The baseball hung in the air, suspended like a satellite glistening in orbit, rotating high above the Houston bullpen in right field. For a moment, it just stayed there. Kendrys Morales trotted out the batter’s box. A row of heads in the Royals’ dugouts peered out toward right field. And for a brief second, there was only one question: Would it be deep enough?
The answer was yes, of course, Morales’ second homer of the night cleared the right-field wall and landed 396 feet from home plate. The answer wouldn’t matter, either. By late on Thursday night, Morales’ early power display was rendered a mere footnote in the Royals’ 5-2 loss to the Houston Astros in Game 1 of an American League Division Series at Kauffman Stadium.
“We lost the first game,” Morales said through a translator. “We haven’t lost the series.”
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On a rain-soaked night in Kansas City, Morales stamped his place in Royals history, becoming just the third player in franchise history to hit at least two home runs in a postseason game. He joined Willie Aikens, who did it twice in the 1980 World Series, and George Brett, who peppered Yankee Stadium with three homers in the 1978 ALCS and Toronto with two homers in Game 3 of the 1985 ALCS in Kansas City. He also joined Aikens and Brett as players who have accomplished this feat in a losing effort. The Royals dropped to just 2-3 in postseason games with a multi-homer performance.
“Tomorrow will be a different day,” Morales said.
On a night in which the offense was muted by Astros starter Collin McHugh, Morales offered the only hints of life. In the bottom of the second, the veteran designated hitter sat on a 2-1 fastball and yanked the offering inside the right-field foul pole. The ball landed in the seats in right field, sending Kauffman Stadium in a frenzy and cutting the Astros’ lead to 3-1.
Two innings later, Morales went to work on McHugh once more, taking a thunderous hack on a 1-1 changeup and sending the baseball deep into the night. The solo shot pulled the Royals to within 3-2 in the bottom of the fourth.
“Thank God he made hard contact,” said Royals catching coach Pedro Grifol, who translated for Morales. “He was able to elevate it and the balls got out of the ballpark.”
In the moments after the game, McHugh said the first homer to Morales came on a cutter that sat nearly 7 inches in and off the plate. The second homer, McHugh said, was a clear mistake.
“The second at-bat was a change-up I put out there on the tee for him,” McHugh said.
“Not on purpose. But just kind of hung right there for him, and he put another good swing on it.”
For the Royals’ offense, that was that. McHugh kept them off-balance with a diet of cutters and off-speed stuff, shortstop Alcides Escobar said. First baseman Eric Hosmer finished zero for four. Third baseman Mike Moustakas was hitless in three at-bats before reaching base on a hit-by-pitch in the ninth.
“We just couldn’t get the big hit,” Hosmer said. “But it’s part of the game.”
By late on Thursday night, in a subdued clubhouse, the Royals contemplated Game 1. Morales produced two runs with two swings, finishing two for four with two RBIs. The rest of the lineup produced just four hits and a walk.
“We could not get any type of rally going,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “We got little mini rallies going, but we couldn’t sustain them.”
Morales, of course, had two more chances after homering in his first two at-bats. In the bottom of the sixth, with the Astros leading 4-2, McHugh remained in the game to face Morales with two outs. Morales would put a solid charge into a 75-mph curveball, but Astros right-fielder George Springer chased down the liner near the right-field line. In his final at-bat, Morales went down swinging against Houston closer Luke Gregerson.
“It’s tough sitting for five days and then coming back and putting together (at-bats),” Grifol said, translating for Morales. “But today they saw a lot of pitches, and tomorrow will be a different day.”