Monday, March 21, 2016

Top Moments (#50 - #46) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

There’s so much awesomeness in the Top 50 that going forward, I’ll be posting articles five Moments at a time instead of ten so that you can savor them all the more. In this batch alone we have the most dominant inning in Royals postseason history, two improbable RBI singles from Eric Hosmer, a leadoff single in extra innings in the final game of the year, and the moment the Royals won their first pennant in 29 years. And we still have 45 Moments to go.

Moment #: 50
Date: October 10, 2014
Game: 2014 ALCS Game 1, @ Baltimore Orioles
Score: Kansas City 5, Baltimore 5, Bottom of the 9th
Situation: Two outs, bases empty
Count: 1-2
Matchup: Nelson Cruz vs. Wade Davis
Result: Strikeout swinging
WPA: 3%

Summary: With Game 1 of the 2014 ALCS tied in the bottom of the 9th, after the Royals had blown a golden opportunity to take the lead, Wade Davis throws the most dominant inning in Royals playoff history.

Link to video: Here.

We start the Top 50 with a Moment that you almost certainly have forgotten about. That’s because I cheated a little; this isn’t a single moment as it was a single inning. A dominant, hellacious, series-changing inning.

To set the stage: Game 1 of the 2014 ALCS was tied at 5 entering the ninth inning. The Orioles turned to their closer, Zach Britton, who proceeded to do the unthinkable: he walked the bases loaded. First he walked Alcides Escobar on a 3-2 count, which is difficult enough on its own. But Britton then faced Jarrod Dyson, who can’t hit lefties worth a damn, and had entered the game as a pinch-runner for Nori Aoki in the 7th (and then was thrown out trying to steal second base) – on four pitches. Britton then walked Lorenzo Cain – on four pitches. The bases were loaded, there were no outs, the heart of the Royals’ order was due up, and the pitcher on the mound suddenly couldn’t throw strikes. You might even say that the Royals had…momentum.

And then Zach Britton, on a 3-2 pitch to Eric Hosmer, got Hosmer to ground out to the first baseman – who, with the infield in, threw home and got the force out to keep the game tied. That brought up Billy Butler, and Buck Showalter called on Darren O'Day - like Britton a groundballer, but who also had the benefit of being right-handed - to face off against one of the game’s biggest GIDP threats. Sure enough, on the 7th pitch of the at-bat, Butler rolled over to the shortstop, who started an easy 6-4-3 double play. Butler’s double play had a WPA of -35%, making it by the far the most damaging plate appearance by a Royals hitter in postseason history. (No other play is even at -20% WPA.) After having the bases loaded with no outs, the Royals didn’t score, and the Orioles would bat in the bottom of the 9th with their 2-3-4 hitters due up, needing single run to end the game. You would definitely say that the Orioles had…momentum.

It was Earl Weaver who said “Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher”, because Earl Weaver was a very smart man. I have proposed a 21st-century corollary to this rule that applies to momentum within games: Momentum is the next inning’s reliever. And in the history of baseball, there has never been a better reliever to call upon in the next inning than 2014-2015 vintage Wade Davis.

Davis had already pitched the 8th inning, but having dispatched the Orioles on just seven pitches, and with the game tied and poised to continue indefinitely, it made sense to try to milk another inning out of him. And oh, what an inning it was. Pitching through a steady rain, Davis struck out Alejandro de Aza on four pitches. He then struck out Adam Jones on three pitches. And finally, as you see here, he struck out Nelson Cruz on four pitches.

I unfortunately do not know a way to check this for sure, but I’m fairly certain that there has never been another instance in the playoffs of a Royals pitcher striking out the side on 11 pitches or less. So I think it’s safe to say that this was the most dominant inning in Royals playoff history. 

(Update: the above paragraph is dead wrong, as brilliant reader Taylor Witt pointed out in the comments, and I am an idiot for forgetting. In Game 5 of the 1985 World Series, Danny Jackson - on his way to a complete game win, the second time that October that he threw a complete game victory in a Game 5 with the Royals down 3 games to 1 - struck out the side in the 7th inning on nine pitches. That's right: Danny Jackson threw an Immaculate Inning in the World Series. He is the only pitcher to ever thrown an Immaculate Inning in the postseason.

