On August 9th, 2005, the Royals were struggling to break a 10-game losing streak, but it finally looked like it was their day. They took an early lead on the Indians, and the bullpen held the lead into the ninth inning. With three outs to go, the Royals were up by five runs, 7-2. Mike MacDougal came into preserve the lead.
Five of the first six Indians he faced roped base hits. Even so, after Ronnie Belliard grounded into a fielder's choice, the Royals still led, 7-6, with two outs and men on first and third.
Jeff Liefer was the Indians' last hope, and he lofted a routine flyball to left that Chip Ambres settled under for the final out.
And then he dropped it.
The game was still tied, there were still two outs, but if you had given 10-1 odds that the Royals would win the game at that point, you wouldn't have found a Royals fan anywhere in the Midwest who would have taken your bet. Aaron Boone doubled to take the lead; Jimmy Gobble came into pitch; an intentional walk, single, walk, and grand slam later, and the score was 11-7.
The Royals would go on to lose their next eight games for good measure.
The sad thing was that, at the time, the losing streak was almost liberating for Royals fans. We had a pathetic manager, an impotent GM, a meddling, cheapskate owner: we deserved to lose 19 in a row, and in the most excruciating way possible. More than that: we wanted to lose 19 in a row, because we wanted it to get into the thick skulls of all the people running this team that THEY HAD NO IDEA WHAT THE HELL THEY WERE DOING. And it worked, sort of. Nine months later Allard Baird was fired, Dayton Moore was given carte blanche, David Glass & son moved into the shadows. It took a while longer for Buddy Bell to be shown the door, but the momentum had shifted.
Or so we thought. Which is why tonight's game may have been even more painful. The Royals had lost 9 in a row, but we weren't losing because we couldn't hold leads - we were losing because we were less likely to get a lead than Maxwell Smart.
But tonight we had our young ace going, and Greinke didn't disappoint. He gave up a couple of early runs and the lead, but the Twins graciously responded by starting Livan Hernandez, and even the Royals can take advantage of 85-mph fastballs. Thirteen hits off Livan - who's on pace to give up 315 this year, by the way - and eight runs. After the 12-inning affair last night, Hillman tried to milk another inning out of Greinke that he probably shouldn't have, but Greinke went 1-2-3 in the eighth. Once again, the Royals took a five-run lead to the ninth inning.
And unlike in 2005, or 2006, or pretty much every year since Jeff Montgomery lost his fastball, there was no reason to have even the slightest bit of fear that the Royals would blow a five-run lead in the ninth. As an anonymous poster had just commented this morning, the Royals had not lost a game all year in which they were leading after even 7 innings, and only one game they had led after 6. It's not just that the Mexicutioner (yeah, that name is growing on me) has been lights out, but that the Royals have three relievers who have all pitched better than their best reliever in seasons past. And Ron Mahay hasn't been bad.
Ramon Ramirez comes in. Strikeout. Single. Strikeout. The Twins need four more baserunners to score just to tie the game, with one out to play with - basically, they need to channel the 1986 Mets twice. Single. Single. Single. 8-5, two on, tying run at the plate.
I don't fault Hillman for not getting Soria up, not one bit. He was absolutely right to pitch Soria on Monday to get him some work, and he was absolutely right to pitch Soria two innings in a tie game yesterday. And he was absolutely right to give Soria the day off today.
But with the tying run at the plate and two outs in the ninth, when a home run will tie the score, with an all-or-nothing slugger at the plate, how on God's Green Earth do you call upon Joel Peralta, a flyball pitcher who has given up 3 homers in 17 innings already (and 28 in 213 innings in his career) instead of Leo Nunez, who is clearly a different pitcher this season and hasn't given up a homer all year? Nunez pitched an inning and threw 23 pitches last night, but didn't pitch the night before that. And you only needed him to get one batter.
And the moment the ball left Craig Monroe's bat, you couldn't have set the odds that the Royals would still win high enough for me or any Royals fan to take them. The irony is that if I had had the time this morning, I had planned to write that last night, when the Royals tied the game with three runs in the ninth on a freak inside-the-park home run, the first thought that ran through my mind (the first being, of course, "WTF?") was "we're only tied." As a Royals fan, you know that momentum means nothing. Being the home team in a tie game in the ninth inning means nothing. Having the other team's ace reliever blow only his second save ever against the Royals means nothing.
