Hard to Kill: How the Comebacking Kansas City Royals Claimed a 2-0 Lead in the ALCSRob Carr/Getty Images
The 2014 Royals were not simply one of the great sports stories of the year; for an entire generation of Kansas City sports fans, they were the best team any of us ever had the pleasure to root for. They fell one swing short of a title, but it felt unlikely that the mark they left on the psyche of their fan base would be matched, let alone exceeded, anytime soon.
While the 2015 Royals are only halfway there, the events of the past week have made it apparent that this team might be up to the task. They can’t approach last year’s team in terms of pure narrative — only the 2043 Royals could have done that, following another 29-year playoff drought — but they’ve made up for it in other ways: with sheer talent, by dominating the regular season, and, over the past week, by demonstrating that they have more lives than Beric Dondarrion. They are an immensely gifted team that is also incredibly difficult to kill.
Friday night, the Royals hosted Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Toronto Blue Jays. The Royals had home-field advantage thanks to a superior regular-season record (95-67 to 93-69), but the Blue Jays were still favored to win the series. The reasoning isn’t hard to figure; the Blue Jays’ run differential of plus-221 towered over that of the Royals (and every other team in the major leagues), and after acquiring David Price and Troy Tulowitzki at the deadline, Toronto finished the season on a 43-18 run. The Blue Jays have been the best team in baseball over the past two months.
Since both teams were pushed to five games in their respective ALDS wins, Game 1 became a battle of no. 3 starters, as Edinson Volquez faced off against Marco Estrada. Estrada against the Royals was a faceoff between radically different styles, what was arguably the best contact team in baseball history against a pitcher who had the lowest batting average on balls in play (.216) of any starter with 180-plus innings in the DH era.
The Royals are an anomaly in this data-driven sports decade, because although they use analytics to inform their decision-making, they also rely heavily on the power of belief. This helps explain why their lineup is constructed seemingly ass-backward, with Alcides Escobar — who had the second-lowest OPS (.614) of any qualifying player in the league — leading off. It violates every principle of modern lineup construction, which is why Escobar was sensibly moved to ninth in the order when Alex Gordon returned from the DL in early September. Except that the Royals had a 6-9 record in September when Escobar batted outside the leadoff spot — in large part because the pitching collapsed — so in the final week of the season, manager Ned Yost moved Escobar back to the leadoff spot. “It’s kind of a mystery to me,” Yost would say. “I’m waiting for one of those really smart numbers guys to tell me why this works so much. You know? Logically, it doesn’t work.” The Royals finished the regular season on a five-game winning streak.
Not only do the Royals think they’re better with Escobar leading off; the players have come to the conclusion that what Escobar does on the first pitch of the game is a bellwether of what’s to come: If he swings at the first pitch, they’re going to win. Most teams wouldn’t use the leadoff spot to hold auditions for Punxsutawney Phil, but this is the sort of thing that makes you realize the Royals aren’t like most teams. Most teams don’t build their strategies around the supernatural; the Royals rely on #EskyMagic.
Swinging at the first pitch should have no correlation to winning, but getting a hit on the first pitch should, and Escobar led off the bottom of the first inning with a double in Game 1. He would be stranded there, but in the third inning, with Gordon1 on second base with one out, Escobar doubled again, this time for an RBI, and he would score on Lorenzo Cain’s two-out single. As the Royals planned and as no one predicted, Escobar was at the center of the opening rally. After hitting .257/.293/.320 during the regular season, Escobar has hit .321/.367/.500 in seven playoff games.
The top of the sixth inning was another monument to the power of faith, in this case Yost’s belief in his starting pitcher. Modern analytics have shown a powerful times-through-the-order effect, in which a pitcher loses effectiveness his third time through a lineup. Letting your starting pitcher work through a lineup a third time is a necessity during the regular season, but in October, with ample days off guaranteeing a rested bullpen, there’s no reason to do so when the outcome of the game remains in doubt.
If letting your starter work through a lineup a third time is a bad idea, letting him work through the Blue Jays lineup a third time is a very bad idea. The Blue Jays scored 891 runs this season, the most that any team has scored in the last six seasons. Volquez is a good pitcher, but not good enough to be the preferred option in the sixth inning — not with the Royals’ cavalcade of fire-throwing relievers. (This season, Volquez had a 3.30 ERA as a starter during the first five innings, but a 4.82 ERA from the sixth inning on.)
