Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Top Moments (#150 - #141) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

We’re in the Top 150 now, so these are Moments you should be paying extra careful attention to. There will be a quiz later.

Moment #: 150
Date: October 30, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 3, @ New York Mets
Score: Kansas City 0, New York 0, Top of the 1st
Situation: No outs, bases empty
Count: 0-0
Matchup: Alcides Escobar vs. Noah Syndergaard
Result: Ball one

Summary: Noah Syndergaard tries to send a message to the Royals by throwing the first pitch of Game 3 way up and in.

Link to video: Here.

By Game 3 of the World Series, pretty much the whole world knew that 1) Alcides Escobar was almost certainly going to swing at the first pitch of the game and 2) he and the Royals were having an inordinate amount of success doing so. Escobar had been named the ALCS MVP after going 11-for-23 against the Blue Jays with three extra-base hits, 5 RBIs, and 6 runs scored in six games. He had swung at the first pitch of the game in all six ALCS games, putting three of those pitches into play, two for hits. (He went 4-for-6 in his first plate appearance of each game, the four hits coming in the first four games.) In Game 1 of the World Series he had famously swung at the first pitch and been gifted an inside-the-park home run by Yoenis Cespedes; on the first pitch of Game 2, he had flied out to right field.

Along with all his personal success, the Royals had a baffling tendency to, you know, win games. Escobar had swung at the first pitch in nine straight games, going back to Game 5 of the ALDS, and the Royals were 7-2 in those games. (He didn’t swing at the first pitch in Games 1 and 4 of the ALDS; he hit an infield single on the first pitch in Game 3, and fouled off the first pitch in Game 2.) As Sam Miller detailed back when this phenomenon was first getting a lot of attention, the Royals had a better record during the regular season when Escobar swung at the first pitch than when he didn’t.

Syndergaard decided to try to derail that correlation by making it essentially impossible for Escobar to swing at the first pitch, which in and of itself was not objectionable. The manner in which he did so – buzzing Escobar’s noggin with a high pitch – was questionable, although I take it on faith that given the control wielded by an elite major league pitcher, that Syndergaard was not trying to hit Escobar and in fact placed the pitch exactly where he wanted it to go. His comments after the game, saying of the Royals, “If they have a problem with me throwing inside, then they can meet me 60 feet, 6 inches away,” well, those are fighting words, quite literally. But they also insure that this pitch, which had no outcome on the game or the Series, will nonetheless be remembered for a long, long time.

Moment #: 149
Date: October 30, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 3, @ New York Mets
Score: Kansas City 0, New York 0
Situation: One out, bases empty
Count: 3-2 (+1 foul)
Matchup: Ben Zobrist vs. Noah Syndergaard
Result: Double
WPA: 4%

Summary: Ben Zobrist responds to Noah Syndergaard’s message with one of his own: the Royals will not be intimidated.

Link to videoHere.

It is annoying, not just as a Royals fan but as a fan of baseball and true narratives, that Syndergaard’s purpose pitch somehow got some of the credit for the Mets winning Game 3, based on the logic that 1) after not being able to swing at the first pitch, Alcides Escobar struck out, and 2) the Royals lost. This narrative somehow evades both common sense and the facts, particularly the fact that the second batter of the game, Ben Zobrist, worked Syndergaard for a seven-pitch at-bat before doubling over Yoenis Cespedes’ head in center field, and came around to score the game’s first run. Syndergaard’s message was so effective that he walked off the mound in the middle of the 1st inning with his team trailing, and then after David Wright hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the inning to give the Mets the lead, Syndergaard gave up two runs in the top of the 2nd and again walked off the mound with his team losing.

If Syndergaard’s message took two innings to reach its recipient, it was a strange message indeed. The simpler, and thus vastly more likely, explanation for why the Mets won Game 3 was that Yordano Ventura had a terrible outing, giving up five runs before he was knocked out of the game in the 4th. But the Royals’ offense was so intimidated by Syndergaard’s first pitch that they scored three runs in the first two innings. Thankfully, the Royals won Game 4 and 5 and we haven’t had to listen to that nonsense since.

Moment #: 148
Date: October 21, 2015
Game: 2015 ALCS Game 5, @ Toronto Blue Jays
Score: Kansas City 0, Toronto 0, Bottom of the 2nd
Situation: No outs, bases empty
Count: 1-2
Matchup: Edwin Encarnacion vs. Edinson Volquez
Result: Flyout to first base
WPA: 2%

Summary: Eric Hosmer runs a very long way to make a terrific over-the-shoulder catch on Edwin Encarnacion’s flyball into no-man’s land down the right field line.

Link to video: Here.

