The journey began in the dead of night in California and ended just before morning broke across the Midwest. The Royals landed in Kansas City around 5 a.m. and most required an extra hour of transit before reaching their homes. About 10 hours later, the hardy few in need of either treatment or batting practice straggled to Kauffman Stadium for an optional workout.
The mood was muted, an understandable tone after a discouraging end to a three-night stand at AT&T Park and a 3-2 deficit to the Giants. The Royals lost two games and a potential stranglehold on the World Series. The bullpen collapsed in game four. Madison Bumgarner was transcendent in game five.
Yet manager Ned Yost maintained both energy and optimism. He had spoken over the weekend about his secret desire for a seven-game series. On Monday afternoon, he issued something close to a guarantee.
When the Royals hosted Oakland for the American League Wild Card Game, Yost admitted he felt pressure to succeed. With Yordano Ventura facing San Francisco right hander Jake Peavy, Yost continued, he felt far less of that sensation.
“Because I think we’re going to win,” Yost said. “I mean, that’s the way I feel. I’ve got that much confidence in our team. I’ve got that much confidence in Ventura. I just think we’re going to go to game seven.”
A win on Tuesday would set up Jeremy Guthrie to face Tim Hudson in the final game. Bumgarner might be available in relief, even after stringing together nine scoreless frames in game five. The Royals believe they can force this scenario.
An optimist might cite history: Of the last 10 teams to return home while facing a 3-2 deficit, eight won the World Series. A realist might scoff at that notion: What occurred for Minneapolis in 1991, four months after Ventura was born in the Dominican Republic, has little bearing on what occurs in 2014.
For the Royals, other, more tangible factors provide encouragement. Yost is eager to return to the American League, where he is unlikely to double-switch players like Jayson Nix into the game and where he will not be forced to keep Nori Aoki and Billy Butler on the bench.
Butler sat because the National League forbids using a designated hitter. He batted just once in San Francisco. Bumgarner struck him out on three pitches.
Aoki sat because AT&T Park features a cavernous, confounding right field. Lorenzo Cain replaced him in right and made several dazzling plays in his place. But Jarrod Dyson, who filled Cain’s spot in center, committed a pair of costly gaffes in the game five loss.
“I think it’s a big boost getting Nori’s offense back in there,” Yost said. “And obviously, it’s a big boost getting Billy back in there. We all know what Billy does in our lineup. He’s a pretty key component to our offensive lineup, so it’s big getting him back in there.”
The Royals will return to this ballpark, which has been host to so many triumphs in these playoffs. For Tuesday, the definition of a must-win game, they can draw from their last must-win game. Kansas City cites the events of Sept. 30, when they recovered from a four-run deficit in the eighth inning against Oakland stud Jon Lester, as the springboard for their October trajectory.
“I think it helps,” outfielder Lorenzo Cain said. “We’ve been in a lot of tough situations this year. So we’re in another one coming into this game tomorrow. We’re definitely confident, and ready to go. Hopefully, we can just get the win. Just get the win tomorrow, and after that, leave it all out on the field.”
Cain was one of the few regulars available in the clubhouse after Monday’s brief workout. The room was quiet. The young children of Josh Willingham had the run of the place. The evidence of the team’s accomplishments resided in front of the empty lockers: Unopened cases of champagne, a three-quarters empty bottle of Johnny Walker Platinum, a framed photograph of Cain’s various October highlights.
Cain combined humor with confidence as he spoke with reporters. There were plenty of reasons to believe, he said.
“We can’t hang our heads on a loss yesterday,” Cain said. “We’ve got to find a way to bounce back. We’re definitely not facing Bumgarner tomorrow. So that definitely helps as well.”