Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Top Moments (#110 - #101) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

We’re almost in the exalted air of the Top 100 now, and in complete honesty, it’s almost unbelievable to me that these moments are not among the 100 best Moments of the last two years. There are fan bases that would kill to have had any of these moments in the last two years.

Moment #: 110
Date: October 11, 2014
Game: 2014 ALCS Game 2, @ Baltimore Orioles
Score: Kansas City 0, Baltimore 0, Top of the 1st
Situation: One out, men on second and third
Count: 0-0
Matchup: Eric Hosmer vs. Bud Norris
Result: Single, two go-ahead runs score
WPA: 12%

Summary: Eric Hosmer starts Game 2 of the 2014 ALCS by dropping a single into no-man’s land in left field to score two runs.

Link to video: Here.

One theme that I only recognized after watching highlight after highlight from every playoff game is this: Eric Hosmer blooped a lot of RBI singles to left field in the perfect spot. I don’t want to call it “lucky”, because maybe there’s some skill involved, but it certainly couldn’t have been planned that way. But there was the RBI single in the 3rd inning of the Wild Card Game (Moment #131). There was his RBI single in Game 2 of the 2015 ALDS, one of the ugliest productive swings I’ve ever seen. And there was this hit, largely forgotten, which differed from the other singles in that it drove in two runs.

Another theme that I sort of knew going into this project, but has really been beaten into my head from watching the highlights, is that the Royals have been kissed by good fortune so many times that they now owe child support. With two runners in scoring position and one out, Chris Tillman threw the first pitch to Hosmer where he wanted it, on the inside part of the strike zone, and got the result he wanted – from the sound, I’m pretty sure (and the announcers agree) that Hosmer broke his bat. The ball managed to elude J.J. Hardy, who would have made one of the all-time great catches had the ball traveled about three feet shorter. The Royals scored two runs, and the game was tied going to the 9th inning instead of the Royals losing by two. On such small things – so many such small things – have balanced two AL pennants and a world championship.

And yet one more theme that this highlight reminds us of: Hosmer – and certainly his RBI total – have greatly benefited from having Lorenzo Cain on base ahead of him. Cain committed early to the notion that this ball was uncatchable and took off from second; he briefly held up when it looked like Hardy might catch the ball, but when it drops, Cain is able to score easily. It wouldn’t be the last, or most important, run that Cain scores on a Hosmer single thanks to some nifty baserunning.

Moment #: 109
Date: October 11, 2014
Game: 2014 ALCS Game 2, @ Baltimore Orioles
Score: Kansas City 5, Baltimore 4, Top of the 9th
Situation: One out, men on first and third
Count: 0-2
Matchup: Lorenzo Cain vs. Zach Britton
Result: Single, one run scores
WPA: 5%

Summary: After the Royals had already taken a 9th-inning lead in Game 2 of the 2014 ALCS, Lorenzo Cain sticks another dagger in Baltimore’s back with a groundball RBI single.

Link to video: Here.

Zach Britton is one of the very best relievers in baseball, and one of the most unique pitchers in modern baseball history: he may have the best sinker I have ever seen from a left-handed pitcher. The sinking action on his fastball was a developing legend even when he was in the minor leagues, and while he struggled as a starting pitcher in the majors, once he converted to relief the full effect of that sinker was unleashed. All you need to know is that his groundball rate was an utterly ridiculous 75% in 2014…and was even higher in 2015, clocking in at 79%, the highest rate ever recorded per Fangraphs.

And the Royals weren’t any more able to elevate their contact against him in the 2014 ALCS than anyone else. They didn’t have to. They just grounded their way to success. After Omar Infante had led off the 9th with an infield single off Darren O’Day (Moment #162), Britton came in and gave up a grounder (Mike Moustakas’ sacrifice bunt), a grounder (Escobar’s RBI double down the right field line to once again give the Royals a late lead), a grounder (Jarrod Dyson grounded to Ryan Flaherty, who couldn’t make the play and was charged with an error), and a grounder – this hit by Lorenzo Cain, chopped hard just past a drawn-in Flaherty, who might have made this play had he made the play on Dyson and therefore been playing back with two outs. Britton then came back to strike out Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler. Four ground balls and two strikeouts is pretty much what Britton does, and exactly what the Orioles would want him to do. But it turned into two runs and a Royals win, because Royals.

