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 √©lan 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.

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.