In afterglow of wild win, Royals veterans and youngsters struggle to explain what happened

Catcher Salvador Perez celebrated after his hit knocked in the game-winning run in the 12th inning of the Royals’ Wild Card playoff game against the Oakland A’s. The Royals now will take on the Los Angeles Angels in the American League Division Series beginning Thursday in Anaheim.
Catcher Salvador Perez celebrated after his hit knocked in the game-winning run in the 12th inning of the Royals’ Wild Card playoff game against the Oakland A’s. The Royals now will take on the Los Angeles Angels in the American League Division Series beginning Thursday in Anaheim. The Kansas City Star

How do you explain 9-8?

Art Stewart walked through a champagne-soaked clubhouse at 12:18 a.m., stopping every couple of steps. The blaring sound of rap music suffocated the room. A mist of beer and sweat spread through the air. Everything was drenched.

Stewart, 87, the undisputed sage of the Royals’ franchise, kept walking, circling the room, talking to anyone that would listen.

A few feet away stood Brandon Finnegan, a 21-year-old left-hander — a stubble-faced kid who was pitching in the Big 12 just five months ago. Finnegan was smiling, his hair hanging in tangles, his shirt soaked.

For a moment, he couldn’t stop talking about his first night on the playoff stage.

“Unreal,” he said.

Across the way stood Raul Ibanez, a 42-year-old veteran — a man drafted in the 36th round in 1992, one year before Finnegan was born. Ibanez had never seen anything like this. Not in this town. Not in this stadium. Not in this clubhouse.

“I’m telling you,” Ibanez said, “it’s the best game I’ve ever seen.”

So how do you explain this? The Royals were dead, and then they weren’t. Then they were really dead, and then they weren’t. Down four runs. Oakland ace Jon Lester on the mound. A quiet stadium waiting for the end.

Now it was past midnight in the Royals clubhouse and Stewart had stopped again. It was October now in Stewart’s 62nd year in baseball. He wanted to answer a question about the best game he had ever seen, but first he had a question:

“How do you write that one?” Stewart asked.

It was a good question, of course. How do you explain Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium. How do you explain Royals 9, A’s 8?

It was 12:21 a.m. and Christian Colon stood in the middle of the clubhouse. He clutched something in his right hand. He tried to yell over the music.

Nearly 30 minutes earlier, he had scored the winning run on an RBI single down the line by Salvador Perez, lifting the Royals to a victory in this all-kinds-of-crazy, winner-take-all Wild Card round.

Even in the minutes after the game, as the party raged, the whole thing felt surreal. Colon had started the year in the minor leagues, a former first-round pick still trying to stick in the big leagues. Now he was here, stepping on home plate in the bottom of the 12th inning and clinching the Royals’ first playoff victory since 1985.

“I was trying to make sure I touched the plate,” Colon said. “I didn’t want to go over it because I’m going too fast.”

Like Finnegan, Colon had started the night on the bench. He had watched the Royals fall behind on a two-run homer from A’s designated Brandon Moss in the top of the first. He had watched the Royals rally, scoring twice in the third to take a 3-2 lead. And he had watched it all fall apart in the sixth, when rookie starter Yordano Ventura came on in relief for starter James Shields.

In the blink of an eye, Moss had scalded a dead-red fastball over the center-field fence, pushing the A’s lead to 5-3. Moments later, they had tacked on two more runs, leaving Kauffman Stadium in a state of stunned silence. The A’s led 7-3.

Before Tuesday night, the Royals hadn’t scored more than seven runs in a game since Aug. 17. On Tuesday, they trailed 7-3 with five outs to play.

“We never quit,” Colon says. “We always thought we could come back.”

How do you explain 9-8?

You start with a three-run rally in the eighth, cutting the deficit to 7-6. You add in a franchise-playoff-record seven stolen bases. You see pinch runners everywhere, coming in waves.

You count up five scoreless inning from the bullpen, starting with the seventh. You rely on a reliever who was born nearly eight years after the Royals last playoff win.

In June, Finnegan was pitching for TCU at the College World Series in Omaha after being selected by the Royals in the first round of the amateur draft. The Royals scouts, Stewart says, loved the way Finnegan pounded the strike zone. For a night, he proved them right, posting scoreless frames in the 10th and 11th.

“He saved us,” Stewart will say.

Next, you watch pinch hitter Josh Willingham bloop a single to lead off the ninth. Then comes another pinch runner (Jarrod Dyson) and another bunt (Alcides Escobar). Then another stolen base from Dyson — punctuated by a little lean-back dance — and a game-tying sacrifice fly from Nori Aoki.

“Absolutely epic,” Shields says.

But, no, it’s not over yet. Not after Oakland scores another run in the top of the 12th.

So then comes a one-out triple off the left-field wall from Eric Hosmer and a infield single to third base from Colon and the two-out double from Perez.

“It was crazy,” said Hosmer, the former first-round pick playing in his first postseason game. “But this game just kept going back and forth, back and forth, both teams battled. …

“And I think that’s what postseason baseball is all about.”

As Colon raced toward home in the 12th, he sprinted past third-base coach Mike Jirschele, who took a step down the line and waved his arm.

“I waved him,” Jirschele would say. “But I didn’t have to. You knew.”

Jirschele took a step forward. A former high school baseball star in Wisconsin, Jirschele is in his first season on a big-league staff. He spent 13 years in the minors as a player and 15 more as a manager, guiding young teams through small towns. Finally, his break came last year. After a successful tenure with the Omaha Storm Chasers, he was promoted to Kansas City.

Now he was soaked in champagne.

“There hasn’t been a game close to this tonight,” Jirschele would say. “The ups and downs in this game. And then to finish on top. You couldn’t draw it up any better.”

How do you explain 9-8?

It was closing in on 12:30 a.m. and Stewart was making his way back toward the near side of the clubhouse, to a hallway that led to the manager’s office.

On Thursday, the Royals will open the American League Division Series in Los Angeles and the club will play a multigame playoff series for the first time in 29 years.

But before that, Stewart wants to answer that question about the best game he ever saw. It was Oct. 8, 1956, he says, the day the Yankees’ Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in game five of the World Series. In his mind, Stewart can still picture a young Mickey Mantle, gliding back into Death Valley at Yankee Stadium to save the no-hitter.

“Without a doubt,” Stewart says, “that’s the greatest one I’ve ever seen,”

Then he pauses for just a second.

But this,” he says, “was just a little different.”

To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to rdodd@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @rustindodd.

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