Moment #: 108
Date: October 28, 2014
Game: 2014 World Series Game 6, vs. San Francisco Giants
Score: San Francisco 0, Kansas City 4, Bottom of the 2nd
Situation: One out, men on second and third
Count: 1-2
Matchup: Eric Hosmer vs. Yusmeiro Petit
Result: Single, two runs score
WPA: 4%

Summary: Eric Hosmer hits a bouncer in front of the plate and it somehow turns into a double and two RBIs, icing Game 6 of the 2014 World Series.

Link to video: Here.

This wasn’t the most important hit in the seven-run 2nd inning that iced Game 6 of the World Series early, but it was certainly the most memorable one. Earlier in his at-bat, with two runners in scoring position and one out, Eric Hosmer had hit a single – only to have the hit called back when the umpire ruled he had called time before the pitch. So then Hosmer batted again…and chopped a ball a foot in front of the plate that somehow bounced high enough that it went over the head of shortstop Brandon Crawford, who was playing in.

Not only did both runners score, but amidst the giddy jubilation – turning a 4-0 lead into a 6-0 lead meant that not only were the Royals almost certainly going to win, but that they probably were going to win without having to take a shot of HDH – Hosmer sprinted out of the batter’s box at full speed and turned a single into a double. In Game 6 of the World Series, Eric Hosmer doubled in two runs on a groundball that bounced twelve inches in front of the plate. It’s not the biggest Moment of the last two years, but it’s one of the coolest sentences I’ll be able to write in this whole project.

Moment #: 107
Date: September 30, 2014
Game: 2014 Wild Card Game, vs. Oakland Athletics
Score: Oakland 7, Kansas City 3, Bottom of the 8th
Situation: No outs, bases empty
Count: 1-1
Matchup: Alcides Escobar vs. Jon Lester
Result: Single
WPA: 3%

Summary: In the Royals’ first playoff game in 29 years, they are down by four runs with six outs to go. And then The Comeback begins.

Link to video: Here.

Before Ned Yost drove us crazy, and then made us eat our words, by putting Alcides Escobar back in the leadoff spot before the 2015 playoffs began, he batted Escobar in the leadoff spot for the 2014 playoffs. (In fairness, Escobar had hit .362 in the leadoff spot during the season; on the other hand, he had only made 16 starts there, and his overall .317 OBP was sixth on the team.) As it happened, the Royals had gone through their order exactly three times in the first seven innings of the Wild Card Game, a game they were losing 7-3 with six outs to go, which meant that Escobar led off the bottom of the 8th. Jon Lester, his reputation as a Royals-killer undisputed, was left in to pitch the inning – even though it would be his fourth time through the lineup, he had only thrown 94 pitches.

Every comeback has a table-setter. Every journey, every amazing adventure, has a first step. On Lester’s third pitch, Escobar grounded a single up the middle. A good defender perhaps makes the play; Jed Lowrie is not a good defensive shortstop, and did not make the play, as the bounce he anticipated never materialized and the ball went under his glove. It was ruled an infield single, and Escobar might have beaten it out even if Lowrie had fielded it cleanly, but it says something that’s highlight of this play lists the caption as “Escobar reaches on error”.

Watching in the stands, we hoped Escobar’s hit was the start of something. It turns out it was the start of everything.

Moment #: 106
Date: September 30, 2014
Game: 2014 Wild Card Game, vs. Oakland Athletics
Score: Oakland 7, Kansas City 3, Bottom of the 8th
Situation: No outs, man on first
Count: 1-1
Matchup: Nori Aoki vs. Jon Lester
Result: Stolen base
WPA: 1%

Summary: Alcides Escobar then attempts to steal second base, something you’re never supposed to do down four runs in the 8th inning. Flouting conventional wisdom may very well have won the game.

Link to video: Here.

