Saturday, January 23, 2016

Top Moments (#190 - #181) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

These plays are not so memorable that you probably remember them all. But they are memorable enough that you probably should.

Moment #: 190
Date: October 12, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 4, @ Houston Astros
Score: Kansas City 2, Houston 6, Bottom of the 7th
Situation: One out, men on second and third
Count: 1-1
Matchup: Luis Valbuena vs. Ryan Madson
Result: Flyout to left field, runners hold
WPA: 1%

Summary: With the season seemingly lost anyway, Ryan Madson stops the bleeding. Not that it really mattered. Right?

Link to video: Here.

This very moment represents the nadir of the Royals’ odds of winning a world championship in 2015. Most everyone remembers that the Royals had the tying run on second base in the top of the 7th with one out, and Terrance Gore stole third base with room to spare, only to be called out on review because his foot may have come off the bag for a split second as he bounced up (possibly because Luis Valbuena pushed him ever so slightly, and in any case on replay it’s not clear that Valbuena’s glove was in contact with Gore’s body for that split second). And most everyone remembers that after the Royals’ rally fizzled, the Astros seemingly put away the game, and the series, in the bottom of the inning, when Carlos Correa homered off Ryan Madson with a man aboard to make it 5-2, and Colby Rasmus followed with his 37th home run of the postseason.

What most do not remember, however, is that after Correa and Rasmus went back-to-back, Madson allowed a single to Evan Gattis, and then a single to Carlos Gomez, on which pinch-runner Jake Marisnick advanced to third base, with Gomez moving up to second on the throw. And yet after allowing the last four batters to go homer-homer-single-single, Ryan Madson stayed in the game. Maybe Ned Yost was having one of his genius moments. Or maybe he was thinking about how to congratulate the Astros after the game, and forgot to pull Madson. Or maybe he just gave up.

We’ll call it genius. Because at that moment, the Royals’ odds of winning the game were about 1.6% – translating to 1 in 60 – which means their odds of winning the World Series were about 1 in 500. The Royals had six outs left and trailed by four, but they were about to trail by five or six. Instead, Madson got Luis Valbuena to hit a shallow fly ball to left field, much too shallow for Marisnick to even think about tagging against Alex Gordon. Madson would then strike out Marwin Gonzalez on three pitches to get out of the inning. The Royals’ odds of winning the game had doubled to 3.2%, or to two snowballs’ chances in hell.

But that’s the thing about these Royals. You give them a snowball’s chance, and they’ll run with it. You give them two snowballs’ chances, and you might as well pack it in right then and there. The Astros left the Royals the tiniest crack in the wall to escape from. The Royals did the rest.

Moment #: 189
Date: October 11, 2014
Game: 2014 ALCS Game 2, @ Baltimore Orioles
Score: Kansas City 2, Baltimore 1, Top of the 3rd
Situation: Two outs, men on first and third
Count: 1-1
Matchup: Billy Butler vs. Bud Norris
Result: Double, one run scores
WPA: 11%

Summary: With two outs and a runner in scoring position, Billy Butler does what he does best, lacing a double to the opposite field.

Link to video: Here.
After winning Game 1 of the ALCS in extra innings, the Royals started Game 2 with two runs in the 1st, but with a runner on second and one out, Billy Butler grounded out weakly and failed to add to the lead. The Orioles would halve the lead an inning later, but in the third Butler would get the run back with two outs with a nifty piece of hitting off of Bud Norris, taking a slider on the outside corner to right field to drive in Lorenzo Cain and move Eric Hosmer to third. Alex Gordon would strike out to end the rally, but that run took on added importance when the Orioles tied the game on Adam Jones’ two-run homer in the bottom of the inning, and when the game stayed tied into the 9th.

Moment #: 188
Date: October 8, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 1, vs. Houston Astros
Score: Houston 3, Kansas City 1, Bottom of the 4th
Situation: Two outs, bases empty
Count: 1-1
Matchup: Kendrys Morales vs. Collin McHugh
Result: Home Run, one run scores
WPA: 12%

Summary: Kendrys Morales homers for the second time in the game, but the Royals still trailed.

Link to video: Here.

