No gutshot man has ever walked as briskly as Terry Collins did when he marched into the press conference room, just down the hall from the Mets' clubhouse at Citi Field, and sat in front of reporters late Saturday night. His face was that of a man who knew he'd been shot but hadn't looked down to check on the damage. He was, very clearly, in pain.
Collins operated on two principles throughout the Mets' wild run from the middle of the pack to the World Series between August and October: have fun, and pull out all the stops. But as he faced the press on Saturday, Collins' Mets had just lost Game 4 of the World Series, 5-3, in part because he had moved away from his core strategic idea in the playoffs: manage with urgency, and when in doubt ask Jeurys Familia to pitch until the game is over.
This no-tomorrow strategy represented a happy accident for the Mets. Collins had mostly managed according to a discrete and incremental down-the-middle approach, but readily flipped the script in the playoffs. The 66-year-old did so in part because he'd waited four decades to reach the postseason—unless you count his time as a coach for Jim Leyland's Pirates more than two decades ago—and in part because his team's success in October required it. "I'm old," Collins said early in the playoffs. "Sense of urgency is right now. I either get this done right now, or I don't have a lot of shots. So it's pretty big for me."
Collins embraced the now right away, bringing his closer, Jeurys Familia, into the game in the eighth for a four-out save in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Dodgers. He used a pair of his converted starters—Bartolo Colon and Jon Niese—regularly, sometimes for one out, sometimes for multiple innings. And his Game 5 NLDS endgame spoke to the special circumstances as clearly as the red, white and blue bunting did—starter Noah Syndergaard handled the seventh, and Familia worked six outs in the eighth and ninth.
"If we've got the lead in the 8th inning, we've got to roll the dice," Collins said after that game, revealing that he'd worked out the six-out scenario with Familia in the Dodger Stadium outfield before the game. "We've got, in my opinion, if he's not the best closer in the National League, he's one of the best closers in all of baseball. You've got to go to him. You can't—you'd be kicking yourself if they scored a run off somebody else when that guy should be in the game in a game like tonight that means everything. So we stayed with the plan, and it worked."
After Collins turned to Familia for the last five out of Game 1 of the NLCS, I asked Collins if he considered Familia his pitcher from the start of the eighth on, as needed, and he answered the question as if he was the last sane man in a world gone mad with pitcher pampering.
"In certain games, the games that you've got to have, I'm telling you—maybe it's just me, but I don't think you can end the game with your star—your best relief pitcher standing on the mound in the bullpen warming up, waiting for a one-inning save. So we'll just see how it goes." It went like this: Familia pitched all four games, and the Mets swept their way into the World Series.
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Familia gave up a home run that cost the Mets a chance to win Game 1 of the World Series in Kansas City, but it almost felt like an asterisk to Familia's postseason run—blessed with a high-90s diving fastball, low-90s cutter and high-80s slider, he tried to quick-pitch one too many times, and Alex Gordon hit a straight fastball over the center field fence. Familia retired the other three batters he faced in Game 1. This was a disappointment, but nothing like Saturday night.
The Mets entered the eighth inning leading Game 4, 3-2. A win would tie the series, 2-2, giving the Mets three games to win two, with the three best remaining scheduled starters for either side all wearing orange and blue. Collins didn't need a roadmap—he'd described his plan perfectly whenever he called on Familia all month long, and now here it was.
He started the eighth inning with Tyler Clippard, who's had an excellent career as a setup man. But Clippard is battling several maladies—all left delightfully unspecified in that Mets injury way—with back discomfort and shoulder woes combining with who knows what else. His effectiveness diminished down the stretch.
If you've read this far, you know what happened. Clippard walked one hitter, than another. Collins summoned Familia, who got a soft ground ball—that Daniel Murphy stepped over, missing it, for an error. Then another ground ball that found a hole with the infield at double-play depth. Another single and it was a 5-3 deficit. Royals manager Ned Yost used his elite closer, without hesitation, for six outs. The Mets went down 3-1, and Collins received criticism from fans, from writers, from his wife.
Sunday night, he did it again. This time, he let his starting pitcher, Matt Harvey, talk him into a ninth inning of work when eight shutout frames more than sufficed. He'd learned from his mistake, from his wife. He'd do it differently this time. And then he let emotion overtake his knowledge of his own team.
"Sometimes you let your heart dictate your mind," a crestfallen Collins said Sunday night. "Again, we had said going in if Matt gave us seven, Jeurys was going to pitch two. I've got one of the best closers in the game. I got him in the game, but it was a little late. And that's inexcusable, for me."
It's not about results, either. Collins knows that, had he been working for a team more concerned with on-field results than developing the cheap young players the cash-strapped owners need, he'd probably be the former manager of the Mets after four consecutive losing seasons. He's spent more than four decades in professional baseball, many of those as minor league player and coach, where the time passes in dog years, the dugouts have no shade and teams travel by bus. He suffered those years for this. For this postseason.
And his joy has been glorious to behold. Collins came out to greet the visiting Mets fans after the NLDS clincher in Los Angeles, and Mets fans engulfed him with hugs, even a kiss on the cheek. He came out of the Wrigley Field dugout to spray some of those same visiting Mets fans with bubbly after the team wrapped up the NLCS in Wrigley and MLB threatened nonspecific fines.
That Terry Collins seemed like a different person than the one who met the press on Sunday night. This Collins seemed smaller and grayer, and his eyes spent a lot of time in the middle distance; he clearly believed he'd let his team down.
"Matt will tell you different because he's a tremendous human being," Collins said. "He's going to say how he wanted to be out there and should be out there," Dan said the same thing. He's throwing the ball great. But if you put Jeurys in, he would've gave up the two runs, 'Well, you should've left Harvey.' I know how it goes. I won't be sleeping much the next couple of days, I'll tell you that."
Whatever coping mechanism he'd created for himself through the hundreds of losses he'd experienced in this game wouldn't quite suffice this time around. This is new for him, too. Earlier on Sunday, at least, he'd been able to consider the season in context, and it seems likely when the pain of losing a World Series game wears off a bit, he'll do the same with Game 5 as well.
"I mean, put it in perspective," Collins said on Sunday afternoon. "During the season you've got to get over it. You've got to play again tomorrow. We're running out of time here, we have to figure out what we can do to—we've got to win today, that's where it's at. Whereas during the season, you can't worry about what just happened... Tonight we've got everybody, because there may not be tomorrow.
"Let me tell you something, the pressure is over 162 and getting to this point. This should be fun, and enjoy it." In that way, at least, Collins stayed true to the vision he laid out back on the night the Mets clinched the National League East.
"When we clinched in Cincinnati, I was lucky enough to have my sister in town," Collins recalled back in early October. "My wife was there. And that dinner, that night, was the first time I just said—I go back, it was the first time I ever managed in the big leagues and I'm standing on that first baseline in my first game [that I said] it's all been worth it, all the bus rides, all the years, all the time on the field. [When the Mets clinched], I said the same thing.
"The last couple days, it's been getting ready for tomorrow. As you know, there's a lot going into getting ready for a game in our world today instead of just showing up and playing. But, yeah, I had that time when I certainly said, boy, this has been all worth it." There's not a lot of enjoyment to be found in this sort of crushing defeat, but Collins helped author a season that, for several giddy months, paid him back for his lifetime in the game. Not quite in full, but baseball doesn't necessarily work that way. For Collins and everyone else, there's always next season.