Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Legacy Of The 2014 Royals, Part 2.

First off, while I realize this interests few people besides myself, I have decided that the 1995 Indians should be eligible for the list on my last post, and therefore should rank #1 overall.

I was conflating with the 1995 Indians with two other dominant regular season teams that fell short in the playoffs, the 1954 Indians (111-43, swept by the New York Giants in the World Series) and the 2001 Seattle Mariners (116-46, lost in the ALCS to the Yankees in five games). That was a mistake. The 1995 Indians had a much different set of circumstances than the other two teams.

The 1954 Indians had just won the World Series six years earlier, making their loss at the hands of the 97-57 Giants not only an upset, but a disappointment – a pennant wasn’t that much to celebrate in Cleveland. They could have no idea in 1954 what was to come. And the 2001 Mariners only made it to the ALCS, which they had just done the year before as well as back in 1995. That team had to make it to at least the World Series to do something special – the Mariners had never been to the World Series, and thanks to the 2001 Mariners falling short, they still haven’t.

But the 1995 Indians…that team was different. That team hadn’t been to the playoffs in forty-one years, since the 1954 Indians. From 1982 to 1993 they had 11 losing seasons in 12 years…following their only winning season in 1986, Sports Illustrated famously predicted that they would win the World Series in 1987 – the Indians lost 101 games, making them the worst team in baseball and SI’s prediction literally the worst prediction you can possibly make. That was just eight years earlier. Just four years earlier, in 1991, they had lost 105 games. In 1989, Major League came out. Even Hollywood saw the Indians as the baseball team most synonymous with losing.

In 1994, they were coming together, and might have made the playoffs were it not for the strike. They were expected to be really good in 1995. But no one thought they’d be this good. Remember, the 1995 season was only 144 games long – their record extrapolates to 113-49 over a full season. They had 12 walk-off wins during the season. They then stormed through the ALDS and ALCS to the World Series, where they lost to the Braves…and while the Braves only went 90-54, no one really thought it was a huge upset, not with the Braves’ pitching staff, or the fact that the Braves had been to two of the three previous World Series already. Even after that season, with the incredible young offense the Indians had built, everyone expected that 1995 was just the beginning of a long run of success for the Indians…and everyone was right, as that was just the first of their five straight AL Central titles.

(Also, it occurred to me that for a team that didn’t even win a pennant, the 1984 Chicago Cubs deserve a mention. Maybe it’s because I live in Chicago, but it’s amazing how much that team still resonates today.)

So yeah, if I had to pick one non-championship team to root for in the last 60 years, it would be the 1995 Indians. Here, then, is my list of the five most enjoyable non-championship seasons in the last 60 years:

1) 1995 Indians
2) 1967 Red Sox
3) 1991 Braves
4) 2007 Rockies
5) 2014 Royals

I got a chance to root for one of them. I’ll take that.


The Royals not winning Game 7 upset an awful lot of my plans. I was planning to spend a truly irresponsible amount of money on a wall of photographs of iconic moments from the postseason – I had like a dozen such moments already picked out – for my house, and the same for my medical office. I was planning to be a guest on The B.S. Report. I was working on the lyrics to a new sixth-inning song for the Royals to play. I was planning to walk barefoot from my home in Chicago to Kansas City, then crawl on my hands and knees to Kauffman Stadium, and then grovel outside Dayton Moore’s office and beg for forgiveness until security arrived.

Those plans have been dashed, but I still have much to be thankful for. The Royals might have lost Game 7, but they won damn near everything else. For one thing: the Royals went 11-4 in the postseason. Not only is that the best playoff winning percentage ever for a team that didn’t win a championship, it’s the best possible playoff record for a non-championship team. Until the Wild Card game was introduced three years ago it wasn’t possible to do better than 10-4, and in fact the best playoff record by any non-championship team in the three-division era had been 10-7. To go 11-4 requires a perfect confluence of events: qualify for the Wild Card game, win the Wild Card game, sweep the LDS, sweep the LCS, lose the World Series in seven games. It might be a decades before another team goes 11-4 without winning the World Series.

The Royals had a better postseason record than most of the teams that won the World Series. The Giants, of course, went 12-5 in the playoffs this year. They are the first team to win 12 playoff games, thanks to being the first world champion to go through the Wild Card game. Of the 20 previous world champions in the wild card era (1981 and 1995-2013), just seven lost fewer than four games in the playoffs, and three teams (the 1996 and 2009 Yankees and 2010 Giants) went exactly 11-4. Which means that the Royals had a better playoff record than 11 of the 21 world champions in the wild card era.

