Maybe the baseball Gods have adopted the Kansas City Royals as their favorite son.
How else do you explain it? Somebody up there is watching out over the Royals, who have strung together two of the most gut-wrenching, hand-wringing, how-did-they-do-that playoff performances a team has presented in a long time.
To be honest, I fully expected the Royals to play with all the pop of a soggy firecracker on Thursday in the first game of the best-of-five series with the Los Angeles Angels, who came in rested, relaxed and possessors of the best record in the American League.
The Royals, of course, had used up a month’s worth of emotion in denying the Oakland A’s 9-8 in the 12-inning instant classic at Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday. They caught a flight to the West Coast, grabbed some shuteye and were on the field less than 48 hours after Salvador Perez’s poke down the left-field line shocked the A’s and proved that Billy Beane’s Moneyball was a few pennies short of working.
Jason Vargas took the hill for the Royals Thursday, having been rocked and rolled throughout September. But the veritable soft-tosser was beguiling, as the Angels were mesmerized by his tantalizing offerings, his only blemishes being a couple of solo jacks by Chris Iannetta and David Freese.
Vargas gave the Royals exactly what they wanted, nearly six innings of professionalism before leaving the game with the score tied at 2-2 and turning it over to the Fort Knox bullpen.
But set-up man Kelvin Herrera lasted only one batter and five pitches because of a strained forearm. But guts-of-a-burglar rookie Brandon Finnegan steadied the ship and kept the game on track.
Kansas City could thank its defense for being in a tie. Lorenzo Cain and Nori Aoki took turns making highlight reel catches and sending the Angels back to the dugout muttering. Defense and pitching is what got the Royals this far and they showed off their wares to the max on this night.
Finally in the 11th inning, of all people it was Mike Moustakas who sent the Royals on their way to the Promised Land. He led off the inning with a blast over the high right-field wall, his first homer in more than a month. Moustakas had been tortured with a forgettable season in which he hit less than his weight and his glove turned from silver to lead in September with a spate of errors.
But in what is beginning to turn into something magical, it was another different hero for the Royals, though nobody would have had Moustakas high on their candidate board. All of his season-long debacles were erased with one swing.
We’ve seen this so many times in sports, especially in the NFL. A team with lesser talent rubs the genie’s lamp and takes to the magic carpet for an emotional ride. The Royals had an earlier stretch this season when they made like Midas with 24 wins in 30 games. Given the events of this week, this may be a ride that lasts for a while.
The Royals have accomplished what they set out to do. They wanted no worse than a split of the first two games, so tonight’s game is like playing with house money. If Yordano Ventura has shaken off the mortar that Brandon Moss hit on Tuesday and settles down to pitch like he did in September, the Royals might get out of town with a sweep and take a huge wave of momentum to The K on Sunday, with James Shields getting the ball.
The Royals were believed to be afterthoughts in the playoffs. Oddsmakers made them the longest of long shots, but the nation is starting to warm up to this team and its rah-rah, unflappable spirit. While chicks dig the long ball, the Royals are making pitching, defense and speed in vogue. Whether it’s enough remains to be seen, but so far something special is happening here.