Monday, September 16, 2013

The Final Homestand.

When the Royals came to the ballpark on the morning of September 18th, 1995, to begin a 11-game homestand, here were the wild card standings in the American League:

TEAM          W   L    GB

SEATTLE      69  63   ---
KANSAS CITY  67  63   1.0
TEXAS        68  64   1.0
NEW YORK     68  64   1.0

The 1995 Cleveland Indians, one of the greatest teams of my lifetime, were 91-41 on their way to finishing 100-44. They were so good that they suppressed the rest of the league – aside from the Indians and Red Sox, no team in the league had won even 55% of its games. So the Royals, despite having a worse record than they do today, were absolutely in the wild card race.

Moreover, they had an excellent opportunity to gain ground, as they were starting a five-game series with the Minnesota Twins, the worst team in the league, who had a 48-81 record at the time. The Royals won the first game of a doubleheader that Monday.

These being the Royals, they then lost the next four games to the Twins. The Indians came to town and won the first two games of that series; by Sunday, September 24th, the Royals were 69-69 and 4.5 games behind the Yankees for the wild card spot with six games to go. It was over. (The Mariners had already climbed ahead of the free-falling Angels, and wound up winning the AL West in a tiebreaker game.)

The Royals begin their most important homestand in 18 years tonight, and really, they have no business still being in the race at all. The Royals weren’t able to sweep Cleveland last week, and the Indians took full advantage of their schedule by sweeing four games against the White Sox over the weekend. After this series with the Royals, the Indians feast on nothing but Astros, White Sox, and Twins the rest of the season.

But the Rays are 7-14 since August 25th, and the Rangers have suddenly lost six in a row and 11 of 13. Even though the Indians are a half-game back of both teams, ESPN gives them a better shot at the playoffs (68%) than Texas (59%) and Tampa Bay (53%). The Royals are at 7.6%. Here are your standings:

TEAM          W   L    GB

TEXAS        81  67   ---
TAMPA BAY    81  67   ---
CLEVELAND    81  68   0.5
BALTIMORE    79  70   2.5
NEW YORK     79  71   3.0
KANSAS CITY  78  71   3.5

The Royals are still in ninth place in the AL, they’re 3.5 games back with 13 to play…but they still control their own destiny, because on this homestand they play the Indians and the Rangers.

Even better, while the Royals open a three-game series against Cleveland tonight, the Rangers and Rays are playing…each other. Meanwhile, the Orioles travel to Boston for a three-game series, while the Yankees head to Toronto.

So even though the Royals need to vault four teams and make up 3.5 games to get into the playoffs not only is it feasible in the next 13 days, they could easily do the bulk of the hard work by Friday.

Consider this: if the Royals sweep the Indians, these would be standings on Friday morning in a worst-case scenario:

TEAM          W   L    GB

TEXAS        83  69   ---
TAMPA BAY    83  69   ---
BALTIMORE    82  70   1.0
CLEVELAND    82  71   1.5
NEW YORK     82  71   1.5
KANSAS CITY  81  71   2.0

This assumes that 1) the Rangers and Rays split, and 2) that the Orioles and Yankees both sweep their series; 3) the Indians win their Thursday night game against the Astros.

The Rangers then come to town over the weekend, and while Cleveland starts feeding on the bottom-dwellers of the AL, and the Yankees host the Giants, Tampa Bay hosts the Orioles for four games.

Let’s assume that the Royals take 2 of 3 against the Rangers. Once again, here are the standings next Monday morning in a worst-case scenario:

TEAM          W   L    GB

CLEVELAND    85  71   ---
NEW YORK     85  71   ---
TEXAS        84  71   0.5
TAMPA BAY    84  71   0.5
BALTIMORE    84  71   0.5
KANSAS CITY  83  72   1.5

This assumes that the Yankees and Indians sweep, and that the Orioles take two of the first three games against the Rays.

If the Royals sweep the Indians and take 2 of 3 against Texas, they can not be more than 1.5 games back with seven games to play, and while those seven games are all road games, three are in Seattle and four are against the White Sox.

