Friday, March 4, 2016

Top Moments (#100 - #91) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

We have entered the Halls of Valhalla now, the sacred resting place of the 100 best moments of the past two years. If you’re a Royals fan, there is no excuse for not remembering every one of these plays. Fortunately this link will always be here to remind you.

Moment #: 100
Date: October 12, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 4, @ Houston Astros
Score: Kansas City 6, Houston 6, Top of the 8th
Situation: One out, men on second and third
Count: 3-2 (+4 fouls)
Matchup: Drew Butera vs. Luke Gregerson
Result: Walk
WPA: 0%

Summary: Drew Butera faces Luke Gregerson’s Slider of Death and emerges victorious. And soon, so do the Royals.

Link to video: Here.

THIS was the moment that I had in mind when I decided to write about the Top 100 Moments, and when this project more than doubled in size, I made sure to keep this Moment at #100. If you’re not a Royals fan, or if you were six years old in 2015 and are coming to read this column ten years later to learn more about the team that you got to miss school for to see in a parade, you may have no idea this Moment ever happened. But if you are a Royals fan and watched this game, you’ll never forget it.

That Drew Butera was in this game in the first place was unlikely enough; Salvador Perez had played literally every inning of every game in the 2014 postseason (Erik Kratz, then the backup catcher, never appeared in a playoff game.) But with the Royals down a run in the 7th inning, Perez had been hit by a pitch with one out. With the season on the line (and Salvy clearly hurting; he had also taken a pitch off his mask earlier in the game), Ned Yost decided it wasn’t too early to open the silo and arm the speed nukes, calling upon Terrance Gore to try to tie the game with his legs. Gore obliged by stealing second, and then stole third with two outs, and then was called out on review because apparently he stole the base with too much élan or something. And then Carlos Correa and Colby Rasmus had homered to give the Astros a 6-2 lead with six outs to go.

And then suddenly, and incredibly improbably, by the time Perez’s spot in the lineup came back around and Butera was locked in to bat, the game was tied, the Royals had two runners in scoring position, and there was only one out. The only problem was that Drew Butera can’t really hit. I don’t even mean that as an insult – it’s not his fault he can’t hit, he’s a very good defensive catcher and seems like a really good guy and has hair I would strangle a kitten for, but he’s one of the worst hitters you will ever see. In his career, Butera has hit .185/.241/.266, with an OPS+ of 41. In his career, Zack Greinke has hit .220/.261/.337, with an OPS+ of 65. In fact, the only player in the 21st century with 800+ plate appearances and a lower OPS+ than Butera is…Livan Hernandez. (Third on that list: Tony Pena Jr.)

But it’s not just that Butera can’t hit – it’s that no one even expects him to hit, it’s just accepted that he won’t hit. On at least one occasion during the season he hit an RBI single, and the reaction of the crowd – and Ryan Lefebvre! – was the kind of unexpected joy that you only hear when a pitcher drives in a run.

And Butera was facing Luke Gregerson, possessor of one of the best sliders in baseball, and you knew what was going to happen: Gregerson was going to throw slider after slider after slider until Butera struck out, and the Royals would miss a golden opportunity to drive in the go-ahead run in an elimination game without a base hit. After all, that’s what Gregerson had done the last time the Royals had been down by four runs in the 8th inning of an elimination game, the Wild Card Game, when – after giving up a single to Billy Butler and then a wild pitch had put the tying run at third base with one out – Gregerson had struck out the man Butera had replaced, Perez, on three pitches, and then struck out Omar Infante to end the rally.

And sure enough, Gregerson threw slider after slider after slider, most of them right on the outside corner, too close to the strike zone to take but almost impossible to hit with authority. And Butera…well, Butera kept fouling off slider after slider after slider, doing a tremendous job of staying alive. Seven, eight, nine pitches, and he was still alive, and the count was full. And finally, Gregerson threw a slider a little farther outside, and Butera started to swing, and…he held up. It was ball four. Butera had walked on 10 pitches, making this plate appearance the third-longest of his career. (Incredibly, the longest plate appearance of his career – a 12-pitch walk – had occurred in his previous game, the season finale against Minnesota on October 4th.)

Butera hadn’t driven in a run; he wouldn’t score a run. All he had done was keep the line moving. All he had done was set up someone else – in this case, Alex Gordon – to be the hero. But given his talents, the talents of the pitcher he was facing, and the stakes involved…it was one of the greatest plate appearances I’ve ever seen. Even with everything else we’ve seen these last two years, this was a Top 100 Moment for sure.

