The baseball hung in the sky for a lifetime, floating like a horsehide-covered offering to the Baseball Gods who had been so cruel to the Royals for the first 15 innings of the American League Division Series.
Ned Yost often jokes about the talismanic powers of Alcides Escobar as their leadoff hitter, but in the seventh inning of a series-tying, stress-reducing, mojo-restoring 5-4 victory over the Astros, the Royals experienced a genuine bit of magic.
“I’m not sure what happened,” Lorenzo Cain said. “I’m just happy it fell.”
A two-run deficit erased and a must-win game tied heading into the final frames, Escobar pounced on a first-pitch cutter from Astros reliever Will Harris. His drive drifted into a Bermuda Triangle between center fielder Jake Marisnick and right fielder George Springer. The two fleet-footed defenders sprinted through bits of sun and shadow, only to watch the baseball land in the grass of Kauffman Stadium.
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Escobar sprinted all the way to third, a “game-changing play,” third baseman Mike Moustakas said. The triple sent the crowd, unnerved by a Game 1 defeat and wounded by Johnny Cueto’s dispiriting start earlier in the day, into hysterics. A go-ahead single by Ben Zobrist only heightened the volume.
Zobrist pumped his fist as he ran to first base, an exhortation to his teammates and a reminder to his opponents: Houston, we have a series.
“Down 0-1 in a series, we’re not panicking or anything,” Moustakas said. “We’re going to go out there and try to find a way to win. And we did that today.”
This best-of-five is now knotted at one game apiece. The Royals avoided the pressure of heading to Houston in need of a three-game sweep. The hitters exhibited patience and restraint. They built rallies based on walks and opposite-field hits.
Cueto survived a rocky opening to throw six frames of four-run baseball. Cueto did not resemble an ace. But he kept his club within range, as his teammates eventually broke through against the Houston bullpen, with a two-run rally in the sixth. Salvador Perez hit a solo homer in the second and collected a bases-loaded walk in the sixth to tie the game.
The timing of the victory allows the Royals to exhale on their flight to Texas. A monster lurks around the corner, ready for Game 3 on Sunday, in the form of Astros southpaw Dallas Keuchel, the potential American League Cy Young Award winner. Keuchel tortured hitters inside Minute Maid Park this season. He posted a 15-0 record with a 1.46 ERA.
Keuchel performs like the sort of pitcher the Royals thought they acquired on July 26. Kansas City handed a trio of prospects, including 2014 first-round pick Brandon Finnegan, to Cincinnati for Cueto. Some scouts viewed him as an ace, others described him as a No. 2 starter — either item represented an upgrade for the Royals’ shaky rotation.
The Royals intended for Cueto to start Game 1 on Thursday. He declined, citing no interest in pitching on short rest. Even so, he promised a new day would dawn in October.
“That season is over,” said catching coach Pedro Grifol, who translated for Cueto, on Thursday afternoon. “This is a new season. You’ll get to see the real Johnny Cueto.”
The purported savior traipsed into the clubhouse at 12:48 p.m., one hour and 59 minutes before he would throw game’s first pitch. He carried a travel bag and a collection of collared shirts on hangers, gear for the trip to Houston. For Cueto, the arrival time was not far from his norm.
Cueto bounded out of the dugout at 2:12 p.m. and jogged into center field. He tapped his feet in a carioca drill, pumped high knees and kicked his legs in front of himself.
“Today's one of those games where a guy like Johnny Cueto earns his name,” Hosmer said before the game. “We need him to step up for us today.”
Cueto could not deliver. He retired second baseman Jose Altuve with the game’s first pitch, but walked Springer next. Two batters later, Colby Rasmus fished for an ankle-high changeup. He walloped an RBI double over Alex Rios’ head in right field.
The second inning vexed Cueto with bad luck. His third pitch of the frame shattered the bat of first baseman Chris Carter. A single still fell in left field. He picked up two strikes on catcher Jason Castro, then found himself at the mercy of umpire Angel Hernandez.
At 0-2, Cueto fired a high cutter in search of the outside corner. Hernandez deemed it a ball. He did the same with a fastball low and away. Cueto missed with four consecutive fastballs and cutters. Castro took first base.
Up came Marisnick. He tried to sacrifice himself with a bunt. The Royals would not oblige. Moustakas scooped the ball as Escobar raced to cover him at the bag. Cueto pointed toward third base, which caused Moustakas to turn and see there was no play. By the time he threw to first, Marisnick was safe.
With two on, Cueto busted Springer inside with a 93-mph fastball. Springer still floated a two-run single into left.
“In the beginning, he didn’t feel as strong,” Grifol said. “But then he was able to settle down and locate. And obviously, some of the balls that they hit, fell.”
The Royals shaved a run off the deficit in the bottom of the second. Perez detonated a belt-high cutter from Astros starter Scott Kazmir. Perez parked the solo blast in the Royals bullpen in left field.
The crowd did not have long to enjoy the moment. For in the next inning, Cueto served up a solo homer to Rasmus. This time, Rasmus pulled a waist-high fastball over the right-field fence.
The Astros handed the two-run lead back to Kazmir. He compiled a 2.11 ERA in three starts against the Royals this season, but all occurred before he skidded to the finish line.
Like Cueto, Kazmir joined his team midseason. The Astros expected him to stabilize their rotation. Instead he provided a series of clunkers during the final month. He recorded only one out in the fifth inning of his last three starts combined.
Kazmir reached the sixth inning in firm control of the game. But Cain sent him to the showers with a one-out double.
“To get the rally started with the double there was huge,” Cain said. “Once we got him out, I feel like we were able to score a few runs.”
Houston manager A.J. Hinch called upon lefty specialist Oliver Perez, who bested Hosmer in a crucial spot on Thursday. Hosmer flailed at a pair of sliders in the opposite batter’s box to start their second encounter. When Perez tried a third slider, Hosmer pulled off an emergency hack, flaring an RBI single into left.
Frustrated by the precise Astros defensive shifts the night before, the Royals benefited from then in the sixth. Kendrys Morales rolled a groundball toward the right of second base, where Altuve no longer stood. Moustakas loaded the bases with a walk.
Oliver Perez exited the contest, but Hinch could not find a reliever capable of throwing strikes. Josh Fields, the next man up, walked Salvador Perez on four pitches to tie the game. He walked only 13 times during the regular season.
“It was huge, at that point,” Yost said. “Tied the ball game up.”
An inning later, Escobar led off the seventh. Magic would soon follow. Escobar noted how shallow the opposing outfielders set up. The positioning of the Astros confused him, as he explained during a post-game press conference.
“Those guys, they always play like that in the regular season, they play too shallow in the outfield,” Escobar said. “Everybody is moving — second base, he’s playing right behind the base. It’s crazy. I don’t know why those guys do that.”
Seated next to him, Perez offered a coda: “Good for us,” he said.
The Royals did not show panic in the aftermath of Game 1. During the proceedings of Game 2, the players demonstrated the pluck and talent that carried them to the best record in the American League. A restorative victory allowed the group a chance to exhale.
“Championship teams win those type of games right there,” Hosmer said. “So it’s a big win for us.”