Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Legacy Of The 2014 Royals, Part 1.

It still hurts. I suspect it will always hurt, at least a little. There will always be a scar on my baseball psyche, with Madison Bumgarner’s name tattooed over it.

But every day it hurts a little less. I’m actually kind of surprised at how quickly the way October ended has been superseded in my mind by how it began, and by everything in the middle.

For a few days, I couldn’t help but play what-if scenarios in my mind over and over again; I’d find myself daydreaming in the middle of seeing patients, imagining what would have happened if Gordon had gone for home, or if Gore had pinch-ran and stolen home, or – above all – if I had witnessed Salvador Perez crush a Bumgarner pitch that caught too much of the plate deep into the left field night. I guess the only thing I can compare it to is being 13 years old again and daydreaming that the unattainably gorgeous girl in class suddenly took a shine to me, or needed help with her math homework, or even knew that I existed. I was pining for a reality which could never be.

(Oh, stop it. Like you were never 13 years old once.)

But eventually Game 7 stitched itself into the tapestry of my memory, as if it were something that not only was in the past but had always been in the past, as if I had never experienced it in the present. I’m fond of the Shakespearean line that “what’s past is prologue”, and eventually I stopped thinking of Game 7 as something which could have turned out differently in a million different ways, and instead as something which was part of the background of my life. The Royals lost the World Series in 2014 just like they lost the World Series in 1980, when I was five years old, and I’ve never been broken up about losing the 1980 World Series because it was a historical fact as far back as I can remember. Royals fans of the future will learn about the 2014 Royals and they won’t be distraught over the fact that they lost the World Series. They will, however, take immense pride in the fact that their Royals came damn near close to winning it.

The sinking in of that fact is one of the things which, over time, made it easier to accept the way it ended: that while the Royals didn’t win the World Series, they basically came as close as any team can come to winning the World Series without actually blowing it. If they had come any closer to winning, their failure to win would have been their fault. What made the 1986 Red Sox and 2011 Rangers torment their fans is that their failure to win was ultimately the fault of the team, their inability to hold on to a two-run lead with three outs to go (in the Rangers’ case, twice.)

But the Royals didn’t blow a lead in Game 7. They never held a lead in a game which could have eliminated the Giants. They were tied for the better part of three innings, and then they trailed by a single run for six innings, and their bullpen kept it a one-run game for six innings, but they simply couldn’t find a way to come back, mostly because they ran into arguably the greatest single season postseason pitching performance of all time. Bumgarner threw 52.2 innings in the playoffs – the most of any pitcher ever – and allowed seven runs. One was unearned; he had a 1.03 ERA. Against the Royals, he allowed one run in 21 innings. In a situation in which one run would tie Game 7 of the World Series, he threw five shutout innings on two days’ rest.

You can convert the credit for Bumgarner into blame on the Royals if you want, but in the 40 innings not pitched by Bumgarner in the series, the Royals scored 26 runs. Giants pitchers not named Bumgarner had a 5.85 ERA. The Royals didn’t wilt under the pressure and get swept in the World Series; they didn’t choke away a lead when a world championship was in sight. They didn’t lose to a team that had no business beating them. They took the Giants to seven games, and the game ended with the winning run at the plate, and they only lost because the one transcendent player in the Series pitched for the other team. They won three of the four games in which Bumgarner didn’t pitch the majority of the innings for the Giants. There is no shame in that. As Bill Simmons wrote to me after the game, “I thought it was the most noble baseball loss I can remember.” If you’re going to lose the World Series, I can think of no better way to lose than that.

Here’s another way to frame the season we just witnessed: Imagine that you could pick any team in the history of major league baseball to root for, but with the caveat that they could not have won the world championship. Would you pick the 2014 Royals?

If you could pick from any team of all time, you probably wouldn’t; the 1951 Giants remain the gold standard in this category. In an era when the World Series was the entire postseason, the Giants nevertheless played a best-of-three series to decide the pennant when they finished tied with the Dodgers for first place in the NL. And the Giants had two historic comebacks – the first from being 13 games behind the Dodgers on the morning August 12th (they went 37-7 from that point to catch the Dodgers), and the second from being three runs down in the bottom of the ninth inning in the third and decisive game of the NL tiebreaker. Yes, there’s a little bit of New York paternalism (a.k.a. East Coast Bias) in the fact that Bobby Thomson’s homer is still known as the Shot Heard ‘Round The World, or that the date October 3rd, 1951 still resonates today. But just a little bit. It’s hard to imagine a more fun season that didn’t end with a world championship than the one the 1951 Giants had.

But since then? I think these are our requirements:

1) The team must have lost in the World Series. It’s hard to qualify your season an all-time great among non-world champions if you didn’t even win the pennant. This eliminates, for instance, the 2001 Seattle Mariners, or the 1983 “Winning Ugly” White Sox.

2) Your team must not have been a historically great regular-season team, or at least a team that was highly favored in the World Series. An all-time great season can’t end with your team being upset in the playoffs. There has to be some aspect of the just-happy-to-have-made-it-this-far narrative. This eliminates the 1954 Cleveland Indians, and in my opinion the 1995 Cleveland Indians (one of my favorite teams ever) as well.

3) Your team can not have recently won a World Series, as the near-miss season would pale in comparison no matter how great it was. Otherwise, given all the non-baseball stuff going on, the 2001 New York Yankees would be tough to beat.

So here are our contenders:

1) The 1959 White Sox. After finishing in third place for five straight years from 1952 to 1956, and in second place behind the Yankees in 1957 and 1958, they finally won the pennant for the first time since the Black Sox of 1919. They had an identity – the “Go-Go Sox” – that still holds up to this day, leading the league with 113 steals, 56 of them by Luis Aparicio – Mickey Mantle, who finished second in the league, had just 21 steals. (Aparicio had more steals by himself than every other team besides the Red Sox.) The 113 steals were the most by any team in the majors in ten years, since the 1949 Dodgers. (This is an aside, but 1950s baseball was like a sabermetric dream – lots of walks and homers, very few steals. It might have been the percentage way to play, but it was probably kind of boring. The Go-Go Sox heralded a new era; in the 1960s, 17 teams would have more steals in a season than any team in the 1950s had.)

But they lost the World Series in six games, and worse, they lost to a Dodgers team that went 88-68. True, there were fewer games in the season then, but think about that: in an era before divisions, no team in the NL won more than 88 games that year. (The Dodgers actually went 86-68, but then won both games of a best-of-three tiebreaker with the Milwaukee Braves.) That had to hurt.

2) The 1961 Reds. Won the pennant for the first time since 1940. Finished under .500 the previous three years. Bill James once described this team – I’m paraphrasing – as the only team in the history of baseball where a GM looked at his team in the off-season, identified the bad players, and then replaced every single one of them with good players before the next season.

Points are docked for the lack of drama – they moved into first place for good on August 16th and won the NL by four games. They then got beaten up pretty good by the 1961 Yankees, who between the numbers 109 (the number of games they won) and 61 (the number of homers that Roger Maris hit) were the story of that season.

3) The 1965 Twins. The Twins had finished under .500 in 1964 (they had won 91 games each in 1962 and 1963), and this was their first playoff berth since moving to Minnesota (the franchise hadn’t been to the World Series since 1933). The home team won each of the first six games of the World Series, but for Game 7, the Dodgers started Sandy Koufax on two days’ rest, and Koufax threw a three-hit shutout to beat the Twins, 2-0.

That sounds familiar.

The Twins have an excellent case, but get docked for the fact that while the franchise was long-suffering, the city itself had not – it was just their fifth season in Minnesota. Also, they had precious little drama during the season – they held a lead of at least seven games for the entirety of the last three weeks of the season – and the World Series itself didn’t add a lot of drama. None of the games were one-run affairs, in no game was the winning run scored after the sixth inning, and in just one game was the winning run scored after the fourth inning.

