparks. So for us to take leads and add on runs, we have to be able to make contact constantly, to put pressure on the other team.”
So that’s what they do. That’s how they play. We live in an age now where we find ourselves debating a lot whether “clutch” is still a real thing. You probably know a thousand mathematicians who would tell you it isn’t. But you know what? None of them work for, or play for, the Royals. That’s for sure.
Thirteen games into their postseason, they’re hitting .222 with nobody on base. But guess what they’re hitting with runners on base? How about .330. With runners in scoring position? How about .340. With runners in scoring position and two outs? How about .311.
You can call that luck. You can call that random. You can call that happenstance if you want. But you know what the Royals call it? Winning. And they wonder how long they’ll have to keep winning this way for the world to catch on. This is what they do.
“I don’t know how many years we’ve got to do it,” Cain said. “But we’ve done this for back-to-back years, and we’ve made the World Series in back-to-back years. So I don’t know what else people want from us.”
And then it occurred to him: The perfect answer.
“A ring, I guess, would be nice,” he said. “I’ll take a ring.”