Sunday, October 12, 2014

Halfway To Eden.

Sixteen days ago, I was at U.S. Cellular Park simply hoping – albeit with a good deal of confidence – that the Royals would clinch a spot in the Wild Card game that night, a spot which still put them four tiers away from a world championship, a spot equivalent to playing in the Sweet Sixteen round of March Madness.

Twelve days ago, I was at Kauffman Stadium simply hoping – with almost no confidence whatsoever – that the Royals could overcome a four-run deficit with six outs to go. Somehow surviving that game was all that my mind was capable of processing at that moment.

Today, anything short of winning the World Series would be a disappointment. Failing to reach the World Series would be almost devastating. With great success comes great expectations. I can almost see how 15 years of constant playoff appearances could turn someone into an insufferable Cardinals fan. Almost.

But if expectations have been raised, so has the payoff. For the better part of two decades, when someone would ask me how I’d react if the Royals won the World Series, I didn’t know how to fathom the question. I think it was Joe Posnanski who once framed a similar question as analogous to asking “how do you wash a unicorn?” I was having enough trouble comprehending how I’d react to a humble playoff spot.

And yet here the Royals are, with six wins in the postseason and just six wins away from a championship, just two wins away from playing in baseball’s marquis event. Mathematically speaking, the odds that a team that wins the first two games of a best-of-seven series will go on to win the series is 81.25%. The Royals’ odds are probably higher than that, because they won the first two games on the road, and only need to win two of three in Kansas City to keep the series from even going back to Baltimore. In LCS history, 11 teams have won the first two games on the road in a best-of-seven, and all 11 won the series. Of course, that perfect correlation does not hold up in the World Series – that was taken care of by the 1985 Royals. (And later by the 1986 Mets and 1996 Yankees.) The Royals are in a good place right now. But nothing is guaranteed.

They’re in this place because they continue to work late-inning magic at a scale never before seen in the postseason. They are the first team in major league history to win four postseason games in extra innings, and they accomplished that feat by Game 1 of the ALCS. They’ve won all six of their playoff games so far – something only the 1970 Orioles, 1976 Reds, and 2007 Rockies had accomplished – despite entering the ninth inning trailing as often as they were leading (once each). They’ve scored the winning runs in the ninth inning once, the tenth inning once, the eleventh inning twice, and the twelfth inning once.

From the ninth inning on, the Royals have outscored their opponents 12 to 2 in the postseason. From the eighth inning on, it’s 15 to 3, and the run the Royals allowed in the eighth inning came in the clincher against the Angels when they were leading 8-2.

Averaging two runs a game after the eighth inning is a trait that is utterly unsustainable. It is also a trait that, when accomplished over a six-game stretch in the postseason, can profoundly and permanently change the narrative of an entire franchise. The Royals were six outs away from being an afterthought to these playoffs. They are now the greatest story in sports, and this has been the greatest two weeks in my life as a sports fan.

So yeah, it would be a disappointment if they don’t go all the way. But only because I now know that they have a legitimate chance to be the greatest sports story I’ll have the privilege to witness in my lifetime.

The way they beat the Orioles in the first two games was by beating the Orioles at their own game. While the Orioles had more steals (2) than the Royals (1) in Games 1 and 2, the Royals out-homered Baltimore, 4-1. As I talked about last time, this was both the key to the Royals’ success, and not nearly as improbable as it would have seemed from the team’s respective home run totals during the season. Granted, no one was calling an Alcides Escobar shot, but Alex Gordon’s home run off of Darren O’Day was about as unsurprising as a home run can be. And while in a vacuum a guy with Mike Moustakas’ regular season numbers unloading for four homers in six playoff games would be a massive upset, an examination of his track record would suggest that the real upset is how poorly he has hit over the past two regular seasons.

I’m not going to tell you that six playoff games means that Moustakas, at age 26, after hitting .212/.271/.361 during the season, after hitting .233/.284/.364 last season, has finally and instantaneously figured out how to hit. But I am going to say that it wouldn’t shock me at all if he has. Gordon hit .232/.324/.378 in 2009 and .215/.315/.355 in 2010 – when offensive levels were higher – before breaking out with a .303/.376/.502 campaign in 2011, when he was 27 years old. Like Gordon, Moustakas was the #2 overall pick in the draft. Like Gordon, he was a top prospect in the minors, albeit not the top prospect. Like Gordon, he showed promise in his first two seasons in the majors, albeit not quite as much promise.

Like Gordon, Moustakas was thought of so highly because he was a very gifted player. Like Gordon, he struggled to make adjustments at the major league level. Gordon finally figured things out after revamping his swing with Kevin Seitzer over the off-season. Moustakas hasn’t done that, but he has attempted to change his approach at the plate during the season, which might be even more difficult. He had more opposite-field hits in the last six weeks of the season (9) than he had all year to that point (8). While his four home runs in the playoffs have all been pulled, most of the balls he’s put in play this month have been hit to the opposite field. Teams are still shifting against him, but it’s no longer clear that it’s hurting him the way it has all season.

As Fangraphs pointed out, Moustakas’ struggles this year really came down to him getting absolutely killed by the shift, as his BABIP was a mere .220, the third year in a row that his BABIP had dropped (.296 to .274 to .257 to .220). Some of that is bad luck, and some of that may be an inability to adjust – but Moustakas finally started to show an ability to adjust late in the year. Maybe parking four balls in the seats in a five-game stretch – the first time in his entire career he’s hit four homers in a five-game stretch - is a side benefit to hitting to all fields, or maybe it’s just another glorious fluke. But it’s enough to make me think that, even at age 26, we can’t conclude that he’s a bust. By happy coincidence, this stretch all but guarantees that he’ll get an extended opportunity next season to prove that he isn’t one.

