Saturday, February 20, 2016

Top Moments (#130 - #121) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

These ten plays include some terrific defensive plays, the inciting plays for the biggest inning in Royals postseason history, and conclude with the greatest back-to-back exhibits of speed I have ever seen on a baseball diamond. We’ve climbed into lofty territory now, even if we’re not even halfway home.

Moment #: 130
Date: October 29, 2014
Game: 2014 World Series Game 7, vs. San Francisco Giants
Score: San Francisco 3, Kansas City 2, Bottom of the 5th
Situation: No outs, bases empty
Count: 1-1
Matchup: Omar Infante vs. Madison He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named
Result: Single
WPA: 6%

Summary: Omar Infante greets Madison He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, who had just come out of the bullpen in Game 7, with a single, sparking hopes of a Royals rally.

Link to video: Here.

Game 7 of the 2014 World Series would be the crowning achievement for Madison He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, coming out of the bullpen on two days’ rest and throwing five shutout innings while protecting a one-run lead the entire time. But we didn’t know that would be the case when he came into the game to start the bottom of the 5th inning. We knew that he had just thrown a shutout in Game 5, and allowed a single meaningless run in seven innings in Game 1, but those were both starts, on normal rest, with plenty of time to prepare along his normal routine. This was a relief appearance on short rest, and maybe he wouldn’t be in peak form.

And on his third pitch of the game, Omar Infante drilled a line drive to right field for a leadoff single. Suddenly it looked like the Royals might get to him after all; let us not forget that He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s career ERA in the 1st inning, 4.27, is 80 points higher than his ERA in any inning from the 2nd to the 7th. You can get to him early. Infante got to him right away, and it felt like the Royals were in business.

And then Alcides Escobar bunted Infante to second base.

I’m not certain that this was a mistake. Esky Magic notwithstanding, he’s a below-average hitter, and against a #1 starter you can make the case that a bunt there may increase the Royals’ odds of scoring one run in the inning. It no doubt reduced their odds of scoring more than one run, but with the Royals’ bullpen, and the stat fact that I wrote about in Moment #140, you could argue that tying the game is all the Royals should have been concerned about. But I may always wonder, given He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s documented first inning struggles, if this might not have been the time to go for the jugular - particularly since Escobar was ahead in the count 2-0 when he put the bunt down.

Instead, the Royals gave up one of their outs voluntarily. And then Nori Aoki batted, and hit another ball right on the screws toward the left field corner, and when it left the bat I thought the game was tied for sure. And then I turned and saw Juan Perez, who was starting over Travis Ishikawa for his defense, shaded perfectly – with the slashing opposite-field predilections of Aoki, Perez was set up waaaaay to the left of your typical left fielder. What should have been an easy double down the line turned into a fairly routine running catch. Lorenzo Cain struck out, and the Royals would not have another baserunner until there were two outs in the 9th.

I thought the decision to bunt with Escobar, and especially the Giants’ outfield shifting against Aoki, would haunt me for the rest of my days. Instead it was about 12 months. And the next time the Royals faced a left-handed ace coming out of the bullpen in a winner-take-all playoff game, they would make him pay.

Moment #: 129
Date: October 10, 2014
Game: 2014 ALCS Game 1, @ Baltimore Orioles
Score: Kansas City 4, Baltimore 1, Bottom of the 3rd
Situation: Two outs, man on first
Count: 0-0
Matchup: Steve Pearce vs. James Shields
Result: Fly out to left field
WPA: 3%

Summary: Alex Gordon introduces the Orioles and a growing national audience to the Royals’ defense.

Link to video: Here.

Aside from Game 1 of the 2014 World Series – which won’t appear on this list – Game 1 of the 2014 ALCS is the only playoff game that has not appeared on this list so far. It will make up for lost time quickly. The Royals had put on a defensive clinic against the Angels in the ALDS, but they had to prove they could do it again in the ALCS against Baltimore. It didn’t take them long to give everyone a taste. With a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the 3rd, Steve Pearce hit a drive to deep left-center with two outs and a man aboard. Alex Gordon got on his horse, running parallel to the warning track the entire way, timed his dive well and made an excellent catch, saving a run. It wasn’t remotely the best catch the Royals, or even Gordon, would make in the series, but it was a nice appetizer for what was to come.

