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"The Ball Always Finds The Weakest Defender": Reflections on the Mets' World Series Loss

I attended Game 4 of the World Series on Halloween night. It was the second of three must-win home games in a row, and in all of them the Mets held the lead for much of the action. However, this year's surprise entry in the World Series could win only the Friday matchup.

I only get emotionally involved with the Orioles, my passion for over 40 years, but I feel for those who lived and breathed and died with the Mets. The old saying in baseball, "The ball always finds the weakest defender," proved true in the final games of the Mets season.

The Mets seemed in control of the Halloween game once standout rookie left fielder Michael Conforto hit the second of his two solo homers to give the Mets a 3-1 lead after 5 innings. Rookie southpaw Steven Matz, from nearby Stony Brook, showed great poise in
his first Series start (incidentally the only one by a left-hander).

However, the Royals narrowed the deficit to 3-2 entering the 8th inning. Inconsistent Tyler Clippard walked two Royals with one out. Jeurys Familia was called upon for a five-out save. In moments a defining moment of the Series arose.

The ball found the weakest defender as Eric Hosmer hit a spinning grounder towards second baseman Daniel Murphy. It went under his glove for an error that tied the game.

It felt almost inevitable when singles by Mike Moustaka and Salvador Perez gave the Royals a 5-3 lead that shutdown closer Wade Davis cemented with a two-inning save.

Yet there was more pain ahead for the Mets. It seemed unnecessarily cruel when the baseball gods determined that the game would end with Yoenis Cespedes doubled off first base on a weak liner by Lucas Duda to third baseman Moustakas.

A cardinal rule of baseball is: Never be doubled off first base on a ball hit in front of you. Of course, Cuban defector Cespedes listens to the sound of his own drummer. And that gaffe was yet another sharp blow to the Mets' chances.

In Game 5, the Mets held the lead even longer than in Game 4. Curtis Granderson, the Mets' most consistent player all season including the playoffs, gave Matt Harvey a 1-0 lead with a leadoff-home run in the bottom of the first inning.

You can never overestimate the importance of grabbing the lead in any game, especially a season-saving game.

Harvey protected the lead for eight shutout innings and the Mets' disappearing offense did scratch out a second run in the 6th on a sacrifice fly by Lucas Duda.

Yet as we look back in hindsight, the Royals had the Mets where they wanted them. This year's deserving Kansas City champions broke all kinds of records for scoring runs in the late innings.

And sure enough after Harvey talked manager Terry Collins into letting him pitch the 9th inning, Lorenzo Cain led off with a full count walk. Collins left Harvey in and Eric Hosmer followed with a run-scoring opposite field double.

It was now 2-1 with the tying run on second with no one out. Hosmer was pumped because his error had contributed to the Mets' second run.

Collins brought in closer Jeurys Familia. He did get ground balls from the three batters he faced. But with Hosmer on third and one out, the final defining moment of this Series came.

Catcher Salvador Perez, the unanimous MVP for his solid hitting and handling of the pitching staff, hit a grounder between third and short. Either David Wright or shortstop Wilmer Flores could have handled the tricky hop.

Wright fielded it cleanly but turned his back on Hosmer, no speed merchant but a clever baserunner. Wright threw out Perez at first base, but Hosmer broke for home and Lucas Duda's throw was way off the mark. The game was now tied 2-2.

After leading since the first inning, it was a tremendous blow to the Mets. You could almost see the body language sag, maybe most in team captain Wright.

To quote Yogi Berra, it was deja vu all over again. The memory of Halloween night's loss had to be fresh.

They were two outs from victory in Game 1 in Kansas City when Alex Gordon homered off Familia. The pattern was becoming very apparent. Great teams have great mental toughness as well as great talent and the Mets were exposed as having neither.

Once the Royals tied Sunday night's game it seemed inevitable that they would win. And sure enough, they pushed 5 runs across in the 12th. The lead-gaining single was a pinch-hit by reserve infielder Christian Colon who hadn't swung a bat in a game for over 40 days.

Redemption came to the Royals and it was richly earned. They left the tying run on third base in Game 7 last year against Madison Bumgarner and the SF Giants. They dedicated this year to changing the Series outcome and they sure fulfilled their dream.

Now winter has come for those of us who dearly baseball. The Mets provided many great thrills for their fans. Their great young starting pitchers all performed well under the brightest lights. That should augur very well for their future.

But the Mets obviously need better defense and more consistent offense. Murphy and Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes were thoroughly held in check by the Royals. Both may leave as free agents.

Much too early to handicap next season. Every year is always different.

For 2015 let us hail the Kansas City Royals who richly deserved their title.

That's all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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Quandaries of September Baseball

Orioles manager Buck Showalter always has something provocative to say. Though his team is relegated to a spoiler role this September after an AL East title in 2014, he is like the man in the old EF Hutton commercial: When he talks, you listen.

Showalter says that a major league season is really four seasons: Spring Training, Regular Season (through August), September, and October (and in the case of 2015 early November – a potential World Series 7th game is slated for November 5.)

Showalter and many others in the baseball trenches, including Yankees manager Joe Girardi, has a problem with the September season. They are upset at the expansion of rosters after September 1st. As many as 15 extra players can crowd dugouts when minor league seasons are over and prospects are called up to provide reinforcements.

Showalter has been vehement on the need for a limit on the number of active players for any game. He argues persuasively that it should remain 25, just the way it is earlier in the season. The rest can be “taxi squad” members, inactive for the day's game but available for duty in future games.

[TRIVIA INTERLUDE: Do you know the origin of the term “taxi squad”? The powerhouse Cleveland Browns football team of post-World War II fledgling All-America Football Conference – AAFC – were owned by taxicab magnate Arthur McBride. They were so loaded with talent that rather than lose good players in a roster crunch, McBride put surplus talent on his taxicab payroll to keep them.]

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem any groundswell of support visible for season-long 25-man active rosters. For managers like Showalter and Girardi who think long and hard about relief pitcher-batter matchups late in the game, the extra roster members make life more difficult than necessary.

Baseball wasn’t always run this way. For many seasons after World War II and perhaps into the 1960s, rosters of up to 35 were the rule through mid-May. Then cuts were made to send the extra men back to the minors for more playing time.

That makes more sense to me, but right now it seems the system is designed to reward the poorer teams who can bring up fresh faces in September to give their fans some hope for next year. But success in September can be very illusory.

New York Mets fans will remember how Mike Vail’s splashy September in 1975 - .307 BA, 3 HR, 17 RBI in 162 ABs - led them to trade proven run producer Rusty Staub. That didn’t work out very well did it? Vail never came close to establishing himself and Staub went on to many more productive years.

This is not a dig at Mets fans that should be enjoying every moment of their spectacular rise to the top of the NL East, aided in no small measure by the spectacular flop of pre-season World Series favorite Washington Nats.

Don’t worry, Mets fans, about whether Cuban sensation Yoenis Cespedes will re-sign for the future. Or how many innings suddenly Dark Night-like (instead of Dark Knight-like) Matt Harvey has left in his arm.

Enjoy every moment of this surge, and when the time is near, then worry about how to deal with likely playoff opponent L.A. and the Dodgers one-two punch of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. After all, since starters even great ones rarely throw complete games, bullpens determine victories these days and LA's isn't outstanding. Kershaw also has had a history of post-season failure that could linger.

Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. There is much of September left and sometimes pressure and fatigue can create slumps.

“Yaneverknow,”, Joaquin Andujar loved to utter his one word of explanation of baseball. And RIP Andujar, 62, who died earlier this week of complications from diabetes.

For now, as always, remember: Take it easy but take it!
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