That doesn’t make them the world champions. But it does mean that we Royals fans experienced as much playoff joy and as little playoff heartbreak as it is possible to experience without winning a title.

The Royals played in 15 postseason games this year. They had played in only 43 postseason games in the entire history of the franchise prior to this point. They won nearly as many playoff games in one month (11) as they had won in their previous 45 seasons (18). They won more playoff games in 2014 (11) than they did (10) in six postseason appearances from 1976 to 1984 combined.

The Royals had a pretty terrible postseason record as a franchise coming into 2014, at 18-25. They are now a .500 team overall, at 29-29.

Mike Moustakas not only set the team record for most homers (5) in a single postseason, he now ranks second in career postseason home runs as a Royal, behind only George Brett’s 10. Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer are tied for sixth on the Royals list of career hits in the postseason, with 20; Alcides Escobar is eighth, with 19. Alex Gordon is tied with Amos Otis for third in career postseason doubles, with 6. James Shields is fourth all-time among Royals pitchers in postseason strikeouts, tied with…Wade Davis.

After a generation with no playoff moments to speak of, the Royals had a decade’s worth of playoff moments in one postseason. The Royals have now played more postseason games this century than the Mariners or the Orioles or the Nationals, and as many as the Brewers. They won more playoff games this year than the Twins have won (6) in the last 20 years. They won nearly as many playoff games this year as the Padres have won (12) in their existence.

But it’s not just that the Royals finally have a ledger under “postseason games in the 21st century”. It’s not just that they’ve played in the postseason, or even won in the postseason, it was the way they won this postseason. They’re the first team in the history of baseball to win four extra-inning games in one postseason. Using a simple definition of “dramatic victory” – a victory where the winning run scores in the ninth inning or later – the Royals had five dramatic victories in their first six playoff games.

In the entire history of the Royals franchise prior to 2014, you know how many dramatic victories they had in the postseason? Two. The first was Game 3 of the 1980 World Series. The Phillies had scored a run in the eighth to tie the game; in the bottom of the tenth, Willie Aikens singled home Willie Wilson from second base with two outs to end the game. The second was Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, which should need no explanation. The Royals had lost six games in the ninth inning or later – including Game 5 in both the 1977 and 1978 1976 and 1977 ALCS (remember, those were best-of-five series back then) along with Game 5 of the 1980 World Series, Games 2 and 4 of the 1985 ALCS, and Game 2 of the 1985 World Series.

The Royals had more dramatic victories in their first three playoff games this year than they had in their entire franchise history. They had only won one extra-inning playoff game before 2014; they won four this year. They had never hit a home run in extra innings in the postseason before; they hit four this year.

Five dramatic victories in six games.

How unusual is that? The St. Louis Cardinals have played 120 postseason games since 2000. They’ve gone 63-57 in those games – incredibly, the Royals are farther above .500 in playoff games than the Cardinals this century. Of their 63 postseason wins, the winning run scored in the ninth or later in 10 of those games. The Royals have packed half as many dramatic victories in one month as the Cardinals have had playing in 11 of the last 15 postseasons.

Five iconic hits that I may never forget, including Mike Moustakas’ home run into the first row in Anaheim; Eric Hosmer’s blast the following night; Alex Gordon’s towering fly ball in Baltimore; Alcides Escobar’s doubled that hugged the right-field line.

For those four hits, the drama was only diminished by the fact that, being on the road, none of them were game-enders. That was left for Salvador Perez’s walk-off single in the Wild Card game, and it says something about that night that I’m not even sure Perez’s single – which many consider the biggest play of the year – was even the biggest play of the game. Was it bigger than Christian Colon’s Baltimore chop which tied the game two batters earlier? Was it bigger than Eric Hosmer’s triple off the top of the wall which gave the Royals life when they were two outs away from elimination?

And that was just the twelfth inning. Was it bigger than Brandon Finnegan, with all of seven innings in the major leagues under his belt, throwing a scoreless tenth inning in the biggest game of his life, and then doing it again in the eleventh? Was it bigger than Jarrod Dyson stealing third when everyone in the ballpark knew he was going? Bigger than Josh Willingham’s pinch-hit single leading off the ninth, the final hit of Willingham’s career? Bigger than the blizzard of singles and walks and stolen bases which led to three runs in the eighth inning when the Royals appeared to be without a prayer?