Moment #: 128
Date: October 27, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 1, vs. New York Mets
Score: New York 3, Kansas City 1, Top of the 6th
Situation: Two outs, man on second
Count: 0-0
Matchup: Wilmer Flores vs. Edinson Volquez
Result: Groundout to third base
WPA: 3%

Summary: Mike Moustakas makes an excellent diving play to take away a double and prevent a run, allowing Edinson Volquez to leave Game 1 of the World Series with a quality start.

Link to video: Here.

With the Royals trailing by a run headed to the 6th inning in Game 1 of the World Series, Ned Yost – stop me if you’ve heard this before – stuck with his starting pitcher for the third time through the lineup, and – stop me if you’ve heard this before – it did not go well. Yoenis Cespedes led off with a single, and then Lucas Duda beat the shift with a single of his own to put men on first and third with no outs. Volquez came back to strike out Travis d’Arnaud, but Michael Conforto hit a sacrifice fly to score Cespedes, and Duda moved up to second on the throw. Wilmer Flores then scorched a ground ball down the third base line, but Mike Moustakas was there to make a great diving stop, get to his feet, and with his arm, his throw got Flores by two steps at first base. If anyone out there is still wondering how a team could win a championship with a mediocre offense and a non-descript rotation, thanks almost entirely to a great defense and a terrific bullpen, this list of Moments should provide all the evidence they need.

Moment #: 127
Date: October 28, 2014
Game: 2014 World Series Game 6, vs. San Francisco Giants
Score: San Francisco 0, Kansas City 0, Bottom of the 2nd
Situation: No outs, men on first and second
Count: 1-1
Matchup: Mike Moustakas vs. Jake Peavy
Result: Double, go-ahead run scores
WPA: 10%

Summary: Mike Moustakas slices a double down the right field line with two men on, driving in the first run in what turned into the biggest inning in Royals playoff history.

Link to video: Here.

Game 6 of the 2014 World Series was a tense, nail-biting affair for about 30 minutes, and then the bottom of the 2nd inning started. Alex Gordon singled. Salvador Perez singled to right field, allowing Gordon to advance to third base. And then Mike Moustakas batted, and managed to hit the ball through an approximately four inch corridor between the foul line and Brandon Belt’s glove – two inches either way and it’s either a foul ball or an out. Instead it rolled down the right field line for a double, giving the Royals a 1-0 lead and putting men on second and third base for…

Moment #: 126
Date: October 28, 2014
Game: 2014 World Series Game 6, vs. San Francisco Giants
Score: San Francisco 0, Kansas City 1, Bottom of the 2nd
Situation: One out, men on second and third
Count: 1-2
Matchup: Alcides Escobar vs. Jake Peavy
Result: Infield single, runners hold
WPA: 1%

Summary: Alcides Escobar hits a slow chopper to first base, but excellent baserunning and a momentary indecision by Brandon Belt leads to an infield single, setting up six more runs in the inning.

Link to video: Here.

…Omar Infante, who, uh, struck out. But that brought Alcides Escobar to the plate, who fell behind 1-and-2 before, in keeping with the Royals’ philosophy that if you put the ball in play good things might happen, Escobar managed to hit a slow groundball that Brandon Belt fielded with plenty of time to flip to Joe Panik covering first base for the out. Except that Jake Peavy called and pointed for Belt to throw home, a curious thing to do given that the runners were holding. Belt hesitated for a split second before he looked towards the plate and realized that, in fact, the runners were holding – but he still had time to flip to Panik for the out at first base.

But then Belt, perhaps not realizing that Panik had a beeline to first base because he had been focused on Salvador Perez at third, decided to go for the tag on Escobar. This was a footrace that Escobar would win, punctuated by the rare feet-first slide into first base. Escobar had an infield single, and even if it didn’t score the runner on third base, it did load the bases with one out, setting up more Moments to come, including Moments #164 and #165, as well as a Moment higher up on our list.

Moment #: 125
Date: October 3, 2014
Game: 2014 ALDS Game 2, @ Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Score: Kansas City 1, Los Angeles 1, Top of the 11th
Situation: One out, bases empty
Count: 1-2
Matchup: Lorenzo Cain vs. Kevin Jepsen
Result: Infield single
WPA: 6%

Summary: Lorenzo Cain beats out an infield single on a seemingly routine ground ball in the 11th inning, setting the stage for some heroics from Eric Hosmer.

Link to video: Here.

