Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Royals Today: World Series, Game 1.

Well, that sucked.

Salvador Perez, amazingly enough, came through again after I dared him to find me, hitting a home run angled directly at us into the left field bullpen; another twenty feet of distance and I might have an incredible souvenir. Unfortunately, that was literally the only positive thing that happened tonight. James Shields was, let’s be blunt, terrible, and he was terrible from the first batter. For the third time in four playoff starts, he surrendered a first-inning home run.

The Royals came back when he allowed a solo homer to Mike Trout, and they came back – barely – when he allowed a two-run homer to Brandon Moss. But they couldn’t come back when he allowed a two-run homer to Hunter Pence after allowing an RBI double to Pablo Sandoval, even after Giants’ third base coach Tim Flannery gifted him an out by foolishly sending Buster Posey home from first base. Shields faced 16 batters in total, and allowed seven hits, including two doubles and a home run. He struck out one batter. He threw just 39 of 70 pitches for strikes. There’s nothing good you can take from his performance.

Shields took the crowd out of the game in the first inning, and Madison Bumgarner refused to let them back in. They had their shot in the third inning, getting men on second and third with none out, but Bumgarner struck out Alcides Escobar and Nori Aoki. Ever since Perez struck out against Luke Gregerson in the Wild Card game, the Royals have been terrific about making contact with a man on third base and less than two out, which has led to more than one crucial run. When neither Escobar nor Aoki – Aoki being the best contact hitter on the team – could put a ball in play with the Giants playing the infield back, you knew we were in trouble. After Lorenzo Cain worked a tough walk, Eric Hosmer did what you knew he would do and swung out of his shoes at the first pitch – and when Bumgarner changed speeds on him, the result was a soft grounder to second base and the end of the Royals last, best chance to come back.

There’s not much to analyze here. The game lacked drama, which means it lacked any key managerial decisions. You could argue that Ned Yost should have pinch-hit for his lefty bats against sidearming Javier Lopez in the eighth inning, subbing Jayson Nix for Mike Moustakas and Josh Willingham for Nori Aoki. My friend Joe Sheehan certainly did. If the Royals had been down by two runs, or even four runs, I’d feel more adamantly that Yost made a mistake. But the Royals were so far down that, in order to finish off a six-run comeback, those lineup spots would have come up again, and the Royals would be locked into Nix against a right-handed reliever of Bochy’s choosing. Having Willingham in the game wouldn’t be such a disaster, but Aoki has hit LHP better than RHP throughout his career. I see Joe’s point, and he’s probably right, but…I just can’t get too upset about it. This game wasn’t decided by the managers; it was decided by the players. Madison Bumgarner pitched like an ace; James Shields pitched like a guy who was about to cost himself a fair amount of money in free agency.

The silver lining from Shields’ start was that it forced the Royals to use Danny Duffy in a game, and after a rough start – not surprising for a guy who had pitched once in over three weeks and came in with men on base – he was very effective, getting a lot of swinging strikes from Giants hitters in the fifth and sixth. After the sixth inning, he had thrown 50 pitches, and I thought it was time to pull him, because having established that he was effective, and with the Giants having six left-handed bats in their lineup, having two effective left-handed relievers in Duffy and Finnegan would be a huge asset going forward. They needed to pull Duffy there so that he could realistically pitch on two days’ rest in Game 3.

Instead Yost let him start the seventh, although after nine pitches, a walk, and some terrible defense by Aoki that turned a single or double into a triple, he was gone. That’s the one mistake I think Yost should own. The only reason to stretch Duffy there was if you were legitimately thinking that he should start later in the series. And I know a ton of people wanted him to take Shields’ next start after Shields threw up his fourth mediocre to bad start in a row. But…seriously, people, that was never going to happen. You really think that, in his last start in a Royals uniform, Shields was going to have the ball taken away from him? Short of an injury, that just seems impossible. Yost said as much after the game, making it clear that Shields was still his Game 5 starter.

Which is fine, if Shields is on a really tight leash in that game. But if that’s the case, if Duffy isn’t going to start later in this series, then you need him to be available out of the bullpen as soon as possible. Letting him throw extra pitches there, when you had six other relievers who hadn’t pitched in five days and an off-day looming on Thursday, was silly.

The good news is that the Royals lost the Giants’ best pitcher, which could have happened under any circumstances. If the Royals had lost 2-1, it wouldn’t have been as deflating, but it would have been just as damaging to their World Series chances. Tomorrow they face Jake Peavy, who was dominant for the Giants but had a 4.72 ERA with the Red Sox – back when he pitched in the AL – before getting traded at the deadline. In Game 3 they get Tim Hudson, with a 3.57 ERA; in Game 4 they get Ryan Vogelsong, with a 4.00 ERA. If they win tomorrow, they’ll be fine.

But they have to win tomorrow. Let’s not forget – Yordano Ventura left his last start with shoulder tightness, and while he’s had ten days to rest, that’s not something you can just wave away. It’s the World Series. The Royals are down 1-0, and they’re about to start a pitcher who pulled himself from his last start. In Nick Kenney We Trust, but that would make me nervous under the best of circumstances. In a game that would put the Royals in a 2-0 hole if they lose, with three games in San Francisco to come…that makes me borderline terrified.

Let’s not make too much of this. Three weeks after the Royals were six outs from being eliminated, they are 81 outs from being eliminated. As appealing as the dream of going 12-0 was, it was just a dream. There’s nothing wrong with losing a game after winning eight in a row. They just need to win four of their next six, which doesn’t seem like a terribly tall order. But if 24 hours from now they need to win four of their next five…now we’re in trouble.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

World Series Preview.

If this postseason hasn’t convinced you of the folly of trying to predict the outcome of a short series, nothing will. The Royals and Giants, both wild-card entrants who won fewer than 90 games during the season, are a combined 16-2. The Nationals and Angels, who had the best record in their respective leagues, went a combined 1-6. There are national sportswriters – their identities are kept secret to protect the guilty – who have picked the wrong team in all six playoff series so far. Meanwhile, counting the Wild Card game I’m 3-0, thanks to a prediction strategy that boils down to three words: Royals Uber Alles.

So just remember: anything can happen. The Royals could finish off the perfect postseason with a sweep of the Giants, finish the playoffs 12-0 and cement their claim as the greatest postseason team of all time. They could finish off the perfect reprise of the 2007 Rockies and get swept by the Giants. Anything is possible. Everything is in play.

That caveat aside, intellectually, I think you have to favor the Royals, for one simple reason: the American League is better than the National League. (This is where the Rocktober comparison falls apart. Thankfully. The AL went 163-137 against the NL this year, a .543 winning percentage that works out to an 88-74 record. That’s the 11th straight season the AL had a winning record against the NL, and the tenth straight season in which the AL had a winning percentage of at least .520.

So basically, the average AL team would be an 88-74 team in the NL. The Giants finished 88-74. You do the math. (The Royals, mind you, went 15-5 against the NL this season.)

Of course, an intellectual approach is what led so many people to pick the Angels and Orioles. So who the hell knows. But here are what I think are the keys to the series for Kansas City:

1) They have to score runs. This might seem obvious, but after winning Games 3 and 4 of the ALCS with a total of four runs and one extra-base hit, it might be tempting to think that the Royals can win four World Series games by the score of 2-1 or 1-0 or maybe by mixing it up with a 3-2 score. And hey, anything is possible. But let’s keep in mind that in the process of going 8-0 in the playoffs, the Royals have scored 42 runs. (Granted, they’ve played almost nine games given all the extra innings they’ve played.) While they won two games by scoring just two runs, they’ve also won three games by scoring eight or more runs – after they had scored eight or more runs just twice since the end of June.

I don’t really care how they score their runs. They’ve shown this month that they’re capable of scoring runs with the long ball, with speed, and with contact and situational hitting. But by hook or by crook, they need to score four or five runs most nights if they want to win. Even including the playoffs, they are just 20-30 when they score two or three runs, but 24-12 when they score four or five. Offense goes down slightly in October, but just slightly. The Royals have the bullpen and the defense to keep games from getting out of hand, but if they don’t score runs, they may be on the losing end of the 2-1 and 3-2 games instead.

