Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Game of the Year.

My patients can wait. I don’t know how long it will be before I can write about another game like this one.

Now that we’re six weeks into the season, I’ve got a routine down with my kids, whereby I finish storytime with the older two and put them to bed by 9 o’clock, which usually affords me the opportunity to watch the last two or three innings of each game in peace. Last night my work wasn’t done until 9:20, and the game was zipping by at an unusually fast pace (thanks in part to the Royals’ free-swinging ways against Cliff Lee), so by the time I was able to free myself from fatherly duties, it was the middle of the ninth. The score was 5-2, and if anything I was almost grateful that the margin of victory was large enough that some of the ridiculous baserunning (Mark Teahen trying to advance from second to third on a flyball to shallow center field) and fielding (allowing a runner to score from first on a single; allowing a foul popfly to fall between three defenders) plays would not have single-handedly cost the Royals the game.

Instead, I saw the Royals squeeze the life out of Cleveland in seven easy steps.

Step 1: Kerry Wood emerges to pitch the ninth.

I would stop short of saying this decision was a mistake on Eric Wedge’s part. Cliff Lee had thrown eight brilliant innings, and had only thrown 101 pitches. Two of the first three hitters for the Royals in the ninth were left-handers. If we’ve reached the point where a 30-year-old starter can’t pitch the ninth inning because he’s thrown 101 pitches, then the pitch count revolution has gone too far.

But from the Indians’ standpoint, I wouldn’t fault Wedge, because this move struck me as being as much about trying to win future games as about trying to win this one. The Indians’ bullpen has been a nightmare, but Kerry Wood has been somewhat less offensive than his brethren. He had a 5.84 ERA coming into the game, but had blown only one save, and had struck out 18 batters in 12.1 innings. Wood had a terrific season as the Cubs’ closer last year, and the Indians desperately needed him to settle down so they could work on fixing the rest of their pen. If the Indians had been leading by one run, I think that leaving Lee in would have been the right move. But a three-run lead ought to be safe enough that Wedge was within his rights to make a move that would help the Indians down the road as well.

But as a Royals fan, well, I was happy to see the change made.

Step 2: Mike Jacobs goes yard.

Alright, I want to see a show of hands: after Jacobs finished off a brilliant nine-pitch at-bat, including three consecutive full-count foul balls, with a laser to right-center field, how many of you were whining about Jacobs, “of course he hits a solo home run with the Royals down by three runs in the ninth!” Come on, you know you were thinking it. Last week, he hit homers in back-to-back games in Oakland – once with the Royals down 12-1 in the sixth, once with the Royals down 9-1 in the ninth.

That’s just the nature of the beast when you’re dealing with an all-or-nothing hitter: some of their biggest hits come in the smallest situations. Jacobs has also homered with the Royals up 9-0, and with the Royals up 3-0. But he hit a game-tying two-run homer in Arlington in April – the game that Soria came down with AITP – and he hit a huge three-run homer against Chicago with the White Sox winning 5-1 in the fourth, a game the Royals would win in extra innings. Last Friday he homered on behalf of Zack Greinke in a 2-1 game, and the Royals went on to break their six-game losing streak.

Anyway, that’s what Jacobs does: he hits home runs. It wasn’t his fault that the circumstances of the ninth inning were such that the #5 hitter had to start a three-run rally. Sam Mellinger wrote about this already, but what made this rally work was that the Royals have such a deep lineup that they were able to score three runs with their 5-6-7-8-9 hitters. Teahen, who was batting third not long ago, now fits in as a very nice #6 hitter. DeJesus, who granted has been struggling, is massively overqualified to bat 8th. Last night was a nice reminder of why it’s always nice to have nine major league hitters in your lineup.

And while Jacobs homer last night was no more valuable than a walk, it was certainly more meaningful. He made Kerry Wood look mortal. He brought the crowd to its feet. He set the tone for what would come next.

Step 3: Mark Teahen goes yard.

The Royals’ broadcast had barely come out of replay to show Teahen hacking away at Wood’s first pitch. Chalk this up as another event that would never have happened in the past: in the past, when the Royals hit a home run and the next batter swung at the first pitch, he invariably killed the momentum with a one-pitch out. Instead, Teahen goes with the pitch for another opposite-field home run. Is it just me, or is Mark Teahen and Kevin Seitzer a match made in heaven?