But Volquez had thrown five shutout innings — with only three strikeouts, hardly the mark of a pitcher in the middle of a dominating performance — so Yost let him start the sixth. Josh Donaldson walked on nine pitches. Jose Bautista walked on nine pitches. The bullpen belatedly started to stir. Volquez recovered to strike out Edwin Encarnacion on four pitches, but Chris Colabello worked Volquez to a full count before hitting a laser that found its way to Gordon’s glove in left. Volquez had thrown 28 pitches in the inning and 103 in the game, and Kelvin Herrera was ready. Yost stuck with Volquez.
The power of belief manifested itself again, this time from the sellout crowd. A chant of “Eddie! Eddie!” started from somewhere behind home plate, and within seconds 40,000 Royals fans were yelling “EDDIE! EDDIE!,” trying to convert their auditory vibrations into kinetic energy for Volquez’s depleted right arm. Volquez fell behind Troy Tulowitzki 3-1. Then a called strike, then a foul. And then, on the 36th pitch of the inning, Volquez threw his fastball at 95.4 mph, with late movement that Tulowitzki had a great view of as it veered back into the zone for strike three. The Royals would tack on two insurance runs in the eighth, but the game was decided right there, when a tired starter who had no business being on the mound repaid the faith of 40,000 fans and one manager in full.
After the game, Volquez revealed that the original plan was to pitch the Blue Jays inside relentlessly, but when asked during warm-ups by catcher Salvador Perez how he felt about pitching down and away, he responded, “I feel sexy tonight.” That was enough to change the game plan entirely. If you feel it, you can be it: advice for a Friday night at the club or a Friday night at Kauffman Stadium.
On the mound for Toronto at the beginning of Game 2 was David Price, the Blue Jays’ rented gun and this season’s American League ERA leader (2.45). Once again, Escobar led off; once again, Escobar swung at the first pitch; and once again, Escobar got a hit. He would be the only baserunner the Royals would have in the first six innings, though, which Price got through in a tidy 66 pitches. Toronto broke through with its first run of the series against Yordano Ventura in the third inning, and with the way Price was pitching, that looked like all the run support he would need.
The Blue Jays got some insurance runs in the sixth when Yost took the positive reinforcement he got from Game 1 and doubled down. Donaldson beat out an infield single to lead off the inning — after his pop-up hit a wire on its way into Perez’s glove earlier in the at-bat — and Bautista again walked. This time there would be no daring escape. Encarnacion singled in a run, and after Colabello struck out, Tulowitzki hit a fly ball that eluded a diving Alex Rios in right field for a double to make it 3-0, Toronto. Yost continued to stay with Ventura; only a walk to Russell Martin to load the bases coaxed him out of the dugout. Luke Hochevar came in and put out the fire without allowing a run, driving home the point that maybe the Royals’ sixth-inning reliever is better than a sixth inning from their starter.
The home crowd had been a nonfactor for most of the game, which is what happens when the opposing starter retires 18 straight batters. But in the middle of the seventh, the Royals dutifully trotted out their video of Royals fan Eric Stonestreet, who plays Cameron Tucker on Modern Family, on the gigantic Crown Vision video board, acting particularly Tuckerian in exhorting the crowd to GET UP ON YOUR FEET AND MAKE SOME NOY-OYSE!
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Which was unexpectedly followed by a live camera shot of Stonestreet at the ballpark, taking in the game from the stands. The crowd followed his instructions to the letter.
With the crowd now buzzing, Ben Zobrist lofted Price’s first pitch of the inning to right field, slamming his bat down in disgust. Second baseman Ryan Goins and right fielder Bautista converged on the ball, Goins waved Bautista off, and then … at the last moment Goins peeled away and the ball dropped. Afterward, Goins took full responsibility, saying, “I thought I heard something I didn’t and I backed off the ball. I should have been more aggressive.”
It was just the second baserunner of the game for the Royals, and the Blue Jays still led by three runs. But the Royals know what to do when they smell blood. In a rally eerily reminiscent of their eighth-inning miracle last Monday in Game 4 of the ALDS, the Royals put together a five-run rally in a hail of base hits before the Blue Jays had an opportunity to react.
