Instead of writing about some album that nobody cares about this week I figure I’ll write about some baseball team that nobody cares about. Full disclosure here, I am not a legit Kansas City Royals fan, but I still do love ’em. I’m a full-blooded Milwaukee Brewers guy, but at one point during my childhood I figured I should follow an AL team as well. Instead of picking a much more popular choice like say, the Red Sox or the Angels or even those damned Yankees, I picked the team that reminded me most of Milwaukee – Kansas City, a team that seemed just as dysfunctional (the truth was, they were much more dysfunctional), also from a relatively small baseball town, with a great fanbase and a bunch of players who were likeable, if not exactly good. Hell, they even had their own Robin Yount figure in George Brett. Lately, it’s been easy to cheer for them; for one, it’s so much easier to follow any team you want these days, and secondly, the Royals and Brewers seem to trade players nearly every year. Three players in the team’s starting lineup (Aoki, Cain, and Escobar) are ex-Brewers, along with their manager, Ned Yost, who has been on the Brewers as both a player and a manager.
Anyway, as you probably know, the Royals have not made the playoffs in a long time. As a Brewer fan, I can relate. The Brewers went 26 years without a playoff berth; the Royals just went 29. We’ve been there too. That’s an entire generation of fans – I remember thinking when Milwaukee made it in 2008 that not a single one of my baseball-watching friends were alive for their last playoff appearance. Of course, the Royals making it is a tad diminished now as the playoffs just expanded to include 10 teams instead of 8, but I will point out that they would’ve made it under the old system too. Point is, if you’re a baseball fan in Kansas City and you’re under 35, this is the biggest moment you can remember.
For Kansas City, the pressure is even more on, because, quite frankly, they are not a very good team. Milwaukee in ’08 wasn’t all that good either; nobody gave them much of a chance. I remember an SI cover with a 3×3 grid of pictures of potential playoff “difference makers” that did not include a single Brewer, not even CC Sabathia who was having a monster half-season since the Crew dealt for him. They lost in 4 to Philly, but at least the Brewers had promise – from 2003-2006 they drafted quite well, and many of those picks were paying dividends now. The Royals have been perpetually in that stage – always the team with a great farm system but a lousy major league team, and one by one their prospects failed to deliver. Last year, they made a rather shocking trade, dealing one of the game’s top prospects for James Shields, a very good but not exactly franchise-changing pitcher who was all but guaranteed to leave after 2014. And yet, here they were; the team caught fire after the All-Star break, and for once everything turned up Kansas City. The team ended with 89 wins – nearly 11 above their 3rd order win percentage, meaning that the team got a number of breaks along the way. Exactly how a team that finished dead last in home runs and walks managed a playoff spot is beyond me – it’s certainly not due to their manager, who routinely made dumb decisions that would cost them big. But they had pitching; a couple of good starters and a solid bullpen, plus a bunch of light-hitting but speedy position players who played great defense and stole a lot of bases. They don’t exactly feel like a playoff team now and they’re pretty going to get worse next year, so this is a pretty big moment.
I was certainly excited; my friends weren’t, but they humored me anyway (thanks to Autocorrect and Swipe, I sent a text asking if anyone wanted to watch the Kansas City Towels with me). Right away, you got a sense of the moment. In the stands, they showed a 61-year old George Brett, and with it came the realization that this man was in fact that last person to ever score a postseason run in a Royals uniform. Of course, for the A’s, this was pretty big as well – the A’s were a team that never bought at the deadline, but this year, for the first time since Billy Beane took over, the team made a huge splash, acquiring two big-deal pitchers in Lester and Samardzija. This wasn’t a playoff push; this was a World Series move. At their peak, the team was 72-44, surely a lock…only to tumble in the final third, going 16-30 in their final 48. Well…the Brewers had similar luck this year. It sucks. But the A’s had the chance to make it all go away with one game.
That game did not disappoint. I’m going to go as far as to say that it’s one of the most exciting baseball games I’ve ever witnessed – right now I feel it’s next to the craziness that was the Red Sox, Rays, and Orioles on Game 162 in 2011, which I’ve heard called “The Greatest Night in Baseball History”. That night was about the universe conspiring to keep the Red Sox out of the playoffs; this night had so many storylines that I don’t even know what to unpack out of it all. Pregame reports billed this as being a low-scoring, “whoever-scores-first-wins” sort of ordeal, and why not – the Royals’ offense sucked, the A’s were struggling, both starters were pretty good, and the Royals’ bullpen was dominant. But the A’s scored right away – Moss’s 2-run homer in the top of the 1st – and yet the Royals clawed their way through it to take a 3-2 lead.
