Inside a fourth-floor suite at Kauffman Stadium, J.J. Picollo averted his eyes from the diamond, grabbed his phone and prepared to concede defeat. He had toiled for eight seasons aiding the resurrection of the Kansas City Royals as an executive working under general manager Dayton Moore, preparing for a night like this, Sept. 30, 2014, the American League Wild Card Game.
The team’s first playoff appearance since 1985 looked set to end before October even began. Down four runs to Oakland as the seventh inning ended, Picollo sought refuge in the desert. He opened his Southwest Airlines app and searched for flights to Phoenix and the fall instructional league. Maybe scouting in the sunshine could soothe the sting.
Picollo thumbed through his options in silence. The stadium sat stunned after Yordano Ventura surrendered a three-run home run in the sixth inning. Unable to decide on a flight, Picollo pocketed his phone and headed toward the bathroom. Along the way, he crossed paths with the greatest player in Royals history and the front office’s connection to the franchise’s glorious past.
“Hey,” George Brett said, “we’re winning this game.”
At the moment, the outcome looked unlikely. In addition to the deficit, the Royals faced Jon Lester, a steely southpaw who had suffocated them for years. But Picollo listened to Brett. He never booked a flight. He returned to his seat to witness a comeback that astounded with its improbability and altered the course of the franchise’s history.
The game lasted four hours, 45 minutes and 12 innings, long enough for a 9-8 Royals victory, long enough for September to nearly turn to October, long enough to bring a sport back to life in this town. On the night baseball returned to Kansas City, the Royals banished the demons raised by 29 years without a playoff appearance, restored the faith of a public wounded by decades of ineptitude, and instilled a confidence that carried the players to the World Series last year and back to the playoffs in 2015.
Moore referred to it as “one of the greatest games of Royals history, because of what was at stake.” Eric Hosmer called his 12th-inning triple “the biggest at-bat of my life.” Salvador Perez compared the elation he felt after his game-winning hit to the joy a mother must experience after childbirth.
Christian Colon, the backup rookie who scored the winning run, noted how much has changed since Perez hunched at the waist and hooked a slider down the third-base line and under the glove of Oakland third baseman Josh Donaldson.
“I feel like ever since that day,” Colon said, “it feels like there’s something different in the air.”
As the Royals prepare to defend their pennant this October, The Star interviewed dozens of players, coaches, executives and others about their experiences on Sept. 30, 2014. The game pivoted on moments that have grown into legend: Ned Yost’s decision to use Ventura in relief; Lester’s inability to throw the ball to first base; Perez’s ungainly yet beautiful game-winner.
The spoils of 2015 — a franchise record for attendance, a payroll exceeding $115 million, a convoy of seven All-Stars at the Midsummer Classic, the first American League Central title in franchise history — all stem from the result of last year’s Wild Card Game.
Granted entry into the playoffs, Yost repudiated his reputation as a tactical dunce, earned a new contract and established himself as a candidate for American League Manager of the Year this season. The players earned plaudits for their courage and boosted their salaries by millions in the offseason. And an unshakeable bond formed between a populace and their team.
The people of this city fell in love last summer. They consummated their vows on a muggy night on the last day before October. To do so, the club overcame lengthy odds and diminished expectations. A year later, the memories still cause spines to shiver and eyes to well.
“Somehow we pulled it off,” Hosmer said. “I don’t know how we did. But we pulled it off.”
Removing the Shields: Innings 1-6
James Shields awoke on Sept. 30, 2014 at the Marriott on 12th Street. The lease on his rental home ran out when the regular season ended. So Shields, like several other Royals, checked in downtown. To some in the organization, the length of their stay depended on Shields’ right arm.
The previous night, Shields and several teammates visited Arrowhead Stadium for “Monday Night Football.” As the Chiefs plastered the New England Patriots, the crowd treated the players like kings and showered them with chants.
“The whole city was painted blue,” Shields said. “The city was fiending, fiending for a playoff team.”
When Yost left his condo that morning, he had managed 1,734 games in the majors. None of those had occurred in the playoffs. Except he did not view this as a legitimate playoff game, either. To Yost, the team needed to reach the Division Series to cross that threshold. He tried to treat the day like any other. He drove alone to the park and thought about his daily walk on the treadmill.
Four days earlier, the Royals had clinched their first postseason berth since 1985. As the champagne dried inside the visitors’ clubhouse of U.S. Cellular Field, the team etched preparations for this night. A slim chance existed of a Game 163 against Detroit for the division title, but the Royals figured they would face Lester and the free-falling Athletics.
