A game decided by the slimmest of margins came down to this: An 85-mph change-up destined for the heart of the plate. The barrel of Mike Moustakas’ bat slicing through the strike zone. A parabola that barely cleared the wall elevated above right field, high enough and deep enough to let the Royals escape with a 3-2 victory in 11 innings over the Angels in the first game of the American League Division Series.
As the clock struck midnight back in Kansas City, Moustakas unleashed the drive of his life. His solo shot against Anaheim reliever Fernando Salas broke a five-inning stretch without a hit and broke the backs of the high-powered Angels.
The Royals kept their hard-charging hosts, the best team in the American League, at bay all evening. Then they pounced with one swing by Moustakas.
“I wouldn’t consider myself a hero,” Moustakas said. “We’ve got 25 guys on this team that did everything in their power to win a ball game tonight.”
His modesty did not disguise the truth.
On Tuesday against Oakland, fighting for their postseason lives in the AL Wild Card Game, the Royals exhibited their desperate best. Two days later they conducted a clinic in their brand of nail-biting baseball: A mostly commendable effort from the starting pitcher, a mostly pitiable output from their hitters, outstanding protection from the defense, and five scoreless innings from their bullpen.
“We’re just grinding it out,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “Pitching is keeping us in it. We’re starting to get that big swing. We’re getting some timely hitting.
The final three outs belonged to closer Greg Holland, who flew from Asheville, N.C., earlier in the day. He had spent the previous day with his wife, Lacey, for the birth of their son, Nash Gregory. Then he traversed the country to complete the final stages of yet another epic Royals victory.
The offense supplied a few spurts of early-game life, and then disappeared. The club could not put a runner on base during the final four innings of regulation. They had managed only three hits in all. They did not attempt to steal one base in the first nine innings.
Yet their fielding defense was sleek and superb — and saved them on numerous occasions. Lorenzo Cain scraped the outfield wall to steal one out and laid out in the grass to snag another. Omar Infante scooped grounders with his bare hand. In the sixth inning, as manager Ned Yost gambled on starter Jason Vargas, Nori Aoki erased a potential extra-base hit from Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick.
Vargas limited the Angels to a pair of solo homers through five innings. He faded in the sixth during his third turn through their order. Kole Calhoun smacked a single. As Kelvin Herrera warmed up in the bullpen, Vargas jammed superstar outfielder Mike Trout with a fastball for lazy fly-out. But a walk to Albert Pujols loaded the bases, and Yost ambled to the mound.
The next move appeared automatic. Yost zagged when he was expected to zig. He left Vargas on the mound to face Howie Kendrick, a right-handed batter. Kendrick crushed a drive to the right-field wall, where Aoki snatched the baseball just before his right cheek smashed into the wall.
“That really saved the game,” Vargas said.
Yost inserted Herrera into the seventh. His outing lasted just five pitches, a leadoff walk to third baseman David Freese that brought Yost and trainer Nick Kenney out of the dugout. Herrera left due to tightness in his right forearm, and will undergo an MRI on Friday. In came 21-year-old rookie Brandon Finnegan, who picked up two outs, then ceded the stage to relief ace Wade Davis.
It was the second time all season Davis pitched in the seventh. He made it memorable. C.J. Cron hammered a first-pitch fastball into right field, where Aoki took another circuitous route. He twisted and turned before catching the baseball as he hit the ground.
Aoki came up smiling. His teammates roared their approval in the dugout, leaning over the railing to salute the comic stylings and clutch defense of their right fielder. He tipped his cap. As the Angels fans hurled jeers at him, Aoki tossed the ball into the stands and jogged off the field.
The defensive gems allowed the pitcher’s duel to stay deadlocked. Davis walked a pair of hitters in a fright-inducing eighth. Tim Collins grazed the shoelaces of backup infielder Gordon Beckham with a curveball to start the ninth, but Collins and Jason Frasor teamed for the escape. Danny Duffy conquered shaky hands and the heart of the Anaheim order in the 10th.
“I got to go out there for a very small fraction of it,” Duffy said. “Everyone did their job tonight.”
The bullpen protected the deadlock on an evening when the Royals could not have been happier with the performance of their starter.
During the last few days, pitching coach Dave Eiland counseled Vargas about keeping his balance on the mound and not putting excessive effort in his throws. These are subtle clues, simple keys, the tell-tale signs a pitcher requires to maintain his delivery. It is also advice Vargas did not follow all September.
The Royals could not afford for Vargas to pitch as he did last month, when he bumbled his way to a 9.00 ERA in his last four starts and a 5.89 ERA in his last seven. They opted for Vargas for the first game anyway.
Team officials favored Vargas’ experience over fellow southpaw Duffy, and preferred him starting on the road over fellow veteran Jeremy Guthrie.
The first pitch from Vargas elicited cheers from the crowd and a gasp from the Royals bench. Calhoun jumped an 86-mph fastball and boomed a drive to the wall in center field. Cain scaled the wall and flung his arm skyward. His glove intercepted the ball before it struck the Konica Minolta sign.
“I thought it was going to go off the wall,” Cain said. “I jumped as high as I could to catch the ball.”
Instead of a leadoff hit for extra bases, Vargas had a quick out and room to breathe. He emitted a visible exhale on the mound, then set down Trout and Pujols to finish the inning.
On the mound for Anaheim was Jered Weaver, Vargas’ former teammate at Long Beach State and last season with the Angels. Weaver stands 6-7 and attacks hitters with an 87-mph fastball that benefits from his crossfire arm action. He also flings sliders in the upper 70s and a curveball that dips down to 67 mph.
The combination flummoxed Kansas City at the start. Yet Weaver exhibited caution with Moustakas, pounding pitches too far inside and issuing a two-out walk in the third.
The Royals ran Oakland ragged on Tuesday. They swiped seven bases as they erased a four-run deficit. After Moustakas walked, Weaver appeared preoccupied with slowing the running game. Moustakas had attempted one steal all season, but Weaver still threw over twice. Then he hung a 69-mph curveball and Escobar drove an RBI double into the left-field corner.
Vargas yielded the first of his two solo homers in the bottom of the inning. After Alex Gordon came around to score in the fifth following a leadoff double, Vargas served up another game-tying homer, this one to Freese.
From there, the Royals relied upon their bullpen. They used rookies and veterans alike. The pitchers tip-toed through the explosive Anaheim batting order.
Then, the defining blast erupted from their own lineup. Moustakas unleashed a hail of celebratory expletives once he rounded the bases and entered his own dugout. Seated on the top step, waiting to go play defense for three more outs, he could not cease smiling.
“We were able to scratch and claw our way here,” Moustakas said. “That’s what we’re going to do the entire way.”
To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.