Extra innings, tie ball game, bases loaded, two outs, 3-2 count and 31,000 people on their feet, screaming their lungs out. It wasn’t playoff baseball, but it was pretty damn close. Justin Maxwell was at the plate because Ned Yost had a gut feeling; Yost thought about pinch hitting David Lough, but something told him to stick with Maxwell.
By LEE JUDGE
The Kansas City Star
The guy on the mound facing Maxwell was a familiar face: Joakim Soria. He’d come in to pitch the tenth inning after Eric Hosmer hit a lead-off double. The Rangers and Soria wanted no part of Billy Butler and intentionally walked him. Chris Getz came out to run for Billy and Salvador Perez came to the plate. Good thing Getz was running, Perez hit a groundball to short and Chris beat the throw to second—Hosmer went to third, bases loaded, nobody out.
With the infield in, Mike Moustakas popped up to third. At that point George Kottaras pinch hit for Lorenzo Cain. Yost thought Kottaras would force Soria to throw strikes and George worked himself into a 2-1 count. That’s a fastball count and George got one, but hit a groundball to Ian Kinsler at second. Kinsler threw home for the force out to get Hosmer and the Royals were down to their last out of the inning—Justin Maxwell.
Soria threw Maxwell five fastballs in a row and the count moved to 3-2. After the game Justin said the shadows were a factor; he knew the ball would get on him quick when it left the sunlight and went into the shadows, so Maxwell wanted to get ready early. Soria threw a 92 MPH cutter and Maxwell caught the ball out front.
Right away he knew it—it was gone. Maxwell threw his hands in the air, looked at his teammates in the dugout and tossed his helmet away. The ball cleared the left field bullpen for a game-winning, walk-off grand slam. Afterwards Maxwell was asked what he was thinking about as he ran around the bases; Justin said he must’ve blacked out—all he knew was he wanted to get around to home plate and join his teammates in the celebration.
On Sunday afternoon the Royals beat the Texas Rangers 4-0. That’s 82 wins, Kansas City’s first winning season in a decade. And it came on the most exhilarating moment of the year.
• Apparently Maxwell’s done it before: he hit a walk-off grand slam when he played for the Nationals. He told the media we could watch it on youtube—he does all the time. Players will watch themselves have success to put themselves in a good frame of mind. Now Justin has two videos he can watch when he needs a pic-me-up.
• You can’t talk about this game without talking about "Big Game" James Shields. Ned Yost said Shields had lived up to that nickname by pitching eight innings of shutout ball in one of the biggest games of the year—particularly after taking a shot off the elbow in the third inning.
David Murphy lined the ball off Shield’s pitching arm and nobody was sure James would stay in the game. After the trainer gave Shields a few strength tests, Shields tossed some pitches off the mound and continued through the eighth inning.
• Not the first time Shields has been smoked by a come-backer, mainly because he finishes his pitching delivery sideways—his glove is on the side way from home plate and doesn’t offer a lot of protection.
• In his first at-bat Elvis Andrus hit an 85-MPH changeup into centerfield. The fact that Andrus didn’t pull the ball might suggest he was looking off-speed. In his second at-bat Andrus got nothing but fastballs, and in his third at-bat Andrus got one fastball, then nothing but cutters. This kind of cat and mouse game goes on all day and it’s there to see if we pay attention.
• In the fifth inning Salvador Perez threw out Leonys Martin when he tried to steal second base. Don’t miss James Shields’ contribution to Sal’s throw—Shields made several pickoff attempts and that can tire out a base runner or shorten his lead.
• In the top of the ninth inning with the score 0-0, Greg Holland came into pitch. Ned used his closer because he wanted the score to still be 0-0 when the Royals got to the bottom of the ninth. Holland struck out Alex Rios, but the strike-out pitch was a slider in the dirt and it got away from Salvador Perez. Rios then stole second base and Ned came out to argue.
There wasn’t a hell of a lot to argue about; the throw beat Rios, but the tag appeared to be late. Managers will come out to argue even when they know they won’t win the argument because that protects their players—if the manager doesn’t argue, the players will. Better for the manager to get tossed than a player.
The next batter—Adrian Beltre—hit a fly ball to Alex Gordon and Rios decided to challenge Gordon’s arm by tagging up and heading for third. That didn’t work so hot; Gordon threw a strike to Mike Moustakas and picked up another outfield assist.
• Speaking of base runners getting thrown out—let’s go back to the first inning. Elvis Andrus tried to steal third base and Salvador Perez threw him out with some help from Mike Moustakas. Moose did it right: he straddled the bag, caught the ball and dropped the tag. Guys who come out in front of the bag and catch the ball—they’re sometimes avoiding contact with the runner—have to reach back and make the tag and that takes more time.
One more thing: if the infielder making the tag lifts the ball up and shows it to the umpire, the infielder thinks the runner is out or is at least trying to sell that idea. If the infielder leaves the tag on the runner, he probably thinks the runner is safe and he’s hoping the runner will come off the bag during the slide.
*When teams push it on the base paths that can mean they think they’re facing a tough pitcher—they’re not counting on picking up 90 feet with their bats, they’ll try to do it with their legs.
• The crowd spent most of the afternoon cheering, but there was a smattering of boos (and I have no idea what a "smattering" is—I just know it fits in that sentence) when Billy Butler hit into a double play. Eric Hosmer was on first and busted it getting down to second base. Billy did not appear to be doing the same while going home to first.
• Alex Gordon lined out and immediately went down the dugout steps and out of sight. I didn’t get to ask Gordon about it, but when you see players have something go wrong and they immediately duck out of view, they might be venting. Gordon’s pretty calm and I don’t know what he did once he was out of sight—there’s a bathroom right there—but some players have been known to break a bat or two once they’re out of sight.
• And while we’re on the subject of Alex Gordon and people pushing it on the base paths: Adrian Beltre chose not to challenge Gordon’s arm in the fourth inning. Beltre was on second, Gordon was going away from third and had a long run to make the catch in the left-center gap. Despite all that, Beltre took a few steps after tagging up, but stayed where he was.
A happy flight
It’s a long trip to Seattle, but the Royals probably had a happy flight. Justin Maxwell said he couldn’t wait to get back to the clubhouse after a win, because the Royals do a pretty good job of celebrating. This was a big win, so the celebration was probably pretty big as well.
Plus, it’s rookie dress up day and that’s just what it sounds like:
On the final road trip of the year, the rookies have to dress in costumes selected by the veterans. I’ve seen grown men dressed as ballerinas and genies. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Sean O’Sullivan in a blond wig and go-go boots. The rookies have to wear their costumes on the bus to the airport, on the plane and on the bus to the hotel. Most of the time, the rookies are thrown off the bus before the team reaches the hotel and have to walk the last few blocks in costume. Somewhere in Seattle, some pedestrians are getting a show.