The Royals found themselves behind quickly when the 2015 postseason began, down 3-0 in the middle of the 2nd inning, but Kendrys Morales led off the bottom of the 2nd with a home run to cut the lead to 3-1. Two innings later, Morales batted with two outs and no one on, and homered again in his first two postseason at-bats as a Kansas City Royal. He became the third Royal ever – and the first since George Brett’s legendary Game 3 performance in the 1985 ALCS – to hit two home runs in a game. (Willie Aikens did it twice in the 1980 World Series, and Brett hit three homers in Game 3 of the 1978 ALCS.) Like Brett’s three-homer game, Morales’ effort came in a losing cause; the rest of the Royals’ hitters combined for four singles and a walk, and they lost 5-2. But it was a cool moment at the time, if for no other reason than to watch Collin McHugh yell an expletive into his glove.

Moment #: 187
Date: October 14, 2014
Game: 2014 ALCS Game 3, vs. Baltimore Orioles
Score: Baltimore 1, Kansas City 0, Bottom of the 4th
Situation: One out, bases loaded
Count: 0-0
Matchup: Alex Gordon vs. Wei-Yin Chen
Result: Groundout to second base, 4-3, tying run scores
WPA: 2%

Summary: Alex Gordon hits a slow ground ball to the second baseman with the bases loaded and one out to drive in a crucial run. No, not that game.

Link to video: Here.
One thing that makes these last two seasons even more special is how history tends to repeat itself, and one event seems in retrospect to foreshadow another. Sometimes even events that you had forgotten about can have a special resonance when witnessed through the prism of time. Consider this play, in Game 3 of the 2014 ALCS, as the Royals returned home with a 2-0 series lead but needed to keep their foot on Baltimore’s neck after Jarrod Dyson had all but guaranteed the series wasn’t returning there. Down 1-0 in the bottom of the 4th inning, the Royals loaded the bases with one out to bring Alex Gordon to the plate, in a situation where a run-scoring out would be significant.

Gordon came through on the first pitch from Wei-Yin Chen, hitting a slow ground ball to the left of the second baseman, too slow to get through the infield but also too slow for Ryan Flaherty to have a play anywhere except at first base. The Royals scored the tying run, and with the Royals’ bullpen soon to be activated – the Orioles wouldn’t get a runner on base the rest of the game – a tie game meant the Royals had the Orioles right where they wanted them.

363 days later, in a much more crucial situation with much less margin for error in Houston, Alex Gordon would again bat after a walk had loaded the bases with one out, and he would again hit a slow ground ball to the left of the second baseman that would trade an out for a run. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Gordon’s groundout against the Orioles wasn’t quite as memorable or as important, but it was memorable and important enough.

Moment #: 186
Date: October 28, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 2, vs. New York Mets
Score: New York 1, Kansas City 3, Bottom of the 5th
Situation: Two outs, men on first and third
Count: 3-2 (+2 fouls)
Matchup: Mike Moustakas vs. Jacob deGrom
Result: Single, one run scores
WPA: 7%

Summary: Mike Moustakas caps a four-run rally with the fifth single of the inning off of Jacob deGrom.

Link to video: Here.

The narrative before the 2015 World Series was pretty straightforward: what would happen when the irresistible force that was the Royals’ fastball-hitting, contact lineup ran into the immovable force that was the Mets’ power pitching rotation? The question was pretty definitively answered by the end of the 5th inning in Game 2, when the Royals scored four runs off a shell-shocked Jacob deGrom on a leadoff walk and five singles. Mike Moustakas’ single (in a two-strike count), with an assist to Daniel Murphy’s lack of range at second base, capped the rally and essentially ended deGrom’s day; he would not return for the 6th inning. Unlike in 2014, the Royals would take a 2 games to 0 series advantage with them on the road for Game 3.

Moment #: 185
Date: October 16, 2015
Game: 2015 ALCS Game 1, vs. Toronto Blue Jays
Score: Toronto 0, Kansas City 0, Bottom of the 3rd
Situation: One out, man on second
Count: 0-0
Matchup: Alcides Escobar vs. Marco Estrada
Result: Single, go-ahead run scores
WPA: 11%

Summary: Alcides Escobar gets his ALCS MVP bid off right, driving home the first run of the series on his second double of the game.

