When the Oakland A’s’ lead had swelled to 7-3 in the sixth inning Tuesday night at suddenly quiet-as-a-church-mouse Kauffman Stadium — aided by some monumental tactical missteps by Kansas City manager Ned Yost — I made the comment that with notorious Royals killer Jon Lester on the mound, the score may as well have been 70-3.
Lester has been that good against the Royals this year and throughout the majority of his career. He has made them look feeble and weak. While he wobbled in the first three innings of the American League wild-card game to momentarily trail 3-2, he had righted himself with four sharp-and-dominating innings and was on the verge of enhancing his reputation as one of baseball’s best big-game pitchers.
These Royals, to their credit, are a plucky bunch that plays with almost a high-school-like spirit. While home runs are an aberration in their offensive arsenal, they play to their strengths. They turn loose the hounds and watch them run the bases like a 400-meter relay team.
Kansas City swiped its way back into the game and sent the teflon Lester to the showers after numbing his psyche for six runs. Still, the Royals were down 7-6 going into the bottom of the ninth.
Trade deadline pickup Josh Willingham, a dead-pull hitter, started the frame by blooping a duck snort to right. “Speed Do” Dyson was brought into the game and went to second on a sacrifice and then dangerously stole third base. Nori Aoki, the Royals’ Mr. Clutch throughout September, sent the game into double-digit innings with a sac fly.
Kansas City had the better chances in the 10th and 11th, but as has been its wont at times it couldn’t get runners home that had found their way into scoring position.
In the 12th, Kansas City rookie reliever Brandon Finnegan, who at this time last year was a TCU Horned Frog, was tagged for a run after he had been brilliant with two perfect innings previously. The Royals, though, had one more courageous rally in them.
Eric Hosmer muscled up with an opposite-field triple, then Christian Colon’s Baltimore chop got him home. The Royals continued their larcenous ways as Colon stole second, which set the stage for Salvador Perez, who for 11 innings had shared goat-horn honors with Yost by leaving a proverbial village of baserunners.
Perez, who seemingly swings at everything as he has lost all concept of the strike zone in the last six weeks, reached out and drove an off-the-plate pitch down the left-field line and Kauffman Stadium erupted much like Arrowhead Stadium did the night before when the Chiefs shocked the nation by routing the New England Patriots.
While this win isn’t as important as Game 7 of the 1985 World Series when the Royals defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 11-0 for their only title, this was the most exciting win in franchise history. It reminded me much of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series between St. Louis and Texas when the never-say-die Cardinals continually scraped themselves off the deck to eventually defeat the Rangers and then won Game 7.
This game had so many twists and turns. The Royals’ rallies got Yost off the hook after he had curiously yanked James Shields from the game in the sixth after just 88 pitches. In came Yordano Ventura, normally a starter and probably out of his comfort zone here, and he served up a 98 mph piper to Brandon Moss, who nearly hit it to the Interstate for a 5-3 lead. Ventura had thrown 73 pitches on Sunday and given his youth, the stage was simply too big for him in that situation and hopefully this mental imagery won’t be something he’ll lug to the park in the days and years to come. Kelvin Herrera would have been my choice because he could be stretched out to two innings if need be.
Yost also found himself outfoxed in the 12th when he brought in Jason Frasor and that move was countered by Oakland’s Bob Melvin, who sent up former Royal Alberto Callaspo, who delivered the go-ahead hit. Those two gaffes overshadowed the first-inning blunder when Billy Butler, he of the cement legs, tried to steal second with a runner at third. The runner, Hosmer, then broke for home and was Alpo.
All was forgotten after the game, which tickled the midnight hour. What was expected to be a 2-1 or 3-2 game since Lester and Shields were on the mound turned into a National League style of game as the Royals’ small ball came up big.
This gives the Royals the full playoff experience. While being involved in the one-game wild-card was a watershed moment, their franchise and their fans needed the full-meal deal. Even if the Angels would happen to sweep them under the rug in three games, every postseason appearance inflates their value and makes potential free agents for next year sit up and take an extra look. It’s no secret the Royals are major league baseball’s 96-pound weaklings as they can’t pound their way back into games. But just for once it would be nice to have a 30-homer, 100-RBI bopper in the middle of the order.
The victory also extended the careers of Shields and Butler in Kansas City uniforms for at least another week. It’s pretty universal around baseball that Kansas City can’t afford what Shields will demand next year, as he’ll probably be a member of the Yankees or Red Sox. Butler’s price tag is way too steep for what he is now, which is a doubles and singles hitter. He might take a hometown discount just because he’s so beloved, but money talks.
Now it’s on to Anaheim where the best team in baseball in terms of record awaits. The high-priced Angels experienced a turnaround this season and will be heavily favored to win the series. Yet, if the Royals were able to overcome Lester and several deficits throughout the night, they might give the Angels more than anyone expects.