Alcides Escobar had singled leading off the 8th, which was what everyone hoped he would do. He then did something that most people – I certainly include myself in this category – were horrified to see him do: he tried to steal second base. Yes, he’s a very good baserunner, and yes, Jon Lester can’t hold runners, and yes, Derek Norris has a below-average throwing arm – but still: you’re down four runs in the 8th inning. Scoring one run in the 8th inning would have been a huge disappointment for the Royals, particularly given that they already have their leadoff hitter on base. Trying to steal second base only does one thing: it increases your odds of scoring that one run. Meanwhile, if Escobar gets thrown out, it dramatically decreases the Royals’ odds of putting together a big rally – and a big rally is the only thing that can save them. I’m guessing the break-even rate for a steal in this situation is at least 90%.

If Escobar had been thrown out, the Royals never would have lived it down. But he wasn’t. He was safe, and pretty easily (except that he briefly overslid the bag, something that would finally bite the Royals hard in Game 4 of the 2015 ALDS when Terrance Gore had third base stolen by ten feet and got called out on review.) And it turns out I was wrong to think that the only thing a stolen base does in that situation is increase your odds of scoring one run. It does two other things, although one of them is rather intangible.

I was sitting with Chris Kamler (@TheFakeNed on Twitter), and – granted, after Escobar was safe – he hooted and hollered about how much he loved the decision to run. He pointed a finger at his temple and said, “we gotta get in their heads!” Of course, Chris is certifiably mad. But after the game, we learned that Rusty Kuntz – who is a certifiable, lovable mad genius – was the one person above all who insisted on pressing the Royals’ speed advantage even when they fell far behind. And true, by the end of the game the A’s had basically curled up into the fetal position any time the Royals put a runner in motion.

But like I said: that thing is intangible. The other thing a stolen base does in that situation, however, is very tangible: it keeps you out of the double play. This didn’t seem like a huge consideration with Nori Aoki, who had grounded into five double plays all year, batting next – but sure enough, Aoki scalded an absolute bullet of a one-hopper to Eric Sogard at second base. Even with Aoki’s speed, he hit the ball so hard that, in all likelihood, the A’s would have turned two had Escobar still been on first base. Instead, Escobar moved up to third base on the groundout. The Royals were down to their final five outs, but the next three batters reached base, and their season was still very much alive. But had Lorenzo Cain batted with two outs and no one on base, the rally would have died prematurely. Instead…

Moment #: 105
Date: September 30, 2014
Game: 2014 Wild Card Game, vs. Oakland Athletics
Score: Oakland 7, Kansas City 3, Bottom of the 8th
Situation: One out, man on third
Count: 1-0
Matchup: Lorenzo Cain vs. Jon Lester
Result: Single, one run scores
WPA: 3%

Summary: Lorenzo Cain keeps The Comeback going, singling up the middle to drive home a run, and suddenly the first playoff crowd at Kauffman Stadium in 29 years started buzzing.

Link to video: Here.

…Cain came through with a groundball single up the middle, driving home Escobar to make the score 7-4, and putting the tying run in the on-deck circle. No fancy analysis here; the Royals needed a baserunner and Cain obliged. The most interesting part of this at-bat, in fact, is what happened afterwards: A’s manager Bob Melvin elected to stick with Jon Lester. I am convinced that the only reason he stuck with him was that Lester had the platoon advantage against the left-handed Eric Hosmer. And perhaps it was the right decision, even though two of the last three batters had singled and the other one had hit the ball really hard. But I bet that if you administered truth serum and then asked Melvin today what decision he regretted the most from this game, the decision to stick with Lester to face Hosmer would rank very high on his list. Maybe at the very top.

Moment #: 104
Date: October 31, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 4, @ New York Mets
Score: Kansas City 2, New York 3, Top of the 8th
Situation: One out, bases empty
Count: 3-1
Matchup: Ben Zobrist vs. Tyler Clippard
Result: Walk
WPA: 6%

Summary: Ben Zobrist, always doing what the situation calls for, draws a walk to start the game-winning rally in Game 4 of the World Series.

Link to video: Here.

