Saturday, October 24, 2015

Four Innings and a Pennant

They did it again. The Kansas City Royals have won back to back American League pennants. Really.

As recently as May of last season this didn't seem possible. But here we are, about to watch the boys in blue play in the World Series for the second time in two seasons. The run through this year's playoffs has felt different though. Last October didn't feel real, like a dream, a wonderful, wonderful dream. Don't get me wrong now, I don't believe the 2014 Royals were a fluke. They were a very good team who deserved to represent the American League. It was all just so unexpected. I think the miracle comeback in the Wild Card attributed to the dream-like state. That game, man. The game 7 loss to the Giants hurt. The season wasn't supposed to end like that, destiny's darlings and all that. I tried to write a post afterwards but to this day it remains unfinished in my drafts folder. I just couldn't.

This year they played, in my opinion, tougher competition in the playoffs. The Angels and Orioles had good teams last year but they didn't make me nervous. I thought the Royals would play them tough though I didn't expect sweeps. The Astros and Blue Jays both brought dangerous teams to this year's postseason. The Astros in particular terrified me. The Royals, however, held no such fear. Houston unsurprisingly pushed Kansas City to five games. It took six to dispatch Toronto. I don't think anybody predicted sweeps this season.

Four innings stand out this year. Four innings that would have changed the future if things had broke differently. Four innings that will long be remembered by Royals fans. I'll look at them one at a time

ALDS Game 4 - 8th inning

I didn't watch the Wild Card game last year until the next day. The difference between 1985 and 2014 was that in one I was a 14 year old with no responsibilities and in the other a 43 year old who worked nights. I didn't get to watch the epic comeback live. This year was a little different. I still work nights but MLB had my back and flooded the postseason with day games. I got to watch this one.

The Astros were six outs away from advancing to the ALCS. They were at home and had just turned a one run game into a four run game in the bottom of the 7th inning. The crowd was going wild, the players were amped in the dugout, it just felt over. As usual, the Royals ignored the memo.

The top of the 8th started out innocently enough with a single by Alex Rios (the Blue Jays and their fans may not believe this but nobody saw that hit coming). Then Alcides Escobar and Ben Zobrist followed with singles of their own and all the sudden the tying run was at the plate. Nine pitches into the inning and the Royals win expectancy had risen from 3% to 18%. Lorenzo Cain's single brought in the first run of the inning. Eric Hosmer stepped into the box representing the go ahead run. Think back to the aftermath of the Colby Rasmus home run a half inning earlier. Who would have believed the Royals would get the potential winning run to the plate a short time later with nobody out?

Hosmer has not had a great postseason but he's come through when needed several times. This was one of those times. His single to right field brought home another run and, just as importantly, put the the tying run in scoring position. There was still nobody out and the Royals win expectancy had jumped to a doable 45%.

Kendrys Morales was now at the plate. I imagine if there was anyone in that situation the Astros didn't want to see it was Morales. He led Kansas City in runs batted in with 106. He had clutch hit after clutch hit this season. But he also hit into 24 double plays. That led the team and was fourth most in the American League. He was either going to break Astros fans hearts or hit a ground ball tailor-made for a double play. He did both. Carlos Correa is a great player, and is going to be among the league's best shortstops for years, but that video above is going to haunt him for a long time. If he fields it cleanly, a run still scores, but there would be two outs. Instead two runs scored and the go ahead runs was just ninety feet from home plate. There was still nobody out and the Royals win expectancy had risen to 75%.

Mike Moustakas made the first out of the inning in a ten pitch battle with Tony Sipp. Luke Gregerson came in to face Drew Butera. Butera was in the game because Terrance Gore pinch ran for Salvador Perez an inning earlier. Gore stole second and third but was ruled out when the replay system failed. Nobody wanted Butera up in that situation. He needed to make hard contact to get the ball past the drawn in infield. You won't find hard contact hitter anywhere on Butera's resume. Gregerson and Butera also put together a ten pitch battle and when it was over Butera was standing on first base due to a well earned walk

Future Royals Hall of Famer Alex Gordon was now at the plate with the bases loaded and one out. Gordon has hit eighth in every game this postseason. During the regular season he had a .377 on-base percentage and 120 OPS+. He's not the type of hitter you normally find in that spot. Gordon hit a ground ball to the right side. Jose Altuve's only play was to first base. Hosmer scored from third and the Royals were leading 7-6. After Rios followed with a walk to reload the bases Escobar struck out to end the inning.

You know what happened next. Hosmer homered in the 9th to put the Royals up 3 runs and Wade Davis was Wade Davis. The series came back to Kansas City where Johnny Cueto shut down the emotionally deflated Astros.

ALCS Game 1- 6th inning

Edinson Volquez was brilliant the first five innings of game 1. He was touching 97 on the gun with movement and was hitting whatever spot Perez laid down. The Royals led 3-0 going into the top of the sixth with Toronto's three best hitters coming up. There wasn't much concern due to Volquez's brilliance, and he had thrown less than 80 pitches. If he ran into trouble you'd figure Ned Yost would go to the bullpen to bail him out. There are situations when Ned doesn't do what logic suggests he should. Sometimes he's right, and sometimes Jose Bautista is hitting a game tying home run off Ryan Madson instead of facing Wade Davis.