If the trajectory of Oakland’s season approximated a nose-dive, losing a six-game division lead to the Angels during the summer, the Royals represented a rollercoaster. Kansas City finished May with a losing record. The Royals claimed first place in June only to sink beneath .500 again in July. After 32 days in first place in August and September, they squandered the lead and allowed the Tigers to capture the division.
The team won 89 games, its highest total since 1989. Yet the Royals now stood nine innings away from a potential winter of reckoning. Moore had taken over the baseball operations department in 2006. A caricature existed of Yost as a stubborn man with strategic philosophy fit for a previous era.
But beneath the surface, Royals officials said, Yost had become more open to suggestion. For this game, the staff devised a plan that flouted convention but, they believed, would maximize the talent on their roster. So during a workout the day before, pitching coach Dave Eiland approached Ventura, a flame-throwing rookie starter, and told him to be ready to pitch out of the bullpen.
During batting practice, the team’s late-inning duo of Wade Davis and Greg Holland visited the dugout. After a few minutes, the pair decided to go back upstairs to the clubhouse. The stadium operated at a din, and the game had not even begun. The atmosphere felt claustrophobic, and neither wanted to upset their typical routine.
“It just seemed like the crowd was closer than normal,” Holland said. “It was like they were on the field.”
Added Davis, “You just felt the hunger of every single person in that stadium.”
A generation of fans who had never experienced playoff baseball flocked to the park. Seth Atkins, a 26-year-old from Olathe, took the day off work from the high school where he taught, outside St. Louis. He arrived at Kauffman Stadium when the gates opened. “It was more like a Chiefs crowd,” he said. “The atmosphere, how pumped-up people were, how many people were there tailgating.”
Kent Swanson, a 26-year-old from Overland Park, bought a ticket at face value that morning. When he and a friend settled into their seats in the upper deck, he felt the tension. “There was just 29 years of aggression and angst and excitement in that building,” Swanson said.
Abby Elmer, a 21-year-old from Brookside, finished her classes that morning at the University of Missouri and drove from Columbia to attend the game with her parents. Growing up, the trio shared season tickets. She had never seen Kauffman Stadium like this.
“I just could not believe how loud it was,” Elmer said. “How insane it was. You could not hear the person next to you, it was so loud.”
Ron Darling arrived at the ballpark in the early afternoon. He flew in from New York, where he works as part of the Mets’ broadcast crew, to call the game for TBS. As Darling traversed the parking lot with Cal Ripken, the Hall of Fame shortstop and one of his broadcast partners, he noticed the noise among the throng.
“You just knew it was going to be a special night,” Darling said. “You didn’t know who was going to win. You didn’t know what was going to happen. But you knew, at least, the fans were ready to go.”
As Shields left the dugout to warm up, he absorbed the emotion of the sellout crowd of 40,502. Beneath his feet, the ground shook.
The first pitch left his hand at 7:07 p.m. He pumped a 94 mph fastball for a strike at the belt of outfielder Coco Crisp, and the crowd popped. But Shields soon fell behind in the count. Crisp singled. Two batters later, Shields left a changeup at the thighs of slugger Brandon Moss. He quieted the park with a two-run homer.
The blast underscored an undercurrent of distress among the Royals coaches. They worried about Shields. He would turn 33 that winter as a free agent, and his performance reflected the strain of his profession. At times, his fastball lacked its usual command and his changeup lacked its usual snap.
“We expected him to go much deeper in that game,” Eiland said. “Because that’s why we got him.”
Down two runs before they had a chance to hit, the offense fired back. Lester had already beaten the Royals three times in 2014. As a southpaw, he disabled the power of their left-handed bats like Hosmer, Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas. But for the Wild Card Game, Kansas City intended to exploit a concealed weakness.
Before the game, first-base coach Rusty Kuntz spoke with the hitters inside the ground-floor batting cages. He revealed a piece of intelligence that was hidden in plain sight and still difficult to fathom: Lester could not throw the baseball to first base. He had not attempted to do so in a game since April 30, 2013.
This knowledge would dog Lester throughout his next season after he signed as a free agent with the Cubs. But on that night in September, it was an open secret. Kansas City coaches and executives said they knew, fortified by the work of their advance scouting department. Most of the players said they had no idea, until a few received messages from friends around the sport.
“Guys were texting our guys that play them a lot, from the West, ‘You have to run. This guy will not throw to first base,’” Kuntz said.
“I think it was a hushed, not-talked-about subject in baseball,” Darling said. “But people who knew the game, had heard the whispers: He’s got the yips. He can’t really throw to first.”
