People ask me, “how does it feel that the Royals are in the World Series?” and I don’t know what to tell them.
I don’t know what to tell them because none of this feels entirely real. That moment 23 days ago when the Royals clinched a playoff spot in Chicago – that felt real, because that was the moment that I’ve been dreaming about for decades. The moment when the Royals were relevant. The moment when they played games that mattered. That was really all that I wanted. That was all I felt like I had the right to ask for.
And then 20 days ago they played a game that mattered more than the 4,500 games before it combined, and I was there for it, and it exceeded my every expectation – both as a game and as a victory. I had gotten my wish. The Royals had won a game that mattered, in front of a packed home crowd and a national audience. Everything beyond that point was just an epilogue.
Except the epilogue has been the real story, and everything before it was just the prologue. I apologize for the melodramatic and Shawshank-ian reference, but I almost feel like someone who was unjustly imprisoned for 29 years, dreaming of freedom the whole time, and then the moment came when I was released and overnight I became a cause celebre, a celebrity, and everyone’s asking how it feels to be famous, and all I ever wanted was my freedom. (You’re right. That’s a horrible analogy.) I don’t know how to process any of this. I imagine many of you are feeling the same way. Those of you who live in Kansas City, at least, get the experience of working through this delirious joy with an entire metropolitan area of fans feeling the same way. Out here in the hinterlands, I have to work through these feelings alone.
Well, at least until tomorrow, when I arrive back in Kansas City for Games 1 and 2 OF THE FREAKING WORLD SERIES. Then I can celebrate with all of you. I can hardly wait.
With all the insanity around us, it’s been nearly impossible to find time to write this column. Apparently the World Series is kind of a big deal. Just finding tickets for these games – not just for myself but for my brother, who’s flying down for Game 1, and my wife, who’s flying down for Game 2 – took up more time than it usually takes me to write a column. It’s hard to turn on MLB Network without running into a story on the Royals. It’s hard to go an hour without someone tweeting a new article about the Royals onto my time. It’s crazy. It’s glorious. It’s exhausting.
I have a longer piece on the emotional aspects of watching the Royals in the World Series slated to be published at Grantland tomorrow. For now, all I can do is try to maintain some level of normalcy, and analyze the Royals on the field like I always do.
The Royals finished off the sweep of the Orioles even as their offense reverted to the offense we saw all season: two runs in Game 3 on seven singles and walk, two runs in Game 4 on four singles, a double, and…okay, five walks, plus a key hit-by-pitch and an even more key error. The Royals won both games despite going 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position, and despite not hitting any homers. Any team can go homerless and hitless with runners in scoring position for two games, and it says a lot about how this team is built that they won both games anyway. I’ve seen a lot of teams that were better than the 2014 Royals, but I haven’t seen many better at winning when they had no margin for error. The Royals have beat their playoff opponents eight straight times because they don’t beat themselves.
And in the ALCS, finally, their manager was as mistake-free as the team was. I said before the series that if Ned Yost continued to make the incremental improvements he had made since mid-September, the manager mismatch between him and Buck Showalter might not materialize. But even I wasn’t optimistic enough to predict what happened, which is that Yost not only held his own, but by the end of the series he might have been pushing buttons with greater accuracy than Showalter did. I already talked about how Yost probably left James Shields and Yordano Ventura in too long in Games 1 and 2, although once he went to the bullpen he handled his relievers with the urgency that the situation demanded.
But in Games 3 and 4, perhaps because Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas don’t carry the gravitas of Shields or the blazing fastball of Ventura, Yost went to the whip at the perfect times. He pulled Jeremy Guthrie after five innings and 94 pitches in Game 3, even though Guthrie had retired the last four hitters and nine of the last ten. With the heart of the Orioles lineup coming up for the third time – Adam Jones, Nelson Cruz, and Steve Pearce – Yost turned to Jason Frasor, who took the opportunity to prove once again that he is better than Aaron Crow.
Maybe you can quibble that Yost should have gone straight to Kelvin Herrera for two innings, the same thing he did in Game 1, but because of the rainout prior to Game 3, the Royals were looking at potentially playing five days in a row, so I think it was completely reasonable to try to limit Herrera to one inning. You could quibble that Herrera should have pitched the sixth and Frasor should have faced inferior hitters in the seventh, but that level of manipulation is almost never seen among managers, and frankly I’m not sure the advantage is large enough to risk taking a reliever out of his usual role. And Yost said afterwards that if Frasor had gotten into a jam, Herrera would have come into the game in the sixth inning.
