Friday, October 3, 2014

Royals Today: ALDS Game 1 Recap.

Man, did it feel good to type out the words after Royals Today…

- If Tuesday night was a miracle wrapped up into a single game, last night has me starting to believe that the Almighty has more in store for the Royals than simply an ALDS berth. It started right before the game, when I was talking with my 11-year-old daughter and she was telling me about all the new friends she was making in sixth grade now that the four local elementary schools had merged at the middle school level. She told me one of her new friends’ first name, and then said, “and she had a really fun last name – BI-AN-CA-LA-NA.”

I responded like I had been shot.

Tuesday night it was Room 2323. Last night it was a classmate named Biancalana. This is getting spooky, my friends. And if you don’t think so based on that story, you have to think so based on the game itself.

- The one button that Ned Yost keeps pushing no matter how many times it burns him is the “WHO TO PITCH IN SIXTH INNING” button. As Brian Bannister tweeted, “The dreaded 6th. Too late for a starter…too early for a reliever.” Well, if you’re Ned Yost.

Jason Vargas had pitched as well as we had any right to expect, taking full advantage of his outfield defense – Lorenzo Cain had two brilliant catches in the first two innings alone – to keep the Angels off the bases. He couldn’t keep them from trotting around them, though, giving up home runs to David Freese and Chris Ianetta, but at least he had the presence of mind to give them up with no one on base.

I probably wouldn’t have let him start the sixth inning, although I could see a case for it given that Kole Calhoun, one of only two left-handed hitters in the Angels’ lineup, batted second in the inning. But after Calhoun singled with one out there’s no way on earth that Vargas should have been left in there to face the heart of the Angels lineup – Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Howie Kendrick – all of whom bat right-handed.

Vargas got Trout to fly out harmlessly, and to the Royals’ credit it’s possible that they have hit upon a weakness in Trout’s game the same way they hit upon a weakness in Jon Lester’s game on Tuesday. Sam Miller certainly thinks so. But Vargas was clearly surviving on guile at that point; when he fell behind Pujols 3-1 I was literally hoping that he would walk Pujols just to guarantee that Yost would pull Vargas from the game before he gave up the go-ahead run.

Sure enough, Vargas walked Pujols, and sure enough, Yost came out of the dugout and walked to the mound…and left Jason Vargas in the game. I can not comprehend why this particular situation – two outs in the sixth inning with men on base – continues to yield the same lack of urgency from Yost, even after repeated instances of the Royals letting a game get away from them while their best relievers watch from the bullpen.

I mean, if you don’t believe me, how about a future Hall of Famer?

So Vargas was left in to face Howie Kendrick, and he threw ball one, and then Kendrick smoked a line drive that hit off the right-centerfield wall and drove in two runs and the Royals lost 4-2.

Or he would have, if not for one of the most remarkable catches I have ever seen.

It’s not just the confusion and chaos of having two outfielders converge on a flyball at the same time. It’s not just that Lorenzo Cain may have shielded Nori Aoki from seeing the ball with his own fruitless effort to snag it. It’s that Aoki’s face smashed into the wall at the same time the ball hit his glove. If one of you who has watched a super slow-mo angle of the catch a dozen times can answer this for me, but is it possible Aoki’s face hit the wall before he had secured the ball in his glove? And it’s not like the ball hit his glove in the webbing – he had to squeeze tight to prevent it from falling out.

It’s not the greatest catch I’ve ever seen. It’s not the most difficult catch I’ve ever seen. It’s not the most crucial catch I’ve ever seen. But I can’t think of another play in Royals history that combines all three elements together. At least not in the outfield – George Brett’s diving, spinning grab of a Lloyd Moseby groundball and then throwing from foul territory to nail Damaso Garcia at the plate in Game 3 of the 1985 ALCS might have been more amazing, all things considered. But even that came in the third inning, and it only saved one run, and the Royals were leading by a run at the time.

This was a great play, is what I’m saying. And unexpected. And, let’s be honest, stone-cold lucky. Aoki could try to recreate that play 10 times and maybe he’d catch it once. Ned Yost could have left Vargas in that game ten times and maybe he wouldn’t be the goat once. Yordano Ventura gives up that bomb to Brandon Moss ten times and maybe the Royals win that game once.

What I’m saying is, the Royals are living a charmed life right now.