It’s sort of surreal hearing Dayton Moore in interviews talk about how long the organization wanted Ben Zobrist before they traded for him, how they had been trying to acquire him for a long time. It’s not that I don’t believe him (I do!), or that I disagree with him (of course not!) – it’s just that Zobrist’s plate discipline is one of his most outstanding traits, and the Royals haven’t prioritized walks in a generation and hadn’t shown any signs of wanting to change that – they once again ranked last in the majors in walks in 2015. Zobrist has drawn 90+ walks three times in his career, and the last Royal to draw 90 walks in a season is still Kevin Seitzer in 1989.

And in Game 4 of the World Series, with the Royals down a run in the 8th inning, Zobrist faced Tyler Clippard because Mets manager Terry Collins – after using closer Jeurys Familia to close out a 9-3 game the night before – was unwilling to let Familia pitch two innings to protect a one-run lead. And because Zobrist is awesome, he drew a walk. The tying run was on base. The door was nudged ajar. And damned if the Royals don’t know how to take that door and rip it off its hinges.

Moment #: 103
Date: October 31, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 4, @ New York Mets
Score: Kansas City 2, New York 3, Top of the 8th
Situation: One out, man on first
Count: 3-2 (+2 fouls)
Matchup: Lorenzo Cain vs. Tyler Clippard
Result: Walk
WPA: 9%

Summary: Lorenzo Cain, showing his own talent for drawing walks to spark late-game rallies in the postseason, follows Zobrist with one of his own.

Link to video: Here.

Maybe Lorenzo Cain learned from watching Ben Zobrist from the on-deck circle the last two months of the season. Maybe Cain has continued to mature as a hitter and is learning to take what the pitcher gives you. Or maybe Cain is just a really talented major league player – he did finish third in the AL MVP vote, the highest any Royal had placed since 1985 – and really talented major league players know how to tailor their approach to what the situation demands.

Whatever it was, Cain followed Zobrist with a walk of his own, an epic eight-pitch plate appearance after falling behind 0-and-2, before Tyler Clippard finally lost him. Only then did Terry Collins, taking a page from the Trey Hillman Book of Managing, decide that while Jeurys Familia couldn’t get six outs, he could get five outs, even if it meant coming in with two men on base instead of starting a clean inning. Familia, not entirely because of his own actions, was unable to get the job done, but his job was made so much harder by a really tough, really professional plate appearance from Cain before he came in.

Moment #: 102
Date: October 23, 2015
Game: 2015 ALCS Game 6, vs. Toronto Blue Jays
Score: Toronto 3, Kansas City 3, Bottom of the 8th
Situation: No outs, bases empty
Count: 3-2 (+2 fouls)
Matchup: Lorenzo Cain vs. Roberto Osuna
Result: Walk
WPA: 6%

Summary: After the Royals had done the unthinkable and blown an 8th inning lead, Lorenzo Cain proves the Royals are unflappable, starting the game-winning rally with a walk.

Link to video: Here.

Jose Bautista had just tied Game 6 of the ALCS with a two-run homer. Ned Yost had been forced to bring in Wade Davis, and the rains were coming. John Gibbons had just called upon his closer, Roberto Osuna, to keep the game tied. It was crisis time. And in the crisis, Lorenzo Cain kept his cool. He didn’t try to re-take the lead with one swing of the bat. Instead, leading off the bottom of the 8th, he battled Osuna for eight pitches, fouling off a pair of full count pitches, before barely holding up on a slider down and away. Suddenly the momentum – that ephemeral, ethereal notion that the Royals have spent two years proving doesn’t matter one bit – was back on their side. Suddenly the Blue Jays were behind the eight-ball again. Soon, Cain would score the final run of the ALCS.

Moment #: 101
Date: August 11, 2014
Game: 2014 Game 117, vs. Oakland Athletics
Score: Oakland 2, Kansas City 3, Top of the 9th
Situation: Two outs, man on second
Count: 1-2 (+1 foul)
Matchup: Steven Vogt vs. Greg Holland
Result: Flyout to centerfield
WPA: 11%

Summary: The Royals win. They move into first place. Jarrod Dyson does a backflip. And SungWoo hangs the W. Any questions?

Link to video: Here and here.