2) They have to beat Madison Bumgarner. At least once. The Royals have been fortunate in that their opponents in both the ALDS and ALCS lacked a true ace; the Angels were missing Garrett Richards, and the Orioles’ rotation was notable for its depth more than its star quality. But Bumgarner is the best starting pitcher they’ve faced since Jon Lester, and they’ll probably face him twice. Yes, they beat Lester, and yes, this postseason has been notable for how little impact ace starters have had, from Clayton Kershaw to Adam Wainwright to the Nationals’ entire rotation. (Not to mention James Shields.) But Bumgarner has been the exception to that rule. He threw a complete-game shutout in the Giants’ Wild Card victory over the Pirates, a game as lacking in drama as the Royals’ game was defined by it. In three starts against the Nationals and Cardinals he threw 23 innings with a 1.99 ERA.

The Royals don’t have to beat him twice, but they have to beat him once. If they do, then they just have to win three of five games against Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson, and Ryan Vogelsong, which seems doable. (This assumes the Giants don’t start Bumgarner on three days’ rest in Games 4 and 7, which seems unlikely, and don’t start Yusmeiro Petit instead of Vogelsong, which is a little less unlikely.) Bumgarner will square off against Shields tonight and probably again in Game 5, and the good news – at least after the fact – is that Shields had been battling kidney stones for the past two weeks, which he has finally passed. No one is blaming his poor performance in his last couple of starts on his kidney stones directly, but you have to hope there’s a correlation, and you have to help that a healthy Shields will be up to the task tonight.

If he’s not, then Game 2 becomes a virtual must-win for the Royals, because if they lose the first two games at home, history says it’s almost impossible for them to come back. I mean, no team had ever won a best-of-seven series after losing the first two games at home until the 1985 Roy…okay, never mind. But still: the last thing the Royals want to do is put themselves in a 2-0 hole. Beat Bumgarner tonight, and they won’t have to worry about that, and they’ll put the Giants on the defensive.

3) The bullpen has to remain close to perfect. It’s easy to assume that a bullpen as good as the Royals is automatic, but it takes just one bad inning to ruin a perfect streak. Given how tight the games are that the Royals have played, and how narrow their margins of victory, it’s not simply one bad inning but one bad pitch. I keep waiting for the HR/FB ratio for Wade Davis and/or Kelvin Herrera to move off of 0.00, and so far it hasn’t happened. Sometimes the season ends before regression arrives, and the Royals are almost there, but the World Series is the time of year when things happen that haven’t happened all season.

It’s not just Davis and Herrera: since the very first batter faced by a Royals reliever in the postseason – Brandon Moss against Yordano Ventura – homered, the bullpen hasn’t allowed a homer in 34.2 innings. It seems unlikely that will continue for much longer. But it doesn’t have to continue much longer. Just seven more games, if that.

4) The outfield defense must conquer AT&T Park. The Royals swept the Giants earlier this year at Kauffman Stadium, which was a very good thing. But it’s almost too bad that the series was in Kansas City instead of San Francisco, because while the Giants’ outfielders are familiar with the K, the Royals’ outfielders aren’t really familiar with AT&T, with its unique dimensions and outfield fences that jut in and out at odd angles.

Nori Aoki, at least, played there a few times when he was with the Brewers, which is good because he plays right field, where AT&T Park seems to have most of its idiosyncrasies. It’s a spacious ballpark, which gives the Royals’ outfielders the space to work their magic. But between the wind and the weird caroms off the walls, you have to worry about potential outs turning into doubles and doubles becoming triples.

The Giants and their opponents combined to hit 32 triples when playing away from AT&T Park, and 58 in San Francisco. Last year, they hit 20 triples away from AT&T Park, and 40 in San Francisco. AT&T Park is the rare ballpark that’s even more favorable for hitting triples than Kauffman Stadium. The Royals have the speed on offense to take advantage of a crazy bounce. If their outfield defense can prevent the Giants from doing the same, they’re going to have an edge there.

5) Ned Yost must continue to manage like October Ned Yost. After putting on a clinic in the ALCS – or at the very least not looking like he was overmatched by Buck Showalter – Yost is matched up against Bruce Bochy, who isn’t quite in Showalter’s class tactically but has two world championships to his name and has won eight consecutive playoff series (nine if you count the Wild Card game). The Giants’ bullpen isn’t quite in the same class as the Royals, but Bochy knows how to work it.

So long as Yost continues to manage with the same sense of urgency that he did in the last round, he should be fine. I see no reason why he would stop – it’s not like the stakes have gotten any lower, and he received a ton of positive reinforcement for his work in that series – both in terms of positive press and in terms of actual victories. The main danger remains that he sticks with Shields or Ventura too long. Given the preponderance of left-handed bats in the Giants’ lineup, there’s also a danger that he gets stuck on the wrong side of too many platoon situations.

But the thing about having three dominant relievers is that Herrera, Davis, and Holland are going to pitch the seventh, eighth, and ninth no matter who is batting. And given how effective they are, that’s absolutely the right thing to do. That frees Yost up to play matchup ball with Jason Frasor and Brandon Finnegan (and Danny Duffy, should he so choose) in the middle innings. The way this bullpen is set up, it’s hard to imagine a situation where Yost gets caught flat-footed with the wrong reliever on the mound. There just aren’t many wrong relievers on the roster to begin with. As it is, Yost only used nine pitchers in the entire ALCS – neither Duffy nor Tim Collins got into a game. Short of an extra-inning games, it’s quite possible that he won’t need to use more than nine pitchers in this series either – and if he does, well, Duffy was the Royals’ best starter this season, and Collins has no platoon split, making him an acceptable option in a pinch (which is presumably how he’d be used) against both left-handed and right-handed batters.

So I’m pretty confident that Yost won’t screw this up, both because he’s shown an ability to adapt and because he almost can’t screw this up. But confidence is one thing, and seeing it play out in reality is another. I’m already nervous that Yost is giving away a small edge by replacing Christian Colon on the roster with Jayson Nix, for no apparent reason. Andy McCullough points out that Nix is the better defender, which may be true, but it’s only marginally so, and at this moment I think Colon’s offensive edge trumps that.

It wouldn’t matter so much in an earlier round; Colon played all of one inning in the ALCS and didn’t bat at all. But with three games in NL parks, every bench player counts – and because of the need to pinch-hit for your pitchers, it is much more likely that Nix’s roster spot will find itself in a key spot at the plate than in a key spot in the field. Nix may never have to play defense at all – it’s not like Yost is going to bench anyone in his starting lineup, so the only chance for him to play defense is if Yost pinch-runs for Infante or Moustakas late. But he’s almost certain to bat when the Royals are in San Francisco, perhaps in all three games. Yost will probably be reluctant to use Erik Kratz to bat because he doesn’t want to be down to his last catcher, and I’d rather see Jason Vargas (.262/.297/.311 lifetime) bat than Terrance Gore, so Nix would be no worse than the fourth pinch-hit option, after Billy Butler, Josh Willingham, and Jarrod Dyson. And Dyson might be burned up as a pinch-runner/defensive replacement for Nori Aoki, making it quite likely that Nix will be called upon to hit.

This is a problem. Colon is a better hitter, and he fits the Royals’ style of play better – he makes very good contact, and he can bunt. Maybe Nix will come through with a hit when called upon. But consider that, if he does, it will be his first hit ever in a Royals uniform.

6) Salvador Perez has to stop being a cipher offensively. Perez ended a brutal performance in the Wild Card game – 0-for-5, two strikeouts – with the biggest hit of the season. Since then, he’s 3-for-28 with one walk and no extra-base hits. This has to stop.

I’m looking for it to stop tonight. Bumgarner is a left-hander, and while Perez hit worse against southpaws this year, for his career he’s a .307/.349/.503 hitter against LHP. I’m sitting with my brother in the left field bleachers, Section 105, Row B. The last time I sat in the left field bleachers for a Royals game, it was Father’s Day at U.S. Cellular Field, and before the game on Twitter I basically begged a Royals hitter to hit one in my direction. Perez’s homer landed one row and eight seats away. I’m doing my part tonight. It’s time he does his.

