They knew. They all knew, even before it was official. They had waited long enough. They would start their celebration early.
Christian Colon pumped his fist before he even touched third base. The Royals leaped over the dugout railing before Salvador Perez even touched first. The sound of 40,502 screaming souls echoed through Kauffman Stadium in the final seconds of a 9-8 victory over Oakland, the exorcism of 29 years of suffering across 12 innings of delirium.
“That’s the most incredible game I’ve ever been a part of,” manager Ned Yost said.
“You can’t put that into words,” closer Greg Holland said.
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“We came to play,” Colon said. “We never gave up.”
The game ended a few minutes shy of October. No matter. The Royals are headed to Anaheim to face the Angels after capturing a nearly unfathomable result in the American League Wild Card Game. The Royals overcame an early hole, a managerial blunder by Ned Yost and a 12th inning deficit to triumph.
The heroes were Perez, Colon and Eric Hosmer — at least, those were the heroes in the final inning. Jarrod Dyson scored a late-game run off the bench. Brandon Finnegan, a 21-year-old rookie, turned in two spotless innings of relief before wobbling in his third frame.
In the final inning, Hosmer launched a one-out triple that revived this crowd, still reeling from Alberto Callaspo’s go-ahead hit in the top of the frame. Colon plated Hosmer with a 45-foot chopper to third. And with Colon at second, Perez stung his first hit of the night, a screamer past a diving third baseman Josh Donaldson to end the game.
The crowd had suffered through so much. So had their team. A ferocious, four-run comeback had brought the Royals back to life during regulation. They cobbled together three runs in the eighth thanks to an RBI single by Lorenzo Cain, another by Billy Butler and a wild pitch by Oakland reliever Luke Gregerson. In all they taxed Oakland southpaw Jon Lester for six runs. They left the tying run at third base to end the frame, but were undeterred.
Called into action after missing most of September because of injuries, Josh Willingham dunked a pinch-hit single into right. Jarrod Dyson replaced him at first base, reached second on a bunt by Alcides Escobar and stole third base. He was in perfect position for Nori Aoki’s sacrifice fly to deep right field.
“I’ve never been a part of nothing like that,” Dyson said. “But we kept fighting. We kept fighting. We didn’t give up. And that’s how we’re coming for the rest of the postseason. We’re not giving up, no matter if they take the lead or not. We’re going to be ready.”
The game was tied, an outcome that appeared so unlikely earlier in the night. Yost had inserted rookie Yordano Ventura in place of James Shields in the sixth, and watched as Ventura coughed up a one-run lead with a three-run blast by Brandon Moss.
As a pair of talented southpaw pitchers idled in the bullpen, a group that included Finnegan, Yost chose a right-hander to face Moss’ left-handed bat. Yost ignored Ventura’s lack of experience in relief, and the pair of runners on base. The team would pay for the decision.
“He’s never been in a situation of that magnitude,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “That was my one concern.”
Ventura fed Moss a 98-mph fastball at the thighs. Moss belted a three-run jack, his second home run of the evening. A stunned silence descended over a ballpark that had rollicked just moments before. Yost absorbed a hail of jeers when he removed Ventura two batters later. Then the crowd watched in horror as two more Oakland runs scored with Kelvin Herrera on the mound.
The energy turned rancid. The fans booed. Inside the dugout, Shields looked hollow-eyed. He had been acquired two years ago for a night like this. Now he watched, helpless, as a rookie gave up the game-deciding hit.
“I’ll tell you what,” Shields said. “I pitched my butt off tonight. That team gave me everything I could handle.”
Shields appeared exhausted afterward. He led the charge of Royals onto the field to greet the fans who stayed behind. As the fans chanted his name, Shields downed a bottle of Budweiser and shook his head.
Dueling with Lester, Shields survived a shaky start to retire the side in order in the fourth and the fifth. Still, his leash was short. As the Royals batted in the fifth, unable to pad their one-run lead, Ventura warmed up.
Earlier in the day, Yost bolstered his bullpen with his finest options. The relief corps included lefty Danny Duffy, righty Jeremy Guthrie and Ventura. Guthrie served as an emergency long reliever. Duffy offered a potent southpaw weapon. In the game’s most critical spot, Yost ignored him.
Instead, Yost used Ventura after Shields yielded a leadoff single and a walk. Ventura threw two balls. His third pitch was crushed. The rest merely deepened the wound. The Royals did not possess the firepower to recoup the lead against Lester, not with their spirits deflated and their best rallies already behind them.
The Royals captured their first lead in trademark fashion, a blend of bunts, two-out hits and old-fashioned luck in the third inning. The bunt followed a leadoff, opposite-field single by Mike Moustakas. Alcides Escobar sacrificed himself to advance the runner.
Moustakas stood at third when Lester pumped a 94-mph fastball on Cain’s hands. The hands defeated the pitch. Cain pounded a game-tying double into the left-field corner.
Next came the good fortune. Hosmer swung late at a cutter outside the strike zone. The baseball floated into shallow left field, out of reach of outfielder Sam Fuld, but with enough height to plate Cain from second. The crowd sounded frenzied, unleashing noise befitting the stage.
As the Royals took batting practice before the game, a swarm of reporters, MLB officials and Kansas City dignitaries descended on the field. Mike Sweeney offered hugs. George Brett watched batting practice. Owner David Glass and his son, team president Dan Glass, chatted with Rob Manfred, the incoming MLB commissioner.
A healthy contingent of fans ringed the Royals dugout. The crowd behind them would only expand. The decibel level grew and grew as first pitch approach. A “Let’s go Royals” chant drowned out the introduction of the Athletics. A message scrolled across the videoboard in center field that read “Hello Playoffs.”
Into the cauldron of noise stepped Shields and his eight defenders. Shields looked amplified by the situation. His fastball soared up in the zone and cracked the 95-mph mark. He could not finish at-bats quickly, and Coco Crisp lined a leadoff single.
Three batters later, and nine minutes into the game, the crowd went silent. Shields flipped a changeup over the plate. Moss crushed a two-run homer over the Oakland bullpen in right field. A light cheer erupted when a fan threw ball back onto the field, but could not compensate for the deflation.
The Royals restored some energy in the bottom of the frame as they halved Oakland’s lead. With two outs and Nori Aoki at second base, Eric Hosmer walked on four pitches. Butler smoked a 3-1 fastball into left field to plate Aoki.
From here, Butler committed a confounding mistake. With Alex Gordon at the plate, Butler engaged in conversation with first-base coach Rusty Kuntz. Butler had his back to the action. When he turned around, he began rumbling toward second base, only to find Lester hadn’t thrown a pitch. Butler tried to extend a run-down, but Hosmer was still cut down at the plate to end the inning.
The Royals would grab the lead in the third. They held a one-run advantage with 12 outs to go. They would have to wait until the 12th inning. The crowd did not appear to mind.
They had waited 29 years for this night, and as the 40,502 fans lingered inside Kauffman Stadium, they wished it would never end. A chorus of “Beat L.A.!” rang through the park as the players gathered on the diamond. The West Coast awaits.
“We plan on going all the way,” Cain said. “We have no doubt in our hearts that we’re going all the way.”