KANSAS CITY, Mo.
The Mets finally got to flash some hardware of their own Wednesday evening. It was a shiny, blue-and-orange belt, hung in Neil Walker’s locker, with the words, “Champion of the Game,” engraved on the front.
It wasn’t a banner or World Series ring. But for the Mets, in April, there is no higher honor. Michael Cuddyer started the belt tradition last season, but this year’s customized version has even greater meaning, emblazoned with a shamrock and pink ribbon in memory of Shannon Forde, the beloved team employee who succumbed to cancer last month.
The Mets knew this opening series was going to be especially difficult, the first-ever featuring a rematch of the previous Fall Classic, and the Royals made it extra-irritating with two day’s worth of pregame ceremonies. Walker, who wasn’t even on the team last October, had reached his limit.
“Seeing the celebrations,” Walker said, “it was enough to get annoyed.”
Someone had to verbalize that sentiment, and the Mets, despite mostly being PC with the whole Kauffman Stadium program, lashed back in the best possible way with Wednesday’s 2-0 victory over the Royals. Walker supplied the only scoring with his two-run homer, and Noah Syndergaard excelled in his role as the Big Nasty.
Royals manager Ned Yost, along with other team officials, had expressed regret that their guests had to have last year’s World Series rubbed in their faces, game by game, play by play. They passed the buck to the marketing department.
When it came time for Syndergaard to take the mound, however, any apology rang hollow. As Syndergaard began throwing his first warmup pitches, not only did he hear loud, angry boos, but the Kauffman speakers blared, “American Woman,” by The Guess Who.
So much for Midwestern hospitality. The battle lines had been redrawn, and the Mets knew their place. Syndergaard, for one, was actually amused by the harsh reception.
“I thought it was kind of funny,” Syndergaard said.
And why’s that?
“Because I’ve never been known as a guy that’s hated,” he added.
While the boos were the only real sign of open hostility, the Mets, by grabbing one victory in K.C., proved they weren’t going to be anyone’s patsy. Syndergaard got stung Wednesday by Escobar’s leadoff triple, a rocket off a 99-mph fastball, but then retired 12 straight. He finished with nine Ks in six innings, and was so dominant the Mets could scrape by with meager offensive production of their own.
“You never think one or two or three runs are going to be enough,” Walker said. “But when you’ve got a horse like that the on the mound . . . ”
Still, this wasn’t just Syndergaard’s show. Walker was fully aware that Daniel Murphy, his dumped predecessor, had homered and provided the winning RBI double the previous day for the Nationals. It’s certainly not a stretch to say Walker and Murphy are going to be measured against each other all season long — fair or not — so Wednesday’s blast came at a good time, polishing his image for Friday’s home opener at Citi Field.
“It’s not about him,” Walker said, “It’s about the Mets. I’m more worried about what’s going on here.”
One other potential area of concern, at least against the Royals, was how Jeurys Familia would perform in his return to Kauffman Stadium, where he suffered the first of his three blown saves in the World Series. So after Jim Henderson and Addison Reed each turned in a perfect inning, we got our answer.
Familia went to 3-and-2 on Lorenzo Cain before whiffing him with a 97-mph fastball. He then got Eric Hosmer on a grounder to second and retired Kendrys Morales on a weak tapper in front of the plate. There were no traces of any spring-training velocity dip, with Familia explaining, “I throw hard when I want to.” And flashbacks from last year’s World Series failures?
“Nah,” Familia said. “I forget easy and fast.”
Just like that, what began as a dreaded visit to K.C. ended on a very upbeat note, with the Mets salvaging a tidy split. While it wasn’t without flaws, like hitting 1-for-17 with runners in scoring position, the Mets departed Kauffman Stadium feeling much better than they did two days earlier.
And more than ready to be done with the Royals, until maybe October.