We’re happy to once again give the table-setters their due, and this at-bat by Lorenzo Cain was an impressive bit of table setting. Like Moment #162, Omar Infante’s infield single off Darren O’Day in Game 2 of the ALCS, Cain’s single here set up a two-run inning in a tie game that gave the Royals a 2-0 lead in the series. Cain’s hit ranks higher because the situation was a bit more dramatic – the 11th inning vs. the 9th – and also because there was one out, so the penalty for failure was a bit higher. But mostly, this ranks higher because this was actually a fairly routine groundball – it chopped pretty high, but Erick Aybar fielded it on the second bounce and fired a good throw to first base. And Cain flat beat it out.

For years going into the 2014 postseason, it felt – and I realize this is entirely subjective – like Cain was always being thrown out by a quarter-step at first base, that if he was just the tiniest bit faster he’d have another 20 hits a season. And then, in the most crucial situation, he hit a groundball to an infielder and beat the ball to the bag by a millisecond. One pitch later, that extra burst of speed was worth a run. That pitch is still a long ways away on our list.

Moment #: 124
Date: October 10, 2014
Game: 2014 ALCS Game 1, @ Baltimore Orioles
Score: Kansas City 8, Baltimore 6, Bottom of the 10th
Situation: Two outs, men on first and second
Count: 2-1
Matchup: Nick Markakis vs. Greg Holland
Result: Groundout to second base, game over
WPA: 9%

Summary: With the winning run at the plate, Greg Holland gets Nick Markakis to ground out to second to end Game 1 of the ALCS.

Link to video: Here.

The Royals began their sweep of the Orioles in the 2014 ALCS with another insanely dramatic game, their fourth extra-inning win (which broke the all-time record for extra-inning wins in a single postseason) in five games. The bottom of the 10th should have been a breeze after the Royals scored three runs in the top of the inning, but after getting Steve Pearce to pop out and striking out J.J. Hardy, Greg Holland – who, let us not forget, was pitching with a torn ligament in his elbow – gave up a single to Ryan Flaherty, walked pinch-hitter Jimmy Paredes, and then gave up a single to pinch-hitter Delmon Young, driving in a run and putting the tying run at first base. (This is one of only two runs that Royals’ opponents scored in the 9th inning or later in the last two postseasons, the other being Alberto Callaspo’s single to give Oakland the lead in the 12th inning of the Wild Card Game. By comparison: The Royals scored 30 such runs.)
But with the Royals suddenly in danger of blowing a three-run lead in extra innings of a playoff game, Holland steadied himself and got Nick Markakis to hit a routine bouncer to Omar Infante. Eric Hosmer punched the air, and as they had in Anaheim, the Royals had changed the entire complexion of the series by taking the first game on the road.

Moment #: 123
Date: October 9, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 2, vs. Houston Astros
Score: Houston 3, Kansas City 0, Bottom of the 2nd
Situation: Two outs, bases empty
Count: 1-0
Matchup: Salvador Perez vs. Scott Kazmir
Result: Home Run
WPA: 8%

Summary: With the Royals in danger of being run right out of the ALDS, Salvador Perez gets the Royals on the board with a two-out home run to stop the bleeding.

Link to video: Here.

For all the (deserved) attention paid to Game 4 of the ALDS against the Astros, not enough attention has been paid to Game 2 of the ALDS, which the Royals needed to win just to will Game 4 into existence. For the second straight day, the Royals found themselves down 3-0 after an inning and a half. The day before, neither a rain delay nor a bang-up job of long relief from Chris Young could get the Royals back into the game, and they lost 5-2. But for the second straight day, the Royals cut into that 3-0 deficit with a home run in the bottom of the 2nd. This time it was Salvador Perez, whose home run was especially welcome given that it came with two outs. (In the clip, Matt Vasgersian says as Perez rounds the basis, “are we watching the same game from yesterday?”)

The Astros would match the home run with one of their own by Colby Rasmus leading off the 4th, but they would not cross home plate again, giving the Royals a chance to come back, both in the game and in the series. They would do exactly that, thanks to some Moments coming up.

Moment #: 122
Date: September 15, 2014
Game: 2014 Regular Season Game 152 150, vs. Chicago White Sox
Score: Chicago 3, Kansas City 2, Bottom of the 9th
Situation: Two outs, man on second
Count: 0-0
Matchup: Nori Aoki vs. Jake Petricka
Result: Stolen Base and Wild Pitch, tying run scores from second base
WPA: 39%

Summary: Jarrod Dyson steals third with two outs in the ninth and never stops, scoring the tying run on a wild pitch.

Link to video: Here.