Look, do you want analysis, or do you want magic? These are the 2014 Royals, my friends. They defy analysis. But they bring plenty of magic.

Royals in six.

Monday, October 20, 2014


People ask me, “how does it feel that the Royals are in the World Series?” and I don’t know what to tell them.

I don’t know what to tell them because none of this feels entirely real. That moment 23 days ago when the Royals clinched a playoff spot in Chicago – that felt real, because that was the moment that I’ve been dreaming about for decades. The moment when the Royals were relevant. The moment when they played games that mattered. That was really all that I wanted. That was all I felt like I had the right to ask for.

And then 20 days ago they played a game that mattered more than the 4,500 games before it combined, and I was there for it, and it exceeded my every expectation – both as a game and as a victory. I had gotten my wish. The Royals had won a game that mattered, in front of a packed home crowd and a national audience. Everything beyond that point was just an epilogue.

Except the epilogue has been the real story, and everything before it was just the prologue. I apologize for the melodramatic and Shawshank-ian reference, but I almost feel like someone who was unjustly imprisoned for 29 years, dreaming of freedom the whole time, and then the moment came when I was released and overnight I became a cause celebre, a celebrity, and everyone’s asking how it feels to be famous, and all I ever wanted was my freedom. (You’re right. That’s a horrible analogy.) I don’t know how to process any of this. I imagine many of you are feeling the same way. Those of you who live in Kansas City, at least, get the experience of working through this delirious joy with an entire metropolitan area of fans feeling the same way. Out here in the hinterlands, I have to work through these feelings alone.

Well, at least until tomorrow, when I arrive back in Kansas City for Games 1 and 2 OF THE FREAKING WORLD SERIES. Then I can celebrate with all of you. I can hardly wait.

With all the insanity around us, it’s been nearly impossible to find time to write this column. Apparently the World Series is kind of a big deal. Just finding tickets for these games – not just for myself but for my brother, who’s flying down for Game 1, and my wife, who’s flying down for Game 2 – took up more time than it usually takes me to write a column. It’s hard to turn on MLB Network without running into a story on the Royals. It’s hard to go an hour without someone tweeting a new article about the Royals onto my time. It’s crazy. It’s glorious. It’s exhausting.

I have a longer piece on the emotional aspects of watching the Royals in the World Series slated to be published at Grantland tomorrow. For now, all I can do is try to maintain some level of normalcy, and analyze the Royals on the field like I always do.

The Royals finished off the sweep of the Orioles even as their offense reverted to the offense we saw all season: two runs in Game 3 on seven singles and walk, two runs in Game 4 on four singles, a double, and…okay, five walks, plus a key hit-by-pitch and an even more key error. The Royals won both games despite going 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position, and despite not hitting any homers. Any team can go homerless and hitless with runners in scoring position for two games, and it says a lot about how this team is built that they won both games anyway. I’ve seen a lot of teams that were better than the 2014 Royals, but I haven’t seen many better at winning when they had no margin for error. The Royals have beat their playoff opponents eight straight times because they don’t beat themselves.

And in the ALCS, finally, their manager was as mistake-free as the team was. I said before the series that if Ned Yost continued to make the incremental improvements he had made since mid-September, the manager mismatch between him and Buck Showalter might not materialize. But even I wasn’t optimistic enough to predict what happened, which is that Yost not only held his own, but by the end of the series he might have been pushing buttons with greater accuracy than Showalter did. I already talked about how Yost probably left James Shields and Yordano Ventura in too long in Games 1 and 2, although once he went to the bullpen he handled his relievers with the urgency that the situation demanded.

But in Games 3 and 4, perhaps because Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas don’t carry the gravitas of Shields or the blazing fastball of Ventura, Yost went to the whip at the perfect times. He pulled Jeremy Guthrie after five innings and 94 pitches in Game 3, even though Guthrie had retired the last four hitters and nine of the last ten. With the heart of the Orioles lineup coming up for the third time – Adam Jones, Nelson Cruz, and Steve Pearce – Yost turned to Jason Frasor, who took the opportunity to prove once again that he is better than Aaron Crow.

Maybe you can quibble that Yost should have gone straight to Kelvin Herrera for two innings, the same thing he did in Game 1, but because of the rainout prior to Game 3, the Royals were looking at potentially playing five days in a row, so I think it was completely reasonable to try to limit Herrera to one inning. You could quibble that Herrera should have pitched the sixth and Frasor should have faced inferior hitters in the seventh, but that level of manipulation is almost never seen among managers, and frankly I’m not sure the advantage is large enough to risk taking a reliever out of his usual role. And Yost said afterwards that if Frasor had gotten into a jam, Herrera would have come into the game in the sixth inning.

He didn’t have to, though, because Frasor pitched a perfect sixth. Herrera pitched a perfect seventh, Davis a perfect eighth, and Holland a perfect ninth, making it the first time in postseason history that four pitchers each threw at least one inning without allowing any baserunners. And in the other dugout, Buck Showalter let Wei-Yin Chen face three batters in the sixth inning. Aoki singled to lead off the inning, and Eric Hosmer’s single with one out moved pinch-runner Jarrod Dyson to third base. Showalter probably wanted to let Chen face Aoki and Hosmer because they’re both left-handed hitters, but Aoki is the rare left-handed bat who has hit left-handed pitching better than right-handed pitching in his career.

Showalter then pulled Chen in favor of Kevin Gausman, but as the Royals have done all postseason (at least since Salvador Perez struck out against Luke Gregerson in the Wild Card game), they put the ball in play with a runner on third and one out. Billy Butler was able to elevate a ball to the outfield, Dyson scored the go-ahead run, and the Royals won.

In Game 4, Yost stuck with Vargas to start the sixth inning, in part because left-handed hitting Nick Markakis was due to bat second. Vargas walked Jonathan Schoop to start the inning – no easy feat – but struck out Markakis, and was pulled immediately. Guthrie faced 20 batters in his start, Vargas 19 – meaning that the two starters combined to face just three batters total for a third time in the game. Herrera came in and got five outs, then Davis did his thing, Holland did his thing, and the Royals were headed to the World Series.

The Royals scored their two runs in Game 4 in the first inning, after Lorenzo Cain became the first #3 hitter to sacrifice bunt in the first inning of a playoff game since Steve Garvey in 1984. As much as I have hated certain bunts this season – you may remember this – I didn’t hate this bunt. It came with men on first and second and none out, which is the situation in which the bunt provides the most benefit. Cain didn’t have the platoon advantage, and with the shadows between the plate and the mound, hitting at that particular moment was a difficult task. And most importantly, the on-deck hitter was in a good position to avoid striking out. Hosmer was on deck, and he struck out just 93 times during the season. The pitcher on the mound, Miguel Gonzalez, was not a strikeout pitcher. Hosmer would have the platoon advantage. The odds that he would strike out with a runner on third base and one out were quite low. He didn’t strike out, Alcides Escobar kicked the throw from Steve Pearce out of the catcher’s glove, and the Royals scored two runs.

Now compare that to Nori Aoki’s bunt in the first inning on September 20th against the Tigers. Aoki bunted with a runner on second only, negating the advantage of moving two runners up a base instead of one. Aoki, like Cain in Game 4, was the hottest hitter in the lineup – the hottest in baseball at the time, honestly – but unlike Cain he also had the platoon advantage. He bunted Escobar to third base for one out, allowing the Royals to score without benefit of a base hit – but the next batter, Josh Willingham, doesn’t make great contact. Willingham had more strikeouts (102) than Hosmer (93) this year despite playing in just 92 games. He hit .215, where Hosmer hit .270. He didn’t have the platoon advantage. And he was facing Max Scherzer, one of the best strikeout pitchers in the game.

Two sacrifice bunts, two wildly different risk-benefit ratios, and two wildly different outcomes. Willingham struck out. Hosmer made contact, and the result was a play which really defined how the Royals have found success on offense all year. Put the ball in play. Run like hell. Get a little lucky. (And I should point out that just like Aoki, Cain was bunting on his own. And just as I ripped Yost for giving Aoki the authority to put such a silly bunt down, I'm going to credit him for letting Cain drop a bunt in a sensible situation.)