4) The 1967 Boston Red Sox. The Impossible Dream. The Red Sox hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1946, and were coming off eight losing seasons in a row, but they had in place one of the youngest lineups in the game. In a wild four-team race for the pennant, the Red Sox were never more than 1.5 games out of first place nor more than 1.5 games ahead at any point from August 20th on. From September 2nd until the end of the month, the Red Sox were tied for first place eight times without ever leading the league outright. With two days left in the season, they were a game behind the Twins and tied with the Tigers, with the White Sox a game behind them. They beat the Twins on September 30th, 6-4; Detroit was rained out. On October 1st, the final day of the season, they beat the Twins again, 5-3; the Tigers won the first game of their doubleheader, but lost the second game, 8-5, and the Red Sox were AL champions.

In the midst of all this, Carl Yastrzemski finished one of the greatest seasons of all time – he won the Triple Crown, and finished with 12.4 bWAR, which ranks as the third highest by a hitter ever, behind a pair of Babe Ruth seasons – with one of the greatest stretch runs of all time. In Boston’s final 12 games, Yaz went 23-for-44 (.523) with four doubles, five homers, and 16 RBI. In the next-to-last game against the Twins he went 3-for-4 with a homer; on the final day of the season he went 4-for-4. Joe Posnanski once wrote a tremendous breakdown of Yaz’s final two weeks, which seems to have been lost in the ether; if anyone can track it down I’d appreciate it. (Yastrzemski also hit .400/.540/.840 in the World Series, with three homers.)

They lost the World Series to the Cardinals, who had recently won the World Series in 1964, in seven games. Bob Gibson won Games 1 and 4 for the Cardinals; the Red Sox were down 3 games to 1 but won Game 5 to bring the series home to Boston, then won Game 6 to force a Game 7 at Fenway Park. But the Cardinals could call on Gibson again, and Gibson threw his third complete-game victory of the World Series.

Holy crap that sounds familiar.

5) The 1975 Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox made it back to the playoffs for the first time since 1967, having been in first place the entire second half of the season, then faced the defending three-time world champion Oakland A’s in the ALCS – and swept them handily. They then faced the Cincinnati Reds, who went 108-54 and were The Big Red Machine – and gave the Reds everything they could handle. Carlton Fisk’s walk-off home run in the 12th inning of Game 6 remains one of the 20 greatest moments in baseball history, which is pretty incredible given that his team didn’t win a championship.

The 1975 Red Sox could rank at the very top of this list, but for a couple of things: 1) having already come so close in 1967, a second near-miss in eight years wasn’t nearly as happy as the first was, particularly for a franchise that hadn’t won a championship since 1918. I wonder if 1975 was the point where Red Sox fans started to wonder if their drought wasn’t simply the result of bad owners selling off great players for many years, but started to involve divine providence. That point might have been reached in part because after winning Game 6, the Red Sox had a 3-0 lead after five innings in Game 7, at home, but starter Bill Lee threw an eephus pitch in the sixth inning that Tony Perez hit for a two-run homer, the Reds scored another run in the seventh to tie, and a final run in the ninth on a two-out single by Joe Morgan that gave them the win.

The 1975 Red Sox had a phenomenal year, but the combination of having already come so close just a few years earlier, and having had a three-run lead in Game 7, left a bitter taste in the mouths of their fans that winter.

6) The 1980 Kansas City Royals. I mention them only because of the catharsis that comes, after losing three straight ALCS rounds to the Yankees from 1976 to 1978, with sweeping the Yankees and clinching their first AL pennant, punctuated by George Brett’s titanic home run off Goose Gossage in Game 3.

But they not only lost the World Series to the Phillies in six games, they twice blew late leads that could have changed the course of the series – Dan Quisenberry blew a 4-2 lead in the eighth inning of Game 2, allowing four runs, and with the series tied at two games apiece in game 5, he blew a 3-2 lead in the ninth inning by allowing two runs. I’m too young to remember this series at all, but I have to imagine it was a very bittersweet winter for Royals fans: they finally slayed the Yankees, but man, they really should have won the title.

7) The 1982 Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers had made the postseason for the first time the year before, but had lost in the first round, the very first Division Series necessitated by the strike that season and the bizarre split-season format that was instituted. In 1982, they were 23-24 and in fifth place on June 2nd when manager Buck Rodgers was fired and replaced with Harvey Kuenn. From that point on they became Harvey’s Wallbangers, going 72-43 under Kuenn. With five games left they had a four-game lead on the Baltimore Orioles. But they lost to the Red Sox on Thursday, then lost a doubleheader to the Orioles on Friday and lost again to Baltimore on Saturday, putting them in a tie for the AL East. But late-season acquisition Don Sutton beat fellow future Hall of Famer Jim Palmer on Sunday to clinch the division.

After losing the first two games of the ALCS in Anaheim, the Brewers had to win all three games in Milwaukee – and did so, winning Game 5 by the score of 4-3 after scoring the tying and winning runs in the seventh inning. They were up three games to two on the Cardinals in the World Series, but the Cardinals came home and throttled the Brewers in Game 6, 13-1 (the first baseball game I have a clear memory of watching on TV), and then won Game 7, 6-3.

The near-collapse at the end, winning three elimination games in the ALCS, the sad (if brief) history of the franchise to that point, the iconic nickname…this team rates very, very well. The biggest blemish I can find is simply that the team probably wasn’t the national public’s sweetheart in the World Series the way these Royals were – the Cardinals hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1968 before this season.

8) The 1984 San Diego Padres. It was the Padres’ first-ever playoff berth, and while they won the NL West with minimal drama, winning the division by 12 games, they came back from a 2-0 deficit against the Chicago Cubs in the final best-of-five NLCS before they switched to the current best-of-seven format. That series is generally remembered for the Cubs not winning it, which sort of sums up the plight of the Padres – no one cares about them. And then they went to the World Series and got steamrolled by the 1984 Tigers, one of the greatest teams of their generation.

9) The 1991 Atlanta Braves. The Braves had gone 65-97 the year before, and had finished in dead last in the NL West (yes, there was a time when a team in Atlanta played in the NL West) for three straight years. They were 39-40 and 9.5 games out of first place at the All-Star Break. They went 55-28 from that point on, catching the Dodgers with three games left and then clinching the division in Game 161. They were down 3 games to 2 against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLCS, and had to win Games 6 and 7 on the road. Game 6 was scoreless until the ninth, when catcher Gregg Olson hit a two-out double to drive home Ron Gant. 21-year-old Steve Avery threw eight scoreless innings to outduel Doug Drabek, who had won the Cy Young Award the year before. The Braves scored three runs in the top of the first in Game 7, and John Smoltz threw a six-hit shutout.

The Braves then lost one of the greatest World Series of all time to the Minnesota Twins. Really, the only reason not to rank this team first with a bullet is that the way they lost. Kirby Puckett stole a potential homer in Game 6, then hit the walk-off homer in the bottom of the 11th against Charlie Leibrandt. And then Game 7, when Lonnie Smith lost sight of Terry Pendleton’s double in the gap in the eighth inning, got deked by second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, and held up at third base. And then, with men on second and third and none out, the Braves didn’t score. Ron Gant hit a grounder to first base, and I still don’t know why the Braves didn’t have the contact play on – with a runner at second, even if the go-ahead run gets thrown out at the plate you’ll have a new go-ahead run at third base. Smith held, the Twins intentionally walked David Justice, and Sid Bream – sort of a left-handed-hitting Billy Butler – hit into an inning-ending double play. And then the Braves let Jack Freaking Morris shut them out for 10 innings before the Twins pushed the season-ending run home.

But it was a hell of a year for a young, immensely talented team. No, we didn’t know the Braves would win 14 division titles in 15 years. But we didn’t think we had seen the end of them either.