The aggressiveness carried into the first inning. Nori Aoki stole second base. Hosmer walked. Billy Butler plated Aoki with a single and Hosmer hustled to third. With runners at the corners and Gordon at the plate, Kuntz decided to test Lester’s competence.
As coordinator of the team’s running, Kuntz possessed discretion from Yost for calling a double steal. After Lester picked up two strikes on Gordon, Kuntz gave the signal. Butler walked away from the bag, looking like a tourist lost in a foreign city. Lester noticed the figure drifting toward second and stepped off the mound.
At this moment, as Kuntz drew up the play, Hosmer was supposed to sprint home.
“Make him make that throw to the plate,” Kuntz said. “Because in the past, he (expletive) airmails that into the backstop.”
But Hosmer hesitated. He would tell Kuntz later that he just did not believe Lester was incapable of making that throw. Instead, Lester crept close enough to shovel the baseball to shortstop Jed Lowrie. Hosmer broke late for home and was thrown out. Oakland catcher Geovany Soto damaged his thumb when he slapped the tag, a small break that would prove critical for Kansas City hours later.
Yost approached Kuntz in the dugout after the inning.
“Hey, we going to do that again?” he asked.
“No,” Kuntz said.
“OK,” Yost said, and walked away.
Still, the Royals only trailed by one. They pulled ahead in the third on an RBI double by Cain and a run-scoring single by Hosmer. Shields settled down after the first. Through five innings, he had struck out six. As the Royals batted in the bottom of the fifth, Ventura warmed up.
“I don’t think he’s going to be coming into the ballgame,” Darling said on the broadcast. “Not with the way Shields is throwing.”
“I really hope he’s not taking me out right now.”
The sixth started in innocuous fashion. Shields shattered the bat of Sam Fuld, but Fuld managed a leadoff single. A full-count fastball to Donaldson missed the outside corner. It was the 88th pitch of Shields’ night. It was his last.
Perez threw the baseball back to the mound as Shields pondered a strategy for facing Moss a third time. Then he looked up and saw his manager emerge from his dugout. Yost kept his head down until he reached the mound.
“I really hope,” Shields thought to himself, “he’s not taking me out right now.”
One day this past winter, Royals bench coach Don Wakamatsu settled into a conference room at Tropicana Field surrounded by Tampa Bay Rays executives. A baseball-operations official pulled down a projection screen. Wakamatsu was interviewing for Tampa Bay’s managerial opening, and the Rays wanted to walk inning-by-inning through the Wild Card Game.
The conversation focused on high-leverage situations, how Wakamatsu analyzed the inflection points of a game. No scenario interested the Rays executives more than the sixth inning. “No question,” said Wakamatsu, who finished as the runner-up to Kevin Cash with the Rays.
As the Royals plotted their strategy for this game, they found a hole: They did not have a reliable reliever for the sixth inning. Danny Duffy had recently suffered a rib injury. Brandon Finnegan was a rookie. Jeremy Guthrie served as an emergency long man. The discussion centered on Ventura, a 23-year-old rookie, and Jason Frasor, a 36-year-old veteran.
Neither man had ever pitched in the playoffs. The team decided Ventura, just two days removed from a 72-pitch outing in the regular-season finale, could handle the assignment. The decision looked regrettable later, but Royals officials defended their thought process. In his lone relief appearance earlier that season, Ventura struck out three and collected five outs on three days of rest.
“People want to criticize me, Ned, whatever,” Eiland said. “I’ll still do the same thing.”
He added, “If Yordano comes in and shuts down that inning, all of a sudden, Ned and us, the organization, we’re absolute geniuses for doing it.”
Yordano Ventura dropped out of high school when he was 14. He found a job working construction in Samana, a coastal town on the northern edge of the Dominican Republic. Ventura hoped to provide for his mother. He was rail-thin, but he possessed unnatural power in his right arm, an appendage he fortified swimming in the ocean near his home.
After the Royals signed him for $28,000, Ventura filled out his 5-foot-11 frame, developing impressive musculature in his chest and legs. The limbs powered his slingshot delivery. At times in 2014, he was the team’s best starting pitcher.
From his perch in the fourth-floor suite, Moore saw the switch. He sat in on pregame meetings and expected Ventura’s deployment in a situation like this.
“I’m thinking he’s going to strike out Moss,” Moore said. “I’m thinking he’s going to get him out. But it’s like any pitcher. You’ve got to execute pitches.”
