Two old friends sat at a table over plates of steak and chicken in a room adjacent to baseball’s most improbable relief. Alex Gordon and Luke Hochevar are the longest-tenured Royals. Together, they have seen so much. Something, even, sort of like what is so far the game of baseball’s postseason.
Across the hallway, speakers blared “Trap Queen,” the rap song that’s become this team’s anthem. There was joy and relief, but more than that there was amazement. The Royals had completed a nearly impossible comeback, turning a playoff death sentence into a 9-6 win over the Astros here on Monday. Their American League Division Series is pushed to a decisive Game 5 at 7 p.m. Wednesday back in Kansas City.
Again? This happened again? You could not help but be reminded of last year’s Wild Card Game against the Oakland Athletics, almost exactly 54 weeks earlier. A four-run deficit erased in the eighth inning — with Luke Gregerson on the mound for the other team, even — and if the Royals complete the deed on Wednesday, this one will fuel the same sorts of stories and awe.
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Over their postgame meals, Gordon turned to Hochevar. He remembered hearing that entering the eighth inning, the Royals had a 3.5 percent chance of winning the Wild Card Game.
“Hey,” he said to Hochevar. “I wonder what the chances were here.”
For the record, entering Monday’s eighth inning, the computers gave the Royals a 3.2 percent chance to win. These calculations may or may not be junk science, but the fact that we’re having this discussion about another Royals game a year later is a direct rebuttal to any bit of logic. You’re only supposed to get one of these, if you’re lucky.
In the minutes that followed the madness, professional baseball players tried to make sense of it. Alcides Escobar said this was what happens when you keep grinding. Wade Davis talked about a team that never stops believing. Salvador Perez mentioned how much the guys care for each other and their goal of going one step more than last year.
Mike Moustakas’ name came up a lot. After the seventh inning, he walked into the dugout shouting about how the Royals would not lose this game. They would keep fighting, keep battling. This kind of thing makes great copy and video for media outlets, but drawing a direct connection between Moustakas’ shouting and another historic comeback is somewhere between embellished and fiction.
If it was that simple, why not shout before every inning, right? So what was different about today? About this moment? Why now?
“I don’t know, man,” Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson said. “You gotta ask the Lord. You gotta ask God that question. I can’t tell you, man.”
The Royals had two hits and no life across seven innings. A close game blew open when Ryan Madson allowed an inherited runner and then two of his own to score. The Royals trailed by four. The Astros had hit four home runs, and the air in Minute Maid Park filled with cheers. At some point, the Texas governor’s official Twitter account congratulated the Astros on winning.
But if the Astros grabbed hold of this game with power, the Royals wrested it back with paper cuts. The play-by-play is truly remarkable: single, single, single, single, single, reached on error, strikeout, walk, groundout, walk, strikeout.
Alex Rios had reached base just three times in the entire series. In the eighth, he reached twice. Eric Hosmer had just one hit in 15 at bats, too many of them with men in scoring position. He singled in a run.
Drew Butera had not been to the plate in eight days and had never batted in a playoff game. He had what many of his teammates called the plate appearance of the day, a 10-pitch walk that brought Gordon to the plate with the bases loaded and one out. Gordon hit what he called the happiest groundout of his life, giving the Royals led, and the dugout rejoiced.
The moment so struck pitcher Edinson Volquez that, later, he would say the Royals were down six runs in that inning. It was only four, but by the feel of it, might as well have been 14.
“Crazy,” Volquez said. “I’ve never seen anything like that. Not in the playoffs, not in the regular season, not ever.”
It would be fun to draw that connection between Moustakas’ shouting and the Royals’ comeback. That would make for a fantastic story, like Raul Ibañez giving the pep talk before the eighth inning of the Wild Card Game.
But, as Jonny Gomes pointed out, the Royals did the same kind of shouting before the seventh inning on Monday, and no one got a hit. Heck, they did the same kind of shouting throughout Game 3 on Sunday, and lost.
Baseball is funny. It is our most measurable mainstream sport. We can know exactly how every hitter has performed with two outs or with runners on first and third or against soft-tossing lefties. We can know exactly how much movement is on every pitch, where it crossed the plate, and that combination’s expected success rate.
But we can’t know this. We can know the Astros’ bullpen is shaky, and that the Royals have reached this point in large part through resiliency, but we cannot know when it will all happen together. We can’t know when the moment will grab us.
In the movie, it would’ve been Moustakas’ speech. In the movie, the dugout would have been dull and Moustakas — played by Kiefer Sunderland? — would’ve walked in and started to shout, and the string music would’ve started playing in the background as the guys clapped in unison until Perez (played by Benicio del Toro, obviously) hit the grand slam. Also, this all would have happened in the ninth inning. And at home. Roll credits.
That’s not how it works, though. Reality is messier, much less predictable, and if we’re being honest, a heck of a lot more fun.
Moments like the one the Royals gave us on Monday are a blast precisely because they come from nowhere. This is what makes baseball so much fun. It is our most measurable sport, and it is also our most unpredictable. That’s a heck of a thing.
This is Gordon’s ninth big-league season. He has played more than a thousand games in the majors and probably as many before that. Virtually all of them have been forgotten. This one, though. This one he will remember forever. This is why baseball can be so damn fun. The smile on his face talking about how it all happened was pure joy.
“This will be even better to look back at when it’s all said and done,” Gordon said. “I’m already thinking about it, right now. Baseball’s crazy. I’m watching it in my head right now. It’s going around in circles. That … that was fun.”