Let’s flip the scenario and assume the Royals win 2 of 3 against Cleveland but sweep the Rangers. Here’s your absolute worst-case scenario:

TEAM          W   L    GB

TAMPA BAY    86  69   ---
CLEVELAND    86  70   ---
NEW YORK     85  71   1.0
BALTIMORE    84  71   1.5
KANSAS CITY  83  72   2.5
TEXAS        81  74   4.5

In this scenario, all other teams would win out against non-contenders, and the Rays would sweep the Rangers but lose 2 of 3 to the Orioles. This is more problematic, in that the Royals would need to make up 2.5 games in seven days on Cleveland. While the Royals play in Seattle and Chicago, the Indians would host the White Sox on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then finish the year with four games in Minnesota.

But that’s not impossible. The Royals would be only two back in the loss column, meaning they could close the gap to two games by winning next Monday while the Indians are idle. Also, while they’re three back of Tampa Bay and half a game back of the Yankees, the two teams play each other for three games.

And again: this is a worst-case scenario. Not only does it require the Indians and Yankees to sweep the Astros, Giants, and Blue Jays – it requires the Rays to win a precise number of games against the Rangers and Orioles.

So here’s what you need to take home: the Royals need to go 5-1 on this homestand. That’s pretty much non-negotiable; 4-2 will put them in roughly the same position they are now, where they need a lot of things to break just right for them in the final week, only they won’t have the advantage of a lot of contenders playing each other.

But if they go 5-1, they’re guaranteed to be in good position with a week to go. It will help if the Rangers/Rays series doesn’t end up in a sweep for either team. It obviously helps if some of the spoilers can spoil a game or two.

But mostly, the Royals just need to win. They need to treat every game like a playoff game. They need Ned Yost to limit his decisions to just “bad” instead of “egregious and indefensible”. They need their best players to play like stars, and they need their role players to step up and be a hero at an unexpected time.

They still control their own destiny. But if they don’t care of business this week, they won’t control much of anything a week from now. No more excuses, no more mistakes. Just win.

And if 40,000 of you are on hand this week to gently encourage them to do so, so much the better.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


I’ve really had my fill of writing about Ned Yost’s tactical decision-making this month. Honest. I have.

But I’ve also really had my fill of watching him make decisions that cost the Royals ballgames and are threatening to bring an end to the most exciting month of Royals baseball in a decade or two.

Let’s set the stage again.

Max Scherzer was dealing for Detroit this afternoon. Maybe he deserves the AL Cy Young Award, maybe he doesn’t, but let’s not let the argument over whether his win-loss record means anything (it doesn’t) obscure the fact that he’s been a phenomenal pitcher all season. In seven innings he struck out 12 Royals, the most strikeouts by any pitcher against the Royals this season, and allowed only a run on a solo homer to Alex Gordon.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Guthrie was…not Max Scherzer. He gave up a pair of two-out singles in the first; in the second, he allowed a leadoff single and then a home run to Alex Avila, followed by two more singles before he retired the final two batters of the inning.

He began the third inning by allowing back-to-back singles to Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez. At this point, the Tigers were 8-for-14. But he retired Andy Dirks, Omar Infante, and Avila in order to get out of the inning.

In the fourth, Ramon Santiago led off with a bunt single, but Guthrie got Austin Jackson to ground into a double play, and Torii Hunter’s bunt attempt failed.

In the fifth, Miguel Cabrera led off with a single, and Fielder doubled to put men on second and third with none out. At this point, the Tigers were 11-for-22 in the game. But Guthrie worked his way out of another jam, getting Martinez and Dirks to ground out to Eric Hosmer with the runners holding, and then Infante to ground out to Escobar.

Through five innings, the Tigers were 11-for-16 with a home run and a double with the bases empty or a runner on first base only – but they were 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position.

This has been the key to Guthrie’s success all season – he has worked out of jams all year long by pitching much better with runners in scoring position. His BABIP, coming into today’s game, was .299 – actually higher than his career mark of .281. But look at these splits – before today’s game:

Bases empty: .273/.333/.454
Man on first base only: .302/.343/.431
Runners in scoring position: .244/.290/.359

What Guthrie has done this year is awesome, and it’s helped to post a 4.08 ERA and win 14 games despite pitching on the edge all year. It’s also completely out of line with what Guthrie has done in his career. For his career, Guthrie actually has a higher OPS with runners in scoring position (765) than with the bases empty (760). Those splits are unsustainable. That doesn’t negate the value of what he’s done this year; it does mean that you can’t just assume that Guthrie has some magical ability to pitch with men in scoring position.