He didn’t have to, though, because Frasor pitched a perfect sixth. Herrera pitched a perfect seventh, Davis a perfect eighth, and Holland a perfect ninth, making it the first time in postseason history that four pitchers each threw at least one inning without allowing any baserunners. And in the other dugout, Buck Showalter let Wei-Yin Chen face three batters in the sixth inning. Aoki singled to lead off the inning, and Eric Hosmer’s single with one out moved pinch-runner Jarrod Dyson to third base. Showalter probably wanted to let Chen face Aoki and Hosmer because they’re both left-handed hitters, but Aoki is the rare left-handed bat who has hit left-handed pitching better than right-handed pitching in his career.
Showalter then pulled Chen in favor of Kevin Gausman, but as the Royals have done all postseason (at least since Salvador Perez struck out against Luke Gregerson in the Wild Card game), they put the ball in play with a runner on third and one out. Billy Butler was able to elevate a ball to the outfield, Dyson scored the go-ahead run, and the Royals won.
In Game 4, Yost stuck with Vargas to start the sixth inning, in part because left-handed hitting Nick Markakis was due to bat second. Vargas walked Jonathan Schoop to start the inning – no easy feat – but struck out Markakis, and was pulled immediately. Guthrie faced 20 batters in his start, Vargas 19 – meaning that the two starters combined to face just three batters total for a third time in the game. Herrera came in and got five outs, then Davis did his thing, Holland did his thing, and the Royals were headed to the World Series.
The Royals scored their two runs in Game 4 in the first inning, after Lorenzo Cain became the first #3 hitter to sacrifice bunt in the first inning of a playoff game since Steve Garvey in 1984. As much as I have hated certain bunts this season – you may remember this – I didn’t hate this bunt. It came with men on first and second and none out, which is the situation in which the bunt provides the most benefit. Cain didn’t have the platoon advantage, and with the shadows between the plate and the mound, hitting at that particular moment was a difficult task. And most importantly, the on-deck hitter was in a good position to avoid striking out. Hosmer was on deck, and he struck out just 93 times during the season. The pitcher on the mound, Miguel Gonzalez, was not a strikeout pitcher. Hosmer would have the platoon advantage. The odds that he would strike out with a runner on third base and one out were quite low. He didn’t strike out, Alcides Escobar kicked the throw from Steve Pearce out of the catcher’s glove, and the Royals scored two runs.
Now compare that to Nori Aoki’s bunt in the first inning on September 20th against the Tigers. Aoki bunted with a runner on second only, negating the advantage of moving two runners up a base instead of one. Aoki, like Cain in Game 4, was the hottest hitter in the lineup – the hottest in baseball at the time, honestly – but unlike Cain he also had the platoon advantage. He bunted Escobar to third base for one out, allowing the Royals to score without benefit of a base hit – but the next batter, Josh Willingham, doesn’t make great contact. Willingham had more strikeouts (102) than Hosmer (93) this year despite playing in just 92 games. He hit .215, where Hosmer hit .270. He didn’t have the platoon advantage. And he was facing Max Scherzer, one of the best strikeout pitchers in the game.
Two sacrifice bunts, two wildly different risk-benefit ratios, and two wildly different outcomes. Willingham struck out. Hosmer made contact, and the result was a play which really defined how the Royals have found success on offense all year. Put the ball in play. Run like hell. Get a little lucky. (And I should point out that just like Aoki, Cain was bunting on his own. And just as I ripped Yost for giving Aoki the authority to put such a silly bunt down, I'm going to credit him for letting Cain drop a bunt in a sensible situation.)
One well-managed series doesn’t make Ned Yost a great manager. But you know what? Dick Howser wasn’t considered a great manager when the 1985 postseason dawned. He might not have been a great manager even after the 1985 postseason. But he outfoxed Bobby Cox at the perfect time in the ALCS, and in the World Series (after nearly destroying everything by sticking with Charlie Leibrandt too long in Game 2) he was calm and resolute as the Royals made their amazing comeback in Game 6. Howser tragically never got the chance to prove his mettle again, one way or the other. We’ll never know if he was truly a great manager. What we do know was that, in October 1985, he was the right manager. That’s why he’s in the Royals’ Hall of Fame. If the Royals win four of their next seven games, Ned Yost will always be remembered as the right manager as well. And not only will he be inducted into the Royals’ Hall of Fame – he’ll deserve it.
I told you none of this feels real.