Link to video: Here.

Alcides Escobar had already hit the first pitch thrown to the Royals in the ALCS for a double, but the next three hitters made out and Escobar failed to score. But his second time up, with Alex Gordon on second base and one out, Escobar again swung at the first pitch, a slider down and away, and hit it just fair down the first-base line for a double, a hit evocative of his 9th-inning go-ahead double in Game 2 of the 2014 ALCS. This double wasn’t quite as meaningful, but it did give the Royals a lead they wouldn’t surrender in Game 1, which gave them a lead they wouldn’t surrender in the ALCS.

Moment #: 184
Date: October 15, 2014
Game: 2014 ALCS Game 4, vs. Baltimore Orioles
Score: Baltimore 1, Kansas City 2, Top of the 9th
Situation: No outs, man on first
Count: 1-0
Matchup: Nelson Cruz vs. Greg Holland
Result: Fielder’s Choice 1-6
WPA: 11%

Summary: Alcides Escobar makes a fine play on Greg Holland’s shaky throw to second base to get one out and stymie a 9th-inning rally.

Link to video: Here.
The Royals were three outs away from their first World Series in 29 years, but they only had a one-run lead in the 9th, and Adam Jones led off the inning with an eight-pitch walk against Greg Holland. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen a team that was down 3 games to 0 in the ALCS, down a run in the top of the 9th inning against an elite closer, rally for the tying run after a leadoff walk and then go on to win the series. So when Nelson Cruz hit a comebacker to Holland, and Holland’s throw to second base sailed wide of the bag, for that split second I was terrified.

But Alcides Escobar came to his rescue, reaching for the throw while managing to keep his foot on the bag just long enough to get the out. Buck Showalter came out to protest, but returned to his dugout in defeat after he got the signal from his own people that no, Escobar really did keep his foot on the base. Two batters later, the Royals were American League champions.

Moment #: 183
Date: October 14, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 5, vs. Houston Astros
Score: Houston 2, Kansas City 4, Top of the 7th
Situation: No outs, bases empty
Count: 1-1
Matchup: Carlos Correa vs. Johnny Cueto
Result: Lineout to second baseman
WPA: 3%

Summary: Ben Zobrist makes a fine play on Carlos Correa’s line drive as Johnny Cueto’s batted-ball luck turns at the perfect time.

Link to video: Here.

For two months and 13 regular season starts, Johnny Cueto had baffled and terrified us with his remarkable inability to get outs on balls in play, a skill he possessed to an uncanny degree during his time in Cincinnati; his career BABIP of .277 as a Red had jumped to .345 during his time as a Royal, with a corresponding 4.76 ERA. He had seemingly lost the ability to get quick outs. He had survived Game 2 of the ALDS by the skin of his teeth, allowing four runs in the first three innings before retiring 12 of the last 14 batters he faced.

But then he started Game 5 of the ALDS, a winner-take-all match, and after allowing an infield single with two outs in the second (which could have easily been scored an error) followed by a first-pitch home run to Luis Valbuena, Cueto would retire 19 batters in a row. Six of them struck out, but the other 13 put the ball in play, only to be turned into outs by a Royals defense that was finally operating in symbiosis with Cueto. None of those outs was more symbolic of that symbiosis than this one. With nine outs to go, the Astros only trailed by two; a baserunner would bring the tying run to the plate. Carlos Correa led off the 7th inning and hit a blooper to short right field, the sort of cheap hit that Cueto had given up in spades since joining the Royals. Only this time, Ben Zobrist used his 6’3” frame and a well-timed leap to pluck the ball out of the air and quell a rally before it started. Zobrist didn’t make a lot of great plays on defense during the postseason, but he seemed to make every makeable one. Few, if any, were more important than this one.

Moment #: 182
Date: October 24, 2014
Game: 2014 World Series Game 3, @ San Francisco Giants
Score: Kansas City 3, San Francisco 2, Bottom of the 7th
Situation: Two outs, man on first
Count: 3-2
Matchup: Brandon Crawford vs. Brandon Finnegan
Result: Strikeout swinging
WPA: 5%

Summary: Brandon Finnegan bails the Royals out of a jam in a playoff game they won by one run. No, not that game.