- The Royals’ outfield put on a highlight show, and Alex Gordon wasn’t even involved. Aoki is the Royals’ fourth-best outfielder, and while he twice made catchable fly balls look almost uncatchable with his circuitous routes, he also saved the game and Ned Yost’s hide in one fell swoop.

I’m not kidding. I may want to get a picture of that catch blown up and framed on my wall. Maybe I’ll put it right next to Dyson sliding into third base. The way the last few days have gone, I’m going to need a long wall.

- Yost not only lucked out with Aoki’s catch, but because when Kelvin Herrera did come in to start the seventh only to walk David Freese on five pitches before coming out with a strained forearm, he did so with no one on base instead of doing that to Kendrick in the sixth inning and really making a mess.

Herrera’s injury obviously hurts the team, and while the results of the MRI are unknown as I write this, you have to assume it’s severe enough to keep him out a while. Herrera pitched in just nine games total in 2009 and 2010 because of forearm/elbow issues, and if you remember what happened to Danny Duffy or Luke Hochevar, where upon blowing out their UCL we learned that they had been pitching with a partial tear for years, you have to wonder if the same fate is about to befall Herrera.

I feel for Herrera, and this hurts the team, but not as much as losing Wade Davis or Greg Holland would. Herrera’s ERA is spectacular, but his peripherals not nearly as much; his ERA is 1.41, but his FIP is 2.69 because his strikeout rate is just average, and his xFIP is 3.50 because every pitcher is going to give up a home run eventually, and so far this year Herrera hasn’t. The emergence of Brandon Finnegan gives the Royals a new seventh inning option if they need it. It just complicates what happens before the seventh inning, which of course has been Yost’s problem all along.

If Herrera is going to miss more than a week or two, he can be taken off the ALDS roster and replaced immediately, but if that’s the case he will be ineligible to return until the World Series. The easy and snarky answer to who would replace him would be Aaron Crow, but I’m hopeful that even the Royals have gotten tired of his performance in September, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Louis Coleman instead. I don’t like the idea of Coleman pitching meaningful innings any more than you do, but you can carry one guy like Coleman in the playoffs, for games that are blowouts (in the hypothetical situation that the Royals would ever play one) or strictly to get right-handed hitters out.

- Aside from the abominable decision to stick with Vargas against Kendrick, I actually don’t have a huge beef with Yost’s bullpen management. He replaced Herrera with Finnegan, then went to Wade Davis with two outs in the seventh and stuck with him in the eighth.

Yost got a lot of attention for not going to Holland in a tie game in the ninth, and yes, that is the percentage move. But I’m not going to come down too harshly on Yost for a decision almost every manager would make. Tim Collins was kind of an inspired choice there; if you’re going to use Collins, that’s how you use him, not as a lefty specialist.

The only issue I really had with Yost was that, with two outs and a man on second base, he replaced Collins with Frasor. He did so presumably to get the platoon advantage with C.J. Cron at the plate, but Frasor has a small platoon split and Collins has none to speak of whatsoever – he’s gotten RHB (.675 OPS) out in his career better than LHB (.702 OPS). More to the point, Collins’ primary weakness is his command, and in that situation a walk is essentially meaningless. The winning run is in scoring position; one single can beat you, while it would take three walks to do the same. That’s a situation to bring Collins into the game, not pull him out.

It worked out, as Frasor did his best impression of Collins, walking Cron before retiring Ianetta on a fly out. Duffy pitched the tenth, and when you give a starting pitcher a clean inning, you’re giving him the best chance to succeed. Duffy gave up a single to Calhoun – the rare hit from a LHB off Duffy – but once again the Royals retired the Angels’ 2-3-4 hitters. And Holland was there to pitch the 11th, and if he was distracted by the birth of his son the night before, he didn’t show it.

In 1985, a Royals pitcher became a father one night and closed out a victory the next night. In 2014, a Royals pitcher became a father one night and closed out a vicory the next night. The stakes and the achievement weren’t quite the same as when Bret Saberhagen pitched a shutout in Game 7 of the World Series, but once again, the signs are all there.

- I said before he series that I thought I’d prefer playing the Angels to the Orioles in large part because I’d rather match up with Mike Scioscia than Buck Showalter, and last night was a perfect explanation as to why.

