As Justin Maxwell stepped to the plate in the 10th inning Sunday in the home finale at Kauffman Stadium, late-afternoon shadows were descending on the field and, really, on the Royals season.
It was getting harder and harder to see in the batter’s box, Maxwell would say later.
And you had to squint to visualize how the Royals’ thin-but-still-valid hopes for a first playoff berth since 1985 could be extended after a feeble offensive game that now was close to being marked as a colossal blown opportunity.
With the score tied 0-0 against the Texas Rangers, Eric Hosmer had opened the inning with a double for the Royals to end a string of 17-straight outs.
Two batters later, it was bases loaded with no outs.
Two batters later, it was still bases loaded and two outs.
Was grinding out a win or futility ahead? The unpredictability probably was appropriate in a season defined by berserk swings of fortune.
“The inning had so many highs and lows,” manager Ned Yost said. “You got high, high, high, high, and then it got low. And then it got a little bit lower.”
And then came Maxwell.
But only after Yost debated pinch hitting with left-handed batter David Lough against right-hander Joakim Soria — yep, that Joakim Soria, the former Royals closer whom Maxwell never had faced.
“Going back and forth in my mind I just had a gut feeling about Justin Maxwell,” said Yost, whose “gut” also was informed by the fact Maxwell had gone 14 for 35 against right-handers since being acquired by the Royals on July 31.
Then it was down to a 3-2 pitch, with 27,899 fans on their feet and the stadium pulsating like few current Royals ever had seen it, and Soria knowing he had to come with a strike no matter what.
And Maxwell knowing it, too, while battling himself not to overanalyze.
And then clobbering the grandest of slams.
With one chill-inducing 421-foot swat to left, he delivered a 4-0 victory, the Royals’ first winning season in a decade and second since 1994, kept their playoff hopes afloat, albeit remote, and triggered a delirious celebration as a signature of the season to the home fans.
The bedlam started almost with the crack of the bat, when Maxwell turned to the bench as he began to run to first and heard crazy screaming and determined he “couldn’t wait to get around the bases to meet them at home plate.”
Between his arrival and the time he entered a postgame interview room, Maxwell unofficially had absorbed four Gatorade baths, four shaving cream pies to the face that still were burning his eyes, been pelted with sunflower seeds, been punched in the chest and also appeared to be thrown down once.
He lay down on the field at one point, he said, “exhausted from screaming.”
Strangely enough, Maxwell had done virtually the same thing four years ago with Washington: a walk-off grand slam in the home finale that he smiled and pointed out could be easily found by Googling it.
But he wasn’t thinking about that as much as just hitting the ball hard.
So the homer was just another bonus the Royals have gained from Maxwell, who came to the team from Houston with little fanfare but only days later hit a pinch-hit homer and beat the Mets 4-3 in the 12th inning in New York.
He had felt some shock and surprise at being traded, he said, but he also felt an instant bond when he joined the team.
He was wowed by how he was greeted and by the bond he saw among his teammates before he even played his first game with them.
And he felt it all the more after experiencing one of their victory celebrations in the locker room, where a strobe light and fog machine are among the most notable effects.
Maxwell, 29, came into 2013 hitting .217 in parts of four major-league seasons. He had been hitting .241 with two homers in 40 games for the Astros and thought he’d be there at least through the season.
But the Royals, who seemed more or less to be standing pat at the trade deadline, went after him for what Yost called “monster power” and his intelligence and athleticism and “energy” and “life.”
In turn, Maxwell has come to life with the Royals, for whom he’s hitting .303 (23 of 76). Along with Emilio Bonifacio in August, he has proven to be a meaningful addition that no one would have foreseen.
“Kind of under the radar at the time,” Yost said. “But like Bonifacio, at the end of the year you look back and you realize how big of an addition that was.”
And never more meaningfully and unforgettably than he was Sunday.