10) The 1992 Atlanta Braves. Mentioned here only because they beat the Pirates again in the NLCS in the most dramatic fashion possible, with a two-out, bases-loaded pinch-hit single in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 by Francisco Cabrera, driving home the tying and winning runs. Cabrera’s single ranks with Fisk’s homer as the greatest moment in baseball history by a non-champion. But they lost to the Toronto Blue Jays in the World Series in six games. The nation was already starting to tire of them a little.

11) The 1993 Philadelphia Phillies. A team remembered more for its personalities than its talent today, but they were a tremendously enjoyable team at the time. The Phillies hadn’t reached the playoffs in ten years and were coming off six losing seasons in a row. But this team just wore out pitching staffs with their offense – they led the NL with a .351 OBP, and are one of only two teams in major league history to have three players draw 110 or more walks. (The other team was the 1949 Philadelphia A’s.) The Royals have had three players draw 110 or more walks in their entire franchise history.

They then beat the Braves in the NLCS in six games. But they lost to the Blue Jays in the World Series, and did so because aside from emerging ace Curt Schilling, no one on this team could pitch worth a damn. They famously lost Game 4 of the World Series, 15-14, the highest-scoring game in World Series history – the Phillies held a 14-9 lead through seven innings, but Larry Andersen and closer Mitch Williams combined to allow six runs in the eighth. Schilling threw a shutout in Game 5, but Williams was back for Game 6, coming in to protect a 6-5 lead in the bottom of the ninth and instead allowing a leadoff walk, a one-out single, and then Joe Carter’s series-ending walk-off home run.

12) The 1995 Cleveland Indians. I said that they didn’t qualify earlier, but they were just so damn good, man. The first Indians team to make the postseason in 41 years, and they were just a machine – as good offensively as The Big Red Machine 20 years earlier. Carlos Baerga at second base. Omar Vizquel at shortstop. Jim Thome at third base. An outfield of Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, and Albert Belle. Eddie Murray at DH. Add on Sandy Alomar behind the plate and Paul Sorrento at first base, and this is probably the only team aside from the 1975-76 Reds where I can name the entire starting lineup.

Naturally, this was the team that the Braves beat for their only world championship of this generation. Baseball doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

13) The 2005 Houston Astros. Deserve a mention because they finally reached their first World Series, after the near-miss of 1986, and after losing an epic and completely forgotten NLCS against the Cardinals in 2004. This was this year that Albert Pujols sent a pitch into orbit and derailed Brad Lidge’s career with a game-winning homer in Game 4 with the Astros one out from winning the pennant; the next night Roy Oswalt coolly pitched Houston to the World Series anyway.

But they got swept in the World Series by a White Sox team that hadn’t won a title in 88 years. That has a way of overshadowing what the Astros accomplished that year.

14) The 2007 Colorado Rockies. The Rockies were 76-72 on the morning of Sunday, September 16th; they were in fourth place in the NL West; they were 4.5 games out of the wild card, and behind three teams in the wild card race.

And then Rocktober happened. They won 11 games in a row, including a sweep of the Padres, and heading into the final weekend of the season they were 87-72. The Padres were 88-71. The Diamondbacks were 89-70. They were hosting the Diamondbacks, knowing that a sweep guaranteed them a playoff spot.

On Friday night, they lost, eliminating them from the division title. The Padres won, meaning the Rockies were two back with two to play.

On Saturday, the Rockies crushed Arizona 11-1, but the Padres led the Brewers, 3-2 going to the bottom of the ninth, with all-time great closer Trevor Hoffman on the mound. Hoffman struck out Prince Fielder, then allowed a double to Corey Hart, then struck out Laynce Nix. With the Rockies down to their final out from a thousand miles away, the Brewers’ manager – some guy named Ned Yost – called upon a pinch-hitter (NO, SERIOUSLY!). He called upon the son of the greatest San Diego Padre of all time: Tony Gwynn, Jr.

On a 2-2 pitch – with the Padres one strike away from the playoffs – Gwynn tripled to right field to tie game. In the bottom of the 11th, Vinny Rottino hit a walk-off single to win the game for Milwaukee.

On Sunday, the Rockies edged the Diamondbacks, 4-3, in a game that was tied 1-1 after seven innings. The Padres blew an early 3-0 lead and lost to Milwaukee, 11-6, setting up a tiebreaker game in Colorado on Monday.

This being Coors Field, you expected a lot of runs, and both teams delivered. The Padres scored five runs in the third inning, but the Rockies scored in five of the first six innings, and led 6-5 until the Padres tied it with a run in the eighth. And then both teams went scoreless in the ninth, the tenth, the 11th and the 12th. In the 13th inning, Brian Giles led off with a walk, and Scott Hairston hit a two-run homer. Trevor Hoffman once again came out to save a game that would put San Diego in the playoffs.

Kazuo Matsui led off with a double. Troy Tulowitzki doubled him home. Matt Holliday tripled to right field, tying the game and putting the winning run at third with none out. Todd Helton was intentionally walked. Then Jamey Carroll hit a flyball to right field, and Holliday was just in under the tag – it’s still not clear he actually touched home plate, because until 2014 it was somehow totally okay for the catcher to block the plate with his body – to win the game.

Three times the Rockies looked finished – when they had the seventh-best record in the league with two weeks to go, when they were one strike away from watching the Padres clinch in Milwaukee, and when they were two runs down in the 13th inning of the tiebreaker game. They somehow overcame all three obstacles – and once their death sentence was commuted and they started the playoffs on equal footing with every other team, like the 2014 Royals, they just went nuts. They played the Phillies in the NLDS and swept the series. They got a rematch against the Diamondbacks and served their revenge dish cold, sweeping again.

And then they played the Red Sox in the World Series and learned that their National League Rocktober Magic, while cute, was no match for AL superiority. The Rockies not only were swept, they held a lead in the World Series for the grand total of three innings. They held a lead or were tied for the grand total of six innings. It was kind of a beatdown, and it kind of left the impression that the Rockies were a fluke, if not a fraud. And in light of what’s happened to the Rockies since, they probably were both. But man, it was fun while it lasted. The Rockies maybe couldn’t hold their heads up as high as the Royals could when it was over, but their fans probably appreciated just how lucky they were to be there in the first place even more than Royals fans have.

15) The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. Forget a winning season – in the Rays’ first ten years, they hadn’t won more than 70 games in a season. A new administration took over that knew what the hell it was doing, and they had a lot of young talent thanks to all their high draft picks, and they underwent one of the greatest defensive makeover in modern times (B.J. Upton, horrible second baseman, became B.J. Upton, excellent centerfielder; the Rays had traded defensive butcher Delmon Young for shortstop Jason Bartlett; Evan Longoria debuted as a rookie third baseman, and Akinori Iwamura was moved from third base to his natural position of second base.) A team that had gone 66-96 in 2007 went 97-65 and won the AL East, then beat the White Sox in four games in the ALDS before prevailing over the Red Sox in an epic 7-game ALCS. The Rays blew a 7-0 lead in the seventh inning of Game 5 that would have clinched the series, then lost Game 6 at home before winning Game 7, 3-1, with a pre-rookie left-hander named David Price, who had thrown just 14 regular season innings and one inning in the playoffs so far, getting the final four outs to clinch the pennant.

The Rays then lost to the Phillies in five games in the World Series; three of their four losses were by one run.

16) The 2014 Kansas City Royals.

You could rank these teams in any number of ways, but to me there’s a pretty clear first tier, which I’ll do my best to rank here. (Feel free to debate this in the comments.) Remember, the criteria is, “since 1951, the team you would most like to have rooted for even though they didn’t win the World Series.”

1) 1967 Boston Red Sox
2) 1991 Atlanta Braves
3) 2007 Colorado Rockies
4) 2014 Kansas City Royals
5) 1982 Milwaukee Brewers
6) 2008 Tampa Bay Rays
7) 1959 Chicago White Sox
8) 1975 Boston Red Sox

(I go back and forth on whether the 1995 Indians should be on this list, because I just see them as a different kind of team – like the 2001 Mariners, they were such a regular season juggernaut that anything shy of winning the World Series felt like a disappointment. Maybe it’s unfair that I’m penalizing them for being too good – in which case they probably should rank #1.)

