Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Top Moments (#120 - #111) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

This (stuff) – as the Kansas City Star would transcribe it – is starting to get real. Some tie-breaking hits, some crucial insurance runs, and three clinching moments in this set of ten, and we’re not even to the halfway point in this series.

Moment #: 120
Date: October 2, 2014
Game: 2014 ALDS Game 1, @ Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Score: Kansas City 0, Los Angeles 0, Top of the 3rd
Situation: Two outs, man on first
Count: 2-2
Matchup: Alcides Escobar vs. Jered Weaver
Result: Double, go-ahead run scores
WPA: 14%

Summary: Alcides Escobar doubles with two outs, and aided by Josh Hamilton’s misplay, Mike Moustakas scores the first run of the ALDS all the way from first base.

Link to video: Here.

How many things have had to go right for the Royals to be where they are today, the defending world champions and two-time AL pennant winners? Let me rephrase the question: how many moments have there been in the last two years in which, if you just change the outcome slightly, the whole championship run unravels?

This is one of those moments, and it says something about how charmed an existence the Royals have enjoyed that you probably don’t even remember it. Game 1 of the 2014 ALDS was scoreless through two innings, and it looked like it would be scoreless in the middle of the 3rd as well when Jered Weaver struck out Salvador Perez and Omar Infante to start the top of the inning. But then Mike Moustakas walked on a full count, and then after doing his best to hold Moustakas and his game-changing speed at first base, Weaver then left a slow curveball up for Alcides Escobar,who drove a ball beyond Josh Hamilton’s reach in left field.

And even then, the Royals should not have scored. Moustakas isn’t exactly a burner on the basepaths, and Hamilton has a strong arm; if he just plays this ball for a double, Moustakas holds and then doesn’t score when Nori Aoki grounds out. But Hamilton tried to be the hero and catch the ball, and when he didn’t, it bounces off the short wall and back towards the field; by the time Hamilton gets to the ball, Moustakas has passed third base and he scores without a throw.

Like the following night, when (Moment #156) Alex Gordon turns a single into a double when Mike Trout briefly loses the fly ball in the lights, and then scores on two fly outs, a fielding misplay so minor that no one would think to call it an error nevertheless turns into a run. And like the following night, the game would be deadlocked after nine innings only for the Royals to win it in extras. If Hamilton concedes the double and plays the ball off the wall, the Angels probably win Game 1. If Trout doesn’t lose Gordon’s ball in the lights, the Angels probably win Game 2, and the Royals, not the Angels, are the ones playing for their lives in Game 3.

It is the nature of the sports fan to lament the tiny things that derailed your team’s path to a championship; as someone who has rooted for a Marty Schottenheimer-coached football team, I know that feeling all too well. It is not the nature of the sports fan – or the human being, frankly – to reflect on the tiny things that derailed the other team’s path to beating yours. One of the goals of this project were to make sure those things weren’t forgotten. I feel like the project has been validated by the fact that there were even more of those things than I had remembered.

Moment #: 119
Date: October 20, 2015
Game: 2015 ALCS Game 4, @ Toronto Blue Jays
Score: Kansas City 0, Toronto 0, Top of the 1st
Situation: No outs, man on first
Count: 0-1
Matchup: Ben Zobrist vs. R.A. Dickey
Result: Home Run, two go-ahead runs score
WPA: 16%

Summary: Ben Zobrist sends a strong early signal that this isn’t a good day for R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball, blasting a two-run homer in the top of the 1st.

Link to video: Here.

You kind of have to feel a little for R.A. Dickey. He finally reached the postseason for the first time in his career at age 40. In his first start, with the Blue Jays facing elimination in Game 4 of the ALDS, he was spotted a 7-0 lead by his teammates by the middle of the 3rd inning, and with a 7-1 lead with a man on base and two outs in the 5th, one out away from qualifying for the victory…his manager pulled him from the game in favor of David Price (!), who would throw three innings and be allowed to give up three runs for some bizarre reason. And then, in his next start, Dickey proved that his manager’s fears were entirely justified…because his knuckleball simply didn’t knuckle. Alcides Escobar led off the game with a bunt single, which proved nothing, but on an 0-1 count to Ben Zobrist, Dickey’s 78 mph knuckler floated up there at the top of the strike zone – and Zobrist crushed it for a two-run homer. He would give up four runs in the inning, and then surrendered a home run to Alex Rios in the 2nd, and after hitting Escobar and then walking Lorenzo Cain, his day – and his season – were over.