Pick out your favorite moment. Decide for yourself what the most important play of the game was – for me it was Hosmer’s triple, but you can make a case for like a dozen different ones. But that’s just it: there was no one moment. There were five straight innings of incredible drama. There were three innings where the Royals put together rallies with no margin for error, and I do mean rallies – what happened in the eighth, ninth, and 12th innings could not have happened without the combined contributions of multiple players. Break any link in the chain, and the 2014 Royals are a mere footnote in history, the team that technically broke a 29-year playoff drought, but was eliminated from the playoffs before the calendar even flipped to October.

I was privileged to be there that night. It was a privilege enough to be at the first Royals playoff game in 29 years, which is why the crowd that night was so electric – those were the die-hards, the fans who understand the import of what, to another team, would have simply been the play-in game to the quarterfinal round. No World Series crowd save for Game 7 could match it. We all felt honored and humbled just to be in the stands that night, with no idea what was to come. In the tenth or eleventh inning, I remarked to my friends with me that night, Chris Kamler and Alex Robinson, that this was the best baseball game I had ever attended in person. And that was before the A’s took the lead again, before the Royals were down to their final two outs again, before they tied the game again, and before they won.

I had sold the game short. The best baseball game I had ever attended? It might have been the best baseball game in Royals history.

As long as drama plays some part in how you define “best” – otherwise Game 7 of the 1985 World Series wins in a walk – there is really one other game that contends for the crown. That’s because there is only one other Royals playoff victory in which the team was losing in the ninth inning: Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. That was a very tense game, scoreless into the eighth, and the bottom of the ninth is easily the most thrilling half-inning in Royals history. And because of the stakes, I think Game 6 is still the best Royals game ever – but with the rather significant caveat that you can’t discuss the game without mentioning the rather significant umpire error that will always define it.

But the Wild Card game is #2 with a bullet. I’m not even sure which game is #3. Some candidates:

1) Game 3 of the 1980 ALCS. George Brett’s home run off Goose Gossage, clinching a sweep and sending the Royals to their first World Series. On the surface, it doesn’t look that dramatic: the Royals were up 2 games to 0 at the time, and Brett’s home run came in the seventh. On the other hand, Games 4 and 5 would have been at Yankee Stadium as well, and the Yankees had already defeated the Royals in the ALCS three times. That was an awfully big monkey that Brett knocked off the Royals’ back.

2) Game 3 of the 1980 World Series. The only other walk-off win in Royals playoff history, on Aikens’ single in the tenth inning, gives the Royals their first World Series win and prevents them from falling behind 3 games to 0. However, the Royals never actually trailed in the game, and they lost the series anyway.

3) Game 161 of the 1985 season. The only regular-season game on our list. The Royals entered the day two games up on the Angels with two games left, but the Angels won that day, and the Royals were down 4-0 to the A’s in the bottom of the sixth. Brett hit a two-run homer in the sixth, Frank White and Steve Balboni hit RBI singles in the seventh to tie the game, and Willie Wilson hit a two-out walkoff single in the tenth to clinch the division. Remember: that victory put the Royals into the ALCS – the Wild Card game, even though it was a playoff game itself, only put the Royals into the ALDS.

4) Game 3 of the 1985 ALCS. The George Brett Game. Two homers, a double, a single, a ridiculous defensive play to nail Damaso Garcia at home plate. Brett scored the go-ahead run in the bottom of the eighth and the Royals won 6-5 to keep from falling behind in the series 3 games to 0.

I’d probably rank them like this:

1) 1985 World Series, Game 6
2) 2014 Wild Card Game
3) 1980 ALCS, Game 3
4) 1985 ALCS, Game 3
5) 1985 Regular Season, Game 161
6) 1980 World Series, Game 6

But you could really make a case, in retrospect, for the Wild Card game being #1. The Royals didn’t just rally in their last at-bat – they rallied in their last at-bat twice, and the first time their deficit was so large they had to rally in two separate innings. While their opponents were scoring five runs on two swings of the bat, the Royals were fighting back with speed and contact – it was like watching two utterly disparate philosophies of baseball clash in a duel to the death, and the Royals’ rapier parried the A’s cutlass over and over again before slicing the fatal wound. And when it was over, there was no controversy over who won.

