Jacob deGrom held his glove in front of his face, his signature locks streaming from the sides of his baseball cap. Then, as he's done through his ascent as one of the best pitchers in the game, he rocked into his flowing delivery and unleashed fire.
But Wednesday night was different. Over and over, in Game 2 of the World Series, deGrom searched for the sharpness that has made him an ace. The Royals did not blink. True to form, in a 7-1 victory that will force the Mets to summon history, the Royals pelted deGrom into submission.
For the Mets to win the 111th World Series, they must walk the same treacherous path of the 1986 team, which overcame a 2-0 deficit to win the franchise's last championship.
Seldom has deGrom looked overmatched. Yet, as the skies cracked with intermittent rain, the brilliant righthander was chased amid a deluge of hits. He allowed four runs, all in the fifth inning, his last.
In the fifth, the Royals pounded him for five hits. After two failed bunt attempts, Alcides Escobar's single to center tied the score at 1. Two batters later, Eric Hosmer singled up the middle to knock in two more. Mike Moustakas capped the outburst with a single past a diving Daniel Murphy at second base.
As deGrom labored, the Royals' Johnny Cueto silenced the Mets' lineup with a two-hitter. The Mets scratched across just one run in the fourth on Lucas Duda's soft single.
Cueto, the dreadlocked righty, lugged a resume of spotty performances since his acquisition by the Royals from the Reds. But he barely wavered against a Mets lineup that has scored only two runs in its last 15 innings.
The Mets never trailed in the NLDS against the Dodgers or in the NLCS against the Cubs. But against the Royals, they face a daunting 2-0 deficit. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, teams that have taken such a lead at home have gone 42-10.
In the first two games of the World Series, the Mets have started Matt Harvey and deGrom. In Game 3 tomorrow night at Citi Field, the onus falls on rookie Noah Syndergaard to preserve any realistic chances for the Mets to win a championship.
Entering play Wednesday night, the Mets hoped to get over an excruciating 5-4 loss in Game 1. Jeurys Familia blew his first save since July 30, a rain-soaked loss to the Padres that marked the nadir of the Mets' season. Manager Terry Collins hoped that the experience of bouncing back might show up in Game 2.
"It wasn't the World Series, and it wasn't the playoffs, but we went through a lot of those this year, grueling losses," Collins said a few hours before first pitch. "And of course, the one on everybody's mind is the one against San Diego, when we were trying to win the division. Crushing loss for us. You've got to bounce back. That's big-league baseball."
Instead, the Mets languished against Cueto, baffled by his ability to change speeds and alter his delivery. In his complete-game win, he retired 15 straight batters at one point. He walked three and struck out four. Meanwhile, deGrom gave the Mets reason to think they might have two tired aces on their hands.
In Game 1, Harvey was pulled after surrendering three runs in six innings. He had thrown just 80 pitches but admitted that he lacked his best stuff. His fastball averaged below 94 mph for only the third time in his career. He managed only seven swings and misses, a testament to the Royals' supreme contact abilities.
In Game 2, deGrom encountered a similar buzz saw, his demise hastened by a range-deprived defense that has been exposed against the contact-happy Royals.
"I expect, just going on what we've seen when he has a little extra rest, he can be dynamic," said Collins, who pushed deGrom back a day to give him extra rest. "This turns out to be a huge game for us right now and I think he can be that dynamic guy."
That dynamic guy allowed one hit through four innings before the Royals turned the screws in the fifth, punishing deGrom for fastball command that faded.
The Royals rarely strike out. They rarely swing and miss. And in two games, they turned Kauffman Stadium into an outdoor pinball machine.
In his first postseason start, deGrom struck out 13 Dodgers, tying Tom Seaver's franchise record. Against the Royals, deGrom tallied just three swings and misses all game, none against fastballs. He struck out two and walked three.