The attrition of October, an extra month of long nights and extended duty for the Kansas City bullpen, led to this moment in the sixth inning of an 11-4 loss in the fourth game of the World Series: A 21-year-old rookie combating both swarms of misfortune and the relentless swats of the San Francisco Giants.
The Royals stormed to this stage riding the shoulders of their relievers. On Saturday, the receipt arrived, leaving manager Ned Yost unable to practice his newfound ruthlessness and the World Series now tied at two games apiece.
“Oh man,” Yost said, “somewhere inside of me, secretly I had hoped that it would go seven games, for the excitement and the thrill of it. Sure looks that way.”
The bill for the past four weeks landed at the feet of Brandon Finnegan, asked to pitch on back-to-back nights for the third time this postseason. He surrendered the go-ahead blows, a two-run single by Pablo Sandoval and a tack-on, run-scoring knock by Brandon Belt. But the debt also belonged to Jason Vargas, who could only last four innings, and Jason Frasor, who gave up an RBI single after Vargas departed in the fifth, and Danny Duffy, who stood on the mound as San Francisco tied the game.
The outcome propelled a pendulum back in San Francisco’s favor. The Fall Classic will return to Kauffman Stadium for game six on Tuesday night. In between, San Francisco ace Madison Bumgarner can recapture a lead for his club. The Royals must hope James Shields can rebound from his late-season skid. The team could use a lengthy outing from a starter, despite their protests otherwise.
Yost deployed his relievers with aggression this month. He asked them to perform tasks they had not throughout the already debilitating season. They had to pitch in multi-frame stints and in unclean frames, all with the added pressure of the playoffs. Time and again, across 10 victories and just one defeat, they answered his call.
Yet with three games lined up here at AT&T Park, Yost felt compelled to exercise caution. Kelvin Herrera exhausted himself with 59 pitches in a pair of multi-inning stints in games two and three. Yost did not intend to use Wade Davis for more than three outs. Greg Holland stayed on ice for a save opportunity that never arrived.
“I’ve been going to the whip on those guys,” Yost said. “I’ve got to have them for three more games. So they’ve got to be their best.”
On Saturday, Vargas did him few favors. Neither did the offense, who reaped the benefits of shaky Giants defense and a shakier Ryan Vogelsong in a four-run third inning, then went quiet for the rest of the night. From there, the middle of the bullpen, the sensitive underbelly of any club, could not smother the Giants. Finnegan was eventually charged with five runs, three in the sixth and two in the seventh. Tim Collins sprayed gasoline all over the diamond after replacing Finnegan. San Francisco scored four runs in the seventh.
The night before, Finnegan answered the call from Yost and picked up two crucial outs in the seventh. Twenty-four hours later, he could not repeat his feat. Instead, he shattered the bat of backup infielder Joaquin Arias, only to watch a hit fall into right. A cue-shot from Gregor Blanco dropped into left. Yost ordered an intentional walk of Buster Posey.
“I was hitting my spots,” Finnegan said. “When you’ve got broken bats flying everywhere, you can tell.”
The bases were loaded for Hunter Pence. Finnegan did not back down. He challenged Pence with sinkers and picked up a groundball to shortstop. Before the at-bat, the dugout instructed Alcides Escobar how to react. Pence had already beaten out one double play ball to drive in a run. Escobar insured he would not do it a second time, and threw to Perez for a forceout.
“I was thinking about a double play,” Escobar said. “But they said from the bench, any groundball, wherever in the infield, just throw it to home plate.”
Only Sandoval stood between Finnegan and a scoreless inning. Sandoval suffered from a stomach virus before the game, and is historically a worse hitter against lefties. And still he lined the go-ahead on a pitch well outside the strike zone. Belt deepened the wound with another hit.
So Finnegan wore the loss. But the inning before his arrival was just as critical. Holding a two-run lead in the top of the frame, the Royals failed to advance Eric Hosmer after his leadoff double. Joe Panik responded with a leadoff double to start his team’s half and eject Vargas.
“It’s disappointing, because you want to stay out there,” Vargas said. “You want to finish that inning. Because you know that the more you can stretch it to get to the end of the bullpen, the better off we’re going to be.”
Two batters later, Pence singled off Frasor to score Panik. Frasor threw his arms up in disgust. In came Duffy, a starting pitcher for most of the summer, now working as a middle reliever with spotty command.
Sandoval greeted Duffy with a single. Then Duffy threw two balls to Brandon Belt. Salvador Perez lumbered to him for a conference and patted him on the back of the neck. Duffy flung another ball. Mike Moustakas came to the mound and patted him on the chest. Still Duffy threw another ball, and the bases were loaded.
“I was out of my delivery a little bit,” Duffy said. “That’s really all I can really say about it. I wasn’t over-amped or anything. I was just out of my delivery. If we get out of that inning with a 4-3 lead, it sets us up pretty good. And then people don’t have to come in with the pressure on them that they did. I wish would have handed the ball off a little bit better. That’s on me.”
Juan Perez blooped a fastball into center field, where Jarrod Dyson dove for an underhanded scoop. Dyson prevented a hit, but not a run. The sacrifice fly tied the game. The Giants waxed Finnegan in the next frame.
The Royals spent the afternoon in a playful mood. Scott Downs fashioned a rudimentary bullpen by connecting a pair of Gatorade cups with a length of blue cord that he strung along the length of the dugout. As the Royals spilled onto the field, Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar tested the device. It did not appear to function.
Seated on the bench was Finnegan. He was wrapping up a television interview.
“Oh my gosh,” Collins groaned. “Get off the TV.”
“Save it, Finny,” rookie Terrance Gore called out before changing his tack. “Give me a shoutout, Finny.”
The infield track was muddy once again, but the sodden surface did not bother Giants leadoff hitter Gregor Blanco during the first inning. He walked, took second on a wild pitch and stole third. With runners at the corners, Hunter Pence raced down the line and beat a turn by Omar Infante, a play which proved pivotal later. The Giants had the game’s first run, and Vargas needed 27 pitches to complete just one inning.
“Really didn’t have any kind of rhythm going,” Vargas said.
He would settle down momentarily, and his offense would brighten in the third. Eric Hosmer delivered a two-out RBI single when Vogelsong neglected to align himself properly to tag first base on a grounder. Omar Infante smacked a two-run single and Perez dunked an RBI single in center give the Royals a three-run lead.
Vargas would hand a run back in the bottom of the inning thanks to a run-scoring hit by Posey. His night would only last into the fifth. The Royals would pay for his brevity and the misdeeds of those who followed him to the mound.
In the aftermath of the loss, both Hosmer and Moustakas sought out Finnegan. Hosmer instructed to raise his chin high. Moustakas reminded him he had hit his spots, and his arsenal was still “nasty.” The comfort was cold after the bill for a taxing month landed on his ledger.
“It happens,” Finnegan said as he shuffled away from his locker. “Can’t do anything about it.”
To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.