Opinion

Ten pivotal playoff moments that led to World Series crown

Royals catcher Salvador Perez, his teammates and fans quickly began celebrating after he connected for a walk-off single in the 12th inning of the 2014 AL Wild Card Game at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals beat Oakland 9-8.
Royals catcher Salvador Perez, his teammates and fans quickly began celebrating after he connected for a walk-off single in the 12th inning of the 2014 AL Wild Card Game at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals beat Oakland 9-8. skeyser@kcstar.com

The idea here was to select 10 pivotal games during the Royals’ two-year run of mostly postseason joy, and to drill down and touch the nerve spot of those games. That proved impossible. In the nine victories identified here, each was built on a series of moments, one just as essential as the next.

Thus, each critical element is included, the most memorable of Royals plays and games that seem as improbable in review as they did when they were unfolding on the field.

The first game may have been the most improbable.

2014 AL Wild Card Game

Many moments in this one built toward one of the most dramatic victories in Royals history: the ninth-inning rally started by Josh Willingham’s pinch-hit single; Nori Aoki’s sacrifice fly that scored pinch runner Jarrod Dyson; Eric Hosmer’s triple in the 12th; and Christian Colon’s RBI infield single, followed by his steal of second.

But the most indelible moment was provided by Salvador Perez, who leaned over the plate to barrel Jason Hammel’s outside offering down the third-base line, just beyond Josh Donaldson’s reach, to score Colon.

The Royals had won their first postseason game since Game 7 of the 1985 World Series. And it would be the start of many good things.

2014 AL Championship Series Game 1

After sweeping the Angels in their AL Division Series on the strength of superb defense (especially in the outfield), starting and relief pitching and extra-inning home runs by Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, the Royals jumped ahead of the Orioles in Game 1 only to have Baltimore knot the game 5-5 headed to the ninth.

The Royals loaded the bases with no outs, but a force at the plate and a double play ended the threat. The Orioles had all the momentum with the heart of their order coming up.

But Wade Davis defined the term shutdown, striking out Alejandro De Aza, Adam Jones and Nelson Cruz. Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas homered in the 10th, and the Royals were on their way to another series sweep.

2014 World Series Game 4

This exercise is about pivot points, and the only series that ended in defeat for the Royals may have turned at about the halfway mark. After dropping the opener and ending the franchise’s 11-game postseason winning streak (dating back to the 1985 World Series), the Royals won the next two and opened a 4-1 lead in the third inning of Game 4.

More runs here and who knows what would have happened in the Series. Pitcher Jason Vargas believed he had produced a run when he took what he thought was ball four with the bases loaded. Vargas took a couple of steps, then realized the count was 2-2. Now facing a full count, Vargas struck out looking. The Giants had escaped further damage and went on to an 11-4 victory.

The Series was even and the Giants would get 14 spectacular innings from Madison Bumgarner in the fifth and seven games to clinch the championship.

2015 AL Division Series Game 4

After taking a 6-2 lead through seven innings, the Astros needed six more outs to clinch this series and send home the team with the American League’s best record. At one point, with the Astros batting in the seventh, they had a 98 percent chance of winning, based on baseball-reference.com’s Win Probability Chart.

Then the Royals started hitting and didn’t stop. Singles by Alex Rios, Alcides Escobar and Ben Zobrist loaded the bases. Lorenzo Cain’s single drove in Rios. Eric Hosmer’s single scored Escobar.

Keep the line moving.

The Astros looked like they’d get at least one out on Kendrys Morales’ grounder up the middle. But the ball changed direction after deflecting off the glove of pitcher Tony Sipp and slid past shortstop Carlos Correa. Two runs scored to tie the game. Alex Gordon’s fielder’s choice drove in the go-ahead run and Hosmer’s two-run homer in the ninth was icing on the cake.

Of all the Royals’ comeback victories, this rivals the 2014 Wild Card outcome as the most improbable.

2015 AL Championship Series Game 2

Having survived a four-run deficit in the eighth inning of an elimination game against the Astros, a three-run deficit entering the bottom of the seventh against the Blue Jays seemed manageable.

So it was.

The inning started when Ben Zobrist lifted a fly ball against David Price, who had retired 18 straight Royals. The ball should’ve been caught in short right field by second baseman Ryan Goins. But at the last second, Goins pulled his glove down thinking right fielder José Bautista had it. The ball fell for a single.

The merry-go-round had started. Lorenzo Cain singled sharply and Eric Hosmer singled softly to drive in Zobrist. Kendrys Morales’ fielder’s-choice grounder scored Cain.

Mike Moustakas’ single scored Hosmer, and after Salvador Perez struck out looking, Alex Gordon ended a long plate appearance by driving in the go-ahead run with a double to right-center. Alex Rios’ single drove in Gordon, and the Royals went on to a 6-3 victory.

The Royals started the seventh with a Win Probability of 12 percent, an increase from 9 percent in the sixth inning.