Step 4: Miguel Olivo doesn’t go yard – because he doesn’t try to go yard.

A lot of people are saying that Olivo’s walk was the turning point of the inning, and I don’t disagree. But as cool as it was to see, I disagree that the key to the at-bat was Olivo’s decision to take a 3-1 pitch for possibly the first time in his life. Rather, I think the key was the very first pitch.

Consider the situation: Jacobs and Teahen have just gone back-to-back to bring the Royals within a run. The Kougar/K2 is rocking. Another homer ties the game – and homers are pretty much all Olivo is good for. In that situation, with that much emotion, ou know he’s going to be trying to tie the game on the first pitch, no matter what or where it is. What’s more, everyone knows that – including the opposing pitcher. This was the baseball equivalent of Groundhog Day, where you knew everything that was going to happen ahead of time: Wood would throw a slider, Olivo would swing and miss by about two feet, and he’d be down 0-1.

And that’s what happened. Wood threw a slider. Olivo started to swing –

– and checked in time.

And that, my friends, was when I started to believe that we would win. Olivo would foul off the next pitch, but then took three straight pitches. Kerry Wood was melting down on the mound, and Olivo was content to let him do so on his own.

And that’s when it hit me: the Indians are the Royals! The Royals are the…whoever was playing the Royals!

I’ve seen this movie before many, many times – but never quite from this seat. In a pre-Soria, pre-Dayton world, it was the Royals who were blowing a three-run lead on the road in the bottom of the ninth. And had this been one of those games, the minute Ricky Bottalico or Roberto Hernandez or Mike MacDougal had surrendered back-to-back homers, then walked the next hitter, you might as well have turned off the TV right there – because even though they still had the lead, there was no way the Royals were going to win the game.

Only this time, you couldn’t pull me away from the TV with wild horses, because there was no way the Royals would lose this time. Was there?

Step 5: Mitch Maier pinch-runs for Olivo.

In the moment, it seemed to me that if you’re going to use Maier for Olivo regardless, why not use him to pinch-hit, given that you gain the platoon advantage – and Olivo is terrible against right-handers – while also gaining the OBP? That seems almost petty now. Olivo is fast for a catcher, but Maier is fast, period. I was just worried that Hillman would gamble with a stolen-base attempt. The way Wood was pitching, there was no reason to risk giving away an out. Hillman wisely decided not to.

Step 6: David DeJesus triples.

When DeJesus came to the plate, Ryan Lefebvre made sure to tell us that the last time these two had faced, DeJesus had hit a two-run homer – unfortunately, in that game the Indians still held a two-run lead at the time. Meanwhile, I was thinking of a different two-run homer.

Either one works. DeJesus took a fastball down and in, then Wood’s second pitch missed the target low-and-away in favor of right-down-Broadway. Maier scores, DeJesus winds up at third, and the Royals don’t need a hit to win the game.

Step 7: The Spork Becomes...The Spark!

I’m trying to hold onto my hatred of Willie Bloomquist, but man, he’s making it difficult. First came the perfectly-executed hit-and-run that set up the winning run against the White Sox in the 11th inning, the kind of play that makes crusty old scouts weep with pride. Then last night, with the Royals needing only a deep fly ball to win the game…Bloomquist hits a deep fly ball to win the game. Bloomquist isn’t a great player, but he may be that rare player with great fundamentals even without great talent. I know this much: David Howard doesn’t hit that ball far enough to score DeJesus. I’m not sure Howard hit an opposite-field fly ball that far in his entire career.

Seven steps to the greatest Royals comeback since Opening Day, 2004, a game which still lives fondly in our memories even though it was followed by 104 losses. That game is known simply as the Mendy Lopez Game, but this comeback had so many heroes and key moments that I’m not sure how it will be remembered. The Miguel Olivo Walked On Five Pitches Game? The George Brett Rallied The Troops Game? Or maybe, just maybe, the Game That Buried Cleveland. Call it payback for Chip Ambres.

I do know that this was yet another GWWNHWITP, our second in a row and our sixth of the season.