And the reason I'm an idiot for forgetting is that Bill James wrote about this in his "A History Of Being A Kansas City Baseball Fan" essay in the 1986 Bill James Abstract, which I've only read about a dozen times. Here I quote: "Jackson was never challenged again. In the seventh inning, Brett slid into the dugout in a spectacular, but unsuccessful, attempt to catch a pop up; that failing it became strike one, and Jackson struck out the side on nine pitches. (I wonder if that's ever happened before in a World Series game? I'd be very surprised if it has.) The Royals added a run in the eighth and one in the ninth, and had their second easy victory of the series."

Brett's slide into the dugout, incidentally, is one of the most famous highlights of the entire 1985 Royals championship, even though he didn't make the catch - he hurtled himself at full speed into the dugout and could have been seriously injured, but came out without a scratch. You can watch that inning here, starting at the 1:55:15 mark.)

And it could hardly have come at a better time. After squandering their opportunity against Britton, the Royals would take full advantage of their opportunities against Darren O’Day and Brian Matusz in the top of the 10th, scoring three runs. Davis was credited with the win.

The next night, Davis was credited with the win in Game 2 when he pitched a scoreless 8th inning and the Royals scored two tie-breaking runs in the top of the 9th. After the game, Jarrod Dyson made his comments to the media that he didn’t think the series was coming back to Baltimore, and posited that the Orioles didn’t think the series was coming back either. That led to this now-famous entry at the online forum Orioles Dugout:

And that, my friends, is how Wade Davis came to be known as The Cyborg.

Moment #: 49
Date: November 1, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 5, @ New York Mets
Score: Kansas City 2, New York 2, Top of the 12th
Situation: No outs, bases empty
Count: 1-0
Matchup: Salvador Perez vs. Addison Reed
Result: Single
WPA: 8%

Summary: Salvador Perez hits a bloop single to right field leading off the top of the 12th inning, precipitating the final rally of the 2015 season.

Link to video: Here.

This isn’t even the most famous opposite-field single by a right-handed batter leading off what is potentially the final inning of a playoff game who then gets pinch-run for by Jarrod Dyson. But it was the perfect bookend to Josh Willingham’s single, which is coming up shortly. Even after Eric Hosmer tied Game 5 of the World Series in the 9th inning with a piece of exceptional baserunning, the Mets had three chances at a walk-off victory, in the bottom of the 9th, after the Royals went in order in the 10th, and after they got only a two-out single and stolen base from Hosmer in the 11th. The Mets would not get a fourth.

Salvador Perez led off the top of the 12th and, on a 1-0 pitch, took an inside-out swing on a fastball and blooped it down the right field line. The Royals caught a break when the ball dropped a foot fair, and then the Mets caught a break when the ball bounced off the side wall just a foot from the top – otherwise this would have been a ground rule double. Instead, Perez held at first base. But, of course, it wouldn’t matter, because Jarrod Dyson was on the bench and was about to steal second base (Moment #59) anyway.

After a pretty terrible 2014 postseason in which he hit .207/.233/.276 and made the final out of the World Series with the tying run 90 feet away, Perez redeemed himself in 2015, hitting .259/.328/.517 in the playoffs and hitting two homers apiece in the ALDS and ALCS. He didn’t homer in the World Series, but he did go 8-for-22 with a hit in every game. He was named World Series MVP. Maybe getting some rest down the stretch – Perez had seven days off between August 30th and the end of the season – did him some good. Crazy idea, I know.

Moment #: 48
Date: October 9, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 2, vs. Houston Astros
Score: Houston 4, Kansas City 2, Bottom of the 6th
Situation: One out, man on second
Count: 0-2
Matchup: Eric Hosmer vs. Oliver Perez
Result: Single, one run scores
WPA: 12%

Summary: Eric Hosmer takes the ugliest swing (that resulted in an RBI single) you’ve ever seen.

Link to video: Here.

Just another bit of incredible serendipity in a crucial moment for the Royals. The Astros led the Royals, 4-2, and were 11 outs away from taking a 2 games to 0 series lead in the ALDS. With one out in the bottom of the 6th, Lorenzo Cain had doubled to chase starter Scott Kazmir; A.J. Hinch called upon lefty specialist Oliver Perez to face Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales, and Mike Moustakas – the L-S-L heart of the Royals order that I was fretted before the playoffs might be vulnerable to lefty specialists.

