The time for analysis is over. The moment we’ve been waiting for these last 29 years, the moment Dayton Moore has been building towards for the last eight years, the moment that the Royals promised to deliver us from the moment they traded for James Shields two years ago is upon us. And it is just that: a moment. A single game. Three unforgiving hours that will shape the narrative of a trade, a season, and a franchise.
It’s not fair. But then, fairness was never the point. If the Royals didn’t want their season to come down to a single game, they should have beaten the Tigers one more time – I can think of a game – and they’d be resting up for the Division Series right now. If the Royals’ season ends tonight, they can’t blame that solely on what happens tonight. They didn’t have to be playing this game. They almost weren’t.
But if they are playing this game, at least they have the man they want on the mound to start it. I would have loved a Monday night tiebreaker game in Detroit – always better to have two chances into the ALDS than one – but at least it spared us the decision to start James Shields on three days’ rest for the first time in his life. I’m as huge a proponent of the concept as anyone – I’ve been advocating the four-man rotation for over 15 years – but you don’t go to that strategy at the last moment unless it’s a must-win game. Monday night wouldn’t have been a Game 7; it would have been a Game 6. But if the Royals had lost, they would have pitted Jason Vargas against Jon Lester in Game 7 tonight. At least we are spared that indignity, and at least I’m spared the 10,000 word column on Yost’s decision that I would have had to write.
- You may have read it already, but I wrote an apology column in the KC Star this morning for my original take on the Shields trade. Many have already complained that my apology was premature, that the Royals haven’t won anything yet, that they were lucky to make the playoffs with an 89-win team, that I’m a wuss for not sticking to my guns. Fair enough. But my apology wasn’t because the Royals have won the trade or that the trade worked to perfection; my apology was that, at the very least, no one can claim the trade was disastrous, and the tone I’ve taken these last two years was much too harsh if the trade turned out to be anything other than disastrous.
If Shields pitches poorly tonight and the Royals lose, that may be all the apology the Royals get from me; it will simply be too soon to evaluate if the trade was worth it until we see how these next few years play out – both in terms of how Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi develop, and whether the Royals narrowly miss the playoffs in seasons where Myers and Odorizzi would have made the difference. But if Shields pitches a gem tonight and the Royals win, well, I’ll write an apology that makes that one look tame. And I'll have a blast doing so.
- Yost has announced his lineup for tonight, and if it looks familiar, that’s because it’s the exact same lineup he trotted out there for the last week of the season. Yost gives his starting players a day off as rarely as any manager in baseball – not only did Salvador Perez catch 150 games this year, but Alcides Escobar became the first player in the history of the Royals to start all 162 games at shortstop.
The only question was whether he would go with Moustakas at third base or try somebody – anybody – who might actually be able to hit a left-hander. This is Yost, so of course he stayed with Moose. I would have started Christian Colon myself; I don’t think he’s a .333 hitter or a .293 hitter in reality, but I think his ability to put the bat on the ball makes him a superior option to a guy who hit .212/.271/.361 and would be facing a same-side pitcher.
I do prefer Moustakas to Jayson Nix, however, and that was a real danger given that Nix has gone 8-for-26 with 3 homers against Lester in his career – he has more hits, homers, and RBIs against Lester than any other player – and we know how much Yost loves pitcher-hitter matchup stats. To reiterate for the hundredth time: there is no evidence that what a specific hitter has done against a specific pitcher in the past has any predictive value on what will happen in the future. The sample sizes just aren’t large enough.
What Nix did against Lester in years past has something to do with how Nix hit in general in years past. This year, he was 10-for-83 (.120) with one extra-base hit. He has zero career hits as a member of the Kansas City Royals. Tonight would have been a foolish time to see if he could get his first one, and if that was the alternative, I’m happy that Yost stuck with Moustakas. At least Moustakas gives you range at third base (along with the too-frequent error), and could get lucky and run into a ball.
The roster itself is hard to argue with. I’m surprised that the Royals are carrying three starting pitchers, but 1) they’re only carrying nine pitchers overall, and 2) all three starters are available for relief work – Duffy and Ventura, in particular, could be one-inning monsters, while Guthrie would be the guy reserved for a 15-inning game if and when all the short relievers have been used up. Duffy and Finnegan give the Royals two power left-handed relievers. Aaron Crow is not on the roster. Jason Frasor is. Hallelujah.
The Royals are carrying 16 hitters, including Terrance Gore, and just as importantly, including both Christian Colon and Jayson Nix. That’s important not because you’d want Nix to bat, but because having two backup infielders gives Yost the freedom to pinch-run for pretty much anyone with Gore in a situation where a run means everything. Moustakas is fair game; Infante is fair game.
The problem is the lineup itself, or specifically the cleanup spot, occupied by one Eric Hosmer. We’ve talked enough about Hosmer’s golden-boy status in the organization, but it’s hard to think of a better example of this than tonight: a guy hitting .270/.318/.398 overall, and .264/.297/.378 vs. LHP, is the Royals’ cleanup hitter in an elimination playoff game. Meanwhile, Josh Willingham, who hit .258/.380/.461 vs. LHP this year, and .248/.368/.486 vs. LHP for his career, is on the bench. At least Willingham can pinch-hit for Moustakas against Sean Doolittle. And then Gore can run. And then Colon or Nix can come in to play third base in extra innings. And then I will be overcome by the pressure and be rushed to the hospital with chest pain.
- My three biggest fears for tonight’s game:
1) That Shields will give up a four-spot in the top of the first and the Royals’ playoff hopes will all but expire about 15 minutes after they started. This isn’t a criticism of Shields at all; this is just an acknowledgment of the reality of being a Royals fan.
2) That Shields’ reputation will entice Yost to leave him in too long, and that Shields will give up a game-winning rally in the seventh or sixth or even fifth inning while the game’s best bullpen trio sits beyond the outfield wall, helpless to stop the bleeding. That, to me, is the dangerous flipside to the value of Big Game James: none but the very best starting pitchers remain being their team’s best option on the mound the third, or especially the fourth time through the lineup. If Yordano Ventura were starting this game, the Royals would get nearly the same quality, and at the same time Yost would be quick to turn to someone else if and when Ventura got into a jam. In the regular season, Shields has earned the right to pitch out of jams. This isn’t the regular season. This isn’t even Game 2 of the ALCS. This is a Game 7, and Yost HAS TO HAS TO HAS TO manage as if it’s a Game 7. I’m terrified he won’t.
And that’s all I got before I head to the park. If you’re at the game, stop by; I believe I’ll be in Section 116 [Edit: NOT section 119], Row U, although follow me on Twitter for confirmation.
Tonight’s the night I’ve been waiting for for a generation, and yet tomorrow baseball might leave us to face the fall all alone. It’s a brutal game. But baseball owes us nothing. Even if the Royals do.