One well-managed series doesn’t make Ned Yost a great manager. But you know what? Dick Howser wasn’t considered a great manager when the 1985 postseason dawned. He might not have been a great manager even after the 1985 postseason. But he outfoxed Bobby Cox at the perfect time in the ALCS, and in the World Series (after nearly destroying everything by sticking with Charlie Leibrandt too long in Game 2) he was calm and resolute as the Royals made their amazing comeback in Game 6. Howser tragically never got the chance to prove his mettle again, one way or the other. We’ll never know if he was truly a great manager. What we do know was that, in October 1985, he was the right manager. That’s why he’s in the Royals’ Hall of Fame. If the Royals win four of their next seven games, Ned Yost will always be remembered as the right manager as well. And not only will he be inducted into the Royals’ Hall of Fame – he’ll deserve it.

I told you none of this feels real.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Halfway To Eden.

Sixteen days ago, I was at U.S. Cellular Park simply hoping – albeit with a good deal of confidence – that the Royals would clinch a spot in the Wild Card game that night, a spot which still put them four tiers away from a world championship, a spot equivalent to playing in the Sweet Sixteen round of March Madness.

Twelve days ago, I was at Kauffman Stadium simply hoping – with almost no confidence whatsoever – that the Royals could overcome a four-run deficit with six outs to go. Somehow surviving that game was all that my mind was capable of processing at that moment.

Today, anything short of winning the World Series would be a disappointment. Failing to reach the World Series would be almost devastating. With great success comes great expectations. I can almost see how 15 years of constant playoff appearances could turn someone into an insufferable Cardinals fan. Almost.

But if expectations have been raised, so has the payoff. For the better part of two decades, when someone would ask me how I’d react if the Royals won the World Series, I didn’t know how to fathom the question. I think it was Joe Posnanski who once framed a similar question as analogous to asking “how do you wash a unicorn?” I was having enough trouble comprehending how I’d react to a humble playoff spot.

And yet here the Royals are, with six wins in the postseason and just six wins away from a championship, just two wins away from playing in baseball’s marquis event. Mathematically speaking, the odds that a team that wins the first two games of a best-of-seven series will go on to win the series is 81.25%. The Royals’ odds are probably higher than that, because they won the first two games on the road, and only need to win two of three in Kansas City to keep the series from even going back to Baltimore. In LCS history, 11 teams have won the first two games on the road in a best-of-seven, and all 11 won the series. Of course, that perfect correlation does not hold up in the World Series – that was taken care of by the 1985 Royals. (And later by the 1986 Mets and 1996 Yankees.) The Royals are in a good place right now. But nothing is guaranteed.

They’re in this place because they continue to work late-inning magic at a scale never before seen in the postseason. They are the first team in major league history to win four postseason games in extra innings, and they accomplished that feat by Game 1 of the ALCS. They’ve won all six of their playoff games so far – something only the 1970 Orioles, 1976 Reds, and 2007 Rockies had accomplished – despite entering the ninth inning trailing as often as they were leading (once each). They’ve scored the winning runs in the ninth inning once, the tenth inning once, the eleventh inning twice, and the twelfth inning once.

From the ninth inning on, the Royals have outscored their opponents 12 to 2 in the postseason. From the eighth inning on, it’s 15 to 3, and the run the Royals allowed in the eighth inning came in the clincher against the Angels when they were leading 8-2.

Averaging two runs a game after the eighth inning is a trait that is utterly unsustainable. It is also a trait that, when accomplished over a six-game stretch in the postseason, can profoundly and permanently change the narrative of an entire franchise. The Royals were six outs away from being an afterthought to these playoffs. They are now the greatest story in sports, and this has been the greatest two weeks in my life as a sports fan.

So yeah, it would be a disappointment if they don’t go all the way. But only because I now know that they have a legitimate chance to be the greatest sports story I’ll have the privilege to witness in my lifetime.

The way they beat the Orioles in the first two games was by beating the Orioles at their own game. While the Orioles had more steals (2) than the Royals (1) in Games 1 and 2, the Royals out-homered Baltimore, 4-1. As I talked about last time, this was both the key to the Royals’ success, and not nearly as improbable as it would have seemed from the team’s respective home run totals during the season. Granted, no one was calling an Alcides Escobar shot, but Alex Gordon’s home run off of Darren O’Day was about as unsurprising as a home run can be. And while in a vacuum a guy with Mike Moustakas’ regular season numbers unloading for four homers in six playoff games would be a massive upset, an examination of his track record would suggest that the real upset is how poorly he has hit over the past two regular seasons.

I’m not going to tell you that six playoff games means that Moustakas, at age 26, after hitting .212/.271/.361 during the season, after hitting .233/.284/.364 last season, has finally and instantaneously figured out how to hit. But I am going to say that it wouldn’t shock me at all if he has. Gordon hit .232/.324/.378 in 2009 and .215/.315/.355 in 2010 – when offensive levels were higher – before breaking out with a .303/.376/.502 campaign in 2011, when he was 27 years old. Like Gordon, Moustakas was the #2 overall pick in the draft. Like Gordon, he was a top prospect in the minors, albeit not the top prospect. Like Gordon, he showed promise in his first two seasons in the majors, albeit not quite as much promise.

Like Gordon, Moustakas was thought of so highly because he was a very gifted player. Like Gordon, he struggled to make adjustments at the major league level. Gordon finally figured things out after revamping his swing with Kevin Seitzer over the off-season. Moustakas hasn’t done that, but he has attempted to change his approach at the plate during the season, which might be even more difficult. He had more opposite-field hits in the last six weeks of the season (9) than he had all year to that point (8). While his four home runs in the playoffs have all been pulled, most of the balls he’s put in play this month have been hit to the opposite field. Teams are still shifting against him, but it’s no longer clear that it’s hurting him the way it has all season.

As Fangraphs pointed out, Moustakas’ struggles this year really came down to him getting absolutely killed by the shift, as his BABIP was a mere .220, the third year in a row that his BABIP had dropped (.296 to .274 to .257 to .220). Some of that is bad luck, and some of that may be an inability to adjust – but Moustakas finally started to show an ability to adjust late in the year. Maybe parking four balls in the seats in a five-game stretch – the first time in his entire career he’s hit four homers in a five-game stretch - is a side benefit to hitting to all fields, or maybe it’s just another glorious fluke. But it’s enough to make me think that, even at age 26, we can’t conclude that he’s a bust. By happy coincidence, this stretch all but guarantees that he’ll get an extended opportunity next season to prove that he isn’t one.

Ned Yost was far from perfect in Games 1 and 2, making the one mistake I was most afraid he would make, sticking with a struggling starting pitcher for too long. Neither James Shields nor Yordano Ventura were on their game – Ventura, in particular, had diminished velocity and erratic command from the beginning of the game – and yet both were left out there even when they got into a jam in the middle innings. Shields gave up singles to the first two hitters he faced in the fifth inning, but because he was in line for a win, and because the rules state that a starting pitcher must complete five innings to qualify for a win, there was little doubt that Yost would stick with him. Shields gave up an RBI double with one out, and with two outs and the bases loaded, gave up a two-run single that nearly erased what had been a four-run lead.

The next night, Ventura pitched the fifth inning, and gave up back-to-back singles with one out to put the tying run at third base; when the Royals couldn’t turn a double play on Nelson Cruz – in part because Omar Infante’s lame shoulder kept him from putting much mustard on the relay throw to first base – the Orioles tied the game. Ventura was then allowed to pitch the sixth inning, and while he retired the first two batters – thanks to some typical outfield wizardry from Lorenzo Cain – he pulled himself from the game after feeling tightness in his shoulder.

Keeping Ventura in the game hurt the Royals less in terms of its impact on the game, but it might be the more indefensible error of the two, because it was so clear from watching the game that Ventura was laboring all afternoon. The Royals seem not at all concerned about his shoulder, and given their training staff’s track record, they have earned the benefit of the doubt. But it’s still something that could have been avoided.