Never before had Ventura pitched in a high-leverage situation like this as a reliever. When he fell into trouble, his remedy was simple. He fought fire with the fire of his fastball.
His first to Moss clocked at 99 mph. It was high. Ball one. His next was 98 mph. It was also high, and too far inside. Perez abandoned his crouch and hustled to the mound. He carried the baseball in his right hand. Perez handed it over, spoke in Ventura’s ear and slapped him on the backside.
Ventura rotated the baseball in his hand. A bead of sweat dripped down his right temple. He fired another 98 mph fastball, this one down the middle, with a late dip. Moss timed it exquisitely. Cain sprinted toward the center-field wall. He slowed up before the warning track as the ball disappeared.
“This was well-planned out,” Yost said. “It just didn’t work.”
The three-run homer left the crowd stunned. It was 5-3, Oakland. The television broadcast picked up the squeals of stray Oakland fans. The Athletics stormed up their dugout steps to greet Moss. A towel wrapped around his neck, Shields looked glassy-eyed in the Kansas City dugout.
“It was disappointing for me, personally,” Shields said, “because I felt I was the guy that wanted to be the guy who helped change the organization around.”
Ventura gave up a single in the next at-bat and threw a wild pitch. The crowd rendered its verdict on the pitching change when Yost emerged to remove Ventura from the game for Kelvin Herrera. Ventura received polite applause. Then the ballpark showered Yost with jeers and invective.
“Oh my God. I remember turning to my parents, and being like ‘Poor Ned Yost. That’s his career.’ I was convinced he was fired.”
Royals fan Abby Elmer, 21
“I understood that it was 29 years of frustration at that point,” Yost said. “You know how people, they get high and low real quick, where we don’t. We keep a big-picture view of what we want to do.”
In the upper deck, Kent Swanson sat in silence, unable to speak for several innings. For solace, he scanned Twitter to read rage-filled posts about Yost. Seth Atkins assumed the game was over. As the night drifted away, Abby Elmer would begin to cry. But her initial reaction involved empathy.
“Oh my God,” Elmer said. “I remember turning to my parents, and being like, ‘Poor Ned Yost. That’s his career.’ I was convinced he was fired.”
During games, Toby Cook, the team’s vice president for community affairs and publicity, roves around the park. In the sixth inning he visited the sixth-floor press box. Fingers click-clacked on keyboards. A consensus formed in the initial, unpublished drafts of stories and columns: The end for Yost had arrived.
Before he joined the Royals, Cook spent 15 years in broadcasting. He knew what narrative would shroud the organization in the winter.
“My initial thought,” Cook said, “was, ‘Ugh. Man, unless something really surprising happens, instead of talking about the fact that the Royals finally made it to the playoffs, we’re going to spend the entire offseason talking about a pitching change in the middle of the Wild Card Game.’”
Royals run the voodoo down: Innings 7-9
The narrative jumbled here, in the aftermath of the heartbreak. Herrera allowed two more runs to score. Oakland ended the sixth with a 7-3 lead. Different Royals processed the situation in different ways.
Some sulked. Some raged. Some grieved.
“When they went up as much as they did,” Alex Gordon said, “with Lester going, you’re obviously like, ‘Oh, no. The season is over.’”
At 42, Raul Ibañez was the oldest member of the roster, a sage in his 19th big-league season. The Mariners signed him on June 29, 1992, about nine months before the birth of Finnegan, the team’s youngest player. After this postseason, Ibañez would never again be active on a big-league roster.
As his bat speed slowed, Ibañez provided more spiritual uplift than slugging potential. He organized a mid-July team meeting that many of the younger Royals credited for their turnaround. Now he gathered some of the players by the batting cages in between innings. He implored them to keep playing hard. Perez later described this as one of his most vivid memories of the night.
The coaches recalled another scene after the top of the eighth inning ended. From the near side of the dugout, the group heard a rumbling at the far end. The voices of Hosmer and Cain and Jarrod Dyson and Mike Moustakas filled the air.
We are not losing this game, the players kept saying.
There’s no way we lose this game.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, they’re still after it, man,’ ” Yost said.
The odds were stacked against them. When the bottom of the eighth began, the win expectancy for the Royals resided at 3.5 percent, according to FanGraphs. The team had managed one hit since the third inning. Lester had thrown 95 pitches, with enough in the tank for at least 25 more. The Athletics also employed All-Star closer Sean Doolittle.
There were six out lefts in their season. With Lester ascendant, the Royals needed a few things. They needed someone to get on base. And they needed to run like hell. They knew no other way: During the regular season Kansas City led the majors in stolen bases and hit the fewest home runs.