This Moment doesn’t rank more highly because it was, after all, a regular season game, and there are 31 postseason games to choose Moments from. But at the time, a time when the Royals hadn’t been to the playoffs in 29 years, it was the most memorable Royals moment in, well, 29 years. The Royals came into this game having lost five of seven, turning a 1.5 game lead on the Tigers into a two game deficit. The Royals were also two games behind the Oakland A’s for the first wild-card spot, and were just a half-game in front of the Mariners for the final wild-card spot. The Royals were about to lose a game they could not afford to lose, against the last-place White Sox, with less than two weeks left in the season. They were down to their final out. With one out in the 9th, Mike Moustakas had doubled, and Jarrod Dyson pinch-ran for him, but had to hold when Alcides Escobar grounded out to third. Jake Petricka was hardly an unhittable presence on the mound, but still: they were down to their final out.

Adding to the sense of despair was that the last time Dyson was on second base in the 9th inning, he had done something stupid that might have cost the Royals a crucial game. Six days earlier, in Detroit, the Royals trailed 4-2 heading to the 9th against their long-time nemesis Joe Nathan, who was but a shell of his former self. Sure enough, Nori Aoki and Omar Infante started the inning with singles, and the tying run was on first base with no outs. Terrance Gore came out to pinch-run for Infante, the tying run, at first, but after Alex Gordon struck out, Dyson trotted out to second base to replace Aoki. The message was clear and unmistakable: The Royals were going to try a double steal. This seemed like a no-brainer, as Nathan is one of the easiest pitchers in baseball to run on: over the last decade, he has allowed 44 steals in 47 attempts. It would have been 44 steals in 46 attempts, except that Dyson took off too soon and was picked off by Nathan – the first time Nathan had picked off a baserunner in 14 years.
But one of Dyson’s most enduring, and endearing, qualities is his complete lack of fear, even when he should feel fear. His fearlessness allowed him to catapult through the farm system as a 50th-round draft pick who lasted until the draft’s final round because he basically did not know how to hit prior to being signed. His lack of fear has given him an outsized presence in the clubhouse for a fourth outfielder. And his lack of fear has meant that he believes he can steal off anybody, in any situation, even a situation that conventional wisdom dictates is one that you should never steal in. Like, say, trying to steal third base with two outs: the upside is minimal and the risk is great. If Dyson made the final out of the game when he was already in scoring position as the tying run, the criticism hurled his way would have made the Nathan pickoff look like a picnic.

But instead, Petricka buried his slider in the dirt as Dyson took off for third, the ball getting away from Tyler Flowers, and – this isn’t the first time I’ve written this – Dyson never stopped running. A slight hesitation would have been fatal; Dyson was barely safe at home plate. But he was safe. The game was tied. 

And it might not have been the best baserunning we saw in the inning, because…

Moment #: 121
Date: September 15, 2014
Game: 2014 Regular Season Game 152, vs. Chicago White Sox
Score: Chicago 3, Kansas City 3, Bottom of the 9th
Situation: Two outs, man on second
Count: 0-2
Matchup: Lorenzo Cain vs. Jake Petricka
Result: Infield single, walkoff run scores from second base
WPA: 39%

Summary: Terrance Gore scores the walkoff run from second base on an infield single, because That’s What Speed Deux.

Link to video: Here.

…after the celebration ended and order was restored, Nori Aoki swatted a double down the left field line, which sort of made Jarrod Dyson’s baserunning moot. Ned Yost, who needs the elimination of the DH rule or a court order to send a pinch-hitter to the plate, nevertheless uses pinch-runners with abandon, and pulled Aoki in favor of Terrance Gore, even though – again – there were two outs and the runner was already in scoring position. This seemed like an extravagant bit of excess, using the fastest runner in professional baseball in a situation where his speed probably wouldn’t make the difference.

And then, of course, it made all the difference in the world. Lorenzo Cain fought off an 0-2 count – Team Contact! – by dribbling a groundball past Petricka into the no-man’s land behind the pitcher’s mound, and it says something about Gore’s speed that the moment the ball got past the mound, I wasn’t thinking, “Cain might be safe!”, I was thinking, “Gore might score!”

And he did. The camera angle, unfortunately, didn’t give us the panoramic view of the play to see Gore burning around third base, but you can get a sense of his speed from the way the White Sox reacted to it. Not only did Gore score, but after Alexei Ramirez couldn’t field the ball cleanly, the White Sox didn’t even bother trying to make a throw.