Finally, I can’t talk about the ninth inning without talking about the crowd. Pretty much from the moment Jacobs made contact, the crowd was as much a factor in the comeback as anything else. It was loud, boisterous, and into every pitch. I’ve read some comparisons between this game and the Ken Harvey Game, when Harvey’s walk-off homer against the Tigers in 2003 put the Royals at 12-3 and set off pandemonium in the crowd of 38,937. There were only 25,024 in attendance last night, but there’s a big difference between the two. The Harvey Game came on a Friday night. Last night’s game, a Tuesday night game with no Zack Greinke pitching, nonetheless drew over 25 thousand to the ballpark. By comparison, when the 2003 Royals played on a Tuesday night at the end of May, they drew just 14,154. Last year, on Tuesday, May 13th, the announced crowd was 11,703.

No question, some of this is the new(ish) ballpark. Which is as it should be; you spend a quarter billion dollars on a renovation, you expect the people to turn out to see it. But some of this is the new team. And I only expect those crowds to swell as the weather warms up, and school lets out, and the Royals stay in the chase. Who knows? Maybe another large crowd will get to witness – and do their part to help – another ninth-inning comeback later this year.


Curtis said...

I thought it was right to stick with Olivo for the at bat because he was still juicing on the adrenaline from the collision at the plate in the fifth. That play was like spinach to Popeye.

If we can follow this up with Meche and Greinke working their magic the next couple of days, we really could start the Indians' fire sale. What would we have to give up to get Cliff Lee? We really could use a good left-handed starter.

Phil said...

Such a great game (er, inning). It seems as though those intangibles we kept hearing about (and dismissing) from guys like Crisp and Bloomquist are paying off. I can't count the number of quotes from Royals players who credit an ever-present optimism in the clubhouse that was never there before.

Also, can we please not call it the Kougar. Please?


rilesKC said...

Yes, no more of that Kougar nonsense. That is not good for anybody.

jello said...

I think (and thought last night as soon as I figured out who was up) that this is the perfect situation for the Spork. Going through the roster, I can't think of anybody else I would want at the plate in that situation. I does not justify giving him 400 at bats over the course of the season, but, I kneew he was going to get that runner in.


Mark LaFlamme said...

Beautiful. I love that there was a sizeable crowd still there to get excited when it all came together. If that was Fenway? Crickets chirping.
Say what you will about Jacobs and his ill-timed homeruns, few get as excited as he does when the Royals rally. Dig that spirit. How the hell he keeps the chaw in his mouth is beyond me.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, jello. You ask me a question that starts "which Royal do you want up when ...." and almost all of them finish with the answer Billy Butler.

The ship has sailed on Kougar, fellas, whether you like it or not. Whining about it now just makes you look like Norm Coleman or Grandpa Simpson.

rilesKC said...

We know the ship has sailed on the Kougar. That is what we are trying to tell you. No one needs to embarrass themselves further by pushing that ridiculous nickname.

Ryan said...

Beating the Royals at home is as difficult as climbing K2.

Anonymous said...

In regards to attendance - last night was a T-Shirt Tuesdays, which are always an extra draw. But it wasn't the t-shirts that made everyone stay until the end - I think the team can take full credit for giving the fans enough hope to make it worth it to stay through the 9th, even when we're down 5-2.

AxDxMx said...

To be fair, the 25,000 were probably there for the George Brett t-shirt giveaway.

Anonymous said...

Lots and lots of just plain bad baseball tonight. Dropped balls, missed cutoffs, dropped balls, poorly executed rundowns, dropped balls, horrible relief pitching, dropped balls, Sidney Ponson, dropped balls, Jamey Wright and dropped balls. Yuck!

Anonymous said...

Apologies for a new topic.

I am a boomer, who came of age in the late sixties. We generated the Free Speech movement, feminism and equal rights, among other revolutions. I am proud of that. Justice triumphed over repression.

But revolutions have unintended consequences. The brawl at the K earlier this week manifests the flip side of the revolution, our loss of consideration of others, of self-control, of decorum, of what I can only quaintly refer to as manners. I especially feel for those parents who were there with their children that night.

I look at black and white photos from the 1940/50s of men at the ballpark in suits, neckties, and fedoras, and women in dresses and hats, and, happy that we have thrown off repression, I still feel pangs of envy. Many of them cheered for #42.

Sorry, guys, but I could not think of a better place to let off some steam. I still want to cheer "Go Royals," but after all it's just a ball game.

Casper said...

Kougar...God, that's just a stupid name. It was blasted by the write-in public on Ball Star, and it's off to a blasting here (so far). The name sucks, so please - LET. IT. GO.

