The best thing about the craziest play of this crazy Royals season is that you can ask a room full of lifelong baseball men if they’ve ever seen that before and there is a 99.9 percent chance they will all give you the same answer:
Yeah, but it hardly ever works.
Have you seen the play yet? It only happened because of a mistake. Emilio Bonifacio missed a hit-and-run sign. It should’ve cost the Royals at least one out. Instead, it gave them a run.
The execution (from the Indians’ side, anyway) was amateur. The duck under the tag was brilliant. The video is mesmerizing. The play took 19 seconds, six throws, eight or nine pump fakes, and maybe a hundred steps and jukes and changes of direction from the seven men involved. Afterward, the star of our show needed a few minutes to catch his breath.
“I’ve never done that before,” Alcides Escobar said. “It doesn’t work.”
We pick up in the fifth inning of what became a 7-2 Royals win over the Indians. This was another in a string of the most important Royals games in a generation, and even with the disclaimer of that being a very low standard, it’s worth noting that they are now 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot with 10 games to go.
And, really, a chunk of it all hung on a wild double steal that looks like a phone number if you wrote it in a scorebook:
“(Shoot), somebody score,” Jarrod Dyson said. “That’s what’s going through my mind.”
It was a crucial play — pushing a one-run lead to two, for the league’s best bullpen and defense to protect — in a game the Royals absolutely had to have. Maybe it says something about the nutty nature of baseball, especially this time of year, that the Royals got their vital run by turning a mistake into a highlight with instincts, athleticism, and luck.
Let’s begin at the beginning. The Royals were ahead by one, bottom of the fifth inning, Alex Gordon at first and Escobar at third. Gordon breaks toward second, but when he sees that Bonifacio missed the sign, he sort of stops halfway, doing everything to draw a throw but screamCHICKEN!!!
at Indians catcher Yan Gomes.
Gomes sees what’s happening here. He pump fakes three times at Gordon, hoping Escobar will break off third, but no luck. He throws toward second base.
This is now five seconds into the play.
“We’re in the major leagues,” Mike Moustakas said. “So usually when you get into a rundown like that it doesn’t end very well.”
Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera takes the throw and chases Gordon back toward first base. Both Cabrera and Gordon are keeping an eye on Escobar, who isn’t budging far off the bag. Cabrera throws to first baseman Nick Swisher, Gordon’s next dance partner in this little game. Swisher is shuffling his feet and pump-faking throws in every direction. He looks a bit like a quarterback without anyone open. He throws to second baseman Jason Kipnis, so Gordon’s basepath boogie now has a third partner.
“You don’t escape those,” manager Ned Yost said. “Very seldom.”
If they’re trying to wear Gordon down, they’ve got the wrong guy. Gordon will probably run only eight miles after this game to make up for the workout. Kipnis throws back to Swisher, who eyes Escobar, finally a few too many steps off third. The ball goes across the diamond.
The Indians gaffed this double rundown a dozen different ways. The way it’s taught, a rundown should really only include one throw. You chase a guy back toward the bag, wait for that sweet point of no return, toss it to your teammate, boom. Should be easy. One throw. Except the Indians have just made their fifth throw. Tom Emanski would not approve.
Anyway, third baseman Mike Aviles starts chasing Escobar toward home. He thinks he has the right instant, so he tosses it to Gomes — the sixth throw in this dance — and here is where the moment turns brilliant. Gomes is expecting Escobar to retreat back to third, so he’s holding the ball high and on his right side. Escobar sees this, head fakes Gomes, ducks into the dirt to avoid the tag on his shoulder, then pulls his foot up a nanosecond before Gomes’ glove hits the dirt.
“When the catcher’s coming back to me, I’m trying to get him back toward third base,” Escobar said. “Then I threw to the floor, the catcher misses me, and I’m safe. Good call for the umpire, too.”
After that, it’s four steps and a dive toward the plate.
“That’s a couple right-hand sticks in the new Madden (video) game,” Eric Hosmer said.
The craziest 19 seconds of the Royals season are complete. Later, when Escobar came up to the plate again, the scoreboard updates his bio:
First Royal to steal home this season.
That only begins to tell it.