The two men worked together in silence to save the season. Wade Davis threw, lightly, just to stay loose, and Drew Butera caught. Neither said a word to the other. The rain poured outside. In the batting cage behind the Royals dugout, the only sound was ball hitting mitt.
Every once in a while, manager Ned Yost came in and broke the silence. How do you feel? Always, the same response. Fine. Nick Kenney, the team’s head trainer, nervously watched the clock. Closers rarely come back out for a second inning, in any circumstance, but after a rain delay? Later, longtime baseball men would say they had never seen anyone do what Davis was preparing to do.
Yost was going to let Davis make the decision. He’d earned that. Kenney gave Davis heat packs, stretches, and neural flossing to stay loose, but he couldn’t make time stop. A half hour went by. Forty minutes. After 45 minutes, Game 6 of the American League Championship Series resumed. It would be an hour between Davis’ last pitch of the eighth inning and his first pitch of the ninth.
The decision was Davis’, which meant the decision was easy.
“I’m going back out,” pitching coach Dave Eiland would remember him saying, “because I want to go to the World Series.”
Davis delivered one of the great relief appearances in recent baseball history, first erasing trouble in the eighth, then waiting out the delay to shut down the ninth as the Royals clinched another American League pennant with a 4-3 victory over the Blue Jays at Kauffman Stadium on Friday.
Davis helped turn a mistake by Yost from potentially season changing to mere footnote. He made sure the magical moment in the eighth inning when Lorenzo Cain zoomed all the way from first to home on a single by Eric Hosmer stood up as the difference. He had the final say, shutting down baseball’s most powerful team, pushing the Royals to baseball’s biggest stage.
The Royals are in the World Series, again. Two years in a row. In the first 45 years of their existence, they made two World Series.
This American League Championship Series, as much as anything else, will be remembered for the night Davis pushed the boundaries of what a human pitcher is capable of doing. In the middle of the onfield celebration, a group of longtime baseball men gathered and talked of what they just saw with awe in their voices.
After sitting for an hour...
Second and third, no outs...
Punchout, punchout, groundout...
Not too far away, assistant general manager J.J. Picollo, one of the believers who came here when the Royals stunk, raised his iPhone above his head and took a video to capture the moment.
“I don’t know how the hell he did it,” he said.
“He can do whatever he wants,” said Danny Duffy, Davis’ teammate.
“Best in the game, dude,” said Greg Holland, the old closer.
“Nothing like it, ever,” said Curt Nelson, the Royals’ historian. “I can’t think of anything like that. We won a world championship, that’s the thing you want to do, but that ranks up there with anything you want to see happen.”
This almost didn’t happen, you know. In general, managers don’t like pitchers to go back out after a delay of 40 minutes or so. Forty-five is really pushing it. Davis has had back stiffness at times this year. The rain came hard, but it left quickly. Good thing, too. A few more minutes — five, four, three? Nobody knows the exact number — would’ve been too much.
“We were right on the edge of it,” Kenney said. “Yeah. We were.”
Davis had been so good in the eighth, before the rain. Yost should have brought him in the start the eighth. That would’ve been the logical move, the one most baseball men would’ve pushed for.
Yost, though, summoned Ryan Madson to protect a two-run lead. Madson has been a revelation for the Royals. A low-risk gamble who blossomed into one of the team’s two most trusted setup men. But he also relies heavily on his very good changeup, and no team in baseball crushes changeups like the Blue Jays.
Madson allowed more than two runs in only two outings this season. Both were against Toronto. This was easy to see coming. Ben Revere opened the inning with an infield single. Josh Donaldson struck out. Jose Bautista was up next. Bautista had hit a ball 428 feet to the Hall of Fame building in left field earlier in the game. He had singled, doubled, and walked in five plate appearances against Madson. There was still time to make the right move here, but Yost left Madson in.
Bautista hit the second pitch he saw, a fastball up in the zone, into the left field seats. Even after that, Yost let Madson face Edwin Encarnacion, who had a homer in four career at bats off the Royals’ reliever. Madson walked Encarnacion, and after that — a two-run lead gone — Yost brought in Davis.
Davis got out of the trouble, of course. But then came the rain, and a new kind of trouble. Yost had hoped to get through the eighth with Madson, and then have Davis after the rain. The delay was, in Yost’s words, “a pain in the ass.”
“It wasn’t quite an hour,” Yost said. “But it felt like it was four hours.”
Davis came back out, but scouts in attendance could see he wasn’t quite right. An hour off clunks the mechanics, fuzzies the command. Russell Martin hit the first pitch he saw for a single, and was replaced by pinch runner Dalton Pompey, who promptly stole second and then third base. Then came a walk to Kevin Pillar, who stole second base.
“Definitely about as bad as it could get,” Davis said. “I was hoping for some magic and hoping we get out of it.”
Davis struck out Dioner Navarro with a 98-mph fastball, and Ben Revere with a slow curveball. That meant runners on second and third, and slugger Josh Donaldson at the plate.
Out in center field, Lorenzo Cain started to get nervous, and at some point in the trouble, Davis scanned the Royals’ dugout. He was looking for Holland, his friend and the man he’s learned so much from about closing. But Holland was on the far end. The stadium was way too loud for Davis to hear, but Holland kept screaming toward the mound.
“You’re right where you need to be! You’re right where you need to be!”
Holland knows as well as anyone how difficult Davis’ challenge was. Closing games is about controlling your energy and emotions. When Davis entered a tied playoff game with a runner on base, he needed that adrenaline. He has become adept at channeling that burst in the right way.
But that’s hard to do once in a game, let alone twice. The spike in testosterone is virtually impossible to repeat.
“That’s why, personally, for me, I’m like, let’s get the guy the hell out of there,” Holland said.
Holland knows something else about Davis, though. This is not the typical closer, even the typical good closer, the guy who tries to overpower hitters with raw stuff. Davis can do that, but he’s also smart. He has the muscles of a superhero, combined with the brains and cool of a surgeon.
“The really good hitters, he can read,” Holland said. “If you’ve got a hole, he’s going to find it.”
Donaldson’s hole is high, which is dangerous, because if you miss by even an inch or two he can hit a home run. In this situation, even a bloop single would’ve put the Blue Jays back up.
Davis knew exactly how he wanted this at bat to go. He would throw nothing but fastballs, changing eye level, and taking advantage of Donaldson’s aggressiveness. He rolled over the fourth fastball, a soft grounder to third baseman Mike Moustakas, who made the play and threw to to first for the out.
“I’d been seeing that pitch happen from the beginning of the at bat,” Davis said. “Fortunately it got hit at somebody.”
The final out recorded, Davis threw his glove in the air, and hugged catcher Salvador Perez and anyone else who came near. He may have smiled. He may have done something no relief pitcher had ever done in the playoffs.
The Royals are back in the World Series because of it.