2015 AL Championship Series Game 6

The Royals got a taste of their own medicine. On the brink of a series clinch, KC led 3-1 in the eighth when José Bautista walloped a two-run homer against Ryan Madson.

Manager Ned Yost didn’t want to use closer Wade Davis here. Not because he didn’t want to pitch Davis for two innings, but because of an impending rainstorm. But after Madson walked Edwin Encarnacion, Yost summoned Davis, who worked out of the eighth. But the drama — and rain — was just beginning.

After a 45-minute delay, the Royals got a leadoff walk from Lorenzo Cain. Eric Hosmer dropped a single between Bautista and the right-field line. Cain would make it to third, but when Bautista’s throw went lazily to second base, Royals third-base coach Mike Jirschele waved Cain home. A daring Cain had scored from first on a single without a running start.

Davis appeared for the ninth not having pitched for an hour, and Toronto came up with some base-running daring of its own. The Blue Jays got another runner and wound up stealing three bases in the inning.

Runners stood at second and third with one out. Leadoff hitter Ben Revere was furious after a called strike two that he thought was up and away, and swung through strike three. Josh Donaldson, the AL MVP, grounded out to third baseman Mike Moustakas, ending a breathless game and giving the Royals their second straight AL flag.

2015 World Series Game 1

Alcides Escobar’s first-pitch inside-the-park home run boggled the mind but didn’t prevent the Mets from taking a 4-3 lead into the ninth. With one out, Alex Gordon faced Mets closer Jeurys Familia, who had gone 6-for-6 in save opportunities in the playoffs and hadn’t blown a save since July 30.

Familia quick-pitched a 97-mph fastball and Gordon, who stepped up with the Royals owning a 11 percent Win Probability, crushed it over the center-field wall.

When the Royals won the game in the 14th inning on Eric Hosmer’s sacrifice fly, Gordon’s blast stood fairly alongside George Brett’s titanic three-run shot against Goose Gossage to clinch an ALCS sweep of the Yankees in 1980.

2015 World Series Game 2

What, a one-run deficit? Pffft.

The Mets led 1-0 when the Royals’ parade of hitters accounted for four runs in the fifth and three more in the eighth.

But the story of this game was mercurial pitcher Johnny Cueto, who in his final start as a Royal was masterful. He became the first AL pitcher since the Red Sox’s Jim Lonborg in 1967 to throw a complete game in a World Series while allowing two hits or fewer.

2015 World Series Game 4

In a bid to tie the series, the Mets led 3-1 after the fifth inning and 3-2 entering the eighth. Ben Zobrist and Lorenzo Cain drew walks. Eric Hosmer’s slow chopper to second base was charged by Daniel Murphy, but the ball went under his glove and into right field.

Zobrist scored. Singles by Moustakas and Perez built a 5-3 lead, and Wade Davis closed it out with a two-inning save.

When the Royals’ rally started with one out in the eighth, their Win Probability was 18 percent.

2015 World Series Game 5

Surely, the World Series would head back to Kansas City as the Royals stepped up in the ninth trailing 2-0. Mets starter Matt Harvey had dominated and told his manager Terry Collins that he wanted the ball in the ninth. The Mets’ Win Probability hovered at 94 to 95 percent in the eighth and to open the ninth.

Then it happened. Again. Lorenzo Cain opened the inning with a walk and stole second. Eric Hosmer drove home Cain with a double to left, chasing Harvey, and Mike Moustakas’ dribbler to first moved Hosmer to third.

Salvador Perez splintered his bat on a soft one-hopper to third baseman David Wright. Hosmer broke for home on Wright’s throw, and a wild throw to the plate by first baseman Lucas Duda allowed Hosmer to score.

Win Probability for the Royals starting the ninth? Six percent.

In the 12th, Christian Colon, who played a major role in the club’s Wild Card victory a year earlier, delivered an RBI single in his first postseason plate appearance and Cain cleared the bases with a double.

Wade Davis struck out Wilmer Flores looking to end the game, a 7-2 victory that clinched the franchise’s second World Series title.

Royals remember what they were thinking after last out of World Series 

The Royals had become the first team since the 1989 A’s to win a World Series after losing the previous one, and the first since the 1961 Yankees to win the title after losing Game 7 of the previous World Series.

According to Elias, the Royals also became the first team to win a World Series after trailing in the eighth inning or later in three games during the Series. The Royals outscored the Mets 15-1 after the seventh inning.

They trailed at some point in eight of their 11 postseason victories, and in seven of those they trailed by multiple runs. That’s two more games than any team had trailed in a previous postseason.

The Royals won five postseason games, including three in the World Series, when the percentage chances of them losing were greater than 82 percent.

This team, stung by the disappointing of falling in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, would not be denied in 2015 and provided one of the greatest sports experiences in Kansas City history.

Then there was the parade.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff

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