Link to video: Here.

Shortly after Brandon Finnegan was traded to Cincinnati as one of three players moved for Johnny Cueto, he made some comments about the Royals that were critical of the way he was handled – specifically, that the Royals could never seem to decide whether he should be a starter or a reliever. These criticisms were reasonable – they never did decide, not because of any mistakes on their part but simply because their short-term needs conflicted with his long-term best interests. In the aftermath, though, some Royals fans piled on Finnegan by not simply criticizing what he said, but by implying that he really hadn’t been that helpful to the Royals during their 2014 postseason run, what with his 10.50 ERA in the playoffs and all.

I couldn’t disagree more, and I have nothing but fond memories of Finnegan’s time as a Royal. Five of the seven runs he allowed in the postseason came in one game, Game 4 of the World Series, and was the result of a lot of batted ball luck. His Wild Card Game performance alone should make him immune to criticism from Royals fans, but that wasn’t the only game in which he shined. To wit, there was Game 3 of the World Series, when the Royals had allowed a 3-0 lead to be whittled down to a 3-2 lead because Ned Yost stuck with Jeremy Guthrie in the 6th inning, and then the Giants got a leadoff walk to start the bottom of the 7th off Kelvin Herrera. Herrera was allowed to stay in to face the left-handed hitting Brandon Belt and struck him out, but Yost then turned to Finnegan – making him the first player in history to pitch in the College World Series and the World Series in the same year – to face lefties Travis Ishikawa (pinch-hit for by Juan Perez) and Brandon Crawford. Finnegan got Perez to line out to Alex Gordon in left field - both of these plays are in the video above - and then struck out Crawford to quell the threat and end the inning, walking off the mound by celebrating with his now-familiar glove-pounding. The Royals’ one-run lead would hold up, as the Giants would not get another baserunner the rest of the game against Wade Davis and Greg Holland.

He would take the loss the next day, and deservedly so, but Finnegan deserves better than to be remembered for getting lit up in the World Series. He also played a key part in the Royals winning a one-run game in the World Series. Not bad for a kid who was pitching at TCU four months earlier.

Moment #: 181
Date: October 23, 2015
Game: 2015 ALCS Game 6, vs. Toronto Blue Jays
Score: Toronto 1, Kansas City 2, Bottom of the 7th
Situation: No outs, man on first
Count: 1-2 (+1 foul)
Matchup: Salvador Perez vs. David Price
Result: Flyout to deep left field
WPA: -3%

Summary: Salvador Perez is denied extra bases by Ben Revere, but Mike Moustakas isn’t doubled up, and we get some comic relief.

Link to video: Here.
On the one hand, this play didn’t actually move the Royals any closer to winning a championship. On the other hand, this play had everything. With the Royals six outs away from the World Series but clinging to a one-run lead, Salvador Perez launches David Price’s backdoor slider to left field for what initially looks like a two-run homer that might ice the game. But Ben Revere goes back and makes a sensational catch, reminiscent if not quite as good as Endy Chavez remarkable catch in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. Revere – not known for having a strong arm – then hits cutoff man Troy Tulowitzki, whose throw back to first base threatens to double up Mike Moustakas. The first base umpire makes as if he is going to call Moustakas out, only the ball squirts out of Chris Colabello’s glove and Moustakas is safe. Colabello, however, is the last person in the ballpark to realize the ball isn’t in his glove, which leads to this fantastic vine:

Colabello’s drop doesn’t just provide comic relief, though; it might have helped decide the game. Alex Gordon moved Moustakas up to second base on a slow ground ball, and with two outs, Alex Rios singled Moustakas home with a key insurance run. The Blue Jays would tie the game in the top of the 8th when Jose Bautista introduced Ryan Madson to his guns; had Moustakas been doubled off, Bautista’s home run would have given Toronto the lead, and who knows how the rest of the game would have went?


Matthias Bostick said...

Moment 185: Notice how Jose Bautista's throw goes to the second baseman? I'm guessing Mike Jirschele noticed.

Mark Rankin said...

My favorite moment in this group: hearing Rusty Kuntz in the background in # 186. Glad he's coming back in 2016.