With the game tied in the seventh, after Herrera walked leadoff hitter David Freese, Erick Aybar bunted back to the pitcher. If the intention was to bunt it back to the pitcher, I’d almost understand, because the pitcher on the mound had been in the majors barely a month and might panic and throw the ball away – except, of course, that pitcher was Brandon Finnegan, who has balls of adamantium. The runner moved to second with one out. He did not score.

In the eighth, Ianetta led off with a walk against Davis. The Angels put on the bunt again, and even when the count was 2-0 and it was clear Davis was having difficulty throwing strikes, Scioscia didn’t take the bunt off. Even when the count got to 3-1, he kept the bunt on – in a situation in which 1) a walk was highly likely and 2) if you did swing away, you were in literally the best hitter’s count possible.

Calhoun popped the bunt up for an easy out; Moustakas could have turned a double play if he had dropped it. The runner moved up anyway on a wild pitch, and then Trout walked, which underscored 1) that Davis, at least early on, didn’t have his command; and 2) how pointless advancing the runner to second base would have been even if they had gotten the bunt down.

The Angels did not score. And for good measure, they also got the leadoff hitter on in the ninth when Collins grazed the shoestrings of Gordon Beckham’s back foot with a pitch. Erick Aybar bunted Beckham to second. The Angels did not score.

Ned Yost drives me crazy, and in September the Royals bunted at in opportune times. But for the season, the Royals only had seven more sacrifice bunts (33 to 26) than the Angels, even though the Angels had the best offense in the league. (ALL NINE HITTERS in their lineup yesterday had an OPS+ above 100. The Royals, by comparsion, had two.)

If Yost had called those bunts, in those situations, and hadn’t taken off the bunt on a 3-1 count, and the Royals had lost by one run, this column would be ten times longer and have a much more focused subject matter. Scioscia killed his team with his managing choices in the late innings. As a Royals fan, I thank him.

- While the winning run came on a home run, the story of the Royals’ other two runs was, once again, about their speed. In the third inning, Moustakas walked with two outs, and Jered Weaver threw over to first base at least three or four times – enough that I openly wondered whether the Royals’ speed game was just completely getting into the heads of their opponents. I mean, when you’re worried about Mike Moustakas…you’re probably not focusing on the #1 priority, which is the batter at the plate. And then Weaver hung a breaking ball that Escobar blasted into the corner for a run.

In the fifth, Alex Gordon hit a fly ball in front of Trout…and when Trout appeared to briefly lose the ball in the lights, Gordon turned the corner hard and made it into second safely. This allowed him to move up on two fly balls, the first by Salvador Perez that almost went out, and the second by Omar Infante.

The Royals had a runner on third base with one out three times in their last two games with Nori Aoki, Christian Colon, and Infante – three of the team’s best contact hitters – at the plate. All three found a way to get the run home. All three runs proved indispensible.

Put the ball in play. Run like hell. Then put the ball in play again. I don’t know how it keeps working, but it keeps working. And the Royals need to win just two of their next four games to move on to the ALCS.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Coronary At The K.

If you told me today that I will never in my life again witness a game that good in person, I don’t think I’d be upset. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised.

If you haven’t read what I wrote about the Royals’ first playoff game in 29 years for Grantland, please do so here. After nearly 6,000 words, I don’t have anything more to say.

HAH! Just kidding. I always have more to say.

- I’m not going to rehash Ned Yost’s decision to use Yordano Ventura in relief too much, because so many people already have. I mean, when the broadcaster during the game and an analyst after the game on TV – both of whom are ex-players, one of whom is going to the Hall of Fame, and have the credibility to speak on such things – rip you to shreds, and you WON THE GAME, I think it’s safe to say it was a bad decision.

It’s like the nation hasn’t just woken up to the idea that the Kansas City Royals are a playoff team; they’ve also woken up to the idea that Ned Yost, whatever his strengths are, is a tactical disaster waiting to happen.

And yet...the Royals won. They won after being down 7-3 with six outs to go. They had to score four runs in two innings just to tie the game…and they had only scored four runs in a game about half the time this year (83 of 162). They hadn’t scored eight runs in a game since August 17th.

And they did. Does Ned Yost deserve some credit for that? I don’t think we can entirely rule that out. It would have been easy for this team to give up at that point, to pack it in, to say to themselves, “well, we got to the playoffs, so this is a successful year no matter what,” and go gently into that good night. Yeah, Yost screwed up, but Jon Lester has owned the Royals throughout his career, and his postseason ERA was barely 2 before the game, and we did the best we could and scored three runs and it just wasn’t enough.