Lorenzo Cain singled. Eric Hosmer singled. As he did during the Game 4 rally against Houston, Kendrys Morales hit a potential double-play ball that wasn’t converted — this time because Royals first-base coach Rusty Kuntz cannily had Hosmer running on the play, forcing the Jays to settle for the out at first base. Mike Moustakas then singled to tie the game. And with two outs, Alex Gordon doubled to give the Royals the lead and chase Price from the game. All three left-handed hitters in the Royals lineup had RBI hits in the inning against one of the toughest left-handed starters in baseball. Rios greeted Blue Jays reliever Aaron Sanchez with an RBI single of his own to make the score 5-3, Kansas City. The Royals would tack on an insurance run in the eighth; while Wade Davis briefly made it interesting by letting the first two Blue Jays reach base in the ninth, he struck out Ben Revere and Donaldson before getting Bautista to fly out to right field to end the game.
Down 3-0 with nine outs to go, against one of the best starters in the game, having been held to a single hit in the first six innings, the Royals won. It wasn’t their biggest or most important comeback of the week. In their seven postseason games this season, the Royals have been outscored, 19-16, in the first six innings. From the seventh inning on, they’ve outscored their opponents, 20-5.
I’ve waited my entire life to root for a sports team like these Royals. For the past year I’ve thought of the 2014 Royals as a unique, self-contained entity, whose success and narrative was something that could never be duplicated, let alone exceeded. Even as the 2015 Royals ran roughshod over the AL Central, I was skeptical that they could replicate last year’s postseason magic.
And this is a different team. The bullpen is deeper but lacks the dominance in the last three innings that it had last year, when Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and the now-injured Greg Holland all had ERAs under 1.50. The outfield defense isn’t the same, partly because Rios is a below-average right fielder, and partly because Gordon hasn’t been 100 percent since coming back from a groin injury that cost him two months.
But it’s a better team overall because the offense is vastly improved, thanks to huge leaps in production from Moustakas, Cain, and Hosmer, the replacement of Billy Butler with Morales, and the midseason addition of Zobrist. The Royals finished seventh in the league in runs scored, which understates their performance because they had Zobrist and Gordon in the lineup together for only the final month of the season. The Royals were the only team in baseball — and the only Royals team ever — to have six players with an OPS+ of 115 or higher in at least 250 plate appearances. They’ve taken last year’s playoff formula of a killer bullpen and clutch home runs late in games and added to it a relentless lineup that grinds out at-bats.
The remarkable comeback in last year’s wild-card game, after being down four runs with six outs to go, gave the 2014 Royals the reputation of being a team that never gave up. But that game was sui generis, seen once and then never again, like an encounter with Bigfoot. The Royals would win three more extra-inning games in the 2014 playoffs and three other games by one run, but that was a testament to their bullpen’s ability to keep tied games tied until they could scratch out a run. The Royals won 11 playoff games last year, but aside from the wild-card game, they never trailed by more than one run (and never trailed at all after the fourth inning) in any of those wins.
The 2015 Royals have trailed by multiple runs in four of their five playoff victories so far. They were down 4-1 to the Astros in Game 2 of the ALDS, scoring a run in the third and two in the sixth to tie and a run in the seventh to pull ahead. In last week’s Game 4, they overcame a 6-2 deficit with six outs to go in an elimination game for the second straight year by scoring seven runs in the eighth and ninth innings. In Game 5 they trailed 2-0 before taking the lead with a three-run rally in the fifth. And Saturday against the Blue Jays, the Royals came back again.
The postseason is far from over, but the Royals are just two wins away from becoming the eighth team in the last 36 years2 to win back-to-back pennants. And if they do it, they’ll once again have home-field advantage in the World Series, for all the good it did them last year.
It’s not supposed to be this easy. Late comebacks are not supposed to be this routine. But then, you’re not supposed to bat your worst hitter leadoff; you’re not supposed to leave your tiring starter in a ballgame because you have faith in him. You’re not really supposed to have faith, period — talent and execution, not belief, are supposed to win ballgames.
The Royals were long accused of not being smart enough to grasp the changing dynamics of baseball, brought about by the analytics revolution. That hasn’t been the case for some time now, but they’ve certainly built a roster that revolves around blissful ignorance. The 25 guys in the clubhouse aren’t smart enough — or maybe they’re too smart — to realize that they’re doing things that no baseball team is supposed to do. If they do it six more times, they’ll leave a mark that not just their fan base but the entire sport will never forget.