Game 6 had higher stakes, but the Wild Card game had even more import because of what happened afterwards, which is that the Royals won the AL pennant. If the Royals had lost Game 6 in 1985, they still would have been AL champions. But if they had lost the Wild Card game, they’d have been just the ninth- or tenth-best team in the majors. They wouldn’t have sniffed being Baseball America’s Organization of the Year. No one would be talking about them as a model for how a small-market team should build. Game 6 of the 1985 World Series changed the narrative of that team. But the Wild Card game changed the narrative of the entire franchise. So if you wanted to rank it #1, you will get no argument from me.

A week earlier, I had never seen the Royals play a meaningful game period, let alone in person. Four days earlier, I was there in Chicago when the Royals clinched their first playoff spot in 29 years. One day earlier I had never witnessed a Royals postseason game. And then suddenly I had a primo seat for one of the two best Royals games ever played, a game I’ve taken to simply calling The Game, a game I intend to tell my grandchildren about. I’ll always be grateful for that experience.

I wasn’t there when the Royals clinched the ALDS at home, or the ALCS at home, but I was there for all four World Series games at Kauffman Stadium. I had never been to any World Series games, and now I’ve been to four of them. My wife flew down for Game 2, and it was honestly one of the most romantic evenings we’ve ever spent at an event: five-and-a-half innings of sheer tension in a must-win game, followed by an uproarious five-run rally with Hunter Strickland providing comic relief, and then three innings to party.

I was there for Game 6, and the biggest inning in Royals postseason history. And I was there for Game 7, which was A GAME 7. It was just the sixth Game 7 in the last 25 years. In that span there have been more World Cup Finals than Game 7s. Since 1988 there have been more presidential elections than Game 7s. You can be a diehard baseball fan for a lifetime and never have the opportunity to attend a Game 7. I’ll always be grateful for that experience too, even though the Royals lost.

The Royals lost, but for one brief shining moment they had an opportunity to do something that’s never been done. When Alex Gordon was held at third base, it brought Salvador Perez to the plate, and it occurred to me at that moment that if Perez hit a home run, it would be – without an iota of hyperbole – the greatest moment in the history of baseball.

Consider this: there has never been a walkoff hit in Game 7 of the World Series that came with the home team losing. There have been walkoff hits in tie games – Bill Mazeroski’s home run in 1960, Edgar Renteria’s single in 1997. There have been walkoff hits with the home team losing in Game 6 – Dane Iorg, famously, but Joe Carter even more famously, as his walkoff hit ended the season. There have been walkoff hits with the home team losing that clinched a pennant, like Bobby Thomson in 1951 and Francisco Cabrera in 1992. But the dream hit – Game 7 of the World Series, the bottom of the ninth, your team is losing, and you win the game – has never happened.

“When I was 10 years old,” Yost said, “hitting rocks in the backyard, trying to hit it over the fence for a home run, I never one time thought ‘OK, bases loaded, two out, bottom of the ninth, game five of the World Series,’ you know? It was always two outs, bottom of the ninth, game seven of the World Series.”

The bases weren’t loaded, but otherwise there wasn’t a more dramatic situation possible than the one that Salvador Perez faced. In just five previous World Series has a batter even had the opportunity for a walk-off hit in Game 7 of the World Series with his team losing:

1912: The Red Sox and Giants were tied at 1 after nine innings, and the Giants scored a run in the top of the tenth. But Fred Snodgrass muffed pinch-hitter Clyde Engle’s leadoff fly ball in the bottom of the inning. Harry Hooper flied out with Engle moving to third, Steve Yerkes walked, and then Tris Speaker singled Engle home to tie the game; the Red Sox would win later in the inning. (Technically this was Game 8; there had been a tie.)

1962: The Yankees led 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth, when Matty Alou led off with a bunt single. Felipe Alou and Chuck Hiller struck out against Ralph Terry, but Willie Mays then hit a double to put the tying and winning runs in scoring position. Willie McCovey then came closer to the dream hit than anyone in history, scorching a line drive right at second baseman Bobby Richardson to end it.

1972: The Oakland A’s led the Reds, 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth. With two outs, Darrel Chaney pinch-hit and was hit by a pitch, bringing the winning run to the plate, but Pete Rose flew out to left field.