Depending on how much weight you want to put on the World Series itself – coming close, but not too close – I could see the 2014 Royals ranking as high as second, and no lower than fifth. I could see the 2007 Rockies first if you don’t put any weight at all on what happens in the World Series – their path to the World Series (Tony Gwynn Jr. knocking his dad’s team out of the playoffs!) was stranger than fiction.

But by any measure, the 2014 Royals were one of the most fun teams to root for among non-championship teams in the last 60 years. They might have been the most fun AL team to root for since the 1967 Boston Red Sox, a team which lives on in memory a half-century later even though they didn’t win it all. I hope that, a half-century from now, these Royals will do the same.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

One Base Away.

Like most of you, I'm not yet in the mood to fully dissect what just happened. But I did write about it the best I could for Grantland, which you can read here.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Game 7.

Game. Seven.

If you’re a baseball fan, there are no sweeter words in the English language. There’s a World Series every year, but a Game 7? In the last 25 years, there have been just five: 1991 (Jack Morris goes ten innings, Lonnie Smith gets deked by Chuck Knoblauch); 1997 (Jose Mesa blows save in ninth, Edgar Renteria hits walk-off single in 12th); 2001 (Mariano Rivera blows the save, Luis Gonzalez hits walk-off single); 2002 (Angels roll over Giants, 4-1, behind John Lackey), and 2011 (Cardinals roll over Rangers, 6-2, behind Chris Carpenter).

And now, 2014. A World Series Game 7 involving the Royals. At Kauffman Stadium.

The last two Game 7s weren’t particularly memorable, but they both followed legendary Game 6s – the Angels came back from a 5-0 deficit in the seventh inning against San Francisco, and the Cardinals were one strike away from losing to the Rangers in the ninth and tenth inning before David Freese hit the walkoff in the 11th. The other three Game 7s all involved a walk-off hit, two of them coming in games where the home team trailed entering the bottom of the ninth.

This has been a great series, but we haven’t had any great games yet. Game 3 is the only game that wasn’t decided by five or more runs, which is pretty incredible when you think about it. But I have a feeling – or maybe it’s just a fear – that Game 7 could make up for all the drama we haven’t seen yet. I’m not sure my heart can take it.

Because if you’re a fan of one of the teams involved, Game Seven is torture. It’s the sweetest kind of torture, maybe, but it’s still torture. Speaking as a Royals fan that just watched all the drama get sucked out of Game 6 by the end of the second inning, let me say: boring is HIGHLY underrated. Give me Game 7 of the 1985 World Series any day.

There’s not much to analyze about Game 6, except to say that it could not have gone better. I mean, I suppose it could have gone better, but I can’t really think of how. The Royals won. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland didn’t so much as stir from their seat in the bullpen until the ninth, when Holland got up and started warming up, threw a few pitches at what appeared to be max effort, and then sat down while Tim Collins was still pitching. It appeared to me that Holland needed to get a little bit of work in just to keep from being too rested – he hadn’t pitched in three days – and waited until he was sure he wouldn’t be needed before getting a couple of pitches in.

The upshot of this is that I see no reason why Herrera, Davis, and Holland can’t each throw two innings tomorrow. Herrera and Davis have already done this in the same game (Game 1 of the ALCS). Holland hasn’t gotten more than three outs – or entered a game prior to the ninth inning – since September 2012. But, again: IT’S GAME SEVEN. They are all fully rested. Before the game begins, you go to them and say: tonight, Kelvin, the fourth and fifth innings are yours. Wade, you pitch the sixth and seventh. Greg, you got the eighth and ninth. That’s six innings from the Triborg, six innings from three pitchers that all had ERAs under 1.50 during the season. Make that the plan, and the rest will figure itself out. If Guthrie is going well, he can pitch three innings – but as we saw in Game 6, if you don’t pull your starter at the first sign of trouble, you could get burned very quickly. I stand by this idea: tell Guthrie he’s facing five batters – he’s pitching through Hunter Pence. Or maybe seven batters, if Mike Morse bats seventh. Finnegan then takes over to face Ishikawa, Crawford, Blanco, and Panik – four left-handed batters in a row. At that point, well, you might be through three innings.

Really, the only bad thing about Game 6 was that the second inning rally went so well that after bringing in Yusmeiro Petit, Bruce Bochy quickly realized that the game was so out of hand that he was better off pulling Petit (who threw only 17 pitches) and saving him for Game 7. So now he has both Petit and Bumgarner to deploy. The Royals have the Triborg. It looks like the game could simply come down to which manager is more aggressive about pulling his starter and turning the game over to his immensely capable relievers.

I feel like we’ve reached a tipping point in the last couple of years. In previous Game 7s, managers would generally leave their starting pitcher in at least until he hit a spot of trouble. But the evolution of the game, and the importance of each team’s bullpens, means tonight could be the first time we see both managers name starting pitchers with a plan already in place to pull them after no more than two or three innings. Or maybe not; maybe one or both of these managers will play it straight, and Guthrie or Tim Hudson will be allowed to pitch five or six or even seven innings. But for the first time ever in a Game 7, I feel like both managers may have some trick up their sleeve.

The Royals seem to have all the little edges on their side. They have home field advantage, and they have recent history on their side – the last nine Game 7s were won by the home team. They have Herrera, Davis, and Holland at full rest. The Giants have Bumgarner and Petit available, but Bumgarner’s effectiveness on two days’ rest is a bit of a wild card, and Petit probably can’t go more than two innings given that he threw last night.

But what makes Game 7 so magical is what makes it so unpredictable: it’s just one game. It’s one game that decides an entire season, that separates the World Champions from the team that gets remembered simply as the best also-ran. It’s cruel. It’s brutal. It’s harsh and unforgiving. It’s everything. It’s baseball.

Don’t ask me to analyze it. Analysis with this team went out the window a month ago. Don’t ask me to enjoy it, or at least don’t expect me to enjoy it. If the game goes like last night’s did – or like the Royals’ last Game 7 did – then yes, I imagine I will enjoy it very much. But enjoyment of a Game 7 are for the fans who haven’t spent a lifetime rooting for one of the teams playing in it, for the fans who don’t have to deal with the knowledge that a win means a championship – and a loss means starting all over again next season, still staring at the very real possibility that their team will never again win a championship in their lifetime.

So I probably won’t enjoy Game 7 all that much. But if the Royals win, words may not adequately express how much I will enjoy the moment of victory, or the long, sleepless night to follow, or tomorrow, or November, or the winter to come.

There’s nothing left to analyze. There’s nothing left to say. There’s only one thing left to do.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Royals Today: World Series, Game 5.

Let’s start with the obvious: no matter what the Royals did in Game 5, no matter how well they played defense or how well Ned Yost pushed buttons, they probably weren’t going to win. Madison Bumgarner made sure of that. The Royals didn’t get a runner to third base all night. The only runner to reach second base was Omar Infante, who was credited with a double when Travis Ishikawa misplayed his looping fly ball and let it bounce past him when he dove fruitlessly. Bumgarner showed no signs of fatigue all night, retiring the last nine batters of the game.

That said…they sure did their best to eliminate what little chance they had of sneaking away with a win. Early on, it was the players who killed the Royals’ margin for error, or more specifically, the defenders. In the second inning, Hunter Pence led off with a scorching ground ball to the right of Alcides Escobar – but it was the kind of scorching ground ball that Escobar has been picking and turning into outs his entire career. This time, it skated just past his glove.

Brandon Belt followed with a perfectly placed bunt against the shift, which the Royals weren’t expecting – and given that Belt had one sacrifice bunt and no bunt hits in his career, I can’t come down too hard on them. With the shift on, Escobar fielded the ball – something a shortstop almost never has to do – and Belt beat it out by an eyelash.