“In a game like that, you just get to a point where you go, ‘(Screw) it,’” Kuntz said. “If you don’t risk a lot, you’re not going to get a lot.”
An opening arrived in the first at-bat in the bottom of the eighth. Alcides Escobar chopped a grounder under the glove of Lowrie. By this point, Soto had long departed the game because of the thumb injury he suffered in the first. In his place, Derek Norris crouched behind the plate. Norris made the All-Star team that summer for his bat, but he represented a defensive downgrade from Soto.
Escobar decided to challenge Lester. Escobar broke for second on a 1-1 pitch to Aoki. The throw from Norris wasn’t close. Escobar skidded over the bag but reached back to keep himself safe.
“Once Esky went, and he made it, it was like a light-switch went off for the rest of the team,” Kuntz said.
Escobar soon took third on a groundout by Aoki. Cain ripped a fastball back up the middle to make it a 7-4 game. The crowd stirred to life. At first base, Kuntz told Cain to take a lead with abandon.
“We’ve got to go.”
Like Hosmer in the first, Cain felt uncomfortable that far from the bag. Kuntz insisted Cain needed to trust the scouting report. He told him to pick a pitch and then steal second. Lester would not be able to stop him.
“In my head, I’m like, if I get out there, he’s definitely coming over,’ ” Cain said. “I’ve got a frickin’ 10-foot lead. He’s definitely coming over. But no.”
Across the diamond, third-base coach Mike Jirschele watched Cain venture away from the bag in awe. “I couldn’t believe the frickin’ leads we were getting,” Jirschele said.
With the count 2-2 to Hosmer, Cain took advantage of Lester’s timidity and swiped second. He smacked the bag upon his arrival. Norris spit into the ground. Inside the Oakland dugout, bench coach Chip Hale cranked up the telephone to his bullpen.
With the count full, Lester prepared to throw his 110th pitch of the night. Hosmer fouled off a cutter. Before he could throw his 111th pitch, Lester stepped off to move Cain back to second. At this late hour, the Royals running game had dented him. A 94 mph fastball landed just below Hosmer’s knees. Lester stood with his legs akimbo as Hosmer trotted to first.
Lester paced a circle around the mound. At last Oakland manager Bob Melvin emerged from the dugout to remove his ace.
“I didn’t think he would take him out,” Wakamatsu said. “And when he did, it was a relief.”
During the break, as Oakland righty Luke Gregerson warmed up, Kuntz walked over the dugout to confer with the other coaches. The group discussed whether they should stop running now that Lester had left. Outs were precious, so perhaps the team should try to slow down and look for the long ball.
“Heck no!” Kuntz shouted. “We’ve got to go.”
Meanwhile, the man who represented the tying run for Kansas City gazed at a scouting report with hitting coach Dale Sveum. Sveum reminded him how Gregerson leaned on his slider in situations like this. Already, the hitter’s mind was working, reminiscing about a similar encounter with Gregerson in August. He had been waiting for a moment like this, on a night like this, in this ballpark, for 10 years. The man who represented the tying run was Billy Ray Butler, the longest-tenured Royal.
Butler tapped both edges of the plate with his bat and settled into his crouch. Gregerson snapped a slider for a strike. He doubled up with another. This one broke over the heart of the plate. Butler punched it into right field. Cain loped across the plate from second. Hosmer landed at third and the score was 7-5.
When Butler notched his hit, in the stands Seth Atkins allowed hope to reappear. “Maybe they do have a chance,” he told himself.
Silent in the back rows of the upper deck since Moss’ homer in the sixth, Kent Swanson perked up when his friend received a text message at the top of the eighth inning. Two fans had vacated their seats closer to the third-base line. The duo navigated closer to the action as the comeback began.
The shock lifted for Abby Elmer around the same time. Her optimism returned. She wondered if it was foolish to feel that way. But perhaps that was a good thing.
“I remember reading people saying that the Royals didn’t know that game was over, that they were supposed to lose it,” she said. “I feel like the fans were like that, too. They were like, ‘You know what? I’m over it. I’m going to be insanely loud. We’re going to win.’”
By now, the volume in the stadium matched the levels of early evening. Yost pulled Butler for a pinch runner. In his place entered a rookie who looked like a teenager. Terrance Gore exhibited one skill, the ability to run. The Royals thought Gore was the fastest man in baseball. They weren’t alone.
On the first pitch from Gregerson, Gore clasped his batting gloves in his hands as he streaked the necessary 90 feet. He looked like he slid only to avoid running into Lowrie.