This isn’t the most memorable catch of the last two years when it comes to terrific plays by corner infielders on high flyballs, but it was a pretty damn good catch. In the lost years of Kansas City Baseball – roughly from 1996 to 2010 or so – these kinds of high flyballs in no-man’s land were a nightmare for the Royals. They didn’t have the range to get to these balls, and if they did, then they didn’t have the communication skills to insure that two fielders wouldn’t collide trying to make the catch – or worse, that they wouldn’t both peel off the ball expecting the other to catch it.

That doesn’t happen anymore. Despite playing well off the first base line, Eric Hosmer took the perfect route on this ball over his head, took his eye off the ball for a single instant to see where Alex Rios was, and noticing that Rios had no chance to catch the ball (but also had no chance of colliding with Hosmer), followed the ball all the way into his glove. It looks like the ball would have hit the chalk – the umpire signaled that it was a fair ball after the catch – so Hosmer probably saved a double. And he almost certainly saved a run, as Chris Colabello followed with a home run, which was the only run of the game through five innings. The Royals would lose the game anyway because Marco Estrada pitched a gem, and because a borderline 3-2 pitch to Jose Bautista in the 6th inning was ruled ball four instead of strike three. But one thing about running through a list of 218 Moments is that you have the space to include a play like this one even if the ultimate outcome wasn’t to your liking.

Moment #: 147
Date: October 27, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 1, vs. New York Mets
Score: New York 4, Kansas City 3, Bottom of the 8th
Situation: No outs, bases empty
Count: 0-0
Matchup: Ben Zobrist vs. Tyler Clippard
Result: Double
WPA: 17%

Summary: Down a run in the 8th inning, Ben Zobrist hits the first pitch of the inning for a double, only to be stranded. The true heroics would have to wait an inning.

Link to video: Here.

Ben Zobrist tied an all-time major league record with eight doubles in a single postseason, and this could have ended up the most important of them all. Certainly the timing of it was as crucial as any of the others. The Mets had just taken the lead in a tie game in the 8th when, with two outs, Juan Lagares worked Kelvin Herrera for a nine-pitch at-bat before singling to center field, stole second, and then scored when Eric Hosmer brutally misplayed Wilmer Flores’ chopper to first base:

And if momentum meant anything in baseball, Lagares would have been a New York hero. But it doesn’t. Zobrist led off the bottom of the 8th against Tyler Clippard, and – in contrast to his reputation as a patient hitter – ambushed the first pitch, pulling it down the right-field line just fair, where it rattled around in the corner for an easy double. The Royals were back in business, only Lorenzo Cain got the crazy idea that now would be the perfect time for him to put down a bunt. (Quite the notion for a player who, despite his speed, has exactly one sacrifice bunt in his major league career. On the other hand, that bunt has a story of its own.) 

Two failed attempts later, Cain was down in the count 0-2, and was forced to chase a borderline fastball for strike three. Eric Hosmer also struck out, which meant that Zobrist was still on second base when Clippard threw a wild pitch that only got him to third base; after Clippard walked Kendrys Morales, Jeurys Familia came in and retired Mike Moustakas to end the threat and send the game to the 9th with the Royals still down a run.

And if momentum meant anything in baseball, that would have been the end of it. But it doesn’t. As we shall see.

Moment #: 146
Date: October 31, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 4, @ New York Mets
Score: Kansas City 1, New York 3, Top of the 6th
Situation: No outs, bases empty
Count: 0-0
Matchup: Ben Zobrist vs. Steven Matz
Result: Double
WPA: 8%

Summary: Ben Zobrist doubles leading off another inning, this time with the Royals down by two, and this time he scores…

Link to video: Here.

Four days later, Ben Zobrist would again lead off an inning with a double, his fourth of the World Series (and the third that came on the first pitch) – this one was his eighth of the postseason, tying the all-time record. This one was made possible in part because Terry Collins let Steven Matz, making just the ninth start of his major league career, start the 6th inning even after he had shown signs of losing effectiveness in the 5th, when he allowed three hits and one run. Foreshadowing the mistake Collins would make the next night, his mistake was perhaps not in letting his starting pitcher begin the inning so much as letting him stay in the game after the leadoff hitter reached base, as Matz then pitched to Lorenzo Cain…

Moment #: 145
Date: October 31, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 4, @ New York Mets
Score: Kansas City 1, New York 3, Top of the 6th
Situation: No outs, man on second
Count: 1-2
Matchup: Lorenzo Cain vs. Steven Matz
Result: Single, one run scores
WPA: 10%

Summary: …because this time Lorenzo Cain swings away, and drives him home with a single.

Link to video: Here.

…who on a 1-2 count managed to punch a ground ball up the middle that Daniel Murphy – stop me if you’ve heard this before – couldn’t reach. Zobrist came around to score, the Royals had cut the Mets’ lead to one run, and Matz was pulled from the game. Cain would steal second base against Jon Niese, but would be stranded on third base as Niese and Bartolo Colon worked their way out of trouble. The Royals would have to wait until Zobrist and Cain batted again to begin their next rally. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves again.

