By now, their instincts are keen. The Royals spend enough time with blood on their chins to deduce the scent when an opponent is cut. When presented with an inch, this team makes plans for taking a mile.
So when Ben Zobrist’s lazy fly ball fell into the outfield grass at Kauffman Stadium, their ears perked up. For six innings the team lay dormant, stilled by the left arm of Toronto ace David Price, who had retired 18 batters in a row. Now, in the climactic inning of a 6-3 victory Saturday, their minds operated as one.
“You know we’ve got something brewing,” said Eric Hosmer, who drove in the Royals’ first run two batters after Zobrist’s hit.
“It opened the door for us to do what we do,” said Mike Moustakas, who tied the game with a single of his own.
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“Once this lineup gets moving, it’s one guy after another,” said Alex Gordon, who gave his team its first lead with an RBI double. “And it was a big seventh inning.”
The rally resulted in five runs, enough to ruin a performance from Price that looked like it might border on historic. The psychic blow to Toronto cannot be considered fatal — the Blue Jays already rallied from an 0-2 series deficit once this postseason. Yet, the Royals have announced themselves, once again, and stand two victories away from a return to the World Series.
In the last 18 innings, the Royals stared down the Blue Jays, those swaggering brutes from the Great White North, and refused to blink. On Friday, their pitching staff turned baseball’s most lethal group of hitters into a whimpering collection of outs. A day later, the offense tarnished the reputation of Toronto’s ace. In the process, the Royals demonstrated the depth of their talent and the sturdiness of their chins.
“Our guys, they never quit,” manager Ned Yost said. “They just keep going.”
A split looked likely when Saturday’s seventh started. Price gave up a single to Alcides Escobar on the game’s first pitch. He did not let another Royal reach base until Zobrist benefited from the miscommunication by second baseman Ryan Goins and right fielder José Bautista.
“David was so good tonight that it was a shame it had to end that way,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said.
The Royals have made laments like this sound routine. The franchise shifted into a new era after the raucous win in last year’s AL Wild Card Game. This year’s team spoiled an upstart bid from Houston with its season-saving comeback in Game 4 of the last round. So a three-run deficit with three innings to go, even against a dynamic performer like Price, falls within their range of expectation.
In the sixth inning, Yost went to the mound to fetch starter Yordano Ventura. For five innings, Ventura offered a reasonable counterweight to Price. A pair of doubles led to a third-inning run, but otherwise Ventura kept the Blue Jays at bay. But he lost his footing in the sixth.
During a 31-pitch effort, Ventura gave up an infield single to third baseman Josh Donaldson and walked Bautista. Playing with an injured hand, Edwin Encarnacion hit an RBI single that ticked off Escobar’s glove. Troy Tulowitzki added a run-scoring double on an opposite-field liner that just evaded the glove of right fielder Alex Rios.
At the mound, before he handed the ball to Luke Hochevar, Yost consoled Ventura.
“I’m like, look, we’re going to get you off the hook here,” Yost said.
The task sounded tall. Up to that point, Price appeared on the brink of his first postseason victory as a starter. As the innings progressed, the hulking exterior of the stadium cast a shadow across the diamond. The shade crept from behind the plate all the way to the outfield as Price dissected the Royals.
“The shadows were really tough,” center fielder Lorenzo Cain said. “I felt like the ball was disappearing the first few innings.”
Added Hosmer, “Let’s not have those 3 o’clock start times again.”
Price joined the Blue Jays just ahead of the trade deadline in July, less than a week after Kansas City acquired Johnny Cueto. Price bulldozed opponents in the second half and dueled with Astros ace Dallas Keuchel for the American League Cy Young Award.
Yet the Blue Jays opted for 24-year-old right-hander Marcus Stroman in a decisive Game 5 against Texas in the American League Division Series. Gibbons used Price in relief in Game 4. In 10 October innings, Price had allowed eight runs, pushing his postseason ERA to 5.04.
Price did not look belabored by the postseason pressure at the start on Saturday. He gave up a leadoff single to Escobar and then proceeded to devastate the Royals. He needed just 29 pitches to complete three innings. He pumped first-pitch strikes to 11 of the 13 hitters he faced through four innings.
“Price is a tough pitcher,” Gordon said. “I felt like we needed to catch a break.”
The seventh provided one. Zobrist popped up the first pitch he saw from Price. He slammed his bat as the ball drifted into right.
“I didn’t think there was a chance that ball dropped,” Zobrist said.
Forgive him: He has only been a member of this club since July.
Goins and Bautista converged on the ball. Goins waved his glove toward Bautista. At the last moment, Goins stopped, which caused his momentum to send him tumbling to his backside. The baseball soon joined him in the grass.
“I just thought I heard, ‘I got it,’ but it was nothing,” Goins said. “I should have gone in more aggressively. I put my glove up, like I always do. That means I got it. I just didn’t make the play.”
From there, the Royals’ offensive machine hummed to life. The philosophy of hitting coach Dale Sveum — “keep the line moving” — became famous during the comeback at Minute Maid Park. The approach lauds simplicity. The Royals possess power, but their finest at-bats occur when they scale back their swings.
So Cain singled, which stoked the crowd at Kauffman Stadium. Hosmer dug out a change-up, low and away, and punched it into left for Kansas City’s first run. His legs contributed to the next one. First-base coach Rusty Kuntz instructed Hosmer to swipe second base, even though Price had not allowed a stolen base all season.
Hosmer took Kuntz’s instruction. He barreled into second as Kendrys Morales hit a grounder up the middle. A run scored. Only one out was recorded.
“The key to that whole inning, believe it or not, was Hosmer stealing second base,” Yost said. “That was a double-play ball. That allowed us to get to a point we could score five runs. That was huge.”
To the plate came Moustakas, who had only one hit in nine career at-bats against Price. He was hitting .083 in this postseason. Price tried a change-up low in the zone. Moustakas ripped into it right, toward Bautista and his powerful right arm.
Neither Hosmer nor third-base coach Mike Jirschele fretted about Bautista. Jirschele flailed his arm to send the tying run home from second.
“It didn’t matter if he stopped me or what,” Hosmer said. “I was going either way.”
Bautista’s throw sprayed away from catcher Russell Martin. Hosmer arrived safely. After Salvador Perez struck out, Gordon hammered a fastball down the heart of the plate for the go-ahead double. It was Price’s 96th pitch of the game and his last. His night of dominance had transformed into something horrific.
By now, the Royals treat these results like a habit. Rios tacked on an RBI single against reliever Aaron Sanchez. Moustakas drove in another run in the eighth. Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis blazed through the last six outs.
As they packed for a trip to Canada, where the team can clinch its second World Series berth in two seasons, the Royals did not treat the victory like a surprise. This is who they are. This is what they do.
“You take advantage of some mistakes from the other team,” Hosmer said. “And just try and make the most of it. It worked out well for us.”