TOP OF THE SIXTH: 2-0 Royals
We start tonight in Kansas City at the Gold Chain Olympics, where Edinson Volquez goes for the strikeout and Yoenis Cespedes goes for base hit, both locked in the (clearly) more important contest of rocking the largest, weightiest, gaudiest, goldest chain on the baseball diamond. (Both end up falling a distant second place to Michael Johnson’s gold piece in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the king of the Gold Chain Athletic Pantheon)
This moment is key, as we’re in that middle-innings part of the game where fans start paying less attention than they had been, and I start to remember how weird baseball feels on Opening Day, next to the do-or-die madness of college basketball. The new ESPN crew—Dan Shulman, Aaron Boone and Jessica Mendoza—seem stuck in that same mid-game lull, as quiet moments in the broadcast booth start picking up and they start running out of pre-prepared insights, without a big moment yet to riff on.
So we come into this inning with a much-needed spark, and come out of it with a standing ovation for Edinson Volquez, after getting out of the jam against Cespedes that had put his Gold Chain credibility on the ropes, and with Luke Hochevar now readying in the bullpen as phase one of their historically great relief crew. Game: Blouses Volquez.
Sidenote: Marlins Man is back! Front row seats for 2016, can he break last year’s record of 148 MLB games attended?
Wikipedia: Marlins Man
BOTTOM OF THE SIXTH: 4-0 Royals
Matt “I’m-only-here-to-talk-about-Qualcomm” Harvey is on the mound now, facing the core of the Royals lineup—having flashbacks, no doubt, to the World Series just five months ago, when he and his upstart Mets went down in five games against this K.C. side.
He gets into a deep multi-pitch battle with Lorenzo Cain, starts losing control a bit, pitch count edging over 65. The TV camera cuts over to Volquez getting hugs in the dugout from all the bench guys, after turning in his first start of 2016: six innings pitched, no earned runs.
Cain draws a walk.
Now here comes Eric Hosmer, the bane of Mets fans’ existence, the guy whose crafty run and slide home in last years World Series ignited the win in Game 5 that wrapped up the series.
The collective New York fanbase groans (and/or mutes the TV) as the ESPN crew start chirping about “that hard-nosed Kansas City brand of baseball.” Not easy after the game already began with K.C. raising a new championship banner for the home-crowd faithful.
Back in the batter’s box, Hosmer sets up against Harvey. He looks up at him on the mound, getting set in his stance, waiting for his pitch with a wily look in his eyes. And there it is—that Kansas City brand of baseball: Hosmer bunts toward third base—slides safe into first!
He pulls it off again—a decision that makes little sense from…pretty much all standpoints, but he’s in there safely, the moment reanimating the half-buried corpse of Mets fans’ sad memories of that Game 5: He (Hosmer) can’t keep getting away with this!!
Meanwhile, just beyond the outfield fence, Bartolo “oldest-and-biggest-gut-in-the-big-leagues” Colon starts warming up to relieve Harvey, while manager Terry Collins decides to let this one play out. As he waits his turn, I consider Colon’s placement in a six-way tie for Best Name of the Game: Asdrubal, Moustakas, Bartolo, Edinson, Duda, Yoenis.
Back on the field, it’s tense, feels like a turning point here. Then a quick double play. Two outs. Kansas City small-ball turns into dead-ball.
Alex Gordon steps up to the plate, still a Royal after flirting with a move to the Mets all offseason, trying make his mark on the early season for a team that started off with a 7-0 record last April and never looked back.
He lines up a fastball cleanly, smacking it up the middle, knocking in a run as Cain comes home and Juan Lagares just misses a shoe-string catch in center, the ball short-hopping just under his glove.
“Like a continuation of October for the Royals,” the ESPN crew keeps saying, further infuriating an away-team fanbase dying to forget that month.
Salvador Perez comes up to the plate now. Base hit up the middle, Gordon moves to third. Harvey looks rattled.
Terry Collins comes out to the mound, at long last, to take Harvey out, after a classic Matt Harvey start—very good but not dominant, and not enough to get the win (went 13-8 last year), making it 5 2/3 innings without much to show for it.
Now old Bartolo Colon now hobbles in from the bullpen, like one of those masters events at the Penn Relays when they honor the fastest living senior citizens. Right off the bat he comes in throwing 88-m.p.h. fastballs, chewing on the biggest piece of unidentified substance I’ve ever seen.
Colon gets into a 3-0 count right away. Then another R.B.I. single hit hard right up the middle, from Omar Infante—the most baffling starter of this World Champion team, he of the .220 batting average last season.
Gordon scores on the hit, it jumps to 4-0 Royals, and the flood of late October nightmare memories continues at full steam–the small-ball, not-giving-in depth and wiliness of the hard-nosed, baseball-savvy Royals (much respect for this team, by the way, but the praise from the booth is reaching weirdly high levels of ecstasy).
Speaking of which, there’s a noticeably awkward dynamic at times with this Sunday Night trio, with nervous laughter between them and a series of lines that made my ears perk up:
“Jam shot by Duda.”
“Duda dumps this pitch out into left field.”
“I like the big wad.”
They also revealed a few new areas of focus, including Ms. Mendoza’s new “Mendoza Line” bit, and an increased push in their social media traffic, which has never stopped sounding bizarre:
“..aaand we’re hashtag back from commercials, share us on social!”
I expect this to pick up even more eventually, to the point where they might start developing some chronic “social” syndrome, with tweets and retweets pouring out of their mouths quicker than they can keep up:
“…and that’s a hashtag fastball from Joakim Soria, and now a hashtag bloop single from Duda! I’m hashtag Dan Shulman, be back after the break!”
Back on the field, after little further trouble, Colon gets out of the inning, and we head to the 7th, where the Royals bullpen readies their historically dependable support, and the K.C. fans settle in for what (statistically) has almost always been a sure win.
This sixth inning in Kansas City, as un-glamorous as it was—no home runs, steals, pick-offs or web-gem catches—set up the win just barely, more than they probably saw coming. The Mets rallied in the 8th, with a few walks, two quick runs scoring, a flare single from Conforto—i.e. the Mets “playing the Royals at their own game,” with crafty small-ball brush-strokes. Then, in the top of the 9th, barely hanging on at 4-3, Wade Davis wins a tight battle against Cespedes with a man on third.
Game: Royals 1-0, Mets 0-1 on the young season. The fourth run Harvey gave up ending up as the difference.
And tomorrow, another game. Tomorrow, more baseball. Tomorrow, not a dream—the baseball regular season continues.