After the steal, Gregerson stuck with his slider. The grip was about to betray him. He spiked an 84-mph breaking ball. Norris slid his hips to stop it but the effort was futile. Hosmer sprinted home and dove head-first across the plate. He lingered for a moment in the dirt before disappearing into the dugout.
“I don’t think people realized how good our speed was until they watched that game,” Gordon said.
7 Major-league postseason record stolen bases by the Royals in the 2014 AL Wild Card Game
The score was 7-6. Any contact could bring Gore home. But after Gordon walked, Perez and Omar Infante both struck out. Perez fanned on a slider in the opposing batter’s box.
The Royals had slayed Lester and trimmed the deficit to just one run. But they also squandered an opening. The tying run was 90 feet away with only one out, and they came up empty. Winter was not far away.
Melvin sent Doolittle to the mound for the ninth. Yost countered with Josh Willingham as a pinch-hitter for Moustakas. Willingham had never played in the postseason before. And like Ibañez, he would retire after the season. When Willingham flared a single into right field, the Royals had life.
They also had speed. Dyson, the team’s veteran dynamo, ran at first base. With a lefty on the mound, Dyson did not want to get picked off stealing second. Instead, Escobar bunted him over.
Now Dyson settled into a duel with Doolittle. He played possum, his posture slack, as Doolittle threw a pair of balls to Aoki. He fouled off a 2-0 fastball. Dyson looked toward his dugout. Kuntz opened his palm, the signal for “Let’s go.”
Behind the plate, Norris flashed his fingers to call for an inside pickoff move. Doolittle raised his right leg and swiveled his hips 90 degrees to face the bag. Dyson had not fallen for the ruse — he was already there. Doolittle did not throw.
“Very rarely does a guy go back-to-back inside moves at second,” Kuntz said. “So once you get that look, you know 99 percent of the time, he’s going to go home.”
Dyson took off on the next pitch. Norris palmed the low fastball and fired toward third. Dyson sprang into his slide, skidded across the dirt and reached the bag. He was safe. He clapped his hands and revved his hands toward his dugout.
On the next pitch, Aoki lifted a sacrifice fly to right field. Dyson breezed home to tie the game at 7. In the on-deck circle, Hosmer shouted, “That’s all you.” Vargas grabbed Dyson by the lapels and lifted him off the ground.
In the middle of the celebration, Shields found himself chatting with a pair of Kansas City police officers stationed as security near the dugout.
“We’re all looking at each other,” Shields said, “like, ‘I can’t believe this is really happening.’ ”
Salvador, the savior: Innings 10-12
More than five hours before Salvador Perez sauntered to the plate in the bottom of the 12th inning, he accompanied Shields and Eiland as they walked to the bullpen to warm up. The crowd “absolutely erupted” at the sight of the trio, Shields said. Shields kept his head down, trying to concentrate. But Perez waved at the fans, beaming as he trekked across the grass.
His teammates felt Perez relished the spotlight. Yes, he loved goofing off on camera, interrupting interviews and harassing Cain on Instagram. But something about Perez’s personality, his teammates and coaches believed, allowed him to flourish at times like this.
“He’s always the one who’s doing something in those big-time situations,” Hosmer said.
Perez had missed his chance in the eighth. He made the last out of the 10th, too. Along the way, he guided Finnegan, the rookie from Texas Christian University, through the Oakland lineup. After using Herrera for the sixth and seventh, Davis in the eighth and Holland in the ninth, Yost opted for Finnegan to provide as much distance as possible.
Finnegan kept the Athletics quiet in the 10th and the 11th. In the 12th, he yielded a leadoff walk. After a bunt, Yost pulled Finnegan and inserted Frasor, the veteran who finished second to Ventura in the team’s internal debate about the sixth inning. Frasor promptly threw a wild pitch and gave up a tie-breaking single to Alberto Callapso, a former Royal.
It was 8-7, Oakland, when the top of the inning ended. Inside the dugout, Frasor sat down near Holland.
“Wow,” he told the closer. “I just lost the Wild Card Game for us.”
After the frenetic comeback in the eighth and the ninth, the Royals agonized themselves and their fans in the subsequent innings. Perez stranded Hosmer at third to end the 10th. An inning later, backup infielder Jayson Nix left Omar Infante at third.
Now, with right-hander Dan Otero ready for his second inning of work, Cain led off the bottom of the game’s final inning. He tried to shoot a sinker into right field, but he hit a harmless grounder. He crossed paths with Hosmer as he headed for the dugout, but his thoughts were elsewhere.