But there was a defensive mistake made on the play, one that was missed by almost everyone (including myself). As C.J. Nitkowski points out here (with an assist from Eric Karros), Hosmer had his foot on the wrong spot on the bag, and was lined up in the wrong direction – if he had his foot on the corner and was pointed straight at Escobar, Belt might have been out. I continue to be unconvinced that Hosmer is the Gold Glove caliber first baseman that is his reputation, and the numbers continue to dispute this characterization as well.

Travis Ishikawa then hit a deep fly ball to centerfield, allowing Pence to tag up and move to third…and when Jarrod Dyson’s throw was off-line, Belt moved up to second as well. All credit to the Giants, who do the little things extremely well, but a better throw and Belt might have been out or retreated to first base. That would have kept the double play in order, but instead the Royals could only get one out on a ground ball.

Yost then decided to play the infield back, one game after he had played the infield in during a similar situation. I understand the thinking – with a runner on second base as well as third, a grounder that gets by the drawn-in infield would have scored two runs instead of one – but I thought it was curious that, facing Madison Bumgarner, the Royals wouldn’t put a premium on preventing the Giants from scoring first. Brandon Crawford grounded out to second base, which would have held the runner or likely been an out at the plate if the infield were in, but instead was an RBI groundout.

In the fourth, Pablo Sandoval led off with a single, but Shields struck out Pence and Belt. Ishikawa then hit a ground ball to Escobar’s right, and this time he was there in time to field the ball, and…it just went under his glove. He pulled up too soon, misjudged the bounce, whatever. It was a play he should have made easily.

And then Crawford blooped a pitch that Shields almost buried in the dirt and blooped it to centerfield. Dyson made one questionable decision and one undeniable mistake. The questionable decision was to lay up and play it on a hop instead of diving for it. He might have had a shot at it, and last night he made a brilliant catch on a similar bloop. Then again, the fact that he made that catch should give him the benefit of the doubt here, that he knew he didn’t have a shot at catching this one and didn’t want to let the ball get by him and two runners to score.

But the mistake was that, as Dyson seems to do about once a month, he bobbled the ball on the bounce. Sandoval had inexplicably slowed up after reaching third base – his third base coach was waving him in, there were two outs, and the pitcher was about to bat – but Dyson’s bobble allowed him to score. It wasn’t ruled an error, because in 2014 you don’t get charged with an error unless you throw a ball into the stands or physically kick it with your feet. But it was an error.

Dyson’s misplays in centerfield, coupled with him looking even more helpless than your typical hitter against Bumgarner – Dyson can’t hit lefties – made the decision to start him instead of Aoki appear to be another poor decision by Yost. At least until the bottom of the fifth, when with two on and two out, Hunter Pence crushed a pitch to right-center field, which Lorenzo Cain caught in full stride. I’m not sure there’s another right fielder in the game who keeps that from being a two-run double. Through no good work of his own – simply by allowing the Royals to have Cain in right field instead of Aoki – Dyson justified his starting spot on that play.

That was all the Giants would get against Shields. That was all they would need. With better defense – with just a typical game from Escobar alone – he would have matched Bumgarner zero for zero through six innings, given us the start that single-handedly justified everything given up for him and vindicated every defense made of him the last two years against the likes of me. It was not to be, but not due to anything Shields did wrong. He deserved a better fate in Game 5. We all did.

While it was the players that hurt the Royals in the first six innings, Yost found a way to make his presence known before the game ended. In the seventh inning, Hosmer led off with a single, and Salvador Perez lined out to deep left field – in retrospect, the Royals came damn close to tying the game right there. Mike Moustakas was up next, in a situation where a home run would tie the game, and Yost let him bat.

This was not at all surprising, although this seemed like the perfect time to roll the dice on a pinch-hitter, putting up a right-handed-hitting power bat like Josh Willingham against a potentially tiring Bumgarner. Hard as this may be to believe, Mike Moustakas did hit .212/.271/.361 this year, and he’s never hit left-handers, his double off Bumgarner in Game 1 notwithstanding. Yost left him in, and Moustakas flied out harmlessly to centerfield. Omar Infante followed with a groundout to end the inning.

And then, in the bottom of the seventh, as the script said and as everyone expected, Yost brought in Kelvin Herrera. As absolutely no one expected – because it was absurd to even consider – Yost chose to make a double-switch, bringing Jayson Nix to play second base, putting Nix in the #9 spot in the lineup, and putting Herrera in the #7 spot.

Twitter is not a perfect tool, and if you’re not careful you’re liable to use it to say something stupid that you will quickly regret, something I have learned from experience. But at a moment like this Twitter is an utterly perfect device, because it allowed me – and essentially every sportswriter who was paying attention – to express our incredulity with this move in real time. No one can accuse us of second-guessing. Okay, that’s not true – some people can’t handle people criticizing their favorite team very well, and will call any criticism second-guessing. But this was first-guessing. This was pointing out the stupidity of a move while it was in progress.

The point of the double-switch is to delay the pitcher’s spot in the lineup from coming up, so that a new pitcher can stay in the game longer. That should not have been an issue here. It was the bottom of the seventh, so unless the Royals tied the game, they only needed two innings from their bullpen. Herrera, Davis, and Holland had all taken Game 4 off; they were all ready to throw an inning.

But on top of that, Herrera was the least rested of the trio, by far. He had thrown 27 pitches in Game 3, after Yost inexplicably left him in to bat in the seventh inning, and then had to pull Herrera anyway with one out in the bottom of the inning. He had thrown 32 pitches in Game 2, when Yost called on him to get Yordano Ventura out of a sixth-inning jam and then let him pitch the seventh inning with a five-run lead. For whatever reason, Yost keeps going to Herrera for two innings rather than Davis; instead of pitching Herrera in the sixth and then Davis in the seventh and eighth, he’ll let Herrera stay on for the seventh and only bring in Davis in a jam. (And Holland, of course, hasn’t thrown more than one inning in a ballgame since September 13, 2012. Not only that, Holland has not entered a game prior to the ninth inning since that same date. You would think that at some point he would have pitched the bottom of the eighth inning in a blowout on the road just to get some work in.)

As a result, Herrera had looked a little less than 100% in his recent outings. The #9 spot in the lineup was due up 2nd in the top of the 8th. Perfect; let Herrera pitch one inning, then pinch-hit for him with whoever is most appropriate at that moment. Davis pitches the 8th, and if the Royals tie the game, he pitches the 9th. (There’s a slight chance that Davis might have to bat if the Royals batted around in the 7th or 8th, but that would be a good problem to have, and in all likelihood the Royals might have scored three runs and you could pinch-hit for Davis and bring in Holland anyway.)

Instead, Yost was so adamant about giving Herrera a chance to pitch a second inning – WHICH HE SHOULDN’T BE ASKED TO DO UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES ANYWAY – that in order to keep him from batting in the 8th, he brought in Jayson Nix, knowing that Nix would have to bat in the 8th. The same Jayson Nix who was 10-for-83 as a hitter during the regular season. The same Jayson Nix who had never gotten a hit in a Royals uniform.

The Royals were down to their final six outs, needing two runs just to tie the game. Yost was so adamant that Herrera pitch a second inning that he gave the role of avoiding one of those six outs to Jayson Freaking Nix.

This worked to absolute perfect imperfection. Herrera pitched a scoreless seventh, as he could have been expected to. Nix batted in the eighth inning and harmlessly flied out, swinging on a borderline pitch after Bumgarner had fallen behind him 3-1. Herrera then came out for a second inning – WHICH HE SHOULD NOT HAVE DONE – and gave up hits to the first two batters he faced. He was then pulled from the game in favor of Davis without having retired a batter in the inning.

