One of the fun things about baseball is how quickly the narrative changes.
On Wednesday morning, fans were abuzz about a 14-inning World Series opener that offered elements of tragedy, farce, suspense and excitement. Game 1 found the Kansas City Royals and New York Mets in such an even match, a Fall Classic for the Ages appeared inevitable.
On Wednesday night, as the Royals were coasting to the 7-1 victory that gave them a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, it was difficult to imagine the National League champs surviving the weekend.
The narrative can flip back again, of course. If the Mets win Friday, they’ll be assured of a fifth game Sunday against an undetermined Royals pitcher. Edinson Volquez, who started the opener for Kansas City, left the team to join family members in grieving the death of his father in the Dominican Republic. Whether Volquez would be emotionally equipped to take the mound Sunday is anybody’s guess.
And then there’s the advantage the Mets will enjoy by playing under NL rules at home, where the role of Royals designated hitter Kendrys Morales figures to be reduced to that of a pinch hitter. A waste of space with the 2014 Mariners, Morales put together a bounceback season — 22 homers, 106 RBIs — as a middle-of-the-lineup force in Kansas City.
But despite questions about Volquez and the virtual absence of Morales, the Royals pose unfavorable matchup problems for the Mets, whose young power arms flummoxed the Chicago Cubs in the league championship series.
Cubs hitters are prone to swing and miss. The Royals are prone to swing and, well, not miss. They either put the ball into play or, as seen Wednesday during a fifth-inning rally that included 14 foul balls, make enough contact to extend pitch counts.
Watching Kansas City can be frustrating for anybody who follows the Mariners, because the Royals are what the Mariners should be: a team built around the spacious dimensions of its ballpark.
Spacious ballpark dimensions call for superior fielding. According to advanced metrics, K.C. ranked No. 1 by an almost 2-1 margin over the San Francisco Giants, baseball’s next-best defense. The Mariners ranked 24th.
Spacious ballpark dimensions call for some selective speed on the basepaths. The Royals were 104-39 in stolen base attempts this season. The Mariners were 69-45.
Spacious ballpark dimensions call for hitters more adept at sustaining rallies than jacking home runs. The Mariners scored 658 runs while hitting 198 homers; the Royals scored 724 runs, but hit only 139 homers.
Spacious ballpark dimensions call for a bullpen capable of nursing a one- or two-run lead beyond the sixth inning. On those nights when Royals relievers were going into shutdown mode, the Mariners were turning two-run leads into two-run deficits.
I’m not sure if new Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has a rooting interest in the World Series. He grew up in New Jersey as a Mets fan and eventually pitched for them, but his parents and some siblings have relocated to the Kansas City area.
What I do know is that Dipoto is watching. And as long as he’s watching, he can’t help but notice how the Royals have combined a baseball-skills arsenal foreign to the Mariners: defense, speed, contact hitting, a lockdown bullpen.
No team is perfect, and Kansas City isn’t immune to a gaffe as goofy as Lorenzo Cain’s doomed bunt attempt in Game 1. With the Royals trailing 4-3, Ben Zobrist led off the eighth inning with a double, which brought up Cain, their No. 3 hitter and best all-around player.
Cain looked silly trying to put down on a bunt on a high fastball, then put himself in an 0-2 count by bunting the next pitch foul. Bunting to advance the tying run to third base, with no outs and the heart of the batting order due up, amounted to a high-risk, low-reward proposition, and when Cain struck out, he slammed his batting helmet in the dugout.
What was manager Ned Yost doing?
Turns out, it was Cain’s decision. Yost gives his players the freedom to think for themselves, and Cain, who had executed one successful sacrifice bunt over 2,096 previous plate appearances, decided it was time to execute a second successful sacrifice bunt.
So the Mets have that going for them: The possibility an MVP-caliber star will be worth another easy out in the eighth inning of a one-run game.
Otherwise, Kansas City is a machine whirring at optimum efficiency.
Here’s trusting Dipoto is taking notes, and using the best team in baseball as a model.