Given the way he was pitching, you could make a strong case that he should have been pulled after five innings, if not sooner. Again: it’s September, you’re in a pennant race, AND YOU HAVE ONE OF THE BEST BULLPENS EVER ASSEMBLED at your disposal. Oh, and because it’s September, YOU HAVE ELEVEN RELIEVERS to choose from.

Guthrie took the mound for the sixth, which I found curious, but I suppose defensible. Avila struck out; Santiago grounded out, and after Jackson walked, Hunter popped out.

The Royals were unable to take advantage of a second-and-third, one-out situation in the top of the seventh, and the score remained 2-1. Guthrie came back out to the mound to face Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Victor Martinez. I would argue that this was a mistake, and I still think it’s a mistake even after Cabrera and Fielder grounded out, and after Martinez lined a single to left, Dirks struck out.

The Royals needed a run and they only had six outs left, but they also got Scherzer out of the game after 116 pitches, exposing the Tigers’ biggest weakness: their bullpen. Drew Smyly has been the Tigers’ best reliever this season, but Alcides Escobar led off the eighth with a double. After Gordon failed to advance him by popping out, Escobar stole third base while Bonifacio struck out – Escobar is now 19-for-19 on steal attempts this year. Hosmer grounded out, but not before Escobar raced home when Smyly buried a pitch that Avila could not keep from bouncing away from him. On a gift run from the Tigers, the Royals had tied the game.

A day after the Royals turned a remarkable defensive play that kept them from potentially losing a game they had no business losing, they had a chance to win a game they had no business winning. Even though the Tigers were the home team, my first thought after the Royals tied the game was that this was now a battle between their bullpen and ours, and I liked our chances.

At no point did I think there was ANY chance that Guthrie would take the mound again. Not after 7 innings. Not after 102 pitches. Not with a collection of bullpen arms that is the envy of baseball lurking behind an outfield fence.

Jeremy Guthrie took the mound. He struck out Omar Infante looking on five pitches. Alex Avila batted. On a 1-1 pitch, Guthrie hung a slider right over the middle of the plate, and Avila did what you’re supposed to do when a tiring starter who was skating on thin ice all game long parks a pitch in your happy zone.

That was the game. Five more batters would come to the plate, two for the Tigers and three for the Royals, and all would make out. Jeremy Guthrie got his complete game. He also took the loss.

Let’s back up here. Guthrie started the 8th inning despite having thrown 102 pitches. Back on May 6th, Ned Yost got second-guessed by half of Kansas City because he pulled James Shields in a 1-0 game after eight innings. That day, Shields had thrown…102 pitches.

And here’s the thing: I never joined the second-guessing, because pulling Shields was the right move. It was the right move EVEN THOUGH Shields had allowed just two hits and two walks in eight innings, and had struck out nine. It was the right move because a fresh Greg Holland was likely to be more effective than Shields facing batters for the fourth time. People got upset because Holland gave up the tying run – but it was the last run Holland would give up until June 16th, and the last lead he would blow until September 5th. (People also got upset in hindsight because it turned out to be the first game in a 4-19 stretch that will probably keep the Royals out of the playoffs.)

But again: pulling Shields was the right move. So how on Earth can Yost pull Shields after 102 dominant pitches in early May, but leave an inferior pitcher having a vastly inferior game on the mound in a September pennant race with three extra relievers at his disposal?

Do you know how many times Yost has let his starting pitcher go back out to start an inning, having already thrown at least 7 innings and at least 102 pitches? Twice, and it was Shields both times. On April 13th, Shields pitched the ninth against the Blue Jays losing 3-1, having thrown 103 pitches. He worked around a one-out walk to throw a scoreless inning.

The other time was on May 17th in Oakland. Shields had thrown 102 pitches, and had allowed the game-tying home run in the 7th inning, when he took the mound to start the 8th. The first batter he faced, Adam Rosales, hit a home run. The Royals lost, 2-1.

So in September, in a pennant race, with ELEVEN relievers on hand, in a tie game, in the 8th inning, with his #4 starter (at best) having thrown 102 pitches, and having allowed 12 hits already, Yost sent him back to the mound. Even though he had only asked his starting pitcher to work that hard twice all season, and one of those two decisions proved disastrous.