So to sum up: Yost made Jayson Nix bat so that Herrera could pitch a second inning. Nix used up one of the Royals’ last six outs, and Herrera allowed both batters he faced in that second inning to reach. Oh, and since Wade Davis didn’t get to start with a clean slate, the random, logic-defying bomb he gave up to Juan Perez – about as far as a ball can be hit in baseball without being a home run – drove home two runs. Crawford followed with a bloop to left, and a 2-0 game was now a 5-0 game. Drive home safely.

Afterwards, Yost said that he wanted Herrera to be able to pitch a second inning so that their good relievers could go deeper into the game in case the Royals came back. But in doing so, he severely hampered the Royals’ ability to come back. If you don’t score two runs in the last two innings of the game, nothing else matters. Yost used hypotheticals to make a decision that made a comeback even more hypothetical.

To be clear: Ned Yost didn’t cost the Royals Game 5 – Madison Bumgarner made sure of that. But Yost’s decisions didn’t help, and this one decision in particular had next-to-no benefit while enduring a significant cost. The decision to double-switch Nix into the game was probably the most inexplicable decision Yost made in the entire postseason – and yes, I include the decision to use Yordano Ventura out of the pen. At least there, there was underlying principle guiding Yost’s move – Be aggressive with your relievers in a do-or-die game! Don’t be afraid to pull your starting pitcher! – that I agreed with, even if the execution itself was terrible. But this…I don’t get this at all. Frankly, giving up hits to the first two hitters in the 8th might have been the best thing for Herrera, because it got him out of the game sooner. Both Herrera and Davis threw 24 pitches; with a day off, they should be good for Game 6, although whether that means they can throw one inning in Game 6 and one inning in Game 7, or two innings each, or whether Yost will use them that aggressively, remains to be seen.

The Royals return to Kauffman Stadium now, thankful not just to be at home, but to be away from the NL rules, because Yost managed these three games in San Francisco as if he never managed a game in an NL park before. In three games, Jayson Nix (2) had more at-bats than Billy Butler (1) and Josh Willingham (0) combined. Kelvin Herrera had as many at-bats as Butler and Willingham combined. That should never happen.

The Royals now feel as far away from a championship as they have since the Wild Card game, which I know is silly, since they simply need to win their next two games to claim it. They have the better starter in Game 6, and if they get to Game 7, you hope they will unleash the full force of the Triborg, because you know Bruce Bochy will unleash as much Bumgarner as the man will give him on two days’ rest. (Although the decision to let Bumgarner throw the complete-game shutout, while sentimental, may not have been in the Giants' best interests. Bumgarner threw 116 pitches in Game 5, and he might want one or two of those pitches back if he gets pressed into duty in Game 7.)

And the Royals have home-field advantage. Since 1982, ten teams have come home for Game 6 down three games to two. Eight of them have won both games to win the title. The last nine Game 7s have been won by the home team; you have to go back to the 1979 Pirates to find a road team that won Game 7. In the whole history of the World Series, the home team is 41-23 in Game 6. Home field always matters a little, but perhaps never more than when everything is on the line, and every fan in the stands is engaged on every pitch like their lives hang in the balance.

God willing, I’ll be one of those fans tomorrow night, and (hopefully) Wednesday night as well. The Royals are two wins away from delivering us a championship I honestly never even contemplated as being within the realm of possibility, of delivering me a memory I never dreamed would be a reality. I expect them to do everything in their power to deliver it. It’s only fair that I hold myself to the same standard, and cheer them on from the stands, to give the same 100% I demand from them, until the final out. Until we are defeated. Or until we are delirious.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Royals Today: World Series, Game 4.

A century from now, baseball scholars will discover that there was a point during Game 4 of the 2014 World Series in which the Royals were strongly favored to win. No one will believe them.

Someone – I believe it may have been Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus – wrote earlier this month something to the effect that we’ve reached the point with baseball analysis where players no longer are blamed for failure: it’s either the fault of the manager for putting him in that position or the GM for not acquiring a better player. It’s hyperbole, but seeing the reaction to Game 4, I wonder just how much of an exaggeration it is.

Ned Yost didn’t have his best game. The Royals had a 4-1 lead in the middle of the third inning, and they lost. But at some point you have to hold the players accountable for their performance. It is possible for Yost to make the right move – or at least a defensible move – and have it not work out, either because the player he put in a spot to succeed didn’t, or simply because the ball bounced in favor of the Giants.

Let’s trace the anatomy of ten unanswered runs that turned a comfortable early lead into the Royals’ biggest loss since the Tigers’ pulverized them, 10-1, on September 19th:

- In the bottom of the third, Matt Duffy – pinch-hitting for reliever Jean Machi, because apparently it’s okay to do that sort of thing – led off with a single. Gregor Blanco grounded to Omar Infante, who pivoted to second base before thinking better of it and taking the sure out at first. It was probably the right move – Duffy is fast and might have been safe, but you want to stay out of the big inning there. After Joe Panik flied out, Buster Posey hit an RBI single. After Hunter Pence singled, Jason Vargas struck out Pablo Sandoval. Can’t fault Yost here – pulling Vargas at this point in the game would have been silly.

- After Vargas worked a scoreless fourth inning but allowed two hits – one to Yusmeiro Petit, who counting the postseason was 5-for-105 in his career as a hitter – I thought it was time to pull him. But given that the leadoff hitter in the fifth, Panik, batted left-handed, followed by right-handed-hitting Buster Posey and Pence, I could see the case for letting Vargas face Panik and the going to RHP Jason Frasor to face Posey and Pence.

That’s what Yost did. Panik doubled to lead off the inning, and Frasor came in. He got Posey to ground out, but Panik moved to third, causing the infield to move in just a little – and Pence was able to shoot a grounder up the middle to score the run. That brought up Sandoval – a switch-hitter who hits right-handers better than left-handers – followed by Brandon Belt (LHB), Juan Perez (RHB, but not much of a hitter in the majors so far), and Brandon Crawford (LHB).

Going to a lefty seemed like the right move here. Yost went to Danny Duffy. Duffy allowed a bullet to Sandoval to put runners on the corners with one out, then walked Belt to load the bases. Perez then hit a line drive that Jarrod Dyson made an outstanding catch on, but Pence scored to tie the game. Then Duffy struck out Crawford.

- Duffy was due up second in the top of the fifth inning, and given how erratic he looked, it made perfect sense to pinch-hit for him there. It made even more perfect sense when Dyson led off with a single. Nori Aoki pinch-hit…and hit into a double play.

Before the at-bat, I argued that given Aoki’s bat control and Dyson’s speed, it was a waste to bunt Dyson there, and that Dyson should steal second, allowing Aoki to move him over to third with one out at the very least. Yost did not put on the bunt. But Dyson did not attempt to steal on the first two pitches – perhaps he felt the need to read Petit’s move, as he had never faced him before – and on the second pitch, Aoki put the ball in play. Had Dyson stolen second, Aoki’s grounder to Belt would have moved him to third. But I can’t fault Yost for not putting on the bunt, and I can’t fault Yost because Dyson didn’t light out for second base on the first or second pitch.

- Brandon Finnegan came on to pitch the sixth, facing the pitcher’s spot followed by two lefties. Joaquin Arias pinch-hit and blooped a single into shallow right field. Gregor Blanco then batted, and tried to bunt twice – the first time he drew the bat back but had a strike called on him on a pitch that was high, and the second time he fouled it off. So with two strikes, he was forced to swing away – and blooped a single over Escobar’s head into left field. This allowed Panik to bunt the runners to second and third.

This brought up Buster Posey, who crushes lefties, and Yost called for the intentional walk. Yost is as conservative with intentional walks as any manager in baseball – the Royals only issued 14 of them all season, the fewest of any team. And calling for one here was debatable, because it loaded the bases and meant that a walk would score a run, and it didn’t obtain the platoon edge. On the other hand, it did set up the double play and a force at every base. This came in handy when Hunter Pence hit a hard groundball to Escobar. With the infield playing halfway, and with Pence having already beaten out a potential double play ball in the first, Escobar chose to go home rather than try the 6-4-3 double play. Arias was out, and the game was still tied with Sandoval at the plate.