But in Yost’s defense, those are about the only mistakes he’s made. He replaced Shields with Brandon Finnegan and Finnegan immediately allowed the tying run to score on a walk, a hard-hit single, a potential pickoff play that turned into a double steal when Escobar’s throw hit Jonathan Schoop in the back, and a fluke pop-up single that landed in no-man’s land behind the mound. With the go-ahead runs aboard, Yost summoned Kelvin Herrera, who himself had come out of a game mid-batter just a week ago, and Herrera got a pair of groundouts, including a huge GIDP that kept the game tied. Yost then brought Herrera out for a second inning and he breezed through it. Wade Davis pitched the eighth, and after retiring the Orioles on just seven pitches, Davis was asked to pitch the ninth as well, after the Royals had squandered their own bases loaded, none out situation, and Davis struck out the 2-3-4 hitters in the Orioles’ lineup on 11 pitches, one of the most devastating and important innings thrown by any pitcher this season. Davis was rewarded with the win when the Royals put up a three-spot in the tenth inning.

Herrera had been asked to get six outs in a game just three times this year, the last time on July 22nd. Davis had been asked to get six outs in a game just three times this year, the last time on May 29th. They had never been asked to get six outs in the same game. But with the opening game of the ALCS on the line, with four days of rest coming in, with an off-day looming two days ahead, Yost adapted to the circumstances. That’s all we’ve been asking him to do all season. It’s as if all the mistakes and frustrations he’s given us for all these years were designed so that he would be ready for this moment. He was, and Herrera and Davis responded by keeping the game tied until the Royals could mount their rally.

Yost was able to get an inning out of both Herrera and Davis in Game 2, and with Danny Duffy warming in the pen in the ninth, the Royals mounted another rally that activated Greg Holland instead. Omar Infante beat out an infield single on a swinging bunt – that’s about the best he can offer us these days, and we’ll take it – and Yost weaponized Terrance Gore. He then had Moustakas bunt, which seems sub-optimal given Gore’s speed, but remember, this is exactly how he played it in the Wild Card game. With a left-handed closer on the mound, Yost decided that even with Dyson or Gore at first base, it was better to bunt them to second and then let them try to steal third, because while left-handed pitchers have a significant advantage holding runners at first base (since they’re staring right at them), they are at a slight disadvantage when it comes to holding runners at third base because their back is turned.

Gore didn’t get a chance to steal third, however, because on the first pitch, Escobar grounded a ball inside the first base line for an RBI double. However, Gore’s speed still might have contributed to this play, because with second baseman Schoop having to play close to the bag to keep Gore’s lead honest, first baseman Steve Pearce was forced to play farther off the line. Pearce might not have gotten to that ball regardless, but it’s certainly something you have to take into consideration on the play. Dyson then used his speed to induce an error by third baseman Ryan Flaherty on his groundball, and then Cain – the MVP of this series so far – roped a single into left field for an insurance run.

And now the Royals come home, and while they have to rely on Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas in Games 3 and 4, the Orioles also have to turn to their third and fourth starters, which means the Royals will get to see Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez. Chen has very good command but is hittable, allowing 193 hits and 23 homers in 186 innings this year; Gonzalez had a 3.23 ERA but a 4.89 FIP, as his peripheral numbers (25 homers, 51 walks, 111 Ks in 159 innings) simply aren’t that impressive. The Orioles might have a slight edge in the Game 3 matchup, but the Royals have at least a slight edge in Game 4. And while they adapted just fine to playing in Camden Yards, the Royals should have the edge from playing at Kauffman Stadium, given how reliant the Orioles are on homers to power their offense, and given that Guthrie and Vargas are both susceptible to the long ball.

And if the Royals should lose both games, well, they’ll basically be where they were when this series started – tied up, with the Orioles holding home-field advantage. But if they so much as split the next two games, they’ll be a win away from the World Series, with three cracks at it.

I’m not taking anything for granted, and if you’ve been a Royals fan for longer than about three months, you know not to take anything for granted either. But I hope it’s not hubris to say that I feel pretty good about our chances. And that I feel better about being a Royals fan than I have in 29 years. Truthfully, I wasn't sure I would ever feel as good about being a Royals fan as I do right now.

Friday, October 10, 2014

ALCS Preview.

I’m not going to do a full-length series preview, because variance swamps everything in a best-of-seven series, and because cold hard analysis left the building with the 2014 Royals long ago. But here are, I think, the key things to watch out for in this series.

- The Managers. The obvious matchup, and the matchup that everyone is talking about, to the point where I wonder if people are overrating the impact that the managers will have. Or at least they’re overrating the advantage that the Orioles have with Buck Showalter over Ned Yost.

I think I’ve established my bonafides when it comes to Yost criticism already, so I hope you’ll understand that I’m not trying to be an apologist when I say: the managers may not matter. They might, and if they do I’m more willing to bet that Showalter outfoxes Yost than the opposite. But it’s also possible that Yost, at this point in his career, and at this point in the season, might be able to cover up his tactical weaknesses enough to keep him from costing the Royals a game.

First off, it’s important to note that not every strategic decision that Yost makes is flawed. Sabermetric orthodoxy asserts that the intentional walk is rarely a useful tactic, and Yost called for just 14 intentional walks all season, the fewest of any manager in baseball. Despite Yost’s reputation for bunts, and despite that awful game against the Tigers where Nori Aoki was bunting runners to third base for Josh Willingham to drive them in, the Royals sacrificed just 33 times all year, barely above the AL average of 30 and fewer than the Orioles’ total of 35.

And while two of the four bunts that Yost called for in the Wild Card game didn’t lead to a run, and another one didn’t lead to a run that wouldn’t have scored anyway, the ninth-inning bunt, chased by a stolen base and then a deep fly out, turned a leadoff bloop single from Josh Willingham into the tying run.

It’s possible that Yost will get bunt-happy again, and if so it might cost the Royals. But that isn’t one of my primary fears with his managerial decisions in this series. My first fear is that he will once again deploy his bullpen in a sub-optimal fashion, or at least he will do so relative to Showalter. The Orioles’ version of Wade Davis is Andrew Miller, who wasn’t quite as dominant all season (at least in terms of ERA; his peripherals are similar), but has the advantage of being left-handed. Twice in a three-game ALDS, Showalter brought Miller into the game in the sixth inning, and let him record five outs each time. I’d be surprised if Davis were asked to get five outs in a game in this series, and I’d be stunned if he were asked to pitch in the sixth.

But here, the Royals’ bullpen depth – particularly if, as it appears, Kelvin Herrera is healthy – makes it difficult for Yost to screw this up too bad. No, he won’t use Davis in the sixth inning, and it’s possible a situation will arise in the sixth inning where the game is on the line and you’d like your best reliever in there. But if not Davis, Yost might go to Herrera in the sixth, something he didn’t do all regular season, but has finally opened himself up to in the last few weeks. And if not Herrera, he now has Brandon Finnegan as a legitimate shutdown option. Danny Duffy combines power stuff with the ability to go multiple innings. Jason Frasor and Tim Collins aren’t guys you want in there with the game on the line, but as they showed in the ALDS, they can give you a shutout inning when you don’t have any margin for error. There isn’t a reliever on the roster that presents a truly bad matchup against hitters from either side of the plate – it’s not like Yost could wind up with Francisley Bueno pitching against a right-handed hitter. And with a full rotation required for this series, the possibility of another Ventura Surprise are slim to none, at least until Games 6 and 7.

My primary concern with Yost’s handling of the bullpen is simply when he’ll deploy it: if he sticks with a laboring Shields or Ventura, or even a non-laboring Guthrie or Vargas in the sixth inning, with a fresh bullpen at his disposal, he could be making a crucial mistake. The next time Nori Aoki tries to catch a ball with his eyes half-closed and his face smashing into a wall, it might not work out.

My other concern – and, at least early in the series, my bigger concern – is that Yost will continue to deploy the running game aggressively, which means deploying the running game recklessly when your opponent is the Orioles. Tonight’s starter, Chris Tillman, has allowed two stolen bases in the last two seasons – while nailing 11 runners foolish enough to try to steal. (Here’s a good article looking at why Tillman is so tough to run on.) And while Tillman’s personal catcher, Nick Hundley, isn’t a particularly strong-armed catcher – Tillman clearly doesn’t need one – the likely starting catcher in the other games is rookie Caleb Joseph, who threw out 40% of attempted basestealers, a rate which led the American League.

