NEW YORK -- The Mets find themselves in a gargantuan 3-1 hole in this World Series -- a hole only five teams in 43 tries have climbed back from in a best-of-seven Fall Classic -- because of the eighth inning of Game 4.
But you could say the seeds of the game-changing sequence of events were sown in the ninth inning of Game 3.
The latter was the inning when Terry Collins needlessly brought Jeurys Familia into a six-run ballgame in an effort, he would later say, to help the big closer "stay sharp" for Game 4. But using Familia in that situation made Collins reluctant to use him in a multi-inning situation in Game 4, and that simple fact was as consequential as anything that transpired -- up to and including that ball that rolled under Daniel Murphy's glove -- in the eighth inning of the Royals' 5-3 victory Saturday night at Citi Field.
"When you allow them to have opportunities," Collins said, "the good teams are going to beat you. And they're a good team."
The Mets made quite a few frightening miscues on Halloween night that afforded those opportunities to the Royals, and they will try to keep their season alive in Game 5 on Sunday (8 p.m. ET game time on FOX).
The eighth inning was the major meltdown -- the inning the Mets hope doesn't keep them up at night all winter, but Collins' managerial decisions leading up to the eighth are as worthy of second-guessing as Yoenis Cespedes' dash.
Collins let Steven Matz bat in the fifth (leading to a harmless flyout) so that he could pitch the sixth, despite some fifth-inning signs that his effectiveness was waning. Matz gave up a Ben Zobrist double and a Lorenzo Cain RBI single that made it 3-2, and that's when Collins went to his 'pen. Jon Niese got two quick outs, then Bartolo Colon ended an epic 10-pitch at-bat with Salvador Perez by striking him out with a rare putaway slider.
Here's where it gets really dicey: Collins didn't stick with Colon. He managed this game behind an assumption that Addison Reed and Tyler Clippard could prove a stable bridge to Familia in the ninth -- an assumption that, especially in the case of the struggling Clippard, wasn't especially rational. Reed did indeed pitch a 1-2-3 seventh, but all you need to know about the confidence in Clippard right now is that he took the mound in the eighth with Familia already warming, just in case.
"We said before the inning, 'If the go-ahead run gets on, we're going to go to Familia,'" Collins said. "But I didn't want to have to burn Jeurys tonight for two innings if I could help it."
No, of course he didn't. And the reason is that Collins had already burned his closer for one inning in a game Familia didn't really need to pitch in.
Clippard was a suspect solution for the eighth. Opponents had an .835 OPS against him this postseason. Collins would say later that Clippard's "pretty good success against the lefties" made him a good option to face the balanced top of Kansas City's order (with Zobrist, a switch-hitter, batting left-handed and the left-handed-hitting Eric Hosmer due up if anybody got on base). But Clippard actually surrendered a 1.037 OPS to lefties in the final month of the season.
Sure enough, Clippard walked Zobrist and then Cain. So Collins went with the plan of bringing in Familia with traffic.
If the Mets were scarily shaky anywhere in this matchup with the Royals, it's two prime places -- the bullpen in front of Familia and the infield defense. Both of those things burned them in the eighth.
Familia came in to face Hosmer, and he did exactly as planned, getting Hoz to roll over on a 96-mph sinker. But Murphy, the Mets' out-of-nowhere postseason MVP prior to the Series, didn't get his glove down, and the ball scooted into right field while Zobrist dashed home with the tying run and Cain scampered all the way to third.
"I tried to one-hand it," Murphy said. "It probably deserved to be two-handed. I tried to come through one when I probably had more time than that. I just misplayed it. It went right under my glove. They made us pay for it. It put us in a really bad spot, and that's frustrating."
From there, the frustration mounted. We know well that the Royals' most essential offensive strengths are putting the ball in play and aggressively taking the extra bag. That's what they did in the eighth. After the gift to Hosmer, they got greedy with Mike Moustakas' ground-ball single past Murphy that allowed Cain to score, and this time it was Hosmer ambitiously advancing to third. Then Perez lined a single to right to score Hosmer, and just like that, Kansas City had turned the 3-2 deficit into a 5-3 lead.
"We're just trying to put the ball in play," Moustakas said. "Against a guy like Familia, that guy throws a bowling-ball sinker. And Hoz did a good job of putting the ball in play and make some things happen. It's just kind of how the ball bounced today. It kind of rolled right for us."
What we'll never know, however, is what Familia could have done had he come in clean. Maybe he wouldn't have been as "sharp" as Collins hoped, but he certainly would have been a better option to open the eighth than Clippard.
Ned Yost, on the other hand, had the right man -- Wade Davis -- on the mound for the last six outs. He got every one of them, and Yost, unlike Collins, didn't hesitate to use his closer for two innings.
"You have to get in the mindset, at least I do, anyway, because I'm really, really focused on my pitchers and their usage, and I just always remind myself, 'Win this game tonight, worry about tomorrow tomorrow,'" Yost said afterward.
There's no question that closer usage, tracing all the way back to late Friday night, had a major role in deciding the outcome of Game 4. The only remaining question is whether it simultaneously decided the outcome of this World Series.