My fears seemed warranted when Hosmer feebly swung and missed at the first two pitches, the second one in the dirt. On the 0-2 pitch, Perez tried a little Johnny Cueto-like shake-and-bake in his windup, and then threw a pretty good slider off the outside corner, the kind of pitch that LOOGY’s have been striking left-handed hitters out on for decades. Hosmer’s body practically split in two as he swung, half of him desperately trying to stay back on the pitch and hold back the half of him that thought it was a fastball. The result was a swing so awful-looking that it was comical: his butt moved backwards as he swung, making this a literal ass-out swing. See for yourself:

Yet somehow, Hosmer made contact. Even more amazingly, he made solid contact, even if his bat was practically stationary by the time it hit the ball, more like a defensive cricket swing than anything you normally see on a baseball diamond. The ball didn’t travel far, but it did travel on a line, over the shortstop’s head for a single. Cain, who was trying to steal third base on the pitch, stopped to see where the ball went, but was practically at third base by that point and was able to score easily. As Jeff Passan documented after the game, everything in Hosmer’s and Perez’s track record before that pitch suggested that what happened was pretty damn near impossible.

Now the Royals trailed by just one run. Morales would hit a routine grounder through the shifted infield (Moment #97), and Moustakas walked. Maybe batting those three guys in order made the Royals vulnerable to a good left-handed reliever, but at least on this afternoon, Perez wasn’t that reliever. (An underrated reason for the Royals’ October success was that none of the three teams they faced in the playoffs had a truly elite left-handed reliever. The Blue Jays’ Brett Cecil might have been that guy, except he got hurt in the ALDS and missed the series.)

The Royals would tie the game in the 6th, and would take the lead in the 7th, and would hold on to win in the 9th. Without Hosmer’s ability to make contact and – as he did in Moment #110, and Moment #131 – bloop an opposite-field single into no-man’s land, the Royals’ 2015 postseason might have died a quick death.

Moment #: 47
Date: October 14, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 5, vs. Houston Astros
Score: Houston 2, Kansas City 0, Bottom of the 4th
Situation: One out, man on first
Count: 3-2 (+1 foul)
Matchup: Eric Hosmer vs. Collin McHugh
Result: Single, one run scores
WPA: 12%

Summary: Lorenzo Cain scores from first base on Eric Hosmer’s single after Carlos Gomez falls down in center field.

Link to video: Here.

After the Miracle at Minute Maid, you had to feel pretty confident of the Royals’ chances in Game 5 of the ALDS, at home in Kauffman Stadium. But after Johnny Cueto made his one mistake of the afternoon, which Luis Valbuena hit for a two-run homer in the 2nd inning, the Royals were behind the eight-ball yet again. After Ben Zobrist struck out to lead off the bottom of the 4th, the Royals’ win probability dropped to 28%. Lorenzo Cain singled to right field against Collin McHugh, and then Eric Hosmer worked a full count. On the 3-2 pitch, Cain took off for second base, but Hosmer fouled the ball off; Cain took off again on the next 3-2 pitch, and this time Hosmer fisted a line drive to centerfield.

Cain made the turn at second and headed to third base, and then Carlos Gomez’s cleats seemed to give out from under him as he fielded the ball. You could tell from watching the game on TV that Cain was almost at third base, so when Gomez slipped and fell, I immediately thought “Cain might have a chance to score!” even though Gomez had the ball in his glove and immediately threw it in to Jose Altuve. His throw had nothing on it, bouncing twice before it got to Altuve, and sure enough, Matt Vasgersian’s voice went up an octave. The replay showed the hallmarks of Royals baserunning that we’ve grown accustomed to these last two years: Cain never broke stride, Mike Jirschele read the situation perfectly and gave Cain the windmill with plenty of time for Cain to make the turn at third base at full speed, and Cain scored without a throw.

The Royals still trailed, 2-1, but speaking only for myself, Cain’s run quieted the urge to panic that was rising in my throat. I was terrified that McHugh would pitch well enough for long enough to turn the game over to his bullpen with a lead, and there was the specter of Dallas Keuchel coming out of the bullpen for an undetermined amount of time. The last time the Royals’ faced a left-handed #1 starter in relief in a double-elimination game, Madison He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named arrived in the 5th inning and closed out the game, and this game was already in the 4th inning. So cutting the lead in half was huge, even if the Royals would end the inning still trailing. As we shall see later, they would take care of the remaining deficit in the next inning.