Moment #: 99
Date: November 1, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 5, @ New York Mets
Score: Kansas City 0, New York 2, Top of the 9th
Situation: No outs, bases empty
Count: 3-2 (+1 foul)
Matchup: Lorenzo Cain vs. Matt Harvey
Result: Walk
WPA: 7%

Summary: Lorenzo Cain produces the magnum opus of his late-game rally-starting walks, working the previously untouchable Matt Harvey for a seven-pitch walk, making sure this would be the last game of the season.

Link to video: Here.

Matt Harvey was coming out of Game 5 of the World Series. He had thrown eight brilliant, shutout innings, but his night was done. And then it wasn’t, because he convinced Terry Collins to leave him in. Well just call me Admiral Ackbar, but it was a trap. Lorenzo Cain, getting a chance to see Harvey for the fourth time in the game, battled him to a full count, fouled off a pitch, and then took ball four low. The tying run was at the plate, and finally Collins came out to pull Harv…no, wait, he left him in! For the second straight year, a manager stuck with their ace starter late in the game to face Eric Hosmer. And this time Collins couldn’t even claim he had the platoon advantage on his side. Once again, Cain had set up Hosmer for an even bigger Moment. And once again, we’ll have to wait a while longer to discuss Hosmer’s at-bat.

(Oh, and that tweet above? I sent it out before Cain batted. The Royals were so magical in October that by November, they had actually conditioned me to expect that they would come back from two runs down in the 9th inning.)

Moment #: 98
Date: October 27, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 1, vs. New York Mets
Score: New York 3, Kansas City 2, Bottom of the 6th
Situation: Two outs, man on first
Count: 1-1
Matchup: Kendrys Morales vs. Matt Harvey
Result: Stolen Base
WPA: 3%

Summary: Lorenzo Cain steals second base in Game 1 of the 2015 World Series, a steal without which he doesn’t score the tying run in a game the Royals win in extra innings.

Link to video: Here.

If I asked you what was the Royals’ most important steal in 2014 – what was the most important steal in the history of the franchise – I assume most of you could answer that without thinking. But what was the most important steal of 2015? How about a steal that directly led to a run in a World Series game that the Royals won in extra innings? Right, that was Jarrod Dyson's steal in the 12th inning of Game 5.

But that also describes this play, although the steal was in the 6th inning and the game wasn't won until the 14th. That’s why this moment, mostly forgotten, nonetheless ranks in the Top 100.

In Game 1 of the World Series, the Royals trailed Matt Harvey and the Mets, 3-1, going to the bottom of the 6th inning. But after Ben Zobrist led off the bottom of the 6th inning with a double – Moment #139 – Lorenzo Cain singled him to third, and Eric Hosmer drove Zobrist home with a sacrifice fly to bring the Royals within a run. And then, with Kendrys Morales at the plate, Cain – who had deked the Mets by taking such a short lead that even Ryan Lefebvre didn’t think he was going – took off for second base. He made it easily, hugging the bag like a toddler hugs its mother, because Travis d’Arnaud had the kind of throwing arm that the Royals have feasted on the last two postseasons. The steal attempt was a shrewd idea if for no other reason than to stay out of the double play with Morales (and his team-leading 24 double plays) at the plate, and sure enough, Morales hit a comebacker to Harvey that probably would have turned into an inning-ending double play had Cain stayed at first. Instead Cain was at second base for Mike Moustakas, who singled him home for the tying run with two outs.
The Royals, you probably remember, would fall behind again in the 8th inning, and tie the game again in the 9th inning, and finally win it in the 14th. But none of the 9th inning heroics and extra-inning drama would have happened had Cain not stolen second base. It’s not the biggest stolen base of the last two years. But it was big enough to make it into our Top 100 Moments.

Moment #: 97
Date: October 9, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 2, vs. Houston Astros
Score: Houston 4, Kansas City 3, Bottom of the 6th
Situation: One out, man on first
Count: 1-1
Matchup: Kendrys Morales vs. Oliver Perez
Result: Single, runner advances from first to third
WPA: 11%

Summary: Kendrys Morales beats the shift in Game 2 against the Astros, hitting a potential double play ground ball past the second baseman’s usual position for a single and putting the tying run at third base with one out.

Link to video: Here.

