On September 30, 2014, the Kansas City Royals played the Oakland Athletics in an American League Wild Card Game.
After seven innings Oakland was ahead 7-3, had pitcher Jon Lester on the mound and the second-best bullpen in the American League to back him up; things looked bleak for Kansas City.
If you’re a Royals fan, you don’t need anyone to tell you that your team kept battling and came back to win in 12 innings.
But how did they do it?
Where and when did those Royals develop the mental toughness, the never-say-die attitude that allowed them to come back and win that playoff game?
For that answer, go back and look at when they’d failed previously.
By the time the 2014 Wild Card Game took place:
- The core of the team had gone through two losing seasons together
- Eric Hosmer had endured a season (2012) that had fans calling for him to be sent back to Omaha
- Mike Moustakas was sent back to the minors (early in 2014)
- Alcides Escobar had been a target for critics who thought he should be lifted for a pinch-hitter in late-inning situations.
- Wade Davis had failed as a starting pitcher
- Alex Gordon had been written off as a bust
All those guys got knocked down but got back up again.
Hang around the big leagues long enough and sooner or later you’ll hear that teams and players have to “learn how to win.” They have to learn to grind through the bad times and keep moving forward. They have to learn how to keep giving the same consistent effort no matter the circumstances.
It’s that easy and that difficult.
Through their failures, the 2014 Royals learned how to succeed.
The Astros series
But that Wild Card Game was a while ago, so how about we take a look at something a little more current?
On September 13 of this year, Houston Astros outfielder George Springer was 0-for-4 with three consecutive strikeouts coming into the ninth inning of a 1-1 tie with the Royals.
In his fifth at-bat, Springer hit a three-run homer that provided the Astros with the cushion they’d need to win.
Later, Royals coach Mitch Maier talked about Springer’s home run and said that’s what winning players do; no matter what happened before, a winning player never gives away an at-bat.
Winning players don’t get too high when things go good and don’t get too down when things go bad. They just keep grinding away.
Winning players are relentless.
Like a lot of players before him, Maier said there’s only one way to play the game: No matter the score, no matter the opponent, no matter how many people are in the stands, no matter how many games your team has won or lost, you just keep grinding.
It’s never meaningless
During spring training, a Royals player who was having a bad day finally made it to first base and apologized to Maier for getting so upset; after all, it was only a spring training game.
Maier corrected him: Anytime the player had a bad game — even in spring training — he should be upset.
Doesn’t make any difference when or where it’s played: Every game matters. Every at-bat, every pitch, every sign between pitches, every single thing that happens on a ballfield matters ... and you have to play the game with that attitude.
That relentless mindset is something the Royals are working on right now.
Ask the coaches what they hope to accomplish on a team that’s 40 games under .500 with just a few games to go and they look at you like you’re nuts.
It’s baseball and it doesn’t make any difference what your team’s record is or how many games are left in the season, you show up and play the game the right way.
You don’t worry about September call-ups; this is their chance to show what they can do and they’re going to make the most of it. If you have to worry about anybody taking his foot off the gas, it will be a veteran who’s running on fumes.
But those same coaches say the Royals are blessed with veterans who are showing the kids the right way to play the game, even in the final days of a losing season.
With 10 games to go, Gordon still outworks everyone and Whit Merrifield still runs out every ground ball.
Jorge Soler has a chance to lead the league in home runs, Adalberto Mondesi is one stolen base away from 40, Hunter Dozier is four home runs away from 30. There are still goals to be reached and things to be accomplished.
Developing a keep-on-grinding-no-matter-the-situation attitude is how the Royals won that 2014 Wild Card Game. And that attitude was — is — developed in bad times, not when things are going great.
When you’re winning, it’s not difficult to give a good effort; the effort you give when you’re losing is the true test of a ballplayer and his team.
And will always be worth watching.