Ned Yost was far from perfect in Games 1 and 2, making the one mistake I was most afraid he would make, sticking with a struggling starting pitcher for too long. Neither James Shields nor Yordano Ventura were on their game – Ventura, in particular, had diminished velocity and erratic command from the beginning of the game – and yet both were left out there even when they got into a jam in the middle innings. Shields gave up singles to the first two hitters he faced in the fifth inning, but because he was in line for a win, and because the rules state that a starting pitcher must complete five innings to qualify for a win, there was little doubt that Yost would stick with him. Shields gave up an RBI double with one out, and with two outs and the bases loaded, gave up a two-run single that nearly erased what had been a four-run lead.

The next night, Ventura pitched the fifth inning, and gave up back-to-back singles with one out to put the tying run at third base; when the Royals couldn’t turn a double play on Nelson Cruz – in part because Omar Infante’s lame shoulder kept him from putting much mustard on the relay throw to first base – the Orioles tied the game. Ventura was then allowed to pitch the sixth inning, and while he retired the first two batters – thanks to some typical outfield wizardry from Lorenzo Cain – he pulled himself from the game after feeling tightness in his shoulder.

Keeping Ventura in the game hurt the Royals less in terms of its impact on the game, but it might be the more indefensible error of the two, because it was so clear from watching the game that Ventura was laboring all afternoon. The Royals seem not at all concerned about his shoulder, and given their training staff’s track record, they have earned the benefit of the doubt. But it’s still something that could have been avoided.

But in Yost’s defense, those are about the only mistakes he’s made. He replaced Shields with Brandon Finnegan and Finnegan immediately allowed the tying run to score on a walk, a hard-hit single, a potential pickoff play that turned into a double steal when Escobar’s throw hit Jonathan Schoop in the back, and a fluke pop-up single that landed in no-man’s land behind the mound. With the go-ahead runs aboard, Yost summoned Kelvin Herrera, who himself had come out of a game mid-batter just a week ago, and Herrera got a pair of groundouts, including a huge GIDP that kept the game tied. Yost then brought Herrera out for a second inning and he breezed through it. Wade Davis pitched the eighth, and after retiring the Orioles on just seven pitches, Davis was asked to pitch the ninth as well, after the Royals had squandered their own bases loaded, none out situation, and Davis struck out the 2-3-4 hitters in the Orioles’ lineup on 11 pitches, one of the most devastating and important innings thrown by any pitcher this season. Davis was rewarded with the win when the Royals put up a three-spot in the tenth inning.

Herrera had been asked to get six outs in a game just three times this year, the last time on July 22nd. Davis had been asked to get six outs in a game just three times this year, the last time on May 29th. They had never been asked to get six outs in the same game. But with the opening game of the ALCS on the line, with four days of rest coming in, with an off-day looming two days ahead, Yost adapted to the circumstances. That’s all we’ve been asking him to do all season. It’s as if all the mistakes and frustrations he’s given us for all these years were designed so that he would be ready for this moment. He was, and Herrera and Davis responded by keeping the game tied until the Royals could mount their rally.

Yost was able to get an inning out of both Herrera and Davis in Game 2, and with Danny Duffy warming in the pen in the ninth, the Royals mounted another rally that activated Greg Holland instead. Omar Infante beat out an infield single on a swinging bunt – that’s about the best he can offer us these days, and we’ll take it – and Yost weaponized Terrance Gore. He then had Moustakas bunt, which seems sub-optimal given Gore’s speed, but remember, this is exactly how he played it in the Wild Card game. With a left-handed closer on the mound, Yost decided that even with Dyson or Gore at first base, it was better to bunt them to second and then let them try to steal third, because while left-handed pitchers have a significant advantage holding runners at first base (since they’re staring right at them), they are at a slight disadvantage when it comes to holding runners at third base because their back is turned.

Gore didn’t get a chance to steal third, however, because on the first pitch, Escobar grounded a ball inside the first base line for an RBI double. However, Gore’s speed still might have contributed to this play, because with second baseman Schoop having to play close to the bag to keep Gore’s lead honest, first baseman Steve Pearce was forced to play farther off the line. Pearce might not have gotten to that ball regardless, but it’s certainly something you have to take into consideration on the play. Dyson then used his speed to induce an error by third baseman Ryan Flaherty on his groundball, and then Cain – the MVP of this series so far – roped a single into left field for an insurance run.

And now the Royals come home, and while they have to rely on Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas in Games 3 and 4, the Orioles also have to turn to their third and fourth starters, which means the Royals will get to see Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez. Chen has very good command but is hittable, allowing 193 hits and 23 homers in 186 innings this year; Gonzalez had a 3.23 ERA but a 4.89 FIP, as his peripheral numbers (25 homers, 51 walks, 111 Ks in 159 innings) simply aren’t that impressive. The Orioles might have a slight edge in the Game 3 matchup, but the Royals have at least a slight edge in Game 4. And while they adapted just fine to playing in Camden Yards, the Royals should have the edge from playing at Kauffman Stadium, given how reliant the Orioles are on homers to power their offense, and given that Guthrie and Vargas are both susceptible to the long ball.

And if the Royals should lose both games, well, they’ll basically be where they were when this series started – tied up, with the Orioles holding home-field advantage. But if they so much as split the next two games, they’ll be a win away from the World Series, with three cracks at it.

I’m not taking anything for granted, and if you’ve been a Royals fan for longer than about three months, you know not to take anything for granted either. But I hope it’s not hubris to say that I feel pretty good about our chances. And that I feel better about being a Royals fan than I have in 29 years. Truthfully, I wasn't sure I would ever feel as good about being a Royals fan as I do right now.