Moment #: 144
Date: October 2, 2014
Game: 2014 ALDS Game 1, @ Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Score: Kansas City 0, Los Angeles 0, Bottom of the 1st
Situation: No outs, bases empty
Count: 0-0
Matchup: Kole Calhoun vs. Jason Vargas
Result: Deep fly out – center field
WPA: 2%

Summary: Lorenzo Cain starts the 2014 ALDS with a great catch to rob Kole Calhoun of extra bases.

Link to video: Here.

The Wild Card Game introduced the nation to the Royals’ speed, with a postseason-record seven stolen bases in the game. But America wasn’t really introduced to the Royals’ defense until the ALDS. They didn’t have to wait long for the introduction, though: on the very first pitch thrown by the Royals, Kole Calhoun hit a drive to deep center field, where Lorenzo Cain timed his jump beautifully, and caught the ball almost against the wall to take away extra bases. He made it look easy. I’d call it foreshadowing, except that as foreshadowing goes, Cain’s catch was about as subtle as a train wreck. Watch until the end, when Jason Vargas makes his now-famous Jason Vargas Face:

Moment #: 143
Date: October 11, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 3, @ Houston Astros
Score: Kansas City 0, Houston 0, Top of the 4th
Situation: No outs, bases empty
Count: 2-2 (+5 fouls)
Matchup: Lorenzo Cain vs. Dallas Keuchel
Result: Home Run, go-ahead run scores
WPA: 13%

Summary: On the tenth pitch of the at-bat, Lorenzo Cain homers off Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel to give the Royals a 1-0 lead.

Link to video: Here.

This is the kind of Moment that I had in mind when I decided to take leave of my faculties and extend this list to 218. This Moment has been all but forgotten because the Royals lost the game, but at the time it looked like a pivotal play indeed, as well as a rather remarkable piece of hitting by Lorenzo Cain. Dallas Keuchel had just completed a Cy Young season, which he had followed by throwing six shutout innings on three days’ rest with the Astros’ season on the line, against the Yankees in the Wild Card game. (As opposed to the Wild Card Game.) Keuchel was a tough enough matchup on pure ability and results, but throw in his style – a lefthander who doesn’t actually throw that hard, but combines uncanny command with one of the best sinkers you’ll ever see from a southpaw – and he looked like the Royals’ kryptonite before the series even began. (He’s one of the main reasons the Astros terrified me as a playoff matchup all season.)

And Keuchel would live up to the billing in Game 3 of the ALDS, throwing seven innings and allowing a single run, and getting the win. But this is that one run, and it came with the game still scoreless in the top of the 4th inning, and it came on one swing of the bat. Keuchel, befitting an extreme groundball pitcher, is very stingy with the home run – he had allowed just 28 homers in 438 innings over the previous two seasons coming into this game, remarkable given his home ballpark. But in this at-bat, Lorenzo Cain fought him for a ten pitch at-bat, fouling off five pitches with two strikes, before Keuchel hung a slider over the heart of the plate and Cain leaned back on his swing. If you’ve seen Cain lean back, you know what that means – the ball nearly hit the train in left field. Despite Keuchel’s brilliance the rest of the game, thanks to this one swing, the Royals held the lead into the bottom of the 5th inning. It wasn’t to be, but for a while there this one swing looked like it might decide the ballgame. But don’t worry: another home run swing against Keuchel later in the series wasn’t in vain. We’ll get there. Eventually.

Moment #: 142
Date: October 25, 2014
Game: 2014 World Series Game 4, @ San Francisco Giants
Score: Kansas City 1, San Francisco 1, Top of the 3rd
Situation: Two outs, bases loaded
Count: 2-2
Matchup: Omar Infante vs. Ryan Vogelsong
Result: Single, two go-ahead runs score
WPA: 20%

Summary: Omar Infante hits a tie-breaking two-run single with the bases loaded and two outs in The Game That Got Away.

Link to video: Here.

We’re finally reaching air that’s rarefied enough that valiant efforts in a losing cause are likely to be turned away at the door. After this Moment, only three Moments remain from a game that the Royals lost, and all three are from Game 7 of the 2014 World Series. This was the big hit in The Game That Got Away, Game 4 of the 2014 World Series, the game the Royals led 4-1 at one point only to get cut down in a hail of Giant hits. The Royals had already tied the game in the top of the 3rd on a pair of infield singles with two out, and then Mike Moustakas walked to load the bases for Omar Infante. Infante delivered, sending a single up the middle to drive in two runs. (Hard as this may be to believe now, Infante wasn’t terrible in the 2014 postseason, hitting .255/.310/.373 overall, and he was probably the Royals’ best hitter in the World Series, hitting .318/.333/.591 with five RBIs.)

