At the very crack of George Springer’s bat, Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain zoomed toward the left-center gap in the sixth inning of Game 3 of the American League Division Series against Houston on Sunday at Minute Maid Park.
The simmering sixth-inning drive was sinking fast, and Cain would have to backhand a challenging catch that would have been about Exhibit 38 in the case for Cain as the best man at his job in the game today.
Had this been during the uniquely charmed Royals 2014 postseason, Cain would have hauled it in to leave the opposition demoralized, muttering or gesturing in exasperation yet again.
That was then, though, and this is now: The ball popped out of Cain’s glove right in front of the Royals’ bullpen, where several teammates flung hands to their heads in disbelief at what was ruled a double.
That set up the Astros third run, which made for a cavernous gap in a game the Royals lost 4-2 because they stranded 10 men on base.
They now trail the best-of-five series 2-1 and face potential elimination today.
It’s a play, Cain would say, he’s made “a million times” and “something that just doesn’t happen.”
Which is why he took a swipe at the outfield wall in frustration … albeit knowing it was padded, he said, managing a smile.
It’s easy to see a certain symbolism in this, something that reaffirms a gathering narrative that the Royals simply had the mojo last year and just don’t this year.
There may or may not be some truth in that, but it’s not that black and white or simple.
If the Royals’ 2014 postseason didn’t exactly spoil followers, it did warp a few things considering they not only made the playoffs for the first time in 29 years but did something no Major League Baseball team ever had before by winning eight straight games to get to the World Series.
That run suggested something along the lines of you either have the magic or you don’t … as opposed to the less mystical, duller truth that every series, and every game of every series, has its own distinct DNA.
Sometimes, it comes easy.
Sometimes, it looks like no way … and works out.
Sometimes, the other guy wins.
So, bleak as this might look now, who’s to say how this will play out?
That discomfort might not be how you’d want it, but it’s also a lot more of how it really is.
See: the Royals’ previous postseason, 1985, when they had to rally from down three games to one against both Toronto in the ALCS and St. Louis in the World Series.
“This is how it’s supposed to go. What we did last year, that just doesn’t happen — get in there, sweep teams,” Cain said, smiling. “But that’s what people expect now: You give them the best, they expect the best all the time.
“But unfortunately, this game doesn’t go that way.”
The thing to know is that the way it went last year was an aberration.
After the Royals unfurled their incomprehensible comeback over Oakland in the American League wild-card game last year, they became emboldened and played with an unconstrained abandon before succumbing to San Francisco in Game 7 of the World Series.
With all that came an understandable but unsustainable new belief system: The Royals now had “it,” so it was all meant to be.
What they actually had, though, was breath-taking defense and a devastating bullpen and a surge of offensive juice against teams that their skill set trumped for any number of other reasons, too.
As hard as it might be to bear from the outside, the Royals understand that this year represents an entirely different set of dynamics.
“What we did last year was unique,” pitcher Danny Duffy said. “But in the same breath, we’ve got to put the yearbook away and get going.”
Nothing is inevitable about where this series goes, or where the Royals go from here, other than the fact they will play Game 4 on Monday free to win or lose and play better or worse.
The game Sunday was a microcosm of the capriciousness of all this.
The Royals were up against AL Cy Young Award candidate Dallas Keuchel, whom they’d roughed up in Kansas City in July but was 15-0 at home.
But they took a 1-0 lead on Cain’s home run, and Royals’ starter Edinson Volquez muzzled Houston through four innings before the Astros got to him for two runs in fifth.
Then came Cain’s chase for Springer’s ball, which Cain shook his head and said hit too much in the palm of his glove on the dead run.
Carlos Gomez drove Springer home, and Chris Carter homered off Duffy in the seventh to make it 4-1.
But then Alex Gordon homered to left to open the ninth, and Alex Rios slammed one in the left-center gap that figured to get past Gomez … who ran it down and snagged it.
“That running catch in center,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said, “changes the whole complexion of that inning.”
In a win that changed the complexion of the series but may or may not determine it — despite whatever the symbolism suggests.
“Just another test,” Cain said, “to see what this team is made of.”