The key moment, of course was in the 6th – Shields gives up a hit to Fuld and walks Donaldson, and suddenly the A’s are back in business. Pulling Shields now, in a winner-take-all game, was plenty defensible, but putting in Ventura – well, Yost’s gotten raked over the coals for this already, so I won’t bother. Yost’s bad decisions tend to split into two categories – sometimes he makes bad decisions, but can at least justify them with bad statistics (he hit 100 RBI’s last year! He’s 8-15 against that pitcher!), and sometimes he makes decisions that are so obviously bad that it makes you wonder how much money Yost has on the other team. Yost’s first head-scratcher, a bizarre double-steal attempt in the 1st freakin’ inning, was one of the former. I suppose you could justify that somehow, even though it made no sense with the guys they had on, and failed in the most predictable way. This is one of the latter; it was almost as if Yost had no clue what to do in the 6th (as the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings are generally spoken for in KC), so he just threw someone out at random. When Ventura grooved one into the bottom of the strike zone – right in Moss’s wheelhouse, by the way – it was no surprise that he immediately belted it right out of there.
All told, it was 7-3 after that inning, and it seemed like the Royals were cooked. Making up 4-run deficits is not something they can do; they’re all about small ball, scoring a run or two every couple of innings, and don’t have a single player with the sort of bases-clearing power that usually sparks such comebacks. Alas, they wound up doing it the Royals way; bloop singles, stolen bases, bunts that made zero sense, and just enough help on the A’s defense to get by. Despite having a runner on 3rd in a game-ending situation for multiple innings in a row, the Royals could not close things out, and when the A’s inevitably scored to make it 8-7, again it looked like KC was toast. Hosmer belted a triple – he never belts triples – and even that had its share of bizarreness, with the Oakland outfielders crashing into each other in a way that’s sure to make Sportscenter’s “Not Top Ten” later this week. Fuld got up and tossed it in, limiting Hosmer to “only” a triple. This brought the infield in, allowing Colon to hit an infield single, allowing Hosmer to tie the game. If Hosmer hit the ball a few more feet for a home run, or if Fuld hadn’t gotten up so quick – that’s a groundout. Colon scored the winning run a few minutes later. The triple, as it turned out, was better than a home run.
How Colon scored that run was also an odd moment of fate. Alex Gordon fouled out, and as this point everybody and their mother knew that Colon was going to try to steal a base. Bob Melvin certainly knew it, and even guessed the exact pitch, ordering a pitch out. Melvin was, to put it bluntly, absolutely sure of what Yost was going to do there. And you know what happened next. The pitch popped out of the catcher’s glove, Colon got to 2nd, and the most hopeless hitter in the entire KC lineup in Salvador Perez laced the ball right past Donaldson’s glove. Ballgame.
There’s an odd beauty to the way KC won this game. Look at those last two plays. In one instance, 3 bases was better than 4; in the other, getting outsmarted worked out anyway (Colon does not steal much – if not for the pitch-out-drop, they may have gotten him anyway). Baseball is real funny like that sometimes. There’s a life lesson in there. Sometimes things work out better when they don’t work out. Sometimes the stupid decisions inadvertently lead you down the right path. I am reminded of the first time I spoke to my wife; a chance encounter that happened only because this woman, a straight-A student who never skipped a class in her life, decided to skip a class in order to enjoy what was likely the last nice day of Wisconsin weather.
I don’t think the Royals are going far. Most likely, the Angels will crush them. But I’ll be shocked if there’s another game more memorable than this one during this postseason. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not all about Yost. I’m confused with Bob Melvin’s handling of his pitchers as well, not to mention pinch hitting Nick freakin’ Punto over Adam Dunn, who will now finish has career with the dubious distinction of having played over 2000 games without ever appearing in the postseason. But try as they might, if you ain’t from Kansas City or Milwaukee, you will never know the true meaning of getting Yosted.