Salvador Perez would follow with another RBI single, and for a while there it looked like the Royals were going to take a 3-1 series lead. They didn’t, and they didn’t win the series, but all of that was just fodder for them to feed their anger on over the winter, and their anger fueled a world championship in 2015. All’s well that ends well.

Moment #: 141
Date: October 28, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 2, vs. New York Mets
Score: New York 1, Kansas City 7, Top of the 9th
Situation: Two outs, man on second
Count: 2-0
Matchup: Yoenis Cespedes vs. Johnny Cueto
Result: Fly out to right field
WPA: 0%

Summary: Johnny Cueto retires Yoenis Cespedes for the first complete-game win by an AL pitcher in the World Series since 1991.

Link to video: Here.

Oh, Johnny Cueto, you crazy rollercoaster you. After pitching like crap for the better part of two months, after putting the Royals in a 4-1 hole in Game 2 of the ALDS, he retired 36 of the next 40 batters he faced, the last 19 in a row in a double-elimination Game 5. He then made the worst start in Royals’ postseason history in Game 3 of the ALCS…and then pitched this gem in Game 2 of the World Series, the first complete game win by an AL pitcher since Jack Morris threw ten shutout innings in Game 7 in 1991. He became just the third pitcher – after Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan – to allow no more than two hits in a postseason start while pitching eight or more innings twice in his career…and he did it twice in the same postseason. He nearly retired the last 16 batters he faced in this game, but with two outs in the 9th, he walked Daniel Murphy on a full count – and watching the replay it appears almost certain that Cueto had forgotten the count and thought it was a 2-2 pitch. So instead, he retired Yoenis Cespedes on this pitch, the last pitch he would throw as a Royal. It was enough. The Johnny Cueto Experience is a terrifying ride, but you’re all smiles when it ends.


Anonymous said...

#147, I know this is all about our Beloved Royals, but Curtis Granderson is a really good outfielder. Many of us have seen many a corner outfielder at Kauffman Stadium play that kind of ball into an inside the park home run. Rule #1 for playing at Kauffman, never, ever chase a ball into the corner. Always run directly to the right field wall and wait for it to bounce to you.

Ethan Herbertson said...

@brhalbleib It seems to me that the Willie Wilson-fodder curving ball-gutters are less powerful since (a) they got rid of the turf, and (b) especially since the renovation put the chain-link out there. But Granderson was by far their best defender at any position in that series. Always have liked him.

BMJ said...

Current Standings as we reach the Top 150 (will these still be 10 at a time or will the suspense build as we get closer?)

By Category:

2014 Regular Season (5)
Wild Card Game (2)
ALDS Game 1 Angels (3)
ALDS Game 2 Angels (3)
ALDS Game 3 Angels (1)
ALCS Game 1 Orioles (0)
ALCS Game 2 Orioles (3)
ALCS Game 3 Orioles (2)
ALCS Game 4 Orioles (1)
World Series Game 1 Giants (0)
World Series Game 2 Giants (2)
World Series Game 3 Giants (5)
World Series Game 4 Giants (5)
World Series Game 5 Giants (1)
World Series Game 6 Giants (3)
World Series Game 7 Giants (1)

2015 Regular Season (1)
ALDS Game 1 Astros (1)
ALDS Game 2 Astros (1)
ALDS Game 3 Astros (2)
ALDS Game 4 Astros (1)
ALDS Game 5 Astros (1)
ALCS Game 1 Blue Jays (5)
ALCS Game 2 Blue Jays (2)
ALCS Game 3 Blue Jays (2)
ALCS Game 4 Blue Jays (4)
ALCS Game 5 Blue Jays (1)
ALCS Game 6 Blue Jays (2)
World Series Game 1 Mets (4)
World Series Game 2 Mets (3)
World Series Game 3 Mets (5)
World Series Game 4 Mets (4)
World Series Game 5 Mets (2)

By Player

Hosmer (4)
Cain (8)
Gordon (7)
Perez (9)
Moustakas (6)
Escobar (10)
Dyson (2)
Zobrist (4)
K. Morales (2)
Butler (3)
Gore (1)
Colon (0)
Infante (3)
Rios (1)
Aoki (2)
Orlando (0)
Willingham (0)
Butera (0)

W. Davis (0)
Holland (4)
Herrera (0)
Ventura (2)
Young (1)
Cueto (2)
Finnegan (1)
Volquez (0)
Guthrie (0)
Shields (0)
Vargas (1)
Hochevar (1)
Madson (1)
Duffy (0)
Medlen (0)
Frasor (0)
Collins (0)
F. Morales (0)
Yost (0)