Baltimore catcher Caleb Joseph sat in the Orioles dugout in a state of disbelief during the final moments of the Orioles’ 2-1 loss on Wednesday afternoon.
His mind raced back to the first inning when Royals leadoff man Alcides Escobar kicked the ball from Joseph’s mitt, sending it bounding toward the Kansas City dugout and allowing two runs to score.
“As it got later, and later, you’re thinking, ‘Is this really how they’re going to win the last game of series?’’’ Joseph reflected.
Indeed it was. The Orioles were swept by the Royals in four games that almost defied description — an extra-inning decision and a two-run game in Baltimore and a pair of 2-1 games at Kauffman Stadium.
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Baltimore, a proud franchise that had gone 20 straight postseason series without being swept, became the fourth team to be bounced out in four in an American League Championship Series since the best-of-seven format was introduced in 1985.
“Whether you lose in four, or whether you lose in seven, losing is losing,” said third baseman Ryan Flaherty, “and losing always (stinks).”
Of the four losses to the Royals, this one stung the most, and not just because it was the pennant winner for Kansas City.
The Royals’ two runs were produced without getting the ball out of the infield.
Escobar opened the first with a bouncer over the pitcher’s mound that caromed off the second base bag for an infield single. Nori Aoki was hit by a pitch, and Lorenzo Cain bunted them to second and third.
The Royals’ Eric Hosmer hit a one-hopper to Steve Pearce, who fired home, and as Joseph applied the tag, Escobar’s spikes launched the ball toward the Royals’ dugout, allowing Escobar to score and Aoki to follow him with an unearned run.
Had Escobar not kicked the ball free, he’s out, and neither runner scores.
“It’s a do-or-die play there,” said Joseph, who was catching in place of injured All-Star Matt Wieters. “You can’t really go in there with two hands, it would slow the tag down. You get down with one hand and catch it and tag him.
“I had control of it, and before I knew it, the ball is rolling all the way to their dugout, allowed two runs to score … apparently that was the difference in the game.”
Pearce, playing first in place of suspended All-Star Chris Davis, never thought about taking the sure out at first and conceding one run.
“If it was hit hard to me where I could get rid of it, we were going to the plate,” said Pearce. “That was the game plan. They had a fast runner at third, and I tried to get rid of it as fast as I could. It’s unfortunate. The breaks went their way a lot in the series.”
While the Royals scratched out just two runs for the second straight day, the Orioles only had themselves to blame by failing to produce anything but Flaherty’s solo home run off Jason Vargas in the third.
The Orioles, who ranked fifth in the American League, averaging 4.35 runs per game, had their chances, especially in the sixth when cleanup hitter Nelson Cruz came to the plate with runners on first and third and two out.
Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera came in to face Cruz and on a 1-0 pitch, Cruz hit a line drive to second baseman Omar Infante.
“I tried to find a hole,” said Cruz, whose streak of consecutive multihit games in the post-season was snapped in game three on Tuesday. “Herrera throws pretty hard. I tried to square something so I could get a base hit or a double, but unfortunately, it went right to Infante.
“They just didn’t make any mistakes. We did what we’re supposed to do, but they did better than us.”
That was the prevailing feeling throughout the clubhouse of a team that tied for the second-best regular-season record (96-66) in baseball.
“We were one swing away, every single game,” said Pearce. “This could have easily been us celebrating right now, but when it’s all said and done, we fought very well together, and that’s why we made it this far.”
The Orioles were also victimized by a run of brilliant defensive plays by the Royals throughout the series. Baltimore shortstop J.J. Hardy was robbed in center and right field on catches by Cain in game two in Baltimore, and his bid for a leadoff extra-base hit in the fifth, was snared by Alex Gordon, who slammed into the wall.
“They cover a lot of ground out there,” Hardy said. “He made a good play. We don’t feel like we played bad. They went out and played better. It should have been a closer series. Four games, they were all close …”
And they all went the Royals’ way.