Two of the fastest baserunners in baseball had pulled off two of the rarest baserunning plays possible – scoring from second on a wild pitch, then scoring from second on an infield single. They had scored the tying and go-ahead runs. They had done so with two outs in the 9th inning. These two plays back-to-back might be the greatest, most clutch consecutive displays of baserunning that I have ever seen.

And we still have 120 Moments to go.


Wayne said...

Moment #122 was also the moment I decided that I loved Rex Hudler.

David said...

The "That's What Speed Deux" game might be my favorite regular season game ever, with the only competition being Opening Day 2004. Between the stakes, the situation at the end, and the ridiculously improbable way it ended, it's tough to come up with something better. It also helps that it's got an awesome nickname -- relatively few games get such a thing!

Brian said...

The moment(s) I've been waiting for. . . I don't know when the players began to believe (and not just hope) they could some how, some way find a way to win any game, but for me it was this "That's What Speed Deux" game. My face still transforms from a jaw drop to a silly grin watching theses highlights. It was this game - even before the wild card game - that moved me from years of "How are the Royals going to lose this one?" to "How are they going to win this one?"

BMJ said...

Current Standings

By Category:

2014 Regular Season (7)
Wild Card Game (6)
ALDS Game 1 Angels (3)
ALDS Game 2 Angels (4)
ALDS Game 3 Angels (1)
ALCS Game 1 Orioles (2)
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 (5)
World Series Game 7 Giants (2)
Total 2014 Entries So Far (49)

2015 Regular Season (1)
ALDS Game 1 Astros (1)
ALDS Game 2 Astros (2)
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 (5)
ALCS Game 3 Blue Jays (2)
ALCS Game 4 Blue Jays (4)
ALCS Game 5 Blue Jays (1)
ALCS Game 6 Blue Jays (3)
World Series Game 1 Mets (6)
World Series Game 2 Mets (3)
World Series Game 3 Mets (5)
World Series Game 4 Mets (4)
World Series Game 5 Mets (3)
Total 2015 Entries So Far (49)

By Player

Hosmer (7)
Cain (11)
Gordon (8)
Perez (10)
Moustakas (8)
Escobar (11)
Dyson (3)
Zobrist (5)
K. Morales (2)
Butler (4)
Gore (2)
Colon (0)
Infante (4)
Rios (1)
Aoki (2)
Orlando (0)
Willingham (0)
Butera (0)

W. Davis (1)
Holland (5)
Herrera (0)
Ventura (2)
Young (1)
Cueto (2)
Finnegan (1)
Volquez (0)
Guthrie (0)
Shields (0)
Vargas (1)
Hochevar (2)
Madson (1)
Duffy (0)
Medlen (0)
Frasor (0)
Collins (0)
F. Morales (0)
Yost (0)


Nathan Duysen said...

I like you put out 2 in one week!! Its a fun time for me and my son watching these. We are curious to see what #1 will be. I mean in our minds there are about 5 plays that could possibly be #1 (Alex's game 1 home run, Hosmer going home on Sal's out, Colon's go ahead hit, Cain's 3 run double the same inning, and Wade Davis striking out Flores to give the Royals the World Series). All are pretty much worthy in my mind... and the Alex fan in me wants it to be his home run, but I'm putting my money on Wade Davis striking out Flores.

Matt S said...

Slight correction: That's What Speed Deux was game 150, not game 152.

Chris Esch said...

Moment 130 reminds me of the most wrong call in my life as a sports fan. (By wrong call, I mean, I was wrong.) I spent the whole day saying to anyone who would listen "I hope they bring He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named in. There's no ways he's fresh. He's a human being, not a robot." When Infante got that hit, I felt SOOO validated. And I was even happy to see him come back out the next couple of innings until I finally figured out that he maybe was a robot and could have pitched 100 more innings before we scored off of him.

And, alright, I am just going to say this. I'm still not sure how much was him and how much was our Achilles heal, plate discipline. I don't have the baseball awareness to go back and answer conclusively if he was painting corners and dominating our hitters or if we were taking wild hacks and he was smart enough to not throw strikes. At the very least, that last part is true for the final AB of the season.

ChaimMKeller said...

@Nathan Duysen: My guess for # 1 is Sal Perez's winning hit in the 2014 Wild Card Game. I'm guessing that all of your guesses except for the Cain 3-run double are in the top 10.

Nathan Duysen said...

Sal's game winning WC game hit definitely could be #1 as well, as it really started everything. Thanks for the reminder. :)