Inside the Royals dugout, as the temperature descended and 40,000 orange towels whipped around Camden Yards, manager Ned Yost became clairvoyant.
He pulled shortstop Alcides Escobar aside. Escobar was scheduled to bat third in the top of the ninth against Baltimore, and Yost wanted to share his vision.
Here is what will happen, Yost told him. Omar Infante will lead off with a hit. Yost will insert pinch runner Terrance Gore. Mike Moustakas will lay down a bunt. And then Escobar will record the hit that wins the Royals the second game of the American League Championship Series.
“Great plan,” Escobar replied.
Of course that’s how it unfolded. Of course Escobar came through with a double for the go-ahead run in a 6-4 victory on Saturday. Of course Yost, a subject of such withering criticism all season, now doubles as an oracle. Of course this all occurred, and now the Royals stand two victories away from their first World Series berth since 1985.
They have a chance to clinch at Kauffman Stadium, where they will spend the next three games. They flew home to Kansas City with hearts and minds suffused with confidence, the product of two taut victories against the Orioles. Asked if he expected to return to Baltimore for potential sixth and seventh games, backup outfielder Jarrod Dyson left little doubt.
“No sir, I don’t,” he told The Star. “And I don’t think they think that, either.”
The brashness stems from their success this month. The Royals remain undefeated in the playoffs. Their offense has come alive at the season’s most critical juncture. Lorenzo Cain paced the group with four hits, including an RBI single after Escobar doubled against reliever Zach Britton. Moustakas tied a franchise record with four home runs in one postseason, including a fourth-inning shot Saturday.
With power suddenly at their disposal, the Royals compensated for a fretful outing from rookie Yordano Ventura. He left with two outs in the sixth due to tightness in his right shoulder. He lacked command all afternoon and allowed four runs. The team maintained a sense of optimism about Ventura, who was not scheduled to undergo an MRI.
“I don’t anticipate him missing his next start,” Yost said.
Ventura would be lined up to pitch game six at Camden Yards. Or, as the Royals would prefer, the second game of the World Series at their own ballpark.
“Would I like to come back here?” designated hitter Billy Butler said. “No.”
The Royals’ scoring continues to flow from unlikely sources. In September, Moustakas launched nary a home run. So, of course, in six postseason games he has tied Willie Mays Aikens’ four-homer outburst in 1980.
The rest of the formula stemmed from the typical sources: The defense caused Orioles fans to hang their heads and lament their plight. Cain flashed leather in both center field and right. The specter of Alex Gordon’s arm may have cost the Orioles a chance at the go-ahead run in the seventh. And the offense provided a lift early when Eric Hosmer blooped a two-run single in the first and Butler notched an RBI double in the third.
“We’re hitting tremendous with runners in scoring position,” Butler said. “That’s what clutch players do.”
Kelvin Herrera navigated through an excruciating jam in the seventh, clearing the way for Wade Davis and Greg Holland during the last two innings. The bullpen patched up after Ventura, who could not follow up on his riveting seven-inning performance against the Angels in the last round.
While Orioles manager Buck Showalter waited until the early hours of Saturday morning to announce Bud Norris as his game-two starter, Yost did not have a difficult choice. Ventura stunned the Angels for seven innings of one-run baseball in the American League Division Series. In two starts against the Orioles this season, Ventura struck out 17 and allowed just two runs.
Across those 14 1/3 innings, which occurred on April 25 and May 15, Ventura issued a total of three walks. He matched that amount in a curious second-inning performance. After humming 11 pitches — 10 fastballs and a cutter — in a spotless first inning, he lost the plot. He threw 27 pitches in the second, and only 11 were strikes. He limited the damage to a sacrifice fly by catcher Caleb Joseph.
The problem resurfaced in the third. Alejandro De Aza smashed a double down the first-base line. Facing Adam Jones, Ventura followed with a fastball too high and a cutter too low. He lacked little choice but to throw a 2-0 strike. Jones demolished the center-cut, 95-mph fastball for a game-tying home run.
Inside the clubhouse hours later, Ventura lamented the difficulty of the conditions. The temperature at first pitch was 57 degrees and dropping. It reminded him of frigid games in Class A Wilmington, and may have hampered his performance.
“He said it was a tough night for him to be able to grip the ball out there with the conditions,” said Jeremy Guthrie, who translated for Ventura. “He said that gave him a little bit of trouble.”
The Royals recouped the lead on Moustakas’ homer. But Ventura yielded the advantage when Infante couldn’t turn a double play on Nelson Cruz in the fifth. Dogged by shoulder soreness, Infante skipped a sidearm throw to first base.
The lead was gone, but Ventura was not. He stayed in the game and collected the first two outs of the sixth. His 91st pitch was a 98-mph fastball to Joseph. A grimace creased Ventura’s face after his next offering. Trainer Nick Kenney inspected him at the mound, and removed him from the game.
“When we got out there, he was like ‘Man, I’m just starting to get a little stiff,’ ” Yost said. “We said, ‘OK, that’s it.’ ”
It was up to the bullpen. Brandon Finnegan picked up the final out in the sixth. Then came Herrera for an eventful and confounding inning. He let the potential go-ahead run reach by neglecting to tag first base on a routine fielding play. Then he walked a batter and gave up a one-out single to Cruz.
A clear path opened for Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis to score on Cruz’s hit. But the ball fell in left field. As Gordon reared back to throw, Baltimore third-base coach Bobby Dickerson held up a stop sign. Granted a reprieve, Herrera induced fly outs from Steve Pearce and J.J. Hardy to perserve the tie.
Quiet for the middle portion of the game, the Royals stirred in the ninth. Yost spoke to Escobar about the coming events. When Infante tapped an infield single, Yost called upon Gore. Showalter responded with Britton.
During the pitching change, the Royals discussed their options. Third-base coach Mike Jirschele asked Moustakas how comfortable he was bunting. Moustakas assured him he could handle the assignment. It took three pitches, but he tapped one that moved Gore.
“Wherever we can get production from, that’s what we’re going to do,” Moustakas said. “If it takes a bunt to get a guy over, that’s what we’ll do.”
The deciding strike arrived without warning. All around the stadium, eyes trained on Gore, the rookie with near-mythic speed, as he stood at second. Britton peered over his left shoulder to check the runner. Then he pumped a 97-mph fastball across the plate.
Escobar was ready. His manager had told him what would happen. And, of course, his manager was right.
“I’ll tell you what,” Escobar said as his teammates packed up their bags and prepared to return home. “That’s a great plan.”