It’s true, Greg Holland (1.33 ERA) pitched yesterday, although that was his first game since Wednesday. And Luke Hochevar (1.67 ERA) also pitched yesterday, although that was his first game since Tuesday. But here are the other options that Yost could have turned to:

There was Wade Davis (no runs in four relief innings), who hasn’t pitched since Monday, and has pitched four innings all month.

There was Kelvin Herrera (3.70 ERA), who hasn’t pitched since Tuesday.

There was Aaron Crow (3.55 ERA), who hasn’t pitched since a week ago Friday, and just twice all month.

There was Tim Collins (3.60 ERA), who hasn’t pitched since a week ago Thursday – ten days ago.

There was Louis Coleman (0.35 ERA – one run in 26 innings), who pitched an inning on Friday, and before that hadn’t pitched in a week.

There was Will Smith (1.75 ERA as a reliever), who faced one batter yesterday, but before that hadn’t pitched in a week.

There was Francisley Bueno (no runs in six innings), who threw 19 pitches on Friday, and before that hadn’t pitched in eight days.

There was Donnie Joseph (no runs in six innings), who threw 11 pitches on Friday, and before that hadn’t pitched in eight days.

The Royals have eleven relievers on the roster. Every one of them was available to pitch. Nine of the eleven hadn’t pitched the day before. Thanks to the off-day on Thursday, not one of the Royals 11 relievers had appeared in more than one game in the last three days. They were all available.

AND IT’S THE ONE OF THE BEST BULLPENS EVER ASSEMBLED. Ten of the 11 relievers have a better ERA than Guthrie. (The exception is Luis Mendoza, who’s appeared in one game in the last three weeks.) Seven of the 11 have ERAs under 2.00 in relief. The bullpen ERA for the team as a whole is 2.55, which remains the lowest by an AL team since 1990.

Yost chose to stick with Guthrie. He stuck with Guthrie even though the Tigers were batting 12-for-32 (.375) in the game. He stuck with Guthrie even though, for his career, batters were hitting .305/.387/.426 when they were facing Guthrie for the fourth time in a game.

After Infante struck out, Yost stuck with Guthrie against Alex Avila, even though Avila’s left-handed, and while right-handed hitters were batting .221/.278/.337 against Guthrie this year, left-handed hitters were batting .332/.381/.522.

Yost stuck with Guthrie against Avila even though Avila had already homered against him earlier in the game. (You think single-season platoon splits and pitcher vs. hitter matchups don’t matter much? I agree with you! But those are the stats Yost believes in, and even those stats told him to get Guthrie the hell out of the game.)

With two weeks to go in the season, with the Royals with genuine playoff aspirations on September 15th for the first time in the memories of many of you reading this, in a tie game in the bottom of the eighth inning, with a phenomenal and rested bullpen at his disposal, Ned Yost chose to stick with a league-average starting pitcher who didn’t have his best stuff and who was laboring his fourth time through the lineup.

And the Royals lost the game. Guthrie did get his complete game, even though he allowed 13 hits. It was just the fifth 13-hit complete game of the decade. The last time a pitcher threw a complete game while allowing more than 13 hits? Tim Wakefield, in 1996. There's a good reason for that: pitchers aren't allowed to throw a complete game when they don't have good stuff.

Unlike Monday’s debacle, afterwards even Yost sensed he might have made a boo-boo. “I thought he could get us through the bottom of the order, but I pushed him too far…Hindsight is 20-20, and there will be a lot of that. I just thought (Guthrie) had enough to get us to the ninth.”

Hindsight is 20-20, but sometimes foresight is too. If you’re reading this, you probably had 20-20 vision into the future from the moment Guthrie walked out to the mound in the eighth.

“The way he had pitched,” Yost said, “I just felt real strongly that he could get us to the ninth, turn it over to the pen in a tie game and give him a chance to win the game.”

Give HIM a chance to win the game. Not the Royals. Jeremy Guthrie. Because pitcher wins – which are nothing more than an accounting trick – matter more than team wins. 

Reading that quote, I suddenly feel like Brian Kenny isn’t being forceful enough in his crusade to #KillTheWin. Kill the win? Ned Yost risked losing a game in order to give his starting pitcher a chance to get the “win” on his ledger instead of another pitcher on his own team. Waterboard the win. Napalm the win. Nuke the win.