Speaking of Kendrys Morales hitting into potential double plays, this was an unforgettable instance of a defensive shift backfiring on the Royals’ opponents and turning two outs into none. It doesn’t make up for the Giants’ outfield shift against Nori Aoki in Game 7, but the Astros – one of the most aggressive shifting teams in baseball, as befits their analytics-heavy philosophy – put three infielders to the left side of second base with Kendrys Morales at the plate, with the Royals rallying in the 6th inning of Game 2 of the ALDS. This was a completely understandable move and I doubt the Astros have any regrets over the decision, even if they regret the outcome. Morales topped an Oliver Perez pitch and hit a routine groundball to the second base position – but as the second baseman was playing close to where the shortstop normally plays, what would have been an inning-ending double play (Eric Hosmer, unlike in Moment #136, was not running on the pitch) turned into first-and-third with one out. Hosmer would score the tying run later in the inning, and while the Royals were unable to bring home the go-ahead run despite having the bases loaded and one out, they were able to drive home the winning run an inning later. Had the Astros stuck to a standard defensive alignment, the Royals would instead have found themselves nine outs away from going down 2 games to 0 in the series.

Moment #: 96
Date: October 15, 2014
Game: 2014 ALCS Game 4, vs. Baltimore Orioles
Score: Baltimore 1, Kansas City 2, Top of the 6th
Situation: Two outs, men on first and third
Count: 1-0
Matchup: Nelson Cruz vs. Kelvin Herrera
Result: Lineout to second base
WPA: 8%

Summary: With the sun in his eyes, Omar Infante catches Nelson Cruz’s line drive with the tying run at third to end the 6th inning of Game 4 of the 2014 ALCS.

Link to video: Here.

As we’ve said a number of times in this series, it’s better to be lucky than good. In Game 4 of the 2014 ALCS, the Royals had a one-run lead when Kelvin Herrera replaced James Shields Jason Vargas with a man on first and one out in the 6th. But after Steve Pearce popped out, Adam Jones singled to right field and Jonathan Schoop scooted to third base, bringing up Nelson Cruz, who had led the AL with 40 home runs. On Herrera’s second pitch, Cruz hit a line drive right at Omar Infante at second base – who was standing in a beam of sunlight that was right in his eyes. Infante couldn’t get out of the sun without moving in or out ten feet, and he didn’t have sunglasses on – looking at the replay, I think they were resting on the back of his head. That was probably a really bad idea. But Infante managed to fight the sun off long enough to catch Cruz’s liner and end the inning with the Royals still leading by a run, a lead that would hold up for nine more outs and an American League pennant.

Moment #: 95
Date: October 10, 2014
Game: 2014 ALCS Game 1, @ Baltimore Orioles
Score: Kansas City 5, Baltimore 5, Bottom of the 6th
Situation: One out, men on first and third
Count: 0-0
Matchup: Nelson Cruz vs. Kelvin Herrera
Result: Double play, 6-4-3, inning over
WPA: 18%

Summary: After the Orioles had rallied to tie Game 1 of the ALCS and threatened to take the lead in the 6th, Kelvin Herrera coaxes Nelson Cruz into hitting into an inning-ending double play.

Link to video: Here.

Game 4 of the ALCS wasn’t the first time that Kelvin Herrera and Nelson Cruz tussled in a key spot. Indeed, the situation in Game 1 of the ALCS was far more dire. The Royals had led 5-1 going to the bottom of the 5th, but James Shields allowed an RBI double to Cruz and a two-out, two-run single to Ryan Flaherty to bring Baltimore back within a run. Brandon Finnegan had replaced Shields to start the bottom of the 6th, but walked Jonathan Schoop – who had walked 13 times in 481 plate appearances – on a full count, and then allowed a bloop single to Nick Markakis.

Alejandro de Aza tried to bunt the runners over, but took an 0-1 pitch low and away – and then Salvador Perez made a snap throw to second base that had Schoop picked off. But Schoop tried for third, and Alcides Escobar’s throw hit him in the back and bounced away. Markakis made it to second, and instead of having one out and a man on first, there were no outs and men on second and third. And if that wasn’t enough, de Aza, now free to swing away, swung at the next pitch and popped it up on the infield – except that he hit a sand wedge that died about 20 feet behind the pitcher’s mound, in the absolute perfect spot where no one could catch it. Escobar dove for it futilely; de Aza was safe at first, and Schoop raced home from third with the tying run as the crowd went bananas singing that “Seven Nation Army” atrocity of a song.

If momentum meant anything in baseball, this is where the Royals’ magic dies. This is where the Orioles put the game away. But, as the Royals proved over and over again these last two years and as I’ve written over and over in this series, it doesn’t. Kelvin Herrera came in and got Adam Jones to hit a slow grounder to Mike Moustakas. Moose stepped on third base, but then made an ill-advised throw across the diamond that had no chance to get Jones; when the ball bounced out of Eric Hosmer’s glove, Markakis was able to move up to third base, putting the go-ahead run 90 feet away with just one out. (Watch all the highlights of this crazy inning here.)

