Just a Bit Outside: Déjà vu all over again

by Sam Stockton | 4/10/16 6:51pm

Déjà vu all over again.

In a coincidence sure to have conspiracy theorists everywhere buzzing, opening day of the 2016 season began with a rematch of the 2015 World Series with defending world champion Kansas City Royals hosting the New York Mets. The Major League Baseball schedule, however, was announced last September, before the Royals earned their title on the first of November.

For baseball fans, 2016 started exactly as 2015 ended. To quote the late, great Yogi Berra, “It was like Déjà vu all over again.” It wasn’t just the teams — it was the way the games were played. In the Opening Day showdown on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, the Royals once again showed exactly what they showed in last year’s Fall Classic — the Kansas City lineup is tailor-made to beat the Mets.

The Mets are built around their young pitching staff. Beginning with their Opening Day and World Series Game 1 starter Matt Harvey, the young, tall and hard-throwing players induce hitters to swing and miss more often than any other group in the game. In the National League Championship Series, Harvey and company exposed the free-swinging Chicago Cubs after previously outdueling the Los Angeles Dodgers led by their pair of aces in Clayton Kershaw and current Arizona Diamondback Zack Greinke in the National League Division Series.

However, when the Mets get together with Kansas City, their dynamic pitching staff is unable to achieve their typical swing-and-miss magic. Thanks to the likes of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon, the Royals’ deep and disciplined lineup is able to hold up. They may not square up every Met offering, but they make life miserable for the Amazins.

On the very first pitch a Met threw in the World Series — a fastball from Harvey in the bottom of the first inning of Game 1 in Kansas City — Royals’ shortstop Alcides Escobar sent a long fly ball to left center, a fly ball Mets’ centerfielder Yoenis Cespedes probably should have caught. Instead, the ball short-hopped the fence and caromed away from Cespedes. In the meantime, Escobar raced around the bases for a rare, stand-up inside-the-park home run. One pitch, 1-0 Royals.

In the bottom of the first of Opening Night, Harvey retired Escobar, then got Moustakas to send a fly ball towards Cespedes, this time playing left. Cespedes definitely should have caught this one. Instead, Moustakas was able to reach first as the ball went in and out of Cespedes’s glove. After a passed ball and walk for Lorenzo Cain, Hosmer singled home Moustakas — 1-0 Royals.

The particulars were different — at least a little bit — but the end results were the same. The Royals’ lineup didn’t take long to show their superiority over the Mets’ staff. One game into the 2016 season, things didn’t seem all too different for the combatants in last year’s Series.

In 2015, there was one exception to the Mets’ struggles with the Royals, and that exception came in the form of a 6-foot-6, 240-pound Texan with the name and hair of a Norse god. Noah Syndergaard, then a 23-year-old rookie was handed the ball to start Game 3, the series’ first game in the Big Apple with the Mets already down two games to none.

Given the circumstances, it would have been easy for the rookie to succumb to the pressure of the moment. Instead, on the game’s first pitch, he sent a 99 mile-per-hour fastball just above the head of Escobar, who again was leading off for the Royals. He followed it up with a pair of curveballs for strikes and blew another 99 mile-per-hour heater past Escobar to complete a four-pitch strikeout. By game’s end, Syndergaard pitched six innings, giving up three runs and earning the Mets’ only win of the series.

In the postgame press conference, Syndergaard was asked about his first pitch, a clear and deliberate attempt to send a message to Escobar and the rest of the Royals.

“If they have a problem with me throwing inside, they can meet me 60 feet and 6 inches away,” Syndergaard said.

In the final game of the Royals’ and Mets’ two-game set to open the season, Syndergaard took the mound. Once again, unlike Harvey, Syndergaard tamed the Royals’ powerful bats. He went six innings, struck out nine and allowed just three hits without giving up a run. The Mets would go on to win 2-0.

So, the defending champs took the first game of the series, showing they still how to get to the game’s scariest pitching staff. Syndergaard proved that, unlike his teammates, he could handle the Royals’ formidable lineup.

It’s far too early to tell if either team has what it takes to get back to baseball’s biggest stage. Certainly, these two teams look like a pair that could go all the way. The Royals’ lineup has the depth to deal with any pitcher in the game. The Mets’ staff can deal with any batting order in the game, with one glaring exception — Syndergaard. If these teams do collide again come October, bet on the Royals, unless the Mets can figure out how to get their Norseman on the hill every game.