I wish we could buy Yost some glasses, but I don’t know how you can just wave away what’s happened this week. It’s not just that Yost made tactical blunders that may have cost the Royals two games – it’s that he made radically different errors in each game. On Monday, he pushed too many buttons (pinch-hit for Cain, then bunted with the pinch-hitter, then pinch-hit for Dyson with Pena) in a panicked attempt to do something to score the tying and winning runs. Today, he stood pat and stuck with his starting pitcher when he literally had 10 better options in the bullpen waiting for a phone call.

If Yost kept making the same mistake over and over again, maybe you could drill him to stop making that mistake. But when he overmanages one night and undermanages the next, what do you do?

I don’t know what the Royals will do. But I’ll tell you what the Brewers did in a September pennant race, five years ago today: they fired Ned Yost.

The Brewers made the playoffs. The Royals probably won’t. Unfortunately, they probably won’t whether or not they retain Yost’s services for the rest of this season.

I just hope that they remember today’s game, and Monday’s game, when they decide whether to retain his services for next season.

The Score Board: 9/14/13.

No promises, but as long as the Royals keep winning and keep staying in the playoff chase, I’ll try to keep writing a column every day or two. Let’s jump in.

For the third consecutive series against an AL Central rival, the Royals began with a loss. While Friday night’s loss wasn’t as emphatic and disheartening as the previous Friday, and wasn’t as crushing and preventable as Monday night’s, it was just as damaging to their playoff hopes. They really need to win every series at this point.

If I’m going to rip Ned Yost for his tactical catastrophe on Monday – and...let’s see...I did rip him – then I have to give him credit for fostering an atmosphere in the clubhouse where the Royals keep coming back from tough losses like nothing happened. Friday night seems like a pretty clear loss on paper, but between the outs on the bases and the defensive plays that were almost made, the outcome could have been very different.

Tonight, in the most important game the Royals have played in many years, Ervin Santana was once again everything the Royals could have expected and more. He threw 6.2 scoreless innings on just 83 pitches, walking just one and striking out five. Santana’s command has been an underrated part of his improvement this season; he’s walked four batters in a start just once all year.

The Royals got a run in the first, and then did everything in their power to not score another. After Eric Hosmer’s RBI triple, he was thrown out at the plate on Billy Butler’s grounder. In the third, Emilio Bonifacio walked with two out, then was picked off first base, then was thrown out of the game for protesting the call (which was probably missed). This brought Chris Getz into the game, and naturally in his first plate appearance, he batted with two outs and the bases loaded, and flied out.

Santana nursed a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the seventh, but with one out gave up singles to Victor Martinez and Andy Dirks. At this point I openly wondered on Twitter about whether Yost should pull Santana. On the one hand, he had only thrown 83 pitches. On the other, you have the best bullpen in recent AL history, you have seven outs to go, and you have to win this game. You have to win every game from here on out, or at least every winnable one.

There’s a lot of evidence that a pitcher’s effectiveness doesn’t simply decline with rising pitch totals, but with how many times he has worked through the order – hitters are significantly more effective the third time they’ve seen a pitcher in a game than their second. This was Santana's third time through.

This wasn’t a slam-dunk call, because a right-handed hitter (Omar Infante) was at the plate, and Santana’s slider-heavy repertoire has always made him much tougher on right-handers than left-handers. The decision was in that gray area where you could make enough of an argument either way that it wouldn't be fair to nail Yost to the wall for either decision. Yost left him in the game and Infante hit a slow ground ball that Alcides Escobar made an excellent play on, but both runners moved up.

Alex Avila was due up, a left-handed hitter, in a situation where a single would score the tying and winning runs. At this point in the season, you simply have to make a change there – and Yost, to his credit, did exactly that. Will Smith came in and faced pinch-hitter Nick Castellanos. Castellanos got a moral victory by putting the ball in play – but Smith got the only victory that counts when the ball settled in Jarrod Dyson’s glove.

Getz led off the top of the eighth with a walk, and Hosmer followed with a gorgeous bunt to the left of the mound that Miguel Cabrera had to just put in his pocket. When your #3 hitter can also bunt for a hit when the defense goes to sleep, it just makes him that much more difficult to defend – witness Robinson Cano making the Red Sox pay for their shift with a bunt double yesterday.