This Moment can’t rank higher than this because the Royals would win the game 14-2, but obviously we didn’t know that at the time, and two-run homers that come in tie games are big no matter what inning it is. By Win Probability added, this ranks at 16%. Not to pull the curtain back too much, but aside from Moments in the Top 40, only six other Moments had a WPA higher than this one. I can tell you it certainly felt big at the time, unless you were listening to Denny Matthews’ strangely muted call on the radio, in which case you might have thought otherwise.

Moment #: 118
Date: October 31, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 4, @ New York Mets
Score: Kansas City 4, New York 3, Top of the 8th
Situation: One out, men on first and third
Count: 2-2
Matchup: Salvador Perez vs. Jeurys Familia
Result: Single, one run scores
WPA: 8%

Summary: Salvador Perez caps a three-run 8th inning rally in Game 4 of the World Series with an opposite-field single.

Link to video: Here.

Salvador Perez won the World Series MVP, and he was deserving if for no other reason than that he’s on the most club-friendly contract in baseball, so any award that results in him being compensated better (in this case, with a shiny red Chevy Camaro) is deserved. And he did lead the team with eight hits and an .846 OPS during the World Series. But I must say, his stat line didn’t produce a ton of moments – just this one, his double against Steven Matz that Yoenis Cespedes misplayed (Moment #155), and his leadoff single in the 12th inning of Game 5, coming up much later. (Hosmer’s Mad Dash belongs to Eric Hosmer, not Salvy.) Just one Top 100 Moment wouldn’t seem to be MVP material. But then that’s part of what made the 2015 Royals so special – they didn’t have any MVP-caliber performances in the World Series, but they won anyway.

From the stands, we actually had the luxury of asking to each other out loud, “who’s your MVP?” as we waited for the bottom of the 12th to end, and then during the coronation ceremony on the field that followed the celebration. Someone finally shouted out, “I hear it’s Salvy!”, and we all said, “sure, why not?” I mean, who else would you give it to? Only two pitchers threw more than seven innings in the series: Johnny Cueto, who threw a brilliant complete game, but are you really giving the World Series MVP to a guy who pitched in one game? The only pitcher to make two starts was Edinson Volquez, who pitched alright but was losing when he left the mound in each start.

Eric Hosmer had six RBIs in five games – and also hit .190/.240/.238. Mike Moustakas hit .304 (7-for-23) – all seven hits were singles, and he had just one walk. I might have given it to Ben Zobrist, who hit a respectable .261/.346/.435, but he had no RBIs in five games, and that typically matters for postseason awards. I probably would have given it to Alex Gordon, who hit .222/.391/.444, including the one over-the-fence home run in the Series, which was one of the most important home runs in the history of the franchise. But the point is that there was no clear answer, because the Royals didn’t have a single star performance in the Series. They just had 25 guys who all did their jobs.

But getting back to Perez…in Game 4 of the World Series, after Daniel Murphy flubbed Eric Hosmer’s routine ground ball to allow the Royals to tie the game, and after Mike Moustakas hit a single past Murphy to give Kansas City the lead, Salvy drove in an important insurance run with a nice piece of two-strike hitting against Jeurys Familia, who probably figured things couldn’t get any worse for him. He was wrong, but once again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Moment #: 117
Date: October 17, 2015
Game: 2015 ALCS Game 2, vs. Toronto Blue Jays
Score: Toronto 3, Kansas City 4, Bottom of the 7th
Situation: Two outs, man on second
Count: 2-0
Matchup: Alex Rios vs. Aaron Sanchez
Result: Single, one run scores
WPA: 10%

Summary: With the Royals ahead by one run with two outs and a man on second in the bottom of the 7th, Alex Rios drills a single to drive in a key insurance run off of Aaron Sanchez.

Link to video: Here.

The Royals had just knocked a stunned David Price out of Game 2 of the ALCS; after coming into the 7th inning having retired 18 batters in a row, Price was met with a barrage of five hits in seven batters, the final one a double by Alex Gordon that had driven in the go-ahead run after Toronto had entered the inning ahead 3-0. John Gibbons called on Aaron Sanchez to stop the bleeding against Alex Rios, who had misplayed a fly ball in the top of the 6th that had dropped for an RBI double. Sanchez had allowed right-handed batters to hit .163 against him in 2015 (and .148 in his career going back to 2014). But not even Sanchez could derail the Royals’ singles train. Rios got ahead 2-0, then hit a groundball up the middle that Troy Tulowitzki couldn’t reach, and what had been a one-run lead was now a two-run lead. The Shock and Awe of the 7th inning was complete.