I’m not saying that the Royals should never run. I’m just saying that stealing bases involves risk, and there’s comes a point where the risk is so high that attempting to steal a base is more likely to hurt the team than help them. This doesn’t mean that Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore can’t be huge late-inning weapons – Tillman is unlikely to be pitching in the ninth, and their relievers can be run on. But it means that Yost has to remember that discretion is the better part of valor. Billy Butler has a stolen base already this postseason; let’s not get greedy now.

I’m very happy to see that, after some initial hinting that the Royals might add a pitcher to their roster, or that Jason Vargas might start Game 2 because he’s been better on the road this year (even though he was significantly worse on the road for his entire career before 2014), that Yost made the common sense decisions in the end. The 25-man roster is the same as it was in the ALDS. I’m not saying another pitcher might have come in handy in an emergency, but if – as you and I and the Royals clearly believe – Gore is now indispensible, there simply isn’t any hitter on the roster you can afford to part with. Without Willingham available to come off the bench against the A’s left-handed closer in the ninth, they might not have tied the game. And like the A’s with Sean Doolittle, the Orioles employ a left-handed closer in Zach Britton. Willingham is a must. Good on Yost and the Royals for recognizing that.

And Ventura will start Game 2, which is important because that means he also starts Game 6 – the one Royals starter scheduled to pitch twice in Baltimore. Given that Camden Yards is a good home run park (although not a good offensive park overall – Kauffman Stadium actually increases overall run scoring more than Camden Yards), and given that Ventura’s home run rate is significantly better than that of Guthrie, Vargas, or even Shields, this is the right move to make.

Yost has shown with his personnel decisions for this series that he’s capable of making the right decisions. As long as he can avoid making any crucial wrong decisions in this series, the manager mismatch that everyone is expecting may not come to fruition.

- Power. Because the Orioles can do a better job of shutting down the running game than the A’s or Angels did, and because four of the potential seven games come at Camden Yards, the Royals are going to be hard-pressed to win simply with speed. And because the Orioles are one of the better defensive teams in baseball, the Royals will be hard-pressed to win simply by putting the ball in play, the way they’ve won so many games this year. (An underrated key to victory in the Wild Card game was the number of groundball singles that got by Jed Lowrie, the A’s shortstop, who is a below-average defender.)

So if the Royals are going to win this series, they need to hit the long ball. This seems a much more doable task than it did a week ago. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas both hit two homers in three games against the Angels. Butler (.318/.371/.561) and Alex Gordon (.294/.345/.578) have both historically hit very well at Camden Yards. My pick on 810 WHB for the Royals’ MVP in this series was Hosmer, and if his sudden breakout is for real he’s certainly as good a pick as any. But if you asked me today who it will be, and I might say Gordon. Gordon, not Hosmer, has hit a ball onto Eutaw Street. Gordon is a flyball hitter, and flyballs do well in this park. Anyway, Gordon is a streaky hitter, and while he finished the season on a cold streak (.187/.330/.253 from September 5th until the end of the season), his hot streaks carried the team at times this season.

The Royals may have finished dead last in the majors with 95 homers this season, but between Hosmer, Moustakas, Gordon, Butler, and Salvador Perez, they have five hitters with the kind of tweener power that might play up very well at Camden Yards. They’re going to need a few of them to break out the whoopin’ stick this series, because you know the Orioles will, Camden Yards or not. (The Orioles hit more home runs just on the road – 104 – than the Royals did anywhere.)

- Bullpens. The Royals have arguably the best late-inning bullpen in baseball, so they should have the advantage in any matchup. But their advantage in this series is decided slim. Miller had a 2.02 ERA, but in 62 innings this year allowed just 33 hits, 15 unintentional walks, and three homers, while striking out 103 batters. Wade Davis led all AL pitchers (min: 40 IP) with a 1.19 FIP, but Miller’s 1.51 FIP was second.

Darren O’Day allowed just 42 hits and 15 unintentional walks in 69 innings, while whiffing 73 batters; the sidearmer was his usual terrifying self against right-handed batters, who hit .164/.250/.247 against him. Zach Britton, in his first season as a reliever, allowed 46 hits and 23 walks in 76 innings; his fastball is widely considered to be one of the heaviest in baseball. Even in the minor leagues his fastball was legendary for its sinking action, which was particularly unusual for a left-hander.

The Royals probably have an advantage when you get to the fourth and fifth relievers in each team’s pen, depending on whether you think Finnegan is really as good as he’s been so far. But this isn’t a mismatch. The thinking against the Angels was that if the Royals could just keep the games close after six innings, they’d have the advantage, and that’s exactly how it played out. If a game is tied after six innings in this series, any advantage the Royals will have is decidedly small.

If the Royals want to win this series, they’d best get out to an early lead in some of these games. Fortunately, the Orioles’ rotation, while deep, isn’t star-studded – there are no Madison Bumgarners or Adam Wainwrights here. The Royals’ best philosophy is to go for power in the first six innings against a rotation that is hittable – all four projected Orioles starters in this series gave up at least 20 homers this year – and save the speed and other cute stuff for the late innings, when a stingy bullpen makes playing for one run a more defensible option.

- Finally, a prediction. Look, it’s hard to get away from the fact that analytically, most of the factors tilt slightly towards the Orioles. They had the better record this year, obviously, but more than that, their strengths tend to neutralize the Royals’ strengths. Showalter and the Orioles place a high priority on shutting down their opponents’ running game, putting a damper on the Royals’ greatest strength. Their above-average defense neutralizes some of the advantage the Royals have from striking out less than every other team. They have home field advantage, and their park fits their team as well as the Royals’ home park fits theirs.

The Royals do have some points in their favor, namely that they’re going into this series at full strength, whereas the Orioles won 96 games in part because of Matt Wieters and Manny Machado and even Chris Davis, all of whom are out for this series. That hurts them particularly on defense, which will be important if Steve Pearce or Ryan Flaherty misplays a groundball at some point. But an analytical approach to breaking down this series would favor the Orioles, and it’s no surprise that most analysts are picking them to win.

But as for me, well, I threw out analysis a while ago when predicting what this team was going to do. I picked the Royals to beat the Angels, who I thought they matched up well with, but I also picked the Royals to beat the A’s and Jon Lester, who I thought they didn’t. The Orioles may have a huge edge in power, but the Royals have a huge edge in #DevilMagic. The Orioles have Showalter; we have Sung Woo. I expect a series as close as the ALDS was not, but in the end I’m riding this unicorn as far as she will take me. Royals in seven.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

A Look Back: 1985, Part Two.

Continued from yesterday...

The Royals would soon need him [Brett] even more. In the ALCS, they faced off against the Toronto Blue Jays, who won 99 games en route to their first-ever playoff appearance. The Blue Jays won game 1, 6-1, and in game 2, after the Royals scored the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning, the Jays rallied for two runs off closer Dan Quisenberry in the bottom of the inning to win, 6-5. At that point, the Royals had lost ten playoff games in a row, dating back to the 1980 World Series. Game 3 was a must win.

Brett responded with the greatest single-game performance in Royals history.

In the first inning, Brett homered to give the Royals a 1-0 lead.

In the third inning, Brett made an astounding defensive play. With Damaso Garcia on third base and one out, Lloyd Moseby sliced the ball down the third base line. Brett somehow snared the ball, then found the perfect angle to home plate, throwing around Garcia to nail him trying to score.

In the fourth inning, Brett led off with a double, then scored on two flyouts.

The Blue Jays scored five runs in the top of the fifth inning, and led 5-3 in the bottom of the sixth. After Wilson singled, Brett homered to tie the game.

In the bullpen, backup catcher Jamie Quirk piped up. “We’re in the driver’s seat now,” he said. “George has one more at-bat.” In the bottom of the eighth, Brett led off with a single. With two outs, Steve Balboni singed him home. The Royals won, 6-5.