With two on and no one out, Butler hit a medium-depth flyball to right field. Getz tagged, Torii Hunter made a perfect throw to third base, and Getz was out. Salvador Perez walked, but Mike Moustakas flied out to end the inning – a flyball that would have brought home a run had Getz not tried to take the extra base.

In the moment, I didn’t mind Getz’s decision too much. The cardinal rule is to never make the first or last out at third base, but this would have been the second out, i.e. with one out, there is a real advantage in advancing from second to third base. If Getz is safe 75% of the time in that situation, it’s worth going. Hunter made a fantastic throw, and you could argue that Getz just got unlucky.

When I mentioned this on Twitter, I quickly got shot down. Hunter was positioned to catch the ball with his momentum bringing him towards the plate, and has a very strong arm – Getz had to know a good throw would nail him. These are valid points. I still think that Getz is probably safe more often than not in that same situation, but it probably wasn’t a 75% chance. Also, Chris Getz has earned our skepticism any time he makes any baserunning decision. Also a valid point.

The Royals had eight hits and four walks, but just one run, and if they wound up losing this game it would have been one of the most painful losses of the season. All they needed to do to prevent that was to get two more scoreless innings from their bullpen, and specifically from their two best relievers, Luke Hochevar and Greg Holland. Consider this: coming into today, Holland’s strikeout-to-hit ratio of 2.58 is the highest single-season ratio in Royals history for anyone with 30+ innings. Hochevar’s ratio of 2.06 is second-best. Granted that we are living in the most strikeout-friendly era baseball has ever seen, these are arguably the two most dominant relief seasons in Royals history.

Hochevar did his part, getting Don Kelly to ground out and striking out Austin Jackson. After he gave up a double to Hunter, Hochevar got Miguel Cabrera to ground out to second base on his first pitch. (For those who disagree with my suggestion that the Royals trade Holland this winter, because Hochevar hasn't proven he can handle the ninth inning - tonight's inning was more pressure-filled than most save situations, and he did just fine.) After the Royals went quietly in the ninth, setting up the most important half-inning in the recent history of the franchise, they called upon Holland, having the most dominant season inning-for-inning in the entire history of the franchise.

Holland proceeded to walk Prince Fielder on five pitches.

At this point, Tigers manager Jim Leyland does what he usually does when his slow, fat, slow first baseman/DH reaches base in the ninth inning, and what Ned Yost NEVER does when his slow, fat, slow first baseman/DH reaches base in the ninth inning: Leyland left Fielder in the game. I tweeted at the time that Yost would have pinch-run for Fielder 100% of the time in that situation. (Actually, I tweeted that he would have “pinch-hit” for Fielder, because it was stressful and my fingers weren’t working properly and paosdkf;lawehads.)

I didn’t comment on the wisdom of Leyland's decision one way or the other. While I think Yost pinch-runs for Butler more than he should – particularly since he rarely pinch-runs for Salvador Perez, who’s only marginally faster – I think in this situation pinch-running made some sense. Pinch-running for the tying run is more important than pinch-running for the winning run, because the downside of pinch-running is that you lose the bat if the game goes extra innings. If Fielder represents the tying run, he’s not going to bat again unless he crosses the plate – and if he crosses the plate, then by definition he will have to score on some sort of ball in play. (A home run would end the game.) If Fielder's running speed does not come into play the rest of the inning, than the Tigers aren't scoring, and Fielder ain't batting again.

Throw in the fact that the Tigers are the home team, and that playing for the tie at home is a useful piece of conventional wisdom, and I think you can argue that the downside of losing Fielder’s bat in the 11th inning is superseded by the importance of getting him home in the 9th. Leyland chose not to. This would prove decisive.

Holland fell behind Victor Martinez 1-0 before coaxing a pop fly to right field that Getz and Lorenzo Cain almost miscommunicated on. He then struck out Andy Dirks on his filthy splider, or whatever that pitch is called. One strike away from victory, though, Holland let Infante pull a ball into the left-field corner for a double.

And so began one of the most spectacular plays in recent Royals history, and one of the greatest exhibits of team defense in a season marked, more than anything, by great team defense.

Even with Fielder running from first base, it was going to be tough to keep him from scoring. There were two outs, so Fielder was running on contact, and Infante hit a lazy, looping line drive that bounced twice before hitting the left-field wall. But Gordon bare-handed it, hit Escobar in short left field, and Escobar threw a one-hopper that Salvador Perez snared, then tagged Fielder just before Fielder touched home plate.