If the tables had been turned - if the Royals had taken a 3-0 lead into the ninth, but our manager stuck with our young starter for way too long (five of the last ninth batters Blackburn faced reached base safely, and one of the four outs was a lineout-double play), if Soria had come in and blown a three-run lead on a fielding misplay, if we had been on the road and Joe Nathan was already warming up to pitch the tenth...I mean, there's no way in hell the Royals would have come back to win. The only question would be, will we lose it in the ninth, or will we go meekly in the 10th and then lose it in the bottom of the inning? As we saw tonight, when the shoe is on the other foot, the Royals might as well forfeit the game on the spot so the fans can get home at a reasonable hour on a weeknight.
The Twins couldn't get to Soria, but they didn't have to. They got out of the 9th, they got through the 10th and 11th, and they scored in the 12th. They could have waited until the 18th inning to score - we would have been waiting with them.
Should we blame Trey Hillman for this? I'm willing to cut him some slack, if only because he's been in Japan for all these years, and so hasn't had the opportunity to watch the Royals up close the past five years so he could see just how star-crossed this franchise is.
(Late update: it turns out we have to give Hillman some slack, because Nunez didn't pitch tonight only because he couldn't - he's going on the DL. So Hillman, without his two best relievers for one night, did everything he could - he let Greinke go eight innings, and he turned to his third-best reliever to protect a five-run lead. He did everything he could - except to pick a team other than the Royals to manage.)
If he had been following the Royals the last five years, he would know that the Royals are the team that bad stuff happens to. If any team can blow a five-run lead in the ninth, the Royals can. If any team can lose 7 or 10 or 19 games in a row, the Royals can. If any team can get no-hit in a series opener and give up two grand slams in the series finale, the Royals can. And it doesn't matter how good the Royals are playing - the worm can turn at any time.
Remember 2003? Remember the glorious month of April, when the Royals started 9-0, and 16-3? Remember when it all started to go wrong? Let me refresh your memory. The Royals were 16-3, they went to Toronto, lost the first game of the series 6-5 when Vernon Wells led off the bottom of the ninth with a homer. But the next night Ken Harvey hit a three-run homer in the ninth to win it, 9-6. And in the series finale, the Royals scored early and often; they were up 8-4 after eight innings. They scored a run in the top of the ninth. They had a five-run lead with three outs to go.
They gave up six runs in the ninth and lost, 10-9. They would lose their next three games, and 24 of their next 35, and fall under .500 by the first week of June. They would rise again and lead the division for much of July and August, but the chance to build an insurmountable lead had died, and a small lead was not enough for the Royals to hold onto against the irresistible pull of reality. The beginning of the end came on a night when the Royals held a five-run lead in the ninth inning.
Tonight wasn't the beginning of anything, nor was it the end. It was just another loss in a series of losses, some spectacular, some excruciating, but all of them the mark of a team that has no business calling itself a major league team. If 2005 is any indication, tonight may in fact just be the middle: the middle of a really, really long losing streak.
Only this time, there's no silver lining here. No one is going to lose their job over this. Ten days ago, this team was a game under .500, two games out of first, and we all thought that Moore and Hillman had managed to do the impossible - they had managed to overcome the perpetual stink of loserdom that had overwhelmed this franchise since Billy Butler was in third grade. Turns out it really was impossible after all.
(Second Update: we just learned from Ryan Lefebvre, by way of Posnanski, that David DeJesus - who might have ended the game with a catch that Ross Gload couldn't make in the ninth - left the game because he broke out in hives. Hives, people. Apparently I'm responsible for the Royals losing - if only I had been in the dugout with some medicine on hand, none of this would have happened. You don't see the Red Sox or the Indians or the Rays or even the freakin' Pirates lose games because one of their players broke out in a rash. So I say...)
Welcome to Kansas City, Dayton and Trey. Welcome to the nightmare the rest of us have been living in for a long, long time.