“Honestly,” Cain said, “I was like, ‘This game’s over.’ ”
Eric Hosmer sidled into the dugout at Fenway Park one day this past August. He peered down at an iPad screen replaying his last at-bat from that night. He did not require much visual aid. He watched this encounter countless times during the winter.
Hosmer had hit only nine homers during the regular season, but he wanted what all power hitters desire in these situations: a fastball up in the zone to drive out of the ballpark. The duel with Otero lasted six pitches. As he watched himself 11 months later, Hosmer pinpointed the fourth pitch as the most critical one. Hosmer had just fouled off two fastballs and was furious about missing them. Then Otero threw a slider in the dirt.
“After that slider, you can tell,” Hosmer said. “He threw that, and didn’t feel too comfortable about it. From that point there, after fouling off two heaters, especially in hitter’s counts, you’ve got a good feeling that a fastball’s coming.”
Hosmer sprayed another fastball foul. He planned to cheat on the next pitch, starting his swing early to generate as much power as possible. As the 2-2 fastball approached, Hosmer leaned his face closer to the iPad’s screen.
“There it is!” he shouted.
On the screen, Hosmer leveraged his swing so that upon contact, his left foot landed in the other batter’s box. He craned his neck toward the gap in left-center field. The baseball headed toward a Wild Card Game sign on the wall, where Fuld, the center fielder, converged with left fielder Jonny Gomes. Gomes collided with Fuld. The wall left a scar in Fuld’s lower back.
The baseball bounced off the fence. Watching from his suite, Moore remembered the park’s renovation project years earlier. A dark thought crossed his mind. “We should have made that wall lower,” he grumbled.
Instead, Hosmer careened into third with a stand-up triple. He looked toward the dugout, bent down and punched the air with both fists. The Royals, and Kauffman Stadium, were still alive.
“That’s why I think that triple is the biggest at-bat in my life,” Hosmer said. “Because none of the other stuff happens without that going down.”
One thought crossed Christian Colon’s mind as he came to bat in the DH spot, vacated by Butler after Gore ran for him: Get the ball in the air. With one out, a fly ball could score Hosmer. A ground ball to third base or, even worse, a strikeout, would dampen his team’s chances.
Colon did elevate the baseball. But he needed home plate do so. Swinging with a broken finger on his right hand, he chopped a sinker off the plate, producing a 45-foot single toward third. Hosmer swam across the plate as Donaldson reached the baseball. Once again, the game was tied.
Colon sprinted through the bag and did not look back. He let the noise of the crowd inform him about the result. He returned to find Kuntz waiting with instructions.
“Good job, player,” Kuntz told Colon. “Isn’t this awesome?”
Otero departed and lefty Fernando Abad popped up Gordon for the second out. Melvin made one last pitching change. He called for Jason Hammel, a starter most of the season, to face Perez.
“You don’t have the time to think about how big that at-bat is for us,” Perez said. “You know, in the back of your head. But you’re trying to still focus on the situation, look at the pitcher, try to swing at a good pitch.”
During the second half of the season, Perez had become one of the least patient hitters in baseball. Hammel refused to throw him a fastball. Perez took one slider for a ball. He fouled off the next.
As Eiland searched for a lucky spot in the dugout, he forecast the 13th inning, trying to figure out who could pitch. Davis had already found his spot, learning over the railing next to Vargas. “I wouldn’t throw Salvy anything in the zone here,” Davis told Vargas.
The 1-1 slider from Hammel snapped toward the dirt. Perez swung anyway.
Before the at-bat, Kuntz told Colon he should run if Perez got to two strikes. The team needed a man in scoring position. Oakland knew this, too. The Athletics’ dugout called for a pitchout on the next offering, as Colon broke for second base, only to have Norris drop the baseball. With the theft, the Royals tied a postseason record with seven stolen bases.
“Norris was looking at me to see where I was,” Colon said. “Once that happened, I was like, ‘OK, something’s going to happen here.’ ”
Moore hung in the back of his box, out of the view of the camera. He watched while standing next to his senior advisor, Donnie Williams, the lifer who raised Moore as a scout in Atlanta two decades prior. The validation of an eight-year rebuilding effort now rested in the hands of a player signed for $65,000 in 2006.
Perez fouled back a fifth slider, this one up near his hands. Hosmer tensed himself at the far end of the dugout. Holland sat near Moustakas. Shields paced near the tunnel back into the bowels of the stadium.
