The Mets knew better than to think that what was left would be easy. Yes, they had enjoyed another emotional high in a season filled with them, pushing the Dodgers to the brink of elimination.
But finishing the job in the National League Division Series required scaling one more daunting summit -- beating either Clayton Kershaw in Game 4 or Zack Greinke in Game 5. Now, with their season on the line, they face the latter.
The Mets hoped the great Kershaw might pitch to the narrative, the one that has focused less on the Cy Young Awards he has collected and more on his streak of five postseason defeats. Maybe that would provide enough of an opening Tuesday night for Long Island's Steven Matz to steal the spotlight.
Kershaw's brilliance would not allow it, not again, not in a 3-1 loss that sent the Mets back to Los Angeles. There, Jacob deGrom opposes Greinke in a Game 5 showdown on Thursday to determine who will face the Cubs for the pennant.
"When he's right, [you] just don't get a lot of hits,'' Terry Collins said. "And he was right.''
With Kershaw out of the game, the Mets rallied in the eighth, with Curtis Granderson and David Wright working walks ahead of Daniel Murphy. But Kenley Jansen squashed the rally. Murphy flied out, sucking the life out of a crowd that had hoped to witness a clincher.
Matz, 24, allowed three runs and six hits in his five innings. He essentially gave the Mets all they could have reasonably expected. His seventh big-league start came after a back injury had kept him from pitching in an actual game since Sept. 24.
The only damage came in the third. Adrian Gonzalez lofted a run-scoring single ahead of Justin Turner, the ex-Met turned Mets killer. Turner (7-for-15, .467) in the NLDS rocketed a two-run double to left. Matz did not let up anything more. Against Kershaw, it wasn't good enough.
"I had one bad inning, made a couple bad pitches, and it ended up costing me three runs,'' Matz said. "And when you're facing a guy like Clayton Kershaw, you should be putting up zeroes.''
During his playoff slump, Kershaw had posted a 6.44 ERA. The Mets contributed to that in Game 1, when they chased him in the seventh. His Game 4 outing came on short rest.
The crowd of 44,183 goaded him, breaking out chants of "Ker-shaw! Ker-shaw! Ker-shaw!'' in the first inning. They got louder after a pair of checked-swing calls went the way of Murphy, leaving Kershaw fuming. He'd seldom look challenged again.
"He didn't make any mistakes tonight,'' said Murphy, whose homer did the Mets' only damage.
The rest of Kershaw's night was spent playing puppet master, offering faint glimmers of hope before wiping them away with a sweeping curveball.
"It did quiet down when we got three runs,'' said Kershaw, whose dominance toyed with the emotion of the crowd. "It was a fun environment. Definitely happy to be going back home to L.A., though. They like us a little better there, so it's good.''
Against righthanders, Kershaw buzzed his fastball inside. Against lefties, he broke out his slider. His curve roared back to life, starting at the eyes before diving into the zone, leaving the Mets with little chance.
"In L.A., you could almost cancel out the curveball,'' said Mets captain David Wright, who found something altogether different last night.
Kershaw departed after 94 pitches to the sighs of relief from the same fans that had chided him. Against a lineup that had set a franchise record with 13 runs in a playoff game, he struck out eight and allowed only three hits. And through it all, the game's premier pitcher rarely lost control, leaving the Mets to make do with nothing.
Said Granderson: "That's the part that makes hitting mentally frustrating.''