Memorable Broadcaster Quote: “Cain to third easily – Gomez fell down and CAIN NEVER STOPPED RUNNING!” – Matt Vasgersian.

Of all the national broadcasters to preside over the Royals’ 2014-2015 run, Vasgersian was probably my favorite, because he wasn’t the least bit afraid of showing emotion in his voice when the Royals did something particularly exciting – and they did particularly exciting things all the time. His quotes read a lot like my tweets do when I get excited – you never know when THE CAPITAL LETTERS ARE COMING.

Moment #: 46
Date: October 15, 2014
Game: 2014 ALCS Game 4, vs. Baltimore Orioles
Score: Baltimore 1, Kansas City 2, Top of the 9th
Situation: Two outs, man on first
Count: 1-2 (+1 foul)
Matchup: J.J. Hardy vs. Greg Holland
Result: Groundout, 5-3, game over
WPA: 8%

Summary: Greg Holland retires J.J. Hardy with the tying run on base to send the Royals to their first World Series since 1985.

Link to video: Here.

It may seem like a foregone conclusion today that the Royals were going to win the ALCS against the Orioles after they went up 3 games to 0, but funny things happen in the playoffs. Only one team has ever come back from down 3 games to 0…but it’s not like any of us who witnessed that series will ever forget it. I can tell you I was assuming nothing after the Royals won Game 3, not even after they took the lead in the 1st inning in Game 4, not even when they went to the 9th inning still leading by a run. I shook my head when Adam Jones – Adam Jones! – somehow drew a leadoff walk against Greg Holland. I held my breath when Holland nearly threw away a comebacker (Moment #184) before Alcides Escobar held on to record the out. I held my breath with Delmon Young at the plate until he struck out.

And then I held my breath with J.J. Hardy at the plate, who had hit 25 homers the year before and certainly had the ability to give Baltimore the lead with one swing. But Holland got ahead of him 1-2, and then Hardy hit a groundball to Dayton Moore’s first-ever first-round pick in 2007, who threw the ball to Moore’s second-ever first-round pick in 2008. The two guys who were supposed to be the cornerstones of the Royals’ resurgence, who had both endured very disappointing 2014 seasons but had persevered nonetheless, now combined to record the final out of the ALCS and send the Royals to the World Series. (They enjoyed the moment so much that they resolved to re-create it the following year.)

More than any other sport, baseball celebrates the act of making it to the final round of the postseason. Baseball is the only sport in which the loser of the final playoff series fashions itself a championship ring, because baseball is the only sport in which the leagues have such a historic resonance that making it to the World Series means you have already won something: a pennant. Winning the ALDS (Moment #113) was a special moment, but they don’t make rings that say “ALDS Winner”. Winning the ALCS meant that the Royals, no matter what else was to come, were 2014 American League champions, now and forever. There are teams (the Mariners, the Nationals) who have never been league champions; there are teams that have waited 71 years and counting since their last league championship. Mike Moustakas-to-Eric Hosmer guaranteed that a generation of Royals fans wouldn’t suffer the same fate. And the best was yet to come.


Dannar said...

Tease. Here I see a monday post thinking it will be the next ten... and it's the next 5 only...

David said...

"I can tell you I was assuming nothing after the Royals won Game 3, not even after they took the lead in the 6th inning in Game 4, not even when they went to the 9th inning still leading by a run."

Maybe my recollection of Game 4 of the 2014 ALCS is faulty, but I thought the Royals scored their only runs in the first inning, and then held on the rest of the way. Is there something from the 6th inning I'm forgetting?

Anonymous said...

Please, Rany, tell me that these posts will be doubling in frequency to make up for halving the content. You're a doctor, you understand the importance of steady dosages...

Rany said...

Sorry, David - just a typo. That has been fixed.

And Chaim - I'm planning to run one every weekday until we're done, with an eye towards finishing before Opening Night.

BMJ said...