Herrera then faced Cruz, who had driven in 108 runs during the regular season. On Herrera’s first pitch, Cruz hit a 98 mph fastball on the nose, but also on the ground, and just a few feet to Escobar’s left. Escobar got a handle on the ball, flipped to Omar Infante at second, and with Cruz’s lack of speed, the relay to first was there in plenty of time. The inning was over, the game was still tied, and HDH had been activated. The Orioles didn’t know it yet, but they had already lost.   

Moment #: 94
Date: October 3, 2014
Game: 2014 ALDS Game 2, @ Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Score: Kansas City 1, Los Angeles 1, Bottom of the 10th
Situation: One out, man on first
Count: 2-2
Matchup: Josh Hamilton vs. Brandon Finnegan
Result: Double play, 3-6-3, inning over
WPA: 13%

Summary: With Game 2 of the ALDS tied in the bottom of the 10th inning, Brandon Finnegan coaxes Josh Hamilton into hitting into an inning-ending double play.

Link to video: Here.

While Brandon Finnegan had gotten the Royals in trouble in Game 1 of the ALCS, he had gotten the Royals out of extra-inning trouble in Game 2 of the ALDS, with a big assist to Alcides Escobar. With the game tied 1-1 in the bottom of the 10th, Finnegan had retired Erick Aybar on a groundout before walking David Freese on five pitches to bring up Josh Hamilton, who was a superstar once. Hamilton hit Finnegan’s 2-2 pitch on a high bounce right to Eric Hosmer, who threw to second base – a high throw well inside the bag.

But Escobar, as he would with Greg Holland’s throw in Game 4 of the ALCS – Moment #184 – used his length to glove the throw while keeping a foot on the bag. This play was much harder, though, because Escobar – with his left leg outstretched and a runner barreling towards him – also made a terrific relay throw to first base to complete the 3-6-3 double play and end the inning. The Royals would score in the 11th, and Finnegan was awarded the first win of his major league career. Scratch that – the first win of his professional career. His timing was impeccable.

Moment #: 93
Date: October 22, 2014
Game: 2014 World Series Game 2, vs. San Francisco Giants
Score: San Francisco 2, Kansas City 3
Situation: One out, men on second and third
Count: 1-2
Matchup: Salvador Perez vs. Hunter Strickland
Result: Double, two runs score
WPA: 10%

Summary: After the Royals had taken the lead in the bottom of the 6th in Game 2 of the 2014 World Series, Salvador Perez crushes a two-run double to give Kansas City a commanding lead.

Link to video: Here.

After getting blown out in Game 1 of the World Series, the Royals were locked in a 2-2 tie in Game 2 in the bottom of the 6th inning, in a game they pretty much had to win given that it was almost unprecedented for a team to lose the first two games of the World Series at home and come back to win. (I say “almost”, of course, because of the 1985 Royals.) They had just taken the lead and chased starter Jake Peavy, and Hunter Strickland got ahead on Salvador Perez 0-and-2. Strickland’s third pitch was wild, allowing Eric Hosmer and pinch-runner Terrance Gore to move up to second and third with one out. Perez hit Strickland’s next pitch into the gap, doubling in two runs and giving the Royals a 5-2 lead, essentially icing the game with Kelvin Herrera already in the game and Wade Davis and Greg Holland ready to do their thing. But it wouldn’t be the end of the drama in the inning, because…

Moment #: 92
Date: October 22, 2014
Game: 2014 World Series Game 2, vs. San Francisco Giants
Score: San Francisco 2, Kansas City 5
Situation: One out, man on second
Count: 1-0
Matchup: Omar Infante vs. Hunter Strickland
Result: Home Run, two runs score
WPA: 5%

Summary: Omar Infante follows Salvy’s double by parking a two-run homer in the left field seats, icing the game for the Royals, and making Hunter Strickland lose his mind.

Link to video: Here.

…Omar Infante followed by depositing Strickland’s second pitch in the left-field bullpen, capping a five-run inning and sending the Kauffman Stadium crowd into hysterics. It wasn’t only the crowd that got hysterical, though. Strickland, who (like Brandon Finnegan) had a grand total of seven major league innings before the playoffs began and who (unlike Finnegan) had already allowed four home runs in the postseason, did not handle the situation well. He started jawing at Salvador Perez after Perez crossed the plate, and while Perez waited for Infante to complete his tour, Strickland continued to speak his mind, telling Perez to “get in the dugout, boy!”, which is a word that may have played well in his native Georgia growing up but is not something you call another man, particularly one of color, in 2014. 