They didn’t. They fought like hell, they tied the game, and when they found themselves down again in the 12th inning, they fought like hell some more, and tied the game again, and won it.

Evaluating a manager based on his impact in the clubhouse is essentially impossible from an analytic perspective, and so it’s tempting for analysts to say that there is no impact. But given that Yost’s impact in the clubhouse is supposed to be his single greatest strength as a manager, perhaps it’s not fair to rip him for what he does poorly without at least acknowledging that he might deserve credit for what he’s supposed to do well, especially when the Royals surged in the second half after a disappointing first half for the second straight year, and then they re-enacted the 2014 season (and the A’s 2014 season) in the span of one glorious game.

Ned Yost is, on the balance, a terrible tactician. But if a manager is Ron Washington from 7 pm to 10 pm but George Washington from 10 pm to 7 pm, on the balance he’s an asset. It’s just that we don’t know all that goes on from 10 pm to 7 pm.

I’m not saying Yost is an asset overall. I am saying I’m not 100% convinced the good doesn’t outweigh the bad. It doesn’t mean we can’t rip him a new one when he screws up, because his mistakes are both obvious and correctable. But it does mean realizing that we have to take the whole package with a manager, both good and bad.

- And the advantage of having a manager who is poor tactically but strong in terms of leadership is that the former can be taught. It’s pretty much impossible for a manager to change their personality for the better, at least on the fly – I’d argue that Buck Showalter has probably done so over the course of his career, and he’s one of the five best managers in the world right now, maybe one of the three best. But a manager can learn from experience to make better in-game decisions.

The problem is that learning from experience generally requires you to lose a game. It took a couple of losses to ram the point home, but Aaron Crow is not on the Royals’ postseason roster, while Jason Frasor was the winning pitcher Tuesday night. And Yost presumably has learned from what happened Tuesday that it’s probably not best to bring in a starting pitcher on his throw day in the middle of an inning with men already on base when you have your entire HDH trio rested and ready to go.

Look, I liked having Ventura on the roster for that game, because if the game went extras or Shields had to depart in the second or third inning, I thought having Ventura throw 100 mph for an inning or two was better than Crow or Bueno or one of the Colemans. And I LOVED the fact that Yost pulled Shields there – my #1 concern going into the game was that he wouldn’t jump on the fact that a Game 7 meant not sticking with any pitcher in a bind. But that particular spot – sixth inning, two men on, nobody out – cried out for a different skill set. The sixth inning was Finnegan’s spot – particularly with lefties Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick batting – and the start of the tenth inning was Ventura’s spot.

I do think that every time Yost pushes a button and singes one of his fingers, he learns to stop pushing that button. The problem is that pushing the button usually costs the Royals a game. Improbably, Tuesday night’s win washes away every mistake Yost has made all year – Crow, Scott Downs vs. Jonny Gomes, the Ibanez at-bat vs. Detroit, everything. It all starts fresh tonight. If the Royals had won 110 games this year, the only difference was that they’d have one extra potential home game in the ALDS and ALCS. (And given how well this team has played on the road, it might not matter anyway.)

The problem is, we don’t know how many other buttons there are on Yost’s dashboard that are booby-trapped. It seems like he’s defused all the obvious ones, but you never know.

- Hey, remember how the Royals were 26-76 in games with a crowd of 30,000 or more since 2004? Well, it’s now 27-76.

And there’s no way the Royals win Tuesday night’s game if it were on the road. These amazing, wild, historic postseason games – think about Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, or Game 6 of the 1986 World Series – tend to be won by the home team. Some of that is because a home team win makes them more historic, but I think – someone please run the data – that home teams do win a preponderance of the really close, extra-inning games in October. A crowd that large has an impact. We just saw why. Those 76 losses, like everything else, suddenly explained themselves Tuesday night.

- Dave Roberts’ steal remains the most significant one in postseason history, but I think it’s safe to say – old-times correct me if I’m wrong – that Jarrod Dyson’s steal in the ninth was the most significant one in Royals history. Practically the same situation: down a run in the ninth, the base means everything, everyone in the stadium knows you’re going…and you go. The only difference was that Dyson stole third base with one out instead of second base with none out.