Current Tally

By Category

2014 Regular Season (9)
Wild Card Game (13)
ALDS Game 1 Angels (5)
ALDS Gane 2 Angels (5)
ALDS Game 3 Angels (6)
ALCS Game 1 Orioles (6)
ALCS Game 2 Orioles (8)
ALCS Game 3 Orioles (3)
ALCS Game 4 Orioles (4)
World Series Game 1 Giants (0)
World Series Game 2 Giants (6)
World Series Game 3 Giants (6)
World Series Game 4 Giants (5)
World Series Game 5 Giants (1)
World Series Game 6 Giants (7)
World Series Game 7 Giants (2)
2014 Entries To Date (86)

2015 Regular Season (3)
ALDS Game 1 Astros (1)
ALDS Game 2 Astros (7)
ALDS Game 3 Astros (2)
ALDS Game 4 Astros (7)
ALDS Game 5 Astros (6)
ALDS Game 1 Blue Jays (6)
ALDS Game 2 Blue Jays (9)
ALCS Game 3 Blue Jays (2)
ALCS Game 4 Blue Jays (5)
ALCS Game 5 Blue Jays (1)
ALCS Game 6 Blue Jays (7)
World Series Game 1 Mets (9)
World Series Game 2 Mets (4)
World Series Game 3 Mets (5)
World Series Game 4 Mets (7)
World Series Game 5 Mets (7)
2015 Entries So Far: (88)

By Player

Hosmer (17)
Cain (21)
Gordon (12)
Perez (15)
Moustakas (12)
Escobar (20)
Dyson (5)
Zobrist (11)
Morales (3)
Butler (8)
Gore (2)
Colon (1)
Infante (6)
Rios (4)
Aoki (3)
Orlando (1)
Willingham (0)
Butera (1)

W. Davis (5)
Holland (8)
Herrera (2)
Ventura (4)
Young (1)
Cueto (2)
Finnegan (2)
Volquez (1)
Guthrie (0)
Shields (0)
Vargas (1)
Hochevar (2)
Madson (1)
Duffy (0)
Medlen (0)
Frasor (0)
Collins (0)
F. Morales (0)


Anonymous said...

Rany, thank you. I've followed you since the "Rob and Rany on the Royals" days, and I'm loving every post in this series, and I am thrilled that you'll be pouring it on like that.

Unknown said...

I absolutely adore this series. Probably my favorite blog entries in the history of the internet.

To solve the "most dominant inning in Royals history" question for you, I did some bbref research ( ) and the Royals have actually had an immaculate inning in the postseason, which I had no idea about until I looked.

Danny Jackson, Bottom of the 7th, Game 5 of the Series at St Louis. Terry Pendleton, Tom Nieto, and Brian Harper all went down on three pitch Ks, with the Royals ahead 4-1 in the game and down 3-1 in the Series. Pretty crazy, right?

All instances of striking out the side with zero baserunners in Royals postseason history:

Date Series Gm# Pitcher Opp Score Inn Pitches
10/7/1978 ALCS 4 Dennis Leonard @NYY tied 1-1 b4 15
10/13/1985 ALCS 5 Danny Jackson TOR ahead 1-0 t2 15
10/24/1985 WS 5 Danny Jackson @STL ahead 4-1 b7 9
10/10/2014 ALCS 1 Wade Davis @BAL tied 5-5 b9 11
10/8/2015 ALDS 1 Chris Young HOU down 1-3 t4 12
10/12/2015 ALDS 4 Yordano Ventura @HOU ahead 2-1 b3 18
10/27/2015 WS 1 Wade Davis NYM tied 4-4 t10 18
10/27/2015 WS 1 Chris Young NYM tied 4-4 t12 21
11/1/2015 WS 5 Kelvin Herrera @NYM down 0-2 b8 14

Chris Young makes the cut twice!

Matt S said...

If Salvy's ball had bounced over the wall that would be the first time I can remember seeing the ground rule double actually help a batter take an extra base. Although I would assume it happens in Boston a lot.

Rany said...

Taylor, you are absolutely correct, and I am an idiot for not remembering that inning, for reasons that will be clear when you read the addendum that I have added above.

KHAZAD said...

I am glad you pointed it out in your addendum, somewhat, but the play that Brett hurled himself into the opposing dugout and failed to make the catch - perhaps one of the most played Royal highlights ever, and certainly the first thing I thought of when Moose actually made his dugout catch in 2014 - was the first pitch of that perfect inning, becoming strike one.

65 Toss Power Trap said... if you need a cyborg of your own for the man cave