When Josh Donaldson led off, the Blue Jays win expectancy was at a manageable 13%. This is a team hits lots of home runs. All they need is the tying run at the plate for a chance (see above). Donaldson worked the count full and then walked on the ninth pitch of the at bat. Jose Bautista came up next. He also worked Volquez for a nine pitch walk. Uh oh. So now the Royals were in the position they didn't want to be in, a struggling pitcher on the mound with Edwin Encarnacion, Chris Colabello, and Troy Tulowitzki up next. All three were capable of tying the game with one swing.

Every pitch from here on out would be huge, with each carrying game changing potential. The Blue Jays win expectancy sat at 24%. That's as high as it would get the rest of the game. Volquez struck out Encarnacion on four pitches for the first out of the inning. He was less sharp against Colabello and went to a full count for the third time in the inning. On the eighth pitch Colabello ripped what looked like a gapper but was caught by Gordon for the second out. Tulowitzki came up next and became the fourth Blue Jay to run the count full in the inning. I don't know his thought process on the pitch that struck him out but he sure looked like a guy who was begging to be walked.

When it was all said and done Volquez had faced five hitters. He walked two, struck out two, and threw 37 pitches. His Houdini act gave Yost the confidence to let him try a similar escape in the sixth inning of game 5. That one backfired and Toronto ended up scoring 4 runs.

I'm not entirely sure but I think the 6th inning of game 1 took about two years off my life. I don't think a person is supposed to hold his breath for thirty minutes.

ALCS Game 2 - 7th inning

As unlikely as the comeback in Houston was, this one was even unlikelier. David Price was dealing. After Escobar's leadoff single he retired the next eighteen hitters. Toronto entered the inning leading 3-0 and had an 88% win expectancy. The bottom of the 7th started off with a bloop into right field by Ben Zobrist. Miscommunication between Bautista and Ryan Goins allowed the first out to fall in for a leadoff single.

Lorenzo Cain, as he always seems to do, followed with a single to right field. Four pitches before, Price stepped to the mound with a three run lead. He was now facing the tying run, Eric Hosmer. Tom Verducci wrote an article for Sports Illustrated about how the Royals advanced scouting had picked up Price tipping his changeup. It's an informative piece partially about this inning. Like he's done many times in his postseason career, Hosmer stepped up. His single on a changeup brought home Zobrist and put Cain on third. With runners on the corners and nobody out the Royals win expectancy had jumped from 12% to 44%.

Remember when I mentioned Morales and double plays? Rusty Kuntz was ahead of it. He sent Hosmer and a ground ball up the middle only retired one instead of two. Cain scored and the tying run was on second base with one out. Moustakas came up next and drove a Price changeup into center field. Hosmer scored from second base and the game was tied. Perez came up next but struck out for the second out of the inning.

One way or another, Gordon would probably have been the last batter Price faced. The Royals win expectancy was now north of 50%. A battle of the bullpens would heavily favor the one with a cyborg. Gordon worked the count full before driving Price's eighth pitch into the gap in right-center. Moustakas scored the go ahead run and Price exited on the hook for another playoff loss.

Aaron Sanchez came on to face the suddenly rejuvenated Rios. Interesting enough, the same situation would play out in game 6 with the same result. A Rios single would turn a 1 run game into a 2 run game. After Escobar made the final out, the Blue Jays left the field trailing 5-3. Kelvin Herrera and Davis closed it out and the Royals were two wins away from returning to the World Series

ALCS Game 6 - 9th inning

Even with the two improbable comebacks, and Johnny Cueto's gem in game 5 of the ALDS, this might have been the most entertaining game of Kansas City's postseason. Moose's controversial home run, Bautista's game tying home run, Cain's mad dash to home, I'm telling you, this game had it all.

Davis entered in the eighth inning because Madson failed to protect the lead. Yost wanted to avoid bringing him due to an impending weather delay. When the rain departed, and play resumed, Cain and Hosmer teamed up for an LCS moment that will be talked about for decades. The Royals led 4-3 when Davis took the mound in the top of the 9th inning. The Royals win expectancy was at 84%. The heart of Toronto's came up the inning before so things looked set up for an uneventful ending to the game.

Russell Martin led off with a single and was removed for Dalton Pompey. The tying run was on base and was fast. That Pompey would be allowed to steal not one, but two bases, is somewhat amazing. With the tying run on third, and no outs, Davis walked Kevin Pillar. The Royals win expectancy had fallen to 45.

Dioner Navarro pinch hit for Ryan Goins. With the count 1 and 1, Davis threw a pitch that looked outside but was called a strike. Recognizing the zone had widened Davis went to the same location. Navarro swung and missed for out number one. Pillar stole second base and now the go ahead was in scoring position for Ben Revere. With the count 2 and 1, Davis again went to his favorite new location and was rewarded with a called strike 2. Davis came inside on the next pitch, but instead of taking ball 3, Revere swung and missed for the second out.

This series was destined to come down to Josh Donaldson. It was inevitable from the moment he took issue with being pitched inside by Royals pitchers during the regular season. Donaldson had a good series. I mean, not Alex Rios good, but still good. Earlier in the game he hit an absolute missile to Moustakas. This time, with his team's season on the line, all he could muster was a ground ball. For the second straight year the ALCS ended with Moustakas throwing across the diamond to Hosmer. For the second straight year Donaldson's season ended on a roller to third base.

Sometimes, life is fair.