For the final Moment before we entered the exalted ranks of the Top 100, I can think of no more appropriate moment than this one. I won’t bore you with the story of my friend SungWoo Lee, which was already the greatest sports story I had been a part of before the Royals won the AL pennant and SungWoo returned to Kansas City for the World Series. If you’re familiar with the story, you remember it well, and if you’re not, you can read what I wrote here, or the New York Times column I wrote here, or you can do yourself a real favor and watch the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about it here. And really, that’s all you need to know about it: they made a 30 for 30 documentary about SungWoo and the Royals. The 2014 Royals – this doesn’t even include the best part of the story. (In the bottom of the 12th inning of Game 5 at Citi Field, I ran into Josh Swade, the documentary creator, as we were all celebrating in the mosh pit of Royals fans behind the third base dugout. After we hugged I told him, “looks like you need to make another documentary!” A man can dream.)

This moment was the pinnacle of the SungWoo Experience, the perfect melding of fan and team, the moment the Royals moved into first place this late in the season for the first time since 1985, and one of their most loyal and devoted fans got to share in the experience by hanging the “W” and literally jumping for joy in front of a delirious crowd. SungWoo had thrown out the first pitch before the game, and while his throw was wild, it only seemed to presage this throw by Josh Reddick in the bottom of the 1st, which allowed Jarrod Dyson to advance to third base on Omar Infante's single. By moving to third base, Dyson was able to score when Salvador Perez hit into a double play. Reddick's error led to a run. In a game the Royals won by one run. Against the A's. A game which determined home field advantage for the Wild Card Game.
That this moment doesn’t rank in the Top 100 seems almost criminal, except that what makes this Moment resonate even more is everything that came after it. I said in the documentary that I honestly believe the 2014 Royals season doesn’t turn out the way it does if SungWoo hadn’t come to Kansas City to see them play. I stand by that. And I honestly believe the 2015 Royals season doesn’t turn out the way it does if the 2014 Royals season hadn’t turned out the way it did. So while the magic of SungWoo's visit to Kansas City may have long faded, the echoes of his trip will be heard as long as baseball is played there.


Unknown said...

What's that look on Hosmer's face about in Moment 110? Is it him being shocked that Cain was able to score?

Matt S said...

I've watched that clip about 100 times. It really does look like Hosmer is shocked that Cain scored. Which is awesome.

David Beck said...

I am a long-time Royals fan and am reveling in your blog series here. Don't stop, I know you won't, but you should just know there are a lot of us who are thrilled with your comprehensive recaps. Just one point here, and that is you mentioned we've had so much luck we owe child support, something like that. I think about that too, how damned lucky could we have been over and over and over again. But remember, how wretchedly unlucky had we been so, so, so many times before. I truly think the Royals have been owed, and the chickens have come home to roost, in concentrated waves over the past two years. Think Mark Littell, think Game 5 in 1978, think how no one will ever give us credit because of Don Denkinger for cryin' out loud, think every game from strike of '94 to '14. Think 90 feet away in Game 7 for that matter. I think also that we all know this team is not only genuinely good and deserves every ounce of "luck" they get, but that they're now notoriously resilient and courageous. Both of those outdistance the impact of luck, and how awesome is that. Thank you again for all your fun writing.

David Beck said...

Excuse me, 1977 was that Game 5! There was so much past unluck hard to keep track of!

BMJ said...

Current Standings Entering Top 100

By Category:

2014 Regular Season (8)
Wild Card Game (9)
ALDS Game 1 Angels (4)
ALDS Game 2 Angels (4)
ALDS Game 3 Angels (2)
ALCS Game 1 Orioles (2)
ALCS Game 2 Orioles (5)
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 (6)
World Series Game 7 Giants (2)
Total 2014 Entries So Far (58)

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 (5)
World Series Game 1 Mets (6)
World Series Game 2 Mets (3)
World Series Game 3 Mets (5)
World Series Game 4 Mets (7)
World Series Game 5 Mets (3)
Total 2015 Entries So Far (60)

By Player

Hosmer (9)
Cain (14)
Gordon (8)
Perez (11)
Moustakas (8)
Escobar (14)
Dyson (4)
Zobrist (8)
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)