I'm sorry, I had to get that off my chest. As for the 9th last night, I will sheepishly raise my hand to Rany's question regarding who among us thought that Jacobs always seems to hit meaningless bombs in the 9th. Eerily enough, I also thought that Olivo would flail and bail on the slider.

Get out of my head, Rany. It's freaking me out.

Casper said...

For all you Greinke freaks, make sure you get yours June 16. I'm sure one size will fit(-ish) all.,164636

Curtis said...

The point about Olivo taking the first pitch was made all the more poignant with Teahen's approach last night in the ninth inning.

Wood has walked three of the four batters he faced, and the only one he hadn't walked was Butler who had flied out on a 2-0 pitch.

If there ever were a time to take a strike, this might well have been the time.

You have to tip your cap to some extent to the stones of Wood and Stoppach for calling for the slider with the first pitch.

What was so frustrating from my perspective was that even if it was a fastball, it was going to be high in the strikezone and on the inside corner, hardly the kind of pitch that he could be confident of driving into the outfield to at least tie the game.

Now, I didn't play past high school, and I have no idea what it is like to stand in against a guy throwing 97. My problem is not so much with the execution as with the mindset. I don't understand how he could be swinging at all at the first pitch, and the fact that it would have been a ball only makes it worse.

What a frustrating end to the game.

Sneaky Pete said...

Having been at the Harvey game in 2003 and the game Tuesday night, I have to give the Harvey game a slight edge in the "fan pandemonium" category.

Nick said...

now we know why we have to wait 20 minutes before seeing our dentist even when we show up on time. nice!

Anonymous said...

anyone see the guy in Rivals fall out of his chair before the 5th inning? Wish I had a video and Lefebvre's reaction. It was priceless.

Anonymous said...

Mark LaFlamme "Beautiful. I love that there was a sizeable crowd still there to get excited when it all came together. If that was Fenway? Crickets chirping."

I'm a die-hard Royals fan living in Boston (for 12 years now), and I have to ask...have you ever been to Fenway? The fans there are fantastic...they show up early and stay until the end and they have a record "480+ and still counting" home game sell-out streak (since May 15, 2003). These fans BELIEVE the team will win.

I'm glad the Royals fans are getting into the spirit, but I had to defend Red Sox Nation (much to my chagrin...), they aren't always the most pleasant to be around, but they are most definitely FANS.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
anyone see the guy in Rivals fall out of his chair before the 5th inning? Wish I had a video and Lefebvre's reaction. It was priceless.

Guaranteed that 'gentleman' refers to the stadium as the kougar

gbewing said...

as great as that win was -the following losses just wiped it all out- bad baseball all around

aerobica said...

I am glad the Royals used the 9th inning comeback as a springboard into the Cardinals series... guh.

Shelby said...

the Royals are, unfortunately, still the Royals.

i see this team sliding off into 3rd or 4th place soon. very soon.

this is all an(other) illusion.

Chance said...

As I have said many times here, I am a Detroit Tigers fan living in KC for the past 17 years. I root for the Royals, because, well, for so many years both teams sucked and it was like being at the bar at closing time, choosing between the fat girl and the drunk psycho with the yellow teeth and vomit on her halter top. Either way, you are going to be disappointed at the end of the encounter.

The point is, I have never had to deal with both teams being good at the same time. What do I do this year? Which hat and jersey do I wear to the ballpark next week? I guess my question is, which team has more staying power and therefore is worthy of my affection?

Eric said...

Don't worry, Chance, no dilemna --- the Royals are not good. As a matter of fact, they're a Zack Greinke away from being a woefully bad, bottom of the division team. Might be there soon, even with Zack. Their brand of baseball is HORRIBLE. The baserunning is terrible. The fielding is pathetic. The hitting pretty much sucks. The bullpen...well, Sidney Ponson and Horacio Ramirez are apparently the setup men. And contrary to what George Brett thinks, Hillman is over his head, yet too arrogant to know it.

Sorry, but it's hard for me to get excited about a team that plays so ugly, and has already lost Meche-Greinke games, back-to-back....twice.

Casper said...

My God - Yadier Molina stole on us! THE CATCHER IS RUNNING ON US FOR PETE'S SAKE!

Carl Willingham said...

Eric, I couldn't have said it better myself. Bad baseball, not a power team, not fast, not good defensively, not good at the little things, pretty much a Grienke away from....I'm glad they got the last 4 Meche starts instead of DLing him and getting him right. That's thinking long term, not..