Moment #: 116
Date: October 23, 2015
Game: 2015 ALCS Game 6, vs. Toronto Blue Jays
Score: Toronto 1, Kansas City 2, Bottom of the 7th
Situation: Two outs, man on second
Count: 1-2
Matchup: Alex Rios vs. Aaron Sanchez
Result: Single, one run scores
WPA: 10%

Summary: With the Royals ahead by one run with two outs and a man on second in the bottom of the 7th, Alex Rios drills a single to drive in a key insurance run off of Aaron Sanchez. This is not a recording.

Link to video: Here.

Alex Rios had his moments. After a terrible regular season, he hit a respectable .271/.314/.375 in the playoffs, and five of his 13 hits are on our list. Six days after Rios took a 97 mph fastball from Sanchez up the middle, he faced Sanchez again with the Royals clinging to a one-run lead in the 7th inning, only this time the Royals were just six outs from the World Series. This time Sanchez threw a 96 mph fastball, and that missing 1 mph was apparently enough for Rios to get his bat out ahead of the pitch, pulling it to left field. Mike Moustakas, who had led off the inning with a single and moved to second base on Alex Gordon’s groundout, scored easily from second, and the Royals again had a two-run lead headed to the 8th inning. There would be a lot more drama between this point and the end of the game than in Game 2, but that just made Rios’ hit even more important. Without it, Jose Bautista’s bomb in the 8th inning would have given the Blue Jays the lead, and who knows how the game would have played out from there.

Moment #: 115
Date: October 14, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 5, vs. Houston Astros
Score: Houston 2, Kansas City 3, Bottom of the 5th
Situation: One out, man on third
Count: 2-1
Matchup: Ben Zobrist vs. Mike Fiers
Result: Sacrifice fly, one run scores
WPA: 3%

Summary: Immediately after the Royals took the lead in a winner-take-all ALDS Game 5, Ben Zobrist does exactly what the situation demands, hitting a sacrifice fly for a crucial insurance run.

Link to video: Here.

Ben Zobrist is, almost by default, the greatest trade deadline acquisition in Royals history; prior to 2015, the Royals had essentially never made a big trade to acquire an impending free agent at the deadline. (Which means that Johnny Cueto is probably the second-greatest trade deadline acquisition in Royals history.) But I’d love to see where Zobrist ranks on a definitive list of the greatest trade deadline acquisitions by any team in history. For one thing, the Royals won the World Series; that seems relevant to this discussion. And Zobrist performed exactly the way the Royals and fans like me expected him to: he hit .284/.364/.453 during the regular season, playing most left field while Alex Gordon was on the DL, and mostly second base after Gordon returned.

But what elevates Zobrist to the rank of one of the greatest trade deadline acquisitions ever is what he did in the postseason. He hit .303/.365/.515 in the playoffs as a second baseman, and not only were his overall numbers stellar, he also seemed to always come through with what the situation called for. Take this at-bat for example: Alex Rios had just hit a two-run double to give the Royals a one-run lead in a double-elimination game with 12 outs to go, and then Alcides Escobar sacrificed Rios to third base. The message to Zobrist couldn’t have been any clearer: just get Rios home. The value of one more run, with Johnny Cueto on cruise control and a rested bullpen there to back him up, was far greater than the value of any additional runs.

And Zobrist did exactly what he was tasked to do: hit a fly ball deep enough for Rios to score without a throw. All postseason he tailored his contributions to the situation. I’ll miss him. What a rare thing it is, to want something for so long, to finally get what you wanted, and to find out it is exactly as good as you thought it would be.

Moment #: 114
Date: October 17, 2015
Game: 2015 ALCS Game 2, vs. Toronto Blue Jays
Score: Toronto 3, Kansas City 6, Top of the 9th
Situation: Two outs, men on first and second
Count: 0-0
Matchup: Jose Bautista vs. Wade Davis
Result: Fly out to right field
WPA: 3%

Summary: Wade Davis gets Jose Bautista, representing the tying run, to fly out to end Game 2 of the ALCS.

Link to video: Here.