Perez handled the situation with his trademark affability – meaning he did not storm the mound and try to assault Strickland, something that no jury in Missouri would have convicted him of – and Giants manager Bruce Bochy wisely removed Strickland from the game, made it clear after the game that he did not agree with Strickland’s behavior, and did his best to keep Strickland from pitching in any meaningful situation thereafter. (Although Strickland still managed to give up another home run in Game 6, back in Moment #215.) The Royals had not only managed to even the series headed to San Francisco, they had managed to get into the Giants’ heads. Well, at least one Giant.

Moment #: 91
Date: October 28, 2014
Game: 2014 World Series Game 6, vs. San Francisco Giants
Score: San Francisco 0, Kansas City 7, Top of the 3rd
Situation: One out, bases loaded
Count: 0-0
Matchup: Buster Posey vs. Yordano Ventura
Result: Double play 6-3, inning over
WPA: 5%

Summary: With the Giants threatening to rally in a 7-0 game, or at least make things interesting, Yordano Ventura coaxes Buster Posey into hitting into an inning-ending, rally-killing double play.

Link to video: Here.

Game 6 of the World Series could not have been going any better – the Royals scored seven runs in the 2nd inning – but suddenly Yordano Ventura seemed determined to let the Giants back into the ballgame, or at least force Ned Yost to make his best relievers pitch the day before Game 7 of the World Series. After striking out Travis Ishikawa to start the 3rd inning, Ventura walked Brandon Crawford on five pitches. He then walked Gregor Blanco on four pitches. And then, after an 11-pitch battle, he walked Joe Panik, loading the bases with one out with the heart of the Giants’ lineup due up.

But Buster Posey, after watching Ventura miss the plate to three batters in a row, decided that this was the perfect time to swing at the first pitch. And it was perfect – for the Royals. Posey hit a two-hopper straight to Alcides Escobar, the ball guiding Escobar to his left so he could step on second base and start a crisp, clean, rally-killing double play. The Royals went to the middle of the 3rd inning the same way they started it, up 7-0. Ventura would recover to throw seven shutout innings. And Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland would all get to rest up for Game 7.


Unknown said...

Moment #92 is why I have a soft spot for Omar Infante. (And I was waiting for it to show up on this list.) I get it, you can't hit .215 with a .230 OBP and play in the major leagues. But he hit a crushing World Series home run in a game I got to attend! At the very least, you can't blame me for being a little irrational about a player like that, can you?

Andy said...

I was at the Wild Card Game and Game 1 of the 2015 WS, which were crazy and unforgettable, and in those games I might have been too out of mind to pay attention to the sound of the crowd. But, as I remember it, moments 93 and 92 were the loudest I remember the K ever getting. It was awesome.

BMJ said...

Just one editing note on Infante's caught line drive in sun on Nelson Cruz in Game 4 clincher for 2014 ALCS, if I may...

Jason Vargas started that game, not James Shields.

Current Tally

By Category:

2014 Regular Season (8)
Wild Card Game (9)
ALDS Game 1 Angels (4)
ALDS Game 2 Angels (5)
ALDS Game 3 Angels (2)
ALCS Game 1 Orioles (3)
ALCS Game 2 Orioles (5)
ALCS Game 3 Orioles (2)
ALCS Game 4 Orioles (2)
World Series Game 1 Giants (0)
World Series Game 2 Giants (4)
World Series Game 3 Giants (5)
World Series Game 4 Giants (5)
World Series Game 5 Giants (1)
World Series Game 6 Giants (7)
World Series Game 7 Giants (2)
Total 2014 Entries So Far (64)

2015 Regular Season (2)
ALDS Game 1 Astros (1)
ALDS Game 2 Astros (3)
ALDS Game 3 Astros (2)
ALDS Game 4 Astros (2)
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 (7)
World Series Game 2 Mets (3)
World Series Game 3 Mets (5)
World Series Game 4 Mets (7)
World Series Game 5 Mets (4)
Total 2015 Entries So Far (64)

By Player:

Hosmer (9)
Cain (16)
Gordon (8)
Perez (12)
Moustakas (8)
Escobar (15)
Dyson (4)
Zobrist (8)
K. Morales (3)
Butler (4)
Gore (2)
Colon (0)
Infante (6)
Rios (3)
Aoki (2)
Orlando (1)
Willingham (0)
Butera (1)

W. Davis (3)
Holland (6)
Herrera (2)
Ventura (3)
Young (1)
Cueto (2)
Finnegan (2)
Volquez (0)
Guthrie (0)
Shields (0)
Vargas (1)
Hochevar (2)
Madson (1)
Duffy (0)
Medlen (0)
Frasor (0)
Collins (0)
F. Morales (0)