1997: The Indians led the Marlins, 2-1 in the ninth, but Moises Alou – Matty’s nephew, Felipe’s son – led off with a single. This time it wasn’t in vain. Bobby Bonilla struck out, but Charles Johnson singled to put runners on the corners. With the tying run on third and one out, rookie Craig Counsell came through, hitting a deep fly ball off Jose Mesa to score Alou. The Marlins would win two innings later.

2001: Mark Grace leads off the bottom of the ninth against Mariano Rivera, with the Diamondbacks losing, 2-1. Grace singles. Damian Miller puts a bunt down, but Rivera throws wildly to second and both men are safe. Jay Bell then bunts, but this time the lead runner is cut down. Tony Womack – Tony Womack! – then doubles to tie the game and put the winning run on third with one out; one batter later, Luis Gonzalez would end the season with a broken-bat looper over Derek Jeter’s head.

By win expectancy in Game 7, I’m pretty sure that Tony Womack has the biggest hit in major league history.

(There should have been a sixth game, but in 1926, after Babe Ruth walked with two outs in the ninth down a run, he tried to steal second base – and was thrown out. With Bob Meusel at the plate. And Lou Gehrig on deck.)

And now 2014, and Salvador Perez, who became just the 15th batter in major league history to step into the batter’s box in a situation that every kid the world over dreams about – with his team losing in Game 7 of the World Series, but with a chance to win the game with one swing. He was just the fourth batter, after Mays, McCovey, and Rose – quite the combination there – to do so with two outs. If the season had ended right there, fading to black Sopranos-style with “Don’t Stop Believin’” playing…well, that would have been a more satisfying ending than the actual Sopranos ending.

He didn’t come through, but just the fact that he had the chance is something that I imagine will stick with me forever. My last column was about whether the Royals had the most enjoyable season ever by a team that didn’t win a title. Well, the Royals didn’t just come within one swing of a championship – they came within one swing of the greatest season in baseball history.

What’s the greatest season in baseball history? What season combines drama, sheer improbability, and cathartic victory? There are the 1914 Boston Braves (the “Miracle Braves”) and the 1969 New York Mets (the “Miracle Mets”). There’s the 1924 Washington Senators winning their first pennant, then winning Game 7 in 12 innings after being down two runs entering the 8th.

There’s the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, finally winning one over the Yankees in seven games. There’s the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, winning their first title in 35 years by beating a vastly more talented Yankees team that outscored them 55-27 in the World Series.

There’s the 1978 Yankees, who came back from 14 games down to catch the Red Sox and win a tiebreaker game before winning the title. There’s the 1980 Phillies winning their first championship ever. There’s the 1986 Mets, who combined a regular season coronation – their 108 wins were the most in baseball in a decade – with an incredible six-game victory over the Astros in the NLCS, and then Game 6 of the World Series, featuring a comeback from down two runs with two outs in the tenth inning, and then coming back from down 3-0 in the sixth inning of Game 7.

There’s the 1988 Dodgers, who rode Orel Hershiser’s arm and Kirk Gibson’s magic to a title. There’s the 1991 Twins, who went from last to first and then won Games 6 and 7 of the World Series in extra innings. There’s the 2001 Diamondbacks, who rode Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson to a title and were losing in the ninth inning of Game 7 to Mariano Freaking Rivera. There’s the 2004 Red Sox, who broke an 86-year-old drought and are the only team to come back from a three games to none deficit. There’s the 2011 Cardinals, who had no business even making the playoffs – they were three games behind the Braves with five games to go.

Maybe I’m not the most unbiased person to be answering this question, but if Madison Bumgarner had missed his spot once and left a pitch where Perez could get to it, and if Perez had dropped that pitch into the left field bullpen, the Royals would have had a case to be ranked ahead of every one of those teams – maybe even the 2004 Red Sox. The Royals had a 29-year drought of their own, and they would have won Game 7 of the World Series after being down to their final out.

The Royals didn’t win the World Series. But they came within one swing of something far more monumental than a world championship. They came within one swing of the greatest story in baseball history. How I can dwell on the way it ended? The mere fact that it could have ended differently is a miracle in its own right.

And now I’m done living in the past. It’s time to look at what 2014 means for the future in my final few columns before I turn out the lights here. But first up, an apology needs to be written. An apology I was hoping I’d have to write for the past two years, and an apology many of you have been hoping you’d get to read for just as long.

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.