Four at-bats, four hits, two home runs, one run-saving defensive play, in a must-win playoff game that his team won by a single run. George Brett, ladies and gentlemen. George Brett.

In Game 4, the Royals held a 1-0 lead until the ninth inning, but the Blue Jays scored three in the ninth off of Leibrandt and Dan Quisenberry, giving Toronto a 3-1 series lead. Now, they were all must-win games, and the Royals needed some new heroes.

In Game 5, that hero was Danny Jackson, who stepped up with a complete-game shutout. But the Royals still needed to win Games 6 and 7, both in Toronto. This time, their hero was manager Dick Howser.

The Royals had a problem: Quisenberry, the best closer in the league for the previous five years, was a submarine pitcher who was vulnerable to left-handed hitters. The Blue Jays platooned at several positions, and so they always had left-handed hitters at their disposal. Al Oliver, in particular, tortured Quisenberry – Oliver hit the walk-off single in Game 1 and the go-ahead two-run double in the ninth inning of Game 4.

The Blue Jays’ manager – some nobody named Bobby Cox – aggressively pinch-hit to obtain the platoon advantage whenever it presented itself, but within his aggression lay his weakness, and Howser pounced on it. Howser tabbed Gubicza to start Game 6, a curious decision given that Gubicza had not started in the series, and the Blue Jays had hit right-handed pitching better than left-handers all season. But it got Cox to put all his left-handed hitters in the lineup, and the trap was set.

The Royals took a 5-2 lead into the bottom of the sixth – the go-ahead run came on a home run from Brett, naturally. After Gubicza allowed a single and a walk, Howser called on left-hander Buddy Black – his Game 2 starter – to pitch to Oliver. The gambit worked; Cox pinch-hit for Oliver with right-handed hitter Cliff Johnson. Johnson singled to score a run, but Black got out of the inning without further damage. Left-handed hitters Rance Mulliniks and Ernie Whitt would be subbed out for right-handed hitters Garth Iorg and Cecil Fielder later in the game.

With the Blue Jays’ bench depleted, Quisenberry could pitch to right-handed hitters with impunity. With two outs in the ninth and the winning run at the plate, Quisenberry relieved Black to pitch to Iorg, who struck out to end the game.

Saberhagen started Game 7, and in the first inning he took a comebacker off his hand, which forced him out of the game after just three innings. Howser took advantage, bringing in Leibrandt, who had started Games 1 and 4. For the second straight game, Howser used a left-handed starter as a relief weapon, and lured Cox into pulling his left-handed bats. Once again, the ambush worked: Mulliniks and Oliver were pulled in favor of Iorg and Cliff Johnson in the fifth inning. After five innings, the Jays trailed 2-1, and Cox had already used up his bullets.

It would hardly matter, not after Jim Sundberg batted with two outs and the bases loaded in the top of the seventh, and got a flyball to right field up into the wind, leading to a bases-clearing triple that gave Kansas City a 6-1 lead. In the ninth, Quisenberry came in to quell a modest Blue Jays rally, and got a pair of groundouts to send the Royals to the World Series.

Bobby Cox will go into the Hall of Fame one day [Editor's note: Done!]. Dick Howser, who would tragically die of brain cancer less than two years after his greatest triumph, will not. But for one series, the latter got the better of the former.

If the Royals were underdogs in the ALCS, they were so lightly regarded in the World Series that they might as well have been given a #16 seed. The St. Louis Cardinals won 101 games in 1985. They led the NL in runs scored, and were second in fewest runs allowed. They stole 314 bases, the most by any NL team in the last 100 years. They were unbeatable. It didn’t help that the series would be played without the designated hitter, meaning Hal McRae, the greatest DH in history to that point, was reduced to being a pinch-hitter for the duration of the series. (The rule would be changed after the season to its current rule, which allows the DH to be used in AL parks.)

Even without rookie sensation Vince Coleman, who was swallowed up by a runaway tarp and missed the series – no, seriously – the Cardinals certainly looked unbeatable early on. In Game 1, their ace John Tudor (who had a remarkable 1.93 ERA during the regular season) outpitched Danny Jackson to win, 3-1. In Game 2, Charlie Leibrandt was magnificent, holding a 2-0 lead into the ninth inning. After Willie McGee doubled to lead off the ninth, Leibrandt retired the next two batters and was one out away from the shutout.

And then disaster struck. Leibrandt lost it, and Howser, perhaps still worried about Quisenberry’s vulnerabilities, stood idly by. Jack Clark singled home a run. Tito Landrum doubled to put men on second and third. Cesar Cedeno was intentionally walked. Terry Pendleton then cleared the bases with a double, the Cardinals led 4-2, and Quisenberry finally came in to the sounds of shocked silence.

The series moved to St. Louis with the Cardinals holding a commanding lead. No team had ever won a World Series after losing the first two games at home. It was time for some new heroes to emerge.

Bret Saberhagen was up to the task in Game 3, throwing a complete game and allowing just one run. Frank White – the first second baseman since Jackie Robinson to bat cleanup in the World Series - homered, and the Royals won 6-1. But Tudor threw a shutout in Game 4, and for the second straight series, the Royals needed to win three elimination games in a row.

Just as he did in the ALCS against Toronto, Danny Jackson was asked to save the Royals’ season, and once again Jackson was brilliant. The Royals won Game 5, 6-1, and headed home still breathing.

In Game 6, Leibrandt was brilliant again, taking a perfect game into the sixth inning. But Danny Cox pitched in and out of trouble all evening, and the game was scoreless into the eighth. With two outs and two on in the top of the eighth, Cardinals’ manager Whitey Herzog pinch-hit for Cox with Brian Harper, and Harper delivered with a single to give St. Louis a 1-0 lead. Leibrandt and the Royals were headed for more heartbreak. The score held up going into the bottom of the ninth. The Cardinals had not lost a game they led after eight innings all season long.

This is where we pause for Cardinals fans to light this program on fire.

You may have heard about what happened next. Jorge Orta pinch-hit to lead off the bottom of the ninth against Todd Worrell, the Cardinals’ flame-throwing closer who was so inexperienced that he would win Rookie of the Year honors the following season. Orta bounced a groundball to the right side. First baseman Jack Clark came off the bag, fielded the ball, and threw over to Worrell, who stepped on the bag a split second before Orta.

Don Denkinger, the first-base umpire, extended the safe sign. He has not been welcome in St. Louis since.

We will not pretend that Denkinger’s mistake had no impact on the outcome of the series. We will not be so presumptuous as to assume that the Royals would have won Game 6 even if Orta had correctly been called out. But neither will we concede that Denkinger’s mistake singlehandedly flipped the series to Kansas City.

Don Denkinger did not cause Clark and catcher Darrell Porter to get crossed up when the next batter, Steve Balboni, hit a foul pop-up that dropped between them. Denkinger did not then surrender a single to Balboni. After a failed sacrifice bunt led to the first out, Denkinger did not allow the passed ball that allowed the runners to move up to second and third. He did not intentionally walk Hal McRae to load the bases. And he most certainly did not allow Dane Iorg, who 27 years later should still never have to pay for a meal in Kansas City, to bloop a single to right field, plating the tying and winning runs and triggering bedlam.

Years later, Whitey Herzog would say that the only time in his career that he felt he didn’t have his team ready to play was Game 7 of the 1985 World Series. They took the field like dead men walking, and it showed. Tudor, who was brilliant in Games 1 and 4, had nothing; he was knocked out of the game in the third inning, having allowed five runs. In the dugout, Tudor punched a fan – the electric kind, not the kind having a blast in the stands – and lacerated his hand.

The Royals iced the game with six runs in the fifth inning. Joaquin Andujar, the Cardinals’ right-hander who was mercurial in the best of times, began arguing balls and strikes with the home plate umpire – by the sheerest of coincidence, it was Don Denkinger – and was ejected from the game before he could commit assault-and-battery. When Whitey Herzog came out to protest, he told Denkinger, “We wouldn’t even be here if you hadn’t missed the bleeping call last night,” only he didn’t say “bleeping”. Herzog was thrown out as well.