Jeff Sullivan over at Fangraphs has a spectacular breakdown of how Dyson stole that base, which I encourage you to read.

“'Maury Wills once told me that there will come a point in my career when everyone in the ballpark will know that I have to steal a base, and I will steal that base. When I got out there, I knew that was what Maury Wills was talking about.”

Roberts said that in 2005, and one day soon maybe Dyson will say the same thing.

- The second-most significant steal in Royals history? Probably Christian Colon’s, three innings later, allowing him to score from second base on Salvador Perez’s single. It was a good day for the stolen base. It was a very good day.

- I don’t know how you rate the significance of Alcides Escobar’s steal or Lorenzo Cain’s steal in the 8th, given that the Royals were down four runs and three runs, respectively, at the time. From a cost-benefit standpoint, they were both a terrible risk. If either one had been thrown out, the decision to send them would have been ripped apart almost as much as the decision to bring in Ventura.

But they were safe, and at least in Escobar’s case it wasn’t close. And while I almost never put too much stock in psychological explanations for what happens in baseball, I really do wonder if the Royals got in the A’s head with their running game. The A’s starting catcher got injured, and the new catcher doesn’t have a good throwing reputation, and Escobar got on, and steals in a situation where you shouldn’t steal, and then Cain singles, and steals in a situation where you shouldn’t steal, and Lester walks Hosmer, and suddenly the tying run is at the plate.

I was sitting with Chris Kamler - @TheFakeNed – and he loved both Escobar’s and Cain’s steal. I thought he was nuts, but I now think he was dead on. Yeah, there was a risk, but there was also a reward. The reward was throwing Lester off his game, and it worked. The Royals won. They’re in the ALDS.

There’s also this: before the game I was speaking with 810 WHB’s Nate Bukaty, and he told me – I think I can say this now because he talked about it on air after the game – that the Royals had told him that they had figured out something on Lester. A tell of some sort, maybe, but they seemed like they had unlocked a secret on how to steal on him without risk. They stole seven bases Tuesday night, tying the all-time postseason record, and their only caught stealing came when Yost put on a delayed double steal with Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer, which 1) is as dumb as it sounds and 2) wasn’t his worst decision of the night. But on actual steal attempts, they were 7-for-7. Five of those seven scored a run. And two of them – the tying run in the ninth, and the winning run in the 12th – would not have scored without putting the steal on.

The Royals haven’t embraced sabermetric orthodoxy, or at least the traditional sabermetric orthodoxy of valuing walks and power over other things. But don’t tell me they’re dumb. Knowledge is knowledge. Knowing how to run wild on the A’s on Tuesday is the reason why they’re in Anaheim and Oakland is at home.

- Kamler was on fire in the late innings. Not only did he see the value of stealing while down 3 or 4 runs in the eighth inning, but – a quote I had forgotten until Alex Robinson reminded me – at some point in the eighth inning, he said, “I don’t know what’s about to happen, but I can promise you it’s going to be SPECTACULAR.”

As usual with the man who calls himself @TheFakeNed, he was being understated.

- I don’t have time to actually break down Game 1 of the ALDS, but let’s just say that I wouldn’t start Jason Vargas tonight. The Angels hit LHP much better than RHP, and they kill changeups, and Vargas has been terrible for several weeks. I would go Guthrie tonight, not that anyone’s asking.

I think Ventura in Game 2 could work out well, and if he hadn’t pitched on Tuesday it would be a no-brainer. Just another reason why bringing him in was a bad idea – we now have to worry about both his head and his arm tomorrow night.

- I do love the 25-man roster for the ALDS, and probably wouldn’t change it at all. They made the difficult but necessary decision to drop Raul Ibanez in favor of keeping Gore. They also kept Tim Collins instead of Francisley Bueno, which I was surprised by because Collins was banished to Omaha for two-thirds of the season, but Collins is the better pitcher. Just as long as Yost doesn’t realize he’s not really a LOOGY. If he’s used to get one LHB out in a key spot, it’s probably a mistake. But the Angels have very few LHB anyway, so having the LHP who can pitch to both sides makes sense, since if Collins or Bueno are being used there’s a good chance it’s an extra-inning game anyway.

- After waiting 29 years for the Royals to play a playoff game, I only had to wait 48 hours for another one. And they’re playing again tomorrow. And again on Sunday. Man, I could get used to this.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Wild Card.

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.

3) Bunts!

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.