One year ago today, Kansas City awoke to a Monday that promised another sunny mid-70s afternoon.
That meant little for a fanbase preparing for work and already fretting about the Royals’ 2-1 series deficit against the Houston Astros in the American League Division Series.
Before the clock struck midnight on Oct. 12, 2015, euphoria and tragedy would mark the day.
First came the unbelievable Royals comeback in Game 4 of the ALDS. Hours later the unimaginable: Two Kansas City firefighters died when a burning building on Independence Avenue collapsed on them.
On that perfect fall afternoon, Kansas Citians had one of the least productive workdays in recent memory. The Royals’ game in Houston started not long after lunch, and fans crowded around office televisions and computer screens, watching one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history unfold.
The Royals’ offense had misfired in Game 3, and Houston was one victory away from ending the best season Kansas City fans had seen in 35 years. A 95-victory regular season was about to be placed in the dustbin of history.
Before first pitch, fans wondered if catcher Salvador Perez would be affected by the previous night’s fender-bender involving the Uber car in which he was a passenger.
Perez showed no ill effects, but in the second inning, he lined a foul ball that hit a small child in the stands. The boy’s father leaped from his seat and carried the boy to the concourse. Although the boy was fine, Perez was visibly shaken. Yet, two pitches later, Perez crushed a two-run opposite-field homer that staked the Royals to an early lead.
Houston tied the game against Yordano Ventura on solo homers by Carlos Gomez in the third inning and Carlos Correa an inning later. In the fifth inning, the Royals’ phone to the bullpen was malfunctioning, but manager Ned Yost stuck with Ventura who yielded an RBI double to Correa.
The Astros held the lead, 3-2, going to the seventh inning when Perez took a pitch to the ribs with one out. Earlier in the game, Perez had been shaken up when a foul ball shook his catcher’s mask. Having seen his catcher absorb enough abuse for one day, Yost called on pinch-running star Terrance Gore to take Perez’s place at first.
Gore swiped second before Alex Gordon struck out. With Alex Rios at the plate, Gore then stole third base, but Astros manager A.J. Hinch challenged the call of safe. Gore was subsequently ruled out when slow-motion replay showed he was off the bag for a millisecond.
The replay infuriated Royals fans and proved to be a huge moment in the game ... for perhaps 10 minutes. In the bottom of the seventh inning, Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera walked Jose Altuve and was pulled for Ryan Madson.
Madson, who had resurrected his career with the Royals after not pitching in the majors since 2011, served up a one-out homer to Correra that pushed the Astros’ lead to 5-2. Colby Rasmus followed with a solo homer, and the 42,387 voices at Minute Maid Park joined together in celebration. One memorable photo showed a particularly exuberant Astros fan giving Ventura, Edinson Volquez and Eric Hosmer hell above the Royals’ dugout.
When the inning ended, the official Twitter account of the Texas governor congratulated the Astros on their victory, and why not? The Royals’ win probability was 3 percent at that point. But third baseman Mike Moustakas was having none of it.
As he entered the dugout, Moustakas let his teammates know: “It’s not going to end like this! Don’t worry about it! We got it!”
Jonny Gomes, who weeks later would later stir the city with his speech at the Royals’ World Series celebration, told anyone who would listen that this might be each player’s last at-bat of the season.
Then the magic began.
Rios led off the eighth inning with a line single to left, and the Royals’ win probability increased to 5 percent.
Alcides Escobar reached out and rolled a ball into center field. Win probability: 10 percent.
Ben Zobrist dropped a single to center, and the bases were loaded. Win probability: 18 percent.
Back in Kansas City, people who had written off the Royals and gone back to work quickly found a screen to watch the comeback.
Lorenzo Cain grounded a single to left field, cutting the deficit to 6-3. Win probability: 29 percent.
With Eric Hosmer coming to the plate, Hinch summoned left-hander Tony Sipp to replace Will Harris. Hosmer had struggled mightily in the ALDS, with one hit in 15 at-bats, but he lined a 2-2 pitch to right field. Another run scored. It was 6-4 and the Royals’ win probability was 45 percent.
That was the last hit the Royals would collect in the frame, but the rally continued soon after.
Kendry Morales’ plate appearance seemed to prove the adage that baseball is a game of inches. Morales stroked an 0-1 pitch up the middle, and the ball skimmed the top of Sipp’s glove ever-so-slightly, altering its path.
Correa, who had been enjoying a breakout game for Houston to that point, was poised to grab the ball and start a double play, but the new trajectory allowed it to get past him for an error. Zobrist and Cain raced home and the Royals had tied the score 6-6. Their win probability was now 75 percent.
Jarrod Dyson ran for Morales and stole second base. Moustakas struck out, and Luke Gregerson took over for the Astros to face backup catcher Drew Butera. In his first plate appearance of the postseason, Butera worked a 10-pitch walk, and the bases were loaded. Win probability: 68 percent.
Alex Gordon followed with an at-bat that ended with him pumping his fist ... for grounding out to second. The out scored a run and gave the Royals a 7-6 lead. After a Rios walk, Escobar struck out.
Forty-one minutes after Rios first stepped into the batter’s box, the Royals had batted around and scored five runs on five hits with two walks. The Astros had made two pitching changes and committed a very big error.
The Royals’ winning percentage had jumped to 71 percent. And 42,387 voices had fallen silent.
You gotta ask the Lord. You gotta ask God that question. I can’t tell you, man.
| Jarrod Dyson on how the Royals pulled off the win
Yost called on Wade Davis for a six-out save, and the Royals’ poker-faced closer set down the stunned Astros in order in the bottom of the eighth.
In the ninth, Hosmer launched a two-run homer off Josh Fields that traveled an estimated 453 feet.
Around Kansas City, the celebration began. One fan cheered in his car as Ryan Lefebvre made his call on the broadcast, then noted others at the red light were doing the same. In an office, talk of spring training was choked out by the cheers of coworkers. Fans at the Power & Light District hugged one another, some of them strangers before the game began.
The Royals were ahead 9-6, and with Davis on the mound, that lead was perfectly safe. He allowed a single but set down the Astros’ final three hitters. The Royals’ win probability, not surprisingly, was now at a solid 100 percent.
How had they done it?
Even Dyson wasn’t sure.
“I don’t know, man,” Dyson told The Star’s Sam Mellinger that day. “You gotta ask the Lord. You gotta ask God that question. I can’t tell you, man.”
It was the second amazing comeback in as many postseasons for the Royals, who rallied from four runs down against the Oakland A’s in the 2014 Wild Card Game.
The Royals carried the weight of a 29-year playoff drought in that contest. After stunning the A’s, they advanced to Game 7 of the World Series and fell 90 feet short of tying the score in the ninth inning.
That fueled expectations of a World Series title in 2015, and this expectation was on shoulders of the team one year ago in Houston. But just as they faced a disappointing finish to the season, the Royals pulled a rabbit out of a hat.
“We love each other,” Gordon told The Star’s Andy McCullough after the game. “We have fun together. And we fight together. That’s what we did today. We never gave up.”
Gordon’s words also describe the Kansas City Fire Department. While the Royals were traveling back from Houston, an alleged arsonist starting a blaze that ended up costing firefighters Larry Leggio, 43, and John Mesh, 39, their lives.
“This is the worst day,” Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi told reporters. “It’s difficult when you’re with somebody 24 hours a day and laughing and joking and then something like this happens.”
The joy that a baseball game brought to a city was replaced by horror at the deaths of two firefighters.
That’s why Oct. 12, 2015 will be a day that, for good and bad, Kansas City will never forget.