But Sandoval, for the second time in the game, hit a ringing single off a left-handed pitcher, driving in two runs and essentially icing the game. Belt – a left-handed hitter – followed with another single to make the score 7-4.

It was the pivotal 6th inning – it’s always the sixth inning – and I’ve seen a lot of people argue that this is where Yost screwed up, that Kelvin Herrera or even Wade Davis should have been in the game. I’m not disagreeing completely. But a couple of things to consider:

1) Herrera had thrown 27 pitches the night before, two days after he threw 32 pitches. He was available, but probably not for more than an inning. If he pitched the sixth, then Davis would have had to pitch the seventh and eighth, meaning both Herrera and Davis would be out for Game 5.

2) Yes, Yost could have gone to Davis right there in the sixth inning. Yes, it was probably a mistake. But out of 30 major league managers, I’d be surprised if more than three would have done that. If it was a mistake, it wasn’t an uncommon one.

3) After Arias – a utility infielder leading off – all the damage in the inning was done by Blanco (LHB), Sandoval (SHB who hits RHP much better than LHP), and Belt (LHB). The two big right-handed bats that Finnegan faced, Posey and Pence, were disposed of – Posey by the intentional walk, Pence on a groundout. Unless you think that Davis or Herrera should have started the inning, the inning came down to Finnegan getting beaten by hitters that he had the advantage on. And, frankly, getting beaten by two fluke hits.

If Blanco gets the bunt down, the Giants might not have scored in the inning. He didn’t, he blooped a single instead, and they scored three runs. That’s baseball. That’s not Ned Yost.

The Giants would score four runs in the seventh inning to run up the score off of Finnegan and Collins, but the game was already iced at that point, and you’re not going to burn a member of the Triborg – and potentially keep them out of Game 5 – when you’re already down three runs.

- I’ve seen it argued that Duffy should have started the fifth inning. I could see that, I suppose, but then you let Posey and Pence face a left-handed pitcher. Duffy had a huge platoon split this year, and three of the first four hitters he would have faced would have batted from the right side. And given how he performed in the game once he came in, you’re going to have a tough time convincing me that what the Royals needed was to call on Duffy sooner and use him more. It’s clear he’s not completely healthy – his fastball is 92-93 in relief – and we can’t just assume he’s the same guy who put up a 2.53 ERA this season.

- Yost could have gone for the jugular in the top of the third inning, and pinch-hit for Vargas with the bases loaded and two outs. But aside from the fact that he would have needed seven innings from his pen, Vargas is a pretty good hitter – not as good as his lifetime .262 average, but one of the better-hitting pitchers around – and had flied out to deep center field his first time up. Vargas, unfortunately, lost track of the count, and started walking to first base when the 2-2 pitch was outside. Did that lead to him being called out on a borderline 3-2 pitch? Maybe, maybe not. But was that Yost’s fault?

- The only other mistake you could argue Yost made was not pinch-hitting for Mike Moustakas against LHP Jeremy Affeldt with two outs in the seventh and Eric Hosmer on first base. This was the time to use Billy Butler or Josh Willingham – neither of whom has appeared in either game in the NL park, mind you. Moustakas grounded out, and then to add salt in the wound, was double-switched out of the game in the bottom of the inning anyway when Collins came in for Finnegan.

This was probably the least ambiguous mistake Yost made. A walk in that situation brings the tying run to the plate; a home run brings the Royals to within one. The game ended with neither Butler nor Willingham getting off the bench. It was a mistake. But it was not, in all likelihood, a decisive one.

Sometimes, you just get beat. Sometimes, the ball doesn’t fall your way. Sometimes, it’s not the manager’s fault, even when you blow an early lead in a game that would have given you a decisive 3-games-to-1 edge in the World Series. The game sucked, and Ned Yost didn’t help. But I don’t think the Royals win that game if Earl LaRussa Showalter had been managing them.

I sense some panic among Royals Nation at the moment, and understandably so, since Madison Bumgarner is up next. I would just like to remind everyone that the series is still tied, that Games 6 and 7 are in Kansas City, and that Bumgarner won't start either of those games. (Although I suppose he can relieve in Game 7, but let’s cross that bridge later.) It is, in fact, possible that James Shields outduels Bumgarner in Game 5. Stranger things have happened. Herrera, Davis, and Holland will all have had a day’s rest; there’s no reason why Shields has to pitch more than five innings anyway.

And if not…well…there’s nothing quite like the home field advantage of Games 6 and 7 of the World Series. In the last 15 years, the home team is 8-1 in Games 6 and 7; the only loss came in the 2003 World Series, when the Yankees lost at home in Game 6 to Josh Beckett. The Giants don’t have anyone the caliber of Beckett starting in Games 6 or 7. The 2002 Angels and the 2011 Cardinals both came home down 3 games to 2, and both teams followed legendary comebacks in Game 6 with a commanding win in Game 7.

I know it feels like the sky is falling, but it’s not. Sometimes you just get beat. That’s what the Giants did to us tonight. The thing is, even if they beat us again, the series won’t be over. It’s a best-of-three series now. And if they’re going to steal the world championship away from us, they’re going to have to do it in Kansas City. I’ll take my chances. At this point, that’s all we can do.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Royals Today: World Series, Game 3.

Well, we might as well start by talking about Ned Yost, because so much of what happened in Game 3 – good and bad – had his fingerprints on it.

And if it's alright with you, let’s start by talking about the one mistake that he made, not because I want to dwell on the bad in a game that the Royals won – making Ned Yost just the second manager ever to win 10 of his first 11 postseason games – but because I want to get it out of the way.

As soon as Jarrod Dyson grounded out to end the top of the fifth inning, meaning that the pitcher’s spot in the lineup would lead off the sixth, I tweeted out that Jeremy Guthrie should pitch the bottom of the fifth only, and then get taken out for a pinch-hitter to lead off the sixth.

Guthrie, to that point, was cruising, but only if you focus simply on the end result of the at-bats against him and not the process that led to the outcome. Guthrie had allowed just two singles, one of them of the infield variety, in four innings. However, he hadn’t struck out a single batter. His defense had made several strong plays in support of him. As if to underscore the point, Guthrie threw a perfect fifth inning – but only after Hunter Pence lined out hard to Omar Infante, and then Brandon Belt did the same thing, this time with Infante perched in short right field as part of the shift. Through five innings, Guthrie had a line of 5 2 0 0 0 0, which is completely unsustainable. His BABIP was .125. He was pitching effectively, but he wasn’t pitching well.

But even if he was, the plan should have been for him to get pulled in the top of the sixth. The Royals had a 1-0 lead, and while it was unlikely that Kelvin Herrera could go two innings just two nights after he had thrown two innings and 32 pitches, he was good for one. So was Wade Davis and Greg Holland. That left just the sixth inning – it's always the sixth inning – and the Royals had several options to pitch. Brandon Crawford was scheduled to lead off the bottom of the sixth, followed by the pitcher’s spot, then Gregor Blanco and Joe Panik – three left-handed bats and a pinch-hitter. Even if Danny Duffy was still unavailable to pitch after throwing 59 pitches in Game 1, Brandon Finnegan hadn’t appeared in the series yet. The formula seemed pretty simple.

And remember: it’s not simply a question of whether Guthrie or Finnegan was the better option for the sixth. It’s whether Guthrie was sufficiently better to justify letting him bat when he led off the top of the inning, a high-leverage spot. Even if Guthrie pitched well, he was going to throw one more inning, tops. The difference between even an elite starter like Clayton Kershaw and a good reliever for one inning is not worth letting a guy with a .121 OBP lead off an inning in a 1-0 game.