The 385th pitch of the game left Hammel’s hand at 11:52 p.m., eight minutes shy of October. It was a slider. It was not a strike.
Perez did not care. He lunged into the other batter’s box and somehow yanked the pitch down the third-base line. Josh Donaldson stretched his 6-foot frame and extended his glove as he dove into the dirt.
“I swear Donaldson caught that ball that Salvy hit down the line,” Holland said. “It kind of took my breath away at first.”
“For him to even hit that pitch, or even make contact?” Cain said. “That’s impressive.”
“As soon as I hit the ball, I saw him try to dive,” Perez said. “I said, just wait. As soon as I saw the ball past him? History.”
The noise felt volcanic. The stadium shook. In the stands, strangers embraced. Fans jumped on their seats. Beer and water rained down upon them.
Inside Moore’s suite, George Brett, the legend who predicted victory when the situation seemed most dire, clasped his hands on his forehead and shouted.
A mosh pit formed around Perez. The group somehow stayed upright, their momentum propelling them into center field. The stadium blared Archie Eversole’s “We Ready,” the song that became the team’s anthem en route to the World Series.
After the celebration, Hosmer received a request from a team official to do a television interview on the field.
“I literally told him I had to wait two minutes,” Hosmer said. “Because I felt like I was going to throw up.”
Inside the broadcast booth, Darling shook hands with Ripken and Johnson after they went off the air. Darling knew, already, it was one of the greatest games he had ever called. “My reaction, after the game, is unprintable,” Darling said. “It was ‘Holy (expletive). Can you believe what we just saw?’ I wish I could have said that on the air.”
He walked back into the parking lot, which teemed with fans. To Darling, the group looked ecstatic. And exhausted.
“It was almost like ‘The Walking Dead,’ ” Darling said. “The fans were walking around, zombie-like. Like they were kids who had too much sugar. Or adults who had too much coffee.”
Abby Elmer and her parents struggled to reach their car because of the crowd surrounding Joel Goldberg and Jeff Montgomery’s stage for Fox Sports Kansas City’s postgame show. For the drive back across the state, Seth Atkins listened to Josh Vernier on 610 Sports Radio. He lost the signal near Columbia, so he put the show on his phone.
At his home in Overland Park, Kent Swanson watched highlights until 3 a.m. When he heard Ryan Lefevbre’s radio call of the final hit, as the night baseball returned to Kansas City drifted toward the morning, he burst into tears.
Winning the pennant meant Yost managed the All-Star Game the next summer. Traded to Toronto after the season, Donaldson played third base for the American League. He told Yost how he lost sleep over the Wild Card game’s last play. When Colon stole second, Donaldson moved away from the third-base line to protect the arm of Gomes. He shifted himself an inch away from preventing history.
That same week, Donaldson told Perez a similar story.
“He told me that he almost got it,” Perez said. “And you can see on the video, he touched it a little bit. So close, you know? And he thought he was going to get it.”
He pondered that for a moment. The World Series, the record attendance, the restoration of a franchise — all might have been different if that ball disappeared inside Donaldson’s glove.
“It’s a good thing he didn’t get it. We won the game.”
Where are they now?
Some of the key participants in the 2014 AL Wild Card Game are no longer playing for the Royals or A’s
▪ Nori Aoki: Outfielder signed a one-year, $4.7 million contract with San Francisco.
▪ Billy Butler: DH signed a three-year, $30 million contract with Oakland.
▪ Lorenzo Cain: Outfielder flourished in 2015 and became an All-Star for the first time.
▪ Christian Colon: Infielder spent most of 2015 in Class AAA, but likely to make Kansas City’s postseason roster.
▪ Brandon Finnegan: Traded to Cincinnati as part of the package that brought back Johnny Cueto.
▪ Jason Frasor: Re-signed with Kansas City in the winter, but was designated for assignment midseason and landed with Atlanta.
▪ Eric Hosmer: Narrowly missed election to his first-ever All-Star game in 2015, but appeared on track for his third consecutive Gold Glove at first base.
▪ Raul Ibañez: Retired.
▪ James Shields: Signed a four-year, $78 million contract with San Diego.
▪ Josh Willingham: Retired.
▪ Josh Donaldson: Third baseman traded to Toronto in the winter, and is on track to become the American League’s Most Valuable Player.
▪ Jonny Gomes: Outfielder signed with Atlanta in the winter, traded to the Royals in August.
▪ Jon Lester: Signed a six-year, $155 million contract with the Cubs.
▪ Derek Norris: Traded to San Diego.
▪ Geovany Soto: Catcher signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the White Sox.