The Royals led, 11-0, and the coronation began even before Bret Saberhagen finished off the shutout, even before the final flyball settled into right fielder Darryl Motley’s glove, even before the Kansas City Royals, in their 17th season and on their seventh playoff try, were crowned world champions.

Six times, the Royals took the field for a playoff game knowing that a loss meant their season was over. Six times, they won. As Brett would say years later, “That was a team that got pushed right up against the wall, and somehow, the wall moved.”

In the history of baseball, no team had ever won six elimination games in the playoffs before. And despite the expansion of the playoffs to a three-round format, no team has done it since.

The point of playing a championship season is to crown a champion, and style points are not awarded. The 1985 Royals were champions, and their unlikely road to the top only makes that championship sweeter. They weren’t the best team in Royals history. They were simply the greatest.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Look Back: 1985, Part One.

When the Royals hosted the All-Star Game in 2012, at the behest of my friends at 810 WHB I wrote a look back at the 1985 season for their All-Star Game program which was distributed throughout the city. With the Royals back in the playoffs for the first time since then, I thought this would be a good time to share that article with you here. This is the first half of that article.

Here’s the thing about the 1985 Royals, the only Kansas City team to win a World Series: they weren’t the best team in Royals history. Not even close.

The 1977 Royals won 102 games, the most in the majors, and seemed to be able to steamroll opponents at will – at one point in September, they won 24 of 25 games. In 1980, George Brett hit .390, Willie Wilson stroked 230 hits and stole 79 bases, and the Royals led the division by 20 games at the end of August before engaging the cruise control.

The 1985 Royals? That team won 91 games, tied for the fifth-highest total in franchise history. They had one elite hitter in their entire lineup, which might explain why they ranked next-to-last in the American League in runs scored. Their rotation was so wet behind the ears that three of their five starters couldn’t legally rent a car.

They weren’t the best team the Royals ever had. They probably weren’t the best team in the majors that season. They just happened to win the final game of the season.

And that’s why we love them so much. Guys like Buddy Biancalana and Darryl Motley, Pat Sheridan and Onix Concepcion accomplished something that eluded Amos Otis and John Mayberry and Darrell Porter: win a championship in Kansas City.

For most of that season, it looked like the story of the 1985 Royals was going to be the death of a dynasty. After winning 90 games five times in six years from 1975 to 1980, the franchise had gone stale. They had a losing record in 1981, and after winning 90 games and narrowly missing the playoffs in 1982, the Royals were stung by the scandalous cocaine trials of 1983. Four Royals, including Willie Wilson, spent time in jail, and missed the first six weeks of the 1984 season. The Royals squeaked back into the playoffs that year, winning the AL West with an 84-78 record, but they were swept by the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS.

When the Royals sputtered into the All-Star Break in 1985, they were 44-42, and this time a .500 record wasn’t going to keep them in contention – they were 7.5 games out of first place. It had been a great run, the pundits said, but the glory days in Kansas City were over.

Rumors of their demise were premature. The Royals won 11 of their first 13 games to open the second half, closing to within two games of the California Angels. They still couldn’t hit, but they could pitch, thanks to a trio of young starters who were blossoming in their second season in the majors.

Mark Gubicza, the Royals’ second-round pick in the 1981 draft, made their rotation out of spring training in 1984, at the age of 21, and posted a solid 4.05 ERA in 29 starts. He replicated his efforts in 1985, making 28 starts and fashioning a 4.06 ERA, and would go on to make two All-Star teams and finish third in the league in the Cy Young vote later in the decade, before his shoulder gave out in 1990.

Left-hander Danny Jackson, the #1 pick in the now-defunct January draft in 1982, got a cup of coffee in the majors in 1983, and spent half the 1984 season with the Royals, fashioning a 4.26 ERA. Jackson made the 1985 rotation out of spring training, and began the year with 18 shutout innings. He would finish with a 3.42 ERA in 208 innings, and he allowed just seven home runs, the best ratio in the AL. After solid seasons in 1986 and 1987, Jackson was traded to the Reds, and in 1988 he won 23 games and finished second to Orel Hershiser on the Cy Young ballot.

The real prize among the Royals’ young guns was Bret Saberhagen, perhaps the greatest scouting find in the team’s history. Saberhagen’s prowess on the mound was so little-regarded in high school that he was drafted in the 19th round – as a shortstop. But after just a single season in the minor leagues, Saberhagen was deemed ready for his closeup, making the Royals’ roster out of spring training in 1984. He made his major-league debut a week before his 20th birthday; he is still the youngest player ever to wear a Royals uniform. Used as a swingman as a rookie, Saberhagen had an excellent 3.48 ERA, and even earned a start in the ALCS against the Tigers.

Saberhagen arrived in camp in 1985 throwing harder and better than ever, and he got better as the season went on. He was 7-4 with a 3.23 ERA through the end of June, and from that point on Saberhagen won 13 of 15 decisions with a 2.60 ERA. He finished the season with 20 wins, a 2.87 ERA, gave up the fewest baserunners per inning in the league – and won the Cy Young Award. Arm injuries probably cost Saberhagen a Hall of Fame career; he holds the all-time record for days spent on the disabled list. But even so, he won a second Cy Young Award with the Royals four years later, and won 167 games in his career.

But the biggest surprise in the 1984 Royals’ rotation was a retread left-hander named Charlie Leibrandt. Leibrandt had pitched – poorly – for the Cincinnati Reds from 1979 to 1982, but in the summer of 1983 was languishing in the minors when the Royals traded for him, sending Bob Tufts to Cincinnati in exchange. (Tufts would never pitch in the majors after the trade.) Leibrandt began the 1984 season in the minors, but after going 7-1 with a 1.24 ERA in his first nine starts, was promoted to Kansas City, and went 11-7 with a 3.63 ERA the rest of the way. In 1985, Leibrandt – not Saberhagen – led the Royals with a 2.69 ERA, and he would remain effective through the early 1990s, serving as the veteran mentor for the great Atlanta Braves rotations in 1991 and 1992.

Rarely in the annals of baseball history has a team turned over 80% of its rotation, or graduated three pitchers to the major leagues who would each win over 100 games in their careers. The 1984 Royals did both. The 1985 Royals reaped the rewards.

After Kansas City closed the gap on first place, the Royals and Angels engaged in an epic dogfight the rest of the season – from August 12th on, the teams were never separated by more than three games in the standings. From September 19th until October 2nd, the teams were never more than a single game apart.

The Royals entered the final week of the season one game behind California, and hosted the Angels for four games with the division on the line. The Angels had a talented, veteran team, one that would win the division the following year. But the Royals had George Brett.

Brett may not be the greatest player of all time, or even the greatest third baseman of his era, depending on how you feel about Mike Schmidt. But when Brett got hot, he could carry a team on his back like few players in the history of the game. In the final week of the season, George Brett got hot.

On Monday, Brett homered in the 4th to tie the game at 1, then hit a sacrifice fly in the 8th as the Royals won, 3-1.

On Tuesday, Brett had an RBI single and a walk, but it wasn’t enough, as the Angels won, 4-2.

On Wednesday, the Royals knew if they lost, they’d be two games behind with four games left. Brett hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the first to take the pressure off. He added a double and a single for good measure. The Royals won, 4-0.

On Thursday, Brett walked in the 1st and scored on Frank White’s home run. He added a homer of his own in the 5th inning. The Royals won, 4-1.

On Friday, the Oakland A’s came to town. Brett singled in a run in the 4th to give the Royals a 3-0 lead. In the 7th inning, after Oakland had closed to within 3-2, Brett led off the inning with a home run. The Royals won, 4-2. The Angels lost in Texas, and the Royals had a two-game lead with two games left.

On Saturday, the A’s had a 4-0 lead heading to the bottom of the sixth, and the Angels were winning in Texas. Brett hit a two-run homer to cut the lead in half. In the seventh, Brett walked and scored as part of a two-run rally to tie the game. Willie Wilson hit a walk-off single in the tenth inning, and the Royals were AL West Champions.

On Sunday, George Brett rested.

In six games, with the season on the line, the Royals won five times – and Brett homered in each one. He hit .450 in those six games, and drove in 11 runs. He was at his best when the Royals needed him the most.

To be concluded tomorrow.