Guthrie led off the sixth, and grounded out. The next two hitters singled and doubled, meaning if a pinch-hitter for Guthrie had reached base, he would have scored an extra run. And then Guthrie took the mound to start the sixth, gave up a single to Crawford and an RBI double to pinch-hitter Mike Morse, and was pulled without recording an out. Both runners scored. Making the decision to let Guthrie bat and start the inning even worse was that Yost then replaced him with Herrera, meaning that he was willing to use Herrera with no one out in the sixth inning, but wasn’t willing to do so 15 minutes earlier when Guthrie was due to bat.

 After all this time, the sixth inning remains a minefield, because Yost just isn’t willing to concede that he can pull his starter after just five innings even if his starter is pitching well. (The one time he did do it, in Guthrie's last start - Game 3 of the ALCS - it worked to perfection.) His decision to stick with Guthrie put the Royals’ victory in jeopardy, and only four sterling innings from his bullpen prevented that from happening. It was a mistake. I hope Yost will not repeat it in the series. I am afraid that he will.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about all the things he did right.

Much to my surprise, and in yet another piece of evidence that Yost is a vastly better manager than he was even six weeks ago, his announced lineup before the game 1) had Jarrod Dyson in CF and Lorenzo Cain in RF and 2) had Alex Gordon batting 2nd.

And both moves paid off in a big way. The Royals went with the Golden Outfield alignment, and Cain made two terrific defense plays to end the first and second innings. It’s unlikely Nori Aoki makes both plays, and he might not have made either. Starting Dyson paid immediate dividends in the field.

And Gordon, batting second, did exactly what you want your #2 hitter to do when the leadoff hitter reaches base. In the top of the sixth, after Alcides Escobar singled with one out, Gordon got a fastball up and drove it to the base of the wall in center field, allowing Escobar to score from first base on the double. Gordon then came around to score on Eric Hosmer’s two out single, giving the Royals a 3-0 lead and enough cushion to weather Yost’s mistake of sticking with Guthrie for too long.

And for all the crap I gave Yost for sticking with Guthrie to start the sixth, Bruce Bochy did the same thing, which is why both teams scored two runs in the sixth inning. Guthrie had retired ten straight going into the sixth, and Tim Hudson had retired 11 straight, and neither of those streaks meant a damn thing. Hudson retired Guthrie to start the sixth, but then the lineup turned over for a third time, and wouldn’t you know it, the first two batters to face Hudson for a third time singled and doubled. Hudson was allowed to retire Cain before he was pulled with two outs and a man on second, but the damage was done. Yost made the same mistake, and I excoriated him for it. But like a lot of questionable things that Yost does, he’s far from the only manager who does them. At the very least, Yost managed Bochy to a draw in Game 3. That’s all we can ask for.

There were a couple of other curious decisions that Yost made, but they worked out as well as could be expected. He called upon Herrera to bail out Guthrie in the sixth, which Herrera did, although he allowed Morse to score after a couple of groundouts first. He then let Herrera bat after Dyson singled with two outs in the top of the seventh, a really curious decision given that Herrera had never batted in his professional career, either in the majors or the minors. The argument in favor of it is that with a one-run lead, if Herrera just pitched a scoreless bottom of the seventh you could turn the game over to Wade Davis and Greg Holland at that point. But Herrera walked Pence to lead off the top of the seventh. He then struck out Brandon Belt, blowing a 97 mph fastball right by him on a 3-2 count, possibly the most important pitch of the game – if he throws ball four, the Giants have men on first and second and no one out.

And then Yost takes him out in favor of Finnegan. This is weird on several levels: 1) if you trust Finnegan in such a key spot, why didn’t you trust him to start the sixth inning against a bunch of left-handed batters; 2) having just let Herrera face a left-handed hitter – and strike him out – why would you bring in Finnegan to pitch to another left-handed hitter, especially since that hitter (Travis Ishikawa) was likely to be pinch-hit for by Juan Perez, who in addition to batting right-handed was a far superior defender?

But Finnegan got Perez to line out to Gordon in left, and then struck out Brandon Crawford on a nasty 3-2 fastball down and in. He might have gotten lucky – Crawford swung at ball four – but the pitch had a lot of movement on it as well. The kid who became the first player ever to appear in the College and Real World Series in the same year showed off his huge cojones once again. Wade Davis did Wade Davis things in the eighth, Greg Holland did Greg Holland things in the ninth, and the Royals improved to 5-0 in one-run games during the postseason.

The other questionable decision Yost made was to bat Hosmer and Moustakas back-to-back, making the lineup go R-L-R-L-L-R-R-L, and giving the Giants an opportunity to attack the Royals with lefty and righty specialist for two batters at a time. There’s no good reason to do this – Yost said before the game that he batted them back-to-back because “they’re both swinging the bat well”, which is irrelevant. If he had simply flip-flopped Moustakas and Infante, the lineup would have been essentially perfect – I had advocated Salvador Perez fifth and Infante seventh, but given that Infante appears healthy and had two extra-base hits in Game 2, I wouldn’t have had an issue with Infante fifth instead.

But Yost chose to bat Moustakas right behind Hosmer, and as everyone predicted before the game even started, Bochy attacked the back-to-back lefties with Javier Lopez in the sixth inning. Just one problem for Bochy – it didn’t work. Hosmer had an incredibly impressive at-bat, fouling off five two-strike pitches and working back from an 0-2 count to a 3-2 count, then lining a bullet to center field on the 11th pitch of the at-bat to drive in Gordon from second base with two outs. That run would prove the winning margin.

I don’t know that I’d give Yost any credit for baiting Bochy into bringing in Lopez there – Lopez was probably going to come in to pitch to Hosmer even if there was a right-handed batter on deck, only in that case he would have faced just one batter. And Lopez then struck out Moustakas. I see no evidence that batting them in this order helped at all, and I sincerely hope that Yost changes his mind for Games 4 and 5. But at least in Game 3, thanks to a gorgeous piece of hitting by Hosmer, it didn’t hurt at all.

Yost didn’t manage a perfect game by any stretch. But in the end, his plusses outweighed his minuses, especially when compared to his competition in the other dugout. Yost at least managed Bochy to a draw in Game 3. He outmanaged Bochy in Game 2. And the managers had essentially no bearing in Game 1. Yost isn’t the main reason the Royals are winning. But he’s not holding them back from winning, and I am deeply grateful that he has progressed to this point as a manager at the perfect possible time.

- The defense, just to reiterate, was terrific once again. Cain was exceptional. Perez threw out Pence trying to steal second base in the second inning, which saved a run when Belt following with a single. Pence reached on an infield single, but Escobar almost made an exceptional play to throw him out, barehanding his chopper but pulling Hosmer off the bag with his throw. Even Holland got in the act, snagging Pence’s hot shot up the middle with two outs in the ninth, flipping to Hosmer to end the game.

- Ned Yost didn’t call on a pinch-hitter in the entire game – played under National League rules. That can happen when the starting pitcher throws a complete game, but the Royals used five pitchers in the game. Somehow, their pitchers batted all three times that spot in the lineup came up. Somehow, Yost got away with it. I would kindly ask that he refrain from trying to repeat it.

- The first run of the game was Royals baseball at its best. Escobar ambushed Hudson, jumping on the very first pitch of the game for a double off the left field wall. Gordon then grounded out to the right side, allowing Escobar to move to third, and then Cain – after the 2-1 pitch was called a strike on one of the very worst ball/strike calls I’ve seen all season – the pitch was at least six inches low – rebounded to put a ball in play with two strikes, grounding out to Crawford as Escobar scored.

Once again, with a man on third base and one out, the Royals stayed away from the strikeout, and once again it led to a run. And this time, that run was the margin of victory. Put the ball in play. Run hard. And trust that good things will happen.

- Speaking of good things, the Royals are two wins away from the best thing of all: a world championship. They are guaranteed to be back in Kansas City on Tuesday, either for Game 6 of the World Series, or for a parade. My brain does not have the capacity to comprehend either of those possibilities. But they’re going to happen all the same. Go crazy, folks. Go crazy. I know I am.