The coaches huddled inside their dugout at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals trailed by four runs midway through the game on Tuesday. Their chances against Oakland ace Jon Lester were dwindling. A 162-game marathon had carried them to this point, and they pondered a philosophical change.
“Should we stop running?” a coach asked. The conventional offensive wisdom called for the brakes. In this situation, an out is considered more valuable than an extra base. This team, of course, does not rely upon conventional offensive wisdom. As the question hung in the air, one voice piped up.
“Heck no!” shouted Rusty Kuntz, the team’s first-base coach and running coordinator.
The group listened. On the brink of winter, they relied upon their strengths. The heart of the Royals beats on the base paths. They tore them up in the final frame, tied a postseason-record with seven stolen bases as they erased the deficit, and raced past the Athletics and into a best-of-five American League Division Series against the Angels.
“We’re not a home-run hitting team,” said outfielder Jarrod Dyson, who stole third base and scored the tying run in the ninth. “We have to do the little things to score runs.”
A tired group arrived on the West Coast in the wee hours of Wednesday. Their flight landed around 3 a.m. local time. They did not reach their hotel until close to 5 a.m. Eight hours later, they dragged themselves into the Southern California heat for an afternoon workout preparing for Thursday’s series opener.
The euphoria from the Wild Card Game had yet to fade. Swarmed by a pack of local reporters, George Brett called it “the best game I’ve ever seen.” Angels manager Mike Scioscia related his captivation via a television set. The Royals rubbed the weariness from their eyes and recapped their route to this stage.
The Royals managed only two extra-base hits in 12 innings against the Athletics. They still tallied nine runs. The secret ingredient was their running game, and the seven stolen bases against Lester and the rest of the beleaguered Oakland bullpen.
“We have to be aggressive on the base paths,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “We have to try to take advantage of every situation, to get into scoring position. And when you do that, that’s upsetting to the defense. It’s upsetting to the pitcher.”
The Royals consider their strategy a necessity. They cannot hit balls over the fence. They disregard walks. The Royals ranked last in both categories in the majors this season. But they topped the other 29 teams in stolen bases thanks to a unique blend of athleticism, acumen and advice from Kuntz.
The starting lineup features shrewd runners in Alcides Escobar (31 steals), Lorenzo Cain (28 steals) and Alex Gordon (12 steals). The bench features burners in Dyson and 23-year-old rookie Terrance Gore, who Royals officials believe is the fastest player in the majors. The combination of speed and smarts can befuddle an opposing club and compensate for their offensive shortcomings.
“In both instances,” one rival executive said, “they put pressure on a defense and are ultra-aggressive.”
The Royals lived that scenario on Tuesday. In Lester, they faced a pitcher with little trust in his pickoff move. He had not attempted one throw to first base all season. Oakland started defensive-minded catcher Geovany Soto to compensate. An accident helped the Royals’ cause: Soto injured his hand tagging out Eric Hosmer at the plate on a busted double steal.
Derek Norris entered the game in the third inning. He was an All-Star earlier this summer, but his strength is offense. The Royals sensed an opening, and in the eighth inning they pounced. Norris caught only 17 percent of runners stealing this season. He would not throw out any runners on Tuesday.
Escobar started the season-saving sequence. He led off the eighth with a single. With Nori Aoki at the plate, the Royals saw little danger in aggression. Aoki was unlikely to produce an extra-base hit against Lester. Kuntz pondered the calculus at first base, then cleared Escobar to go.
“You constantly have to weigh that,” Kuntz said. “If the reward outweighs the risk, then you go. If we’ve got a legitimate situation, we jump on it.”
Escobar stole second. He scored two batters later on Lorenzo Cain’s single. Inside the dugout, the Royals stressed a mandate: Keep the line moving. Cain swiped second base as Lester dueled with Eric Hosmer. Lester lost his grip on the at-bat and walked Hosmer. His night was done, and the Royals had resuscitated Kauffman Stadium.
In came reliever Luke Gregerson. He yielded an RBI single to Billy Butler. Gore replaced Butler at first and nabbed second base with ease. The movement appeared to rattle Gregerson. He uncorked a wild pitch that brought Hosmer home and pulled Kansas City within one.
“When you’re running a lot, and everybody is running,” Escobar said, “I know the pitchers from the other team go like ‘Oh my God.’”
During this entire inning, Dyson idled on the bench. He knew his number would be called before the night ended. When Josh Willingham led off with a single to start the ninth, Dyson exited the dugout. Facing lefty closer Sean Doolittle, Dyson bided his time. Doolittle could nab him with a slide-step, and Dyson was loathe to relive a pickoff situation like the one he experienced in September against Tigers closer Joe Nathan.
“The main goal is just to get me in scoring position,” Dyson said. “I can go from there. Instead of trying to get a tough bag. It’s much easier to steal third on a lefty that it is to steal second.”
So Escobar laid down a bunt, one of four sacrifice the Royals made. Then Dyson waited for a clue from Kuntz. The coach is a maestro, communicating simple keys on the opposing pitchers and trusting his players to handle the rest.
“I don’t have to watch any video,” Dyson said. “Rusty Kuntz is my video.”
Dyson caught a sizable jump on Doolittle and slid head-first into third. The TBS cameras captured the scene: Dyson pointed to his dugout and popped his shoulders. Norris looked nearly overwhelmed. Aoki tied the game with a sacrifice fly soon after.
In the final inning, as the Royals completed one last exhilarating comeback, a rookie showed why he belonged with this group. Christian Colon waited for new pitcher Jason Hammel to make his move. Hammel picked back to first base twice to no avail. Oakland called for a 1-2 pitchout, only to see Norris drop the baseball and cede second base to Colon.
“He was kind of trying to be quick with it,” Colon said. “Maybe that’s why he dropped it.”
Colon was in perfect position for Salvador Perez’s walkoff hit. He sprinted home, and his teammates sprinted toward Perez. It was a fitting ending. They ran toward victory, and they would run toward a celebration.
“That’s our style of play,” Yost said. “We’re a team that is aggressive. We look for spots to run. And pick our spots, and try to make stuff happen.”