The story of Game 2 of the 2015 ALCS was the Royals’ remarkable five-run rally in the 7th inning, but it was closer than anyone cares to admit to being the story of the Blue Jays rallying off of Wade Davis in the 9th. Davis had just completed the greatest two-year stretch by a reliever in baseball history, but unlike Mariano Rivera or Dennis Eckersley at their peak, he walks enough batters to make things interesting from time to time. This game was a case in point: after Kevin Pillar singled to lead off the 9th, Cliff Pennington pinch-hit for Ryan Goins and drew a seven-pitch walk, bringing the tying run to the plate with no one out, and the top of the Blue Jays’ lineup coming up.

Ben Revere struck out, but that still gave the Blue Jays two chances to tie the game with Josh Donaldson, who hit 41 homers and was the soon-to-be-named AL MVP, and Jose Bautista, who has hit more home runs (227) this decade than any other player in baseball (Miguel Cabrera is a distant second at 199). Davis struck out Donaldson on four pitches, but look at this first pitch to Bautista: Salvador Perez set up on the outside edge and low, but Davis’ fastball tailed armside and crossed the plate…almost down the middle.

If Bautista had pulled that pitch, he might have tied the game. But he went to the opposite field, and his line drive only forced Paulo Orlando to back up a few steps. Rally over, game over, and the Royals had a commanding 2 games to 0 advantage in the series. It could have been a disaster. Instead it was just another rally that the Cyborg terminated.

Moment #: 113
Date: October 5, 2014
Game: 2014 ALDS Game 3, vs. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Score: Los Angeles 3, Kansas City 8, Top of the 9th
Situation: Two outs, bases empty
Count: 0-2
Matchup: Mike Trout vs. Greg Holland
Result: Strikeout, game over
WPA: 0%

Summary: Greg Holland strikes out Mike Trout to send the Royals to their first ALCS since 1985.

Link to video: Here.

There wasn’t a ton of drama here because by this point the outcome was a foregone conclusion, but with two outs in the 9th of Game 3 of the ALDS, with no one on base and the Royals leading by five runs, Greg Holland faced Mike Trout, who the Royals had handled well in the series – Trout went 1-for-12, although he walked three times and that one hit was a home run. And poetically, Holland struck out Holland on three pitches to send the Royals to the ALCS for the first time in 29 years. The Royals had figured out the scouting report on Trout – his one weakness was that he struggled against fastballs up in the zone – but in keeping with the Royals’ charmed life, Holland’s final pitch was a splider which was supposed to be at the knees, and wound up high in the strike zone – and Trout swung through it anyway. (Trout would fix the hole in his swing and punish high fastballs in 2015, because he’s Mike Trout.)

All in all, I imagine it was a lovely Sunday afternoon to spend at the ballpark.

Moment #: 112
Date: October 14, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 5, vs. Houston Astros
Score: Houston 2, Kansas City 7, Top of the 9th
Situation: Two outs, bases empty
Count: 0-0
Matchup: George Springer vs. Wade Davis
Result: Fly out to right field, game over
WPA: 0%

Summary: Wade Davis retires George Springer to send the Royals to the ALCS for the second straight year.

Link to video: Here.

There wasn’t a ton of drama here because by this point the outcome was a foregone conclusion – the Royals had basically celebrated their clinching moment in the bottom of the 8th inning – but with two outs in the 9th of Game 5 of the ALDS, with no one on base and the Royals leading by five runs, Wade Davis faced George Springer. Thanks to Johnny Cueto, who didn’t allow a baserunner since the 2nd inning, the Royals had retired 21 batters in a row – and it became 22 when Springer’s drive to right field was hauled in by Paulo Orlando, making a nifty catch before he crashed into the wall. This ALDS win wasn’t quite as meaningful as the one in 2014 was, given the long wait for a postseason-starved city, but this win was even more gratifying given the near-death experience in Game 4 and the early Astros lead in Game 5. This series win was unquestionably the most exhausting one of the last two years – the Wild Card Game wasn’t a series, even if it played out like one – and the Royals could have been so drained by the experience that they had nothing left. But of course they were just getting started.

Moment #: 111
Date: September 24, 2015
Game: 2015 Regular Season Game 152, vs. Seattle Mariners
Score: Seattle 4, Kansas City 10, Top of the 9th
Situation: Two outs, man on first
Count: 0-2
Matchup: Kyle Seager vs. Wade Davis
Result: Groundout 3-1, game over
WPA: 0%

Summary: Wade Davis retires Kyle Seager to secure the Royals’ first division title in 30 years.

