The Mets are finally in the World Series for the first time since the turn of the century. This is a cause for joyous celebrations, feasting, and merriment, but when we look back at this season... say, 15 years from now, it will probably seem incomplete without a world championship.
That's why it's important that the Mets find a way to win four more games this year. Even though the team is playing with house money in the eyes of many fans, one more title can turn this season from an awesome one that we will never forget to one that the Mets take as their own for just the third time in history.
As dramatic as that sounds, the Mets just need to keep doing what they've been doing for the better part of the past three months: play better baseball than that other team on the field. However, this week that task will be tougher than it was before. Not because the Royals are so much better than the Dodgers and the Cubs, but because they're so different.
The curious Kansas City offense
With strikeout rates escalating to record highs nowadays, many teams have turned to a power-and-patience approach to hitting. You can strike out as much as you like, just as long as you get on base with walks and make pitchers pay for mistakes with home runs. Kansas City isn't without power (three hitters with more than 20 home runs) or patience (Alex Gordon walks in nearly 12 percent of his plate appearances), but the squad is still at the bottom of the American League in walks and second from the bottom in home runs.
Instead, the Royals score runs by being aggressive at the plate and on the basepaths. Since they're the only AL team with fewer than 1,000 strikeouts, they finished third in the league with a .269 team batting average and seventh in on-base percentage despite the lack of walks. Add in 104 stolen bases (behind only Houston in the junior circuit), and you have a team that scores 4.47 runs per game for sixth place in the league.
Perhaps no one represents Kansas City's approach better than Lorenzo Cain, the former Milwaukee prospect who leads his current team in WAR. While last year Cain was more of a defense-and-speed guy with a little bit of pop, he's turned into a complete player as a 29-year-old. He hits the ball hard (.347 BABIP, 16 home runs) and hits it often (16-percent strikeout rate). Plus, his incredible athleticism that has been his calling card ever since he broke into the majors gives Cain the ability to steal 28 bases as well as defensive skills to rival those of Juan Lagares.
Great defense, solid contact, and improved power is not just a Cain thing, but a theme in the transformation of this year's Royals. Third baseman Mike Moustakas hit .212/.271/.361 last year as a 26-year-old before finally (he's been in the majors since 2011) breaking out this year and hitting .284/.348/.470 with 22 home runs. A 12-percent strikeout rate combined with a .186 isolated power makes Moustakas one of the most unique hitters in the big leagues.
Another Kansas City first-round draft pick who has bounced back from a worrisome 2014 campaign is Eric Hosmer, who has in the past gone back and forth from being a future superstar to a huge bust. This season, he appears to have balanced things out by hitting .297/.363/.459 with 18 home runs. He might not never hit for the kind of power that we tend to expect from star left-handed first baseman, but like his teammates, the above-average contact rate Hosmer gets in return is paying dividends.
Someone extra the Mets have to look out for this series is ALCS MVP Alcides Escobar. During the regular season, the shortstop was an outstanding defensive player with a .614 OPS, but in the postseason he's an outstanding defensive player who is on a 10-game hitting streak and batting .386/.408/.545 versus Houston and Toronto. The Mets have their own inexplicable hitting performance going on with Daniel Murphy, so get too upset if Escobar comes up with a key knock tonight.
The uncontrollable elements
Speaking of Murphy, his recent streak has been the most unbelievable part of this Mets run, so the only thing that can possible cool him off is five days off, right? Maybe that's the case, or maybe the guy who hit 14 home runs during the entire regular season is bound to to his normal form anyway. Either way, the long layoff that the Mets have brought upon themselves by playing too well against the Cubs is going to get talked about tonight. Since there's no way to prove whether or not it affects New York's play, that feels like a waste of time.
A bigger factor tonight will be the weather, which is supposed to be nasty all day in Kansas City. If I knew that the Mets were going to be in the World Series and that the sun was going to be shining ever so brightly in New York before Game 1, I would have paid more attention to the All-Star Game. Since the AL won back in July, we could deal with delays or worse tonight when it comes to getting this big party started.
The Mets' lineup will also be affected by Game 1 taking place in Kansas City. They'll need a designated hitter, and it's not too surprising to see Kelly Johnson fill that role. After all, he has been the first bat off the bench this postseason. However, Johnson has just one hit and four strikeouts in his six at-bats versus Los Angeles and Chicago, and he doesn't add anything on defense. Maybe the Mets would be better off going with Juan Lagares in center field, moving Yoenis Cespedes to left field, and putting Michael Conforto in the DH spot. With New York's defense expected to be under more pressure than usual in the World Series, it might be best to err on the side of caution, but the powers that be have opted to go with offensive upside in Game 1.
There was also an offense-for-defense switch to consider on the 25-man World Series roster. Juan Uribe has been deemed healthy enough to play and we thought that might mean the departure of Kirk Nieuwenhuis from the team, but instead, Matt Reynolds is going away and will probably have to make his major league debut somewhere outside of the postseason. With Uribe on board and Reynolds out, the Mets are without a reliable backup at shortstop, and that means plenty of playing time for Wilmer Flores.
Meanwhile, the National League is affecting the way the Royals shape their postseason roster. Due to the need for extra pinch-hitters at Citi Field, where pitchers will have to hit for themselves, Kansas City is shelving pinch-running specialist Terrance Gore and bringing up top prospect Raul Mondesi. This is pretty extraordinary not just because the Mets won't have to worry about Gore late in games, but because Mondesi has not yet played in the big leagues. The 20-year-old shortstop is still quite raw and hit .243/.279/.372 at Double-A Northwest Arkansas this year, so he probably won't play a big role during the World Series. Then again, with Ben Zobrist's wife expecting to give birth very soon, you never know.
Tonight's pitching matchup
After starting his career as a hot prospect, tonight's Kansas City starter Edinson Volquez had a couple of terrible seasons in Cincinnati and San Diego before resurrecting his career under the tutelage of Ray Searage in Pittsburgh last year. In 2015, he's been serviceable for a Kansas City team that needed a bump in starting pitching once they lost James Shields to free agency. Volquez's 3.55 ERA isn't as good as his 2014 mark, but his 3.82 FIP is better thanks to slightly improved strikeout and walk rates (pretty impressive when you consider he went from the NL to the AL).
Still, Volquez doesn't strike out as many batters as you'd like for a guy who walks more than three per nine innings. Even though his stuff looks a little sharper in three postseason starts, the results have not been outstanding. Even when he threw six shutout innings versus Toronto in Game 1 of that series, Volquez still walked four batters, which is something he's done in all of his postseason outings this year. Next time against the Blue Jays, he allowed five runs in five innings with just two strikeouts.
For more on Volquez, check out Chris McShane's breakdown.
Opposing Volquez will be Matt Harvey, the mythical figure who has stepped up his game lately and is now back in the good graces of Mets fans. He might turn out to be a villain eventually, but for now, Harvey has done good and his legend will only grow with another solid postseason outing.
In Game 1 against the Cubs, he did a great job mixing up his fastball with his changeup and other offspeed offerings to keep the Chicago sluggers off balance. That strategy will be important once again versus a group of Royals that pride themselves on not allowing opponents to hurl fastballs by them. The newer, more creative Harvey might not post sexy strikeout figure tonight, but if he's able to get some swings and soft contact out of his secondary stuff, it could lead to a Mets win.
Prediction: Mets win.