The iPhone sat on the top rung of Chris Young’s locker on Tuesday night, so he pulled it down and unlocked it. He found 68 text messages congratulating him on his first postseason start in nine years, part of Kansas City’s 14-2 trouncing of the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. The lone missing voice was the one he heard in his head all afternoon.
Only three weeks removed from the death of his father, Charles Young, Chris Young vacillates between the ache of his loss and the commitment to honor his dad. Charles Young loved to watch his son’s teams, and his son knows he would delight in a club now only one victory away from the World Series after he pitched 4 2/3 innings against the Blue Jays.
“He would just be so excited,” Young said of his father. “So excited.”
The internal tumult still tugs at Young. The death of his father coincided with his return to the starting rotation. Charles Young died Sept. 26, the day before his son made his first start for the Royals in two months. Still numb, Young threw five no-hit innings the next afternoon. He felt his father’s spirit beside him during that game and each subsequent outing into October.
An early-March signee, not offered a big-league contract by any team besides Kansas City, Young fortified the rotation in the first half and returned to prominence within the pitching staff during the final days of September. With confidence in Johnny Cueto at a low ebb, Young offered a study in competence in Game 4, limiting Toronto to two runs on three hits. He exited so Luke Hochevar could pick up the final out in the fifth and hold the Blue Jays at bay.
The tenor of the game changed in the final innings as the Kansas City hitters reduced the Toronto bullpen to ash. The Royals scored four runs in the seventh, three in the eighth and two in the ninth en route to their highest-scoring output in franchise postseason history. It was also the most lopsided playoff victory ever for the Royals.
Now Edinson Volquez has a chance to prevent this series from returning to Kauffman Stadium. He will start Game 5 on Wednesday afternoon at Rogers Centre in a rematch against his Game 1 counterpart, Marco Estrada. In the meantime, the Royals can salivate about another crack at Toronto’s bullpen, the group they pulverized on Tuesday.
The fusillade lessened the importance of Young’s outing — unless you ask members of the Kansas City roster.
“Guy’s one of the smartest I’ve ever met,” pitcher Danny Duffy said. “What a stud.”
“I think every time he goes out, everybody’s pretty confident that he’s going to give everything he has,” outfielder Alex Gordon said.
“He’s nasty,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said.
To Young, a 36-year-old right-hander, those qualities stem from his father, who had been battling cancer for years. Charles Young captained the football team at Texas Christian University as an offensive lineman in the 1960s. He flew patrol aircraft as a Naval Aviator and spent 26 years in the service. He provided constant counsel for his son throughout his baseball career.
Charles tried not to stray too deep into technical tips about pitching, Chris said. But he offered broader advice. The Royals removed Young from the rotation after Cueto arrived in late July. Young fumed at the decision, but his dad advised him to use it as fuel.
“He just reminded me, ‘Hey, worry about what you can control, and everything works out,’ ” Young said. “Just always there providing great insight. He was a very, very rational person. Very level-headed.”
His father received the diagnosis about three years ago. Doctors have yet to discover a cure for multiple myeloma. Young’s two sisters, Erin and Lindsey, moved to Dallas to help with his care. Young stayed in San Diego, trying to navigate his own collapsing career, onset by an unceasing series of complications with his right shoulder.
“It’s one of the things that I’ve felt guilty about his sickness over the last three years is I wasn’t there to provide the constant care that my sisters did,” Young said. “So much of this fell on them. But their care probably gave him more time that he should have, given his condition.”
An All-Star with the San Diego Padres in 2007, Young teetered on the brink of retirement in 2013. He suffered from thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition that pinched the nerves in his shoulder, robbed his fastball of life and agonized his arm. After he researched the ailment online, Young underwent surgery that led him to a revival in 2014 with Seattle and an opportunity in Kansas City this season.
Charles Young watched the Royals every night. When he talked with his son, the conversation often felt one-sided, as Charles raved about their on-field exploits. He appreciated the outfield defense, the talent of Hosmer, the spirit of Salvador Perez.
“He was just so excited, because it was the best team I’ve ever played on,” said Chris Young, a veteran of 11 big-league seasons. “And he just enjoyed it so much. He just thought it was so much fun watching day in and day out.”
The schedule featured a day off on Sept. 21, so Young went home. During the summer, Young had moved back to Texas. He set a goal for the offseason, a weekly lunch date between father and son to “make up for lost time,” he said. On this trip, his dad told him how he excited he was to watch the Royals in the playoffs.
Yet Chris still felt odd after the visit. He told his wife, Liz, that this coming Thanksgiving and Christmas might be the last he would share with his father. He intended to treasure them.
On the night of Sept. 26, as the Royals played the Minnesota Twins, Young walked into the Kauffman Stadium clubhouse midway through the game to grab a sweatshirt. He found his phone flooded with messages from his wife, his mother and his sisters. “Call as soon as you can,” they said. “Had to take Dad to the hospital.”
Young slipped into a clubhouse office and connected with his family. His father had suffered an infection and become stricken with pneumonia. His sister listed the symptoms, and Young understood the severity of the situation.
Young huddled with manager Ned Yost and general manager Dayton Moore after the game. He informed them his father’s situation was dire, but he still felt he could start the next afternoon. The Royals duo told Young they would support his decision either way. Young told them he planned to pitch and then fly home.
His phone rang soon after he left the ballpark. It was his sister. “Dad’s in heaven,” she said.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Young said. “I just felt like they were going to be able to stabilize him at some point. I felt like there was going to be a chance for me to get home and say goodbye. I just couldn’t believe it. It hit me like a ton of bricks.”
Young thought through the night and decided he still wanted to pitch. He described the outing as “the most peaceful game I’ve ever had,” listening to his father in his ear all the way. After the fifth, despite not yet allowing a hit to the Twins, he informed Yost and pitching coach Dave Eiland he could go no further.
Once he reached the clubhouse, Young broke down into sobs. A stream of players and coaches found him. Young sat facing his locker, crying into his hands. Mike Moustakas, who lost his mother earlier that summer, approached him from behind and hugged him. “He didn’t say a word,” Young said.
Young hopped a flight to Dallas that afternoon. His performance only fortified his standing within his clubhouse. His teammates expressed awe at his fortitude. He rejoined the team for one final regular season start, flew back to Texas for his father’s memorial service and then prepared for October.
Called into emergency duty in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, Young struck out seven Houston Astros. Tabbed as the fourth starter for this series, he avoided danger against an explosive lineup on Tuesday.
“To get us into the fifth inning right there with the lead, he just pitched a great game,” Yost said.
The world still feels unfamiliar without his father. One night last week, as the temperature dipped in Kansas City, Young noticed all the fans bundled up and thought about how his dad would call him later to talk about the weather. Then he remembered the reality.
Yet he can still hear the voice. He insists upon this, even as he grapples with the loss. He intended to take about two hours after the game answering text messages. He had spent the afternoon on the mound, communing with his father.
“He’s with me,” Young said. “He’s enjoying this as much as I am.”