Link to video: Here.

There wasn’t a ton of drama here because by this point the outcome was a foregone conclusion – actually, it had been a foregone conclusion for at least five weeks. (On the morning of August 20th, the Royals led the AL Central by 14.5 games. The Chicago Cubs haven’t been in first place by that large a margin since September 15, 1929.) But still: when Wade Davis got Kyle Seager to ground out, the Royals had clinched their first division title in 30 years, and their first AL Central title ever. They had put the lie to the notion that the 2014 Royals were a fluke – after all, the 2014 Royals had not won their division. They had proven themselves over the rigors of a 162-game season. They had walked up to every statistical projection system in existence, knocked on the window, flashed their division title and asked, “how do you like them apples?”

We liked them very much. And we had no idea how much better it would get.


Unknown said...

LOL, when isn't Denny "strangely muted"? Also, I love that you're making this list. I just love it. Thank you.

Unknown said...

My candidate for best tweet of the post season:

September: Alex Rios doesn't show any emotion at the plate because he doesn't care. October: ALEX RIOS IS A STONE COLD KILLER

BMJ said...

Current Standings

By Category:

2014 Regular Season (7)
Wild Card Game (6)
ALDS Game 1 Angels (4)
ALDS Game 2 Angels (4)
ALDS Game 3 Angels (2)
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 (51)

2015 Regular Season (2)
ALDS Game 1 Astros (1)
ALDS Game 2 Astros (2)
ALDS Game 3 Astros (2)
ALDS Game 4 Astros (1)
ALDS Game 5 Astros (3)
ALCS Game 1 Blue Jays (5)
ALCS Game 2 Blue Jays (7)
ALCS Game 3 Blue Jays (2)
ALCS Game 4 Blue Jays (5)
ALCS Game 5 Blue Jays (1)
ALCS Game 6 Blue Jays (4)
World Series Game 1 Mets (6)
World Series Game 2 Mets (3)
World Series Game 3 Mets (5)
World Series Game 4 Mets (5)
World Series Game 5 Mets (3)
Total 2015 Entries So Far (57)

By Player

Hosmer (7)
Cain (11)
Gordon (8)
Perez (11)
Moustakas (8)
Escobar (12)
Dyson (3)
Zobrist (7)
K. Morales (2)
Butler (4)
Gore (2)
Colon (0)
Infante (4)
Rios (3)
Aoki (2)
Orlando (1)
Willingham (0)
Butera (0)

W. Davis (3)
Holland (6)
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)


Anonymous said...

Rany, I think you're a bit too dismissive of Eric Hosmer's case for WS MVP. True, his stats overall were terrible, but how do you not consider the fact that he drove in the winning run in one game, the go-ahead run in another, the tying run in another, and scored the tying run in the last. That's about as valuable as you can get for winning a best-of-seven series.

Another possibility you overlooked is Chris Young, with his three crucial scoreless innings in Game 1, and holding the Mets to 2 hits and 2 runs in Game 4, true, the team was behind when he left, but it wasn't because he was pitching badly, it just happened to be a situation that called for a pinch-hitter.

Those said, I have no problem with Salvy getting the award.

stevo! said...

I know #1 to me will at best probably rank in the 80s ... but when Morales took Keuchel yard in the (if I remember right) bottom of the 8th (may have been bottom of 7th) of ALDS Game 5 against Houston? I've rarely cried like I did after that blast. KU vs Memphis with Super Mario hitting the three to tie, is about as close of an emotional reaction, as that HR had for me. That was the moment I knew our Boyz N' Blue would make this happen. The reaction that night ... damn. Just amazing. I didn't cry as much at the final out of the season last year, like I did after that shot.

Thanks Rany for not just ten plus years of enduring us fellow Royals fans, but for every few days this offseason, making us tear up all over again.

JRCIII said...

If I could make one youtube supercut to submit to this mix, it would be every shot of Mike Jirschele windmilling like crazy as a Royal runner rounds third and he sends them home. I know there was the heartbreak stop (the right call) to hold Gordon, but how many great moments on this countdown involve Jirschele whirling that arm like a crazy man and the Royals doing something magical as someone (Cain as often as not) comes around third?

Cain first to home in the 2015 ACLS needs to be top 5. So many things happened on that play.

Royals2012 said...

The celebration after 2015 ALDS looks like a video game