That’s the Cliff’s Notes version. This was a phenomenal defensive play from start to finish, that turned a tie game with the winning run on second base into a win, in a pennant race. And if any one of the three fielders involved in the play doesn’t do a perfect job, it doesn’t happen.

Bill James once wrote – I think it was about the 1986 California Angels – that the teams that run this kind of play, where an outfielder hits a cutoff man who throws to the plate, the best are veteran teams, teams where the players have been playing together for years and know exactly how to operate it. None of these three guys have turned 29 yet, and only one of them was on the roster three years ago – but they ran this play like they had rehearsed it together in a dozen spring trainings.

Gordon will probably win his third Gold Glove in a row this winter, and will probably deserve it. This was his 15th assist of the season, to go with 17 last year and 20 the year before that. That is extraordinary, for a left fielder to nail 15 baserunners in three consecutive seasons. Baseball-reference unfortunately does not allow me to search this data, but Sean Lahman’s baseball database splits outfielders by their respective positions going back to 1954. And since 1954, Alex Gordon is the first left fielder ever to nail 15 baserunners in three consecutive seasons. Only three left fielders have had 15 assists in any three seasons – Bernard Gilkey and Bobby Higginson did it three times each, while Carl Yastrzemski did it six times.

You can see why on this play. Not only does Gordon have the arm and quick release of a former third baseman, and not only does he shave a crucial split second by bare-handing the ball, he puts this ball right where Escobar wants it. Whitey Herzog wrote in his memoir that Casey Stengel used to teach outfielders to aim for the cutoff man’s glove side, so that his momentum will allow him to turn his body to make the second throw. If the cutoff man has to backhand the ball, even just slightly, he has to waste valuable time turning his body back in a position to throw to the plate. Gordon’s throw sailed to Escobar’s left, towards the foul line, allowing Escobar to drift ever so slightly towards the line and then continue his motion by pirouetting towards the plate.

Perez’s play was fantastic as well, reaching glove side to snare Escobar’s throw on a short hop and then come back with his glove arm to tag Fielder. Let’s put it this way: Brayan Pena – who was on deck to pinch-hit for the Tigers – probably doesn’t put the tag down in time.

But the play that might get the least attention – but was the most important – was the glue that connected Gordon’s throw and Perez’s tag. Escobar caught Gordon’s throw just inside the left field foul line. He has to get that ball to his catcher, and he has to do it while somehow not hitting Prince Fielder, who is running in almost exactly a straight line between him and Perez.

There was only one place for him to put that ball – he had to throw it outside the foul line, so that it wouldn’t bounce off Fielder’s ample back or broad shoulders, but close enough to the line that Perez could field it and still tag Fielder. There was a window maybe three feet wide that Escobar had to hit – and he did so perfectly.

(Addendum: as Bob Dutton wrote in his game recap, Perez's catch-and-tag was made more difficult by the fact that he couldn't see Escobar's throw. This makes sense - again, a 300-pound man was running almost directly between him and Escobar. Perez saw enough of the throw to anticipate where it was headed, and put his glove in the perfect position to snare it on a short hop.)

All season long, the Royals have been playing defense at a level I’ve never seen them approach before and that no other AL team can touch. Tonight, three of their defenders – all three of whom deserve at least consideration for the Gold Glove – combined on a play of artistic beauty and immense implications.

And they won, 1-0, for the fourth time this season, their most 1-0 victories in a season since 1986. The Royals have won as many 1-0 games this year as they did from 1991 through 2002 combined. One more 1-0 victory would tie the franchise record set in 1972, when pitchers still batted and the league ERA was 3.06.

Even with Tampa Bay and Cleveland winning, their playoff odds ticked up to 11.0%, because the Orioles and Yankees both lost, and the Rangers dropped their fifth in a row, putting them in a tie with Tampa Bay. With three home games against Texas next weekend, the Royals suddenly have two potential avenues to squeeze into the playoffs. Tonight was the most important game the Royals have played in many years. But it's less important than tomorrow's game.

The fun is still probably ending soon. But I’ve been saying that for a while now, and the fun hasn’t ended yet. On the contrary, it feels like it’s just beginning.