Ned Yost gazed at his feet as he traversed the bowels of Minute Maid Park, exiting a Royals clubhouse still humming after a comeback that kept a season alive and stunned even the heartiest of the faithful. He passed clubhouse attendants loading bats and luggage for a flight to Kansas City and Game 5 of the American League Division Series, an outcome in peril when Monday’s eighth inning began.
The hallways were quiet as Yost strode toward his postgame news conference. Along the way, he walked by the hushed confines of the Houston Astros, who saw their champagne celebration cancelled by a 9-6 victory by the Royals in Game 4. Yost could believe it — he had seen something so similar in last year’s Wild Card Game —and yet he could not.
“That kind of came out of nowhere, huh?” Yost said. He shook his head, still trying to process the result. “Sometimes there’s things that are meant to be.”
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Down four runs in the eighth, six outs away from an early winter, the Royals stormed back to astonish their opponents. It sounds improbable only because it sounds so familiar. The debate will rage until Wednesday, when Johnny Cueto takes the ball for Kansas City, about which comeback was better: The extra-inning scramble to defeat Oakland last year or the five-run ambush to wreck a coronation in Houston?
The victory over the Athletics opened the door to a franchise-restoring run to the World Series. The story of the 2015 Royals remains unfinished, but they earned the chance to write at least one more chapter.
Both comebacks occurred with four-run deficits in the eighth, and both involved reliever Luke Gregerson, a setup man in Oakland then, the closer in Houston now. Gregerson completed the Astros’ bullpen implosion when he walked backup catcher Drew Butera and let Alex Gordon hit a grounder to plate the winning run. For insurance, Eric Hosmer tacked on a two-run homer in the ninth.
“The percentages of baseball certainly weren’t in our favor,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “These guys went out and took the game.”
They withstood a ferocious shelling in the seventh, when shortstop Carlos Correa and outfielder Colby Rasmus detonated homers off Ryan Madson and electrified the park. The barrage appeared to only motivate their guests, as the players vowed that “these are going to be the toughest six outs you ever get,” reserve outfielder Jarrod Dyson said.
For seven innings, the Royals looked lifeless. In the eighth, they became the undead, refusing to let their season perish. An innocuous single by Alex Rios soon mushroomed into a bases-loaded situation with none out for Lorenzo Cain. He roped a single. Hosmer smacked only his second hit in 16 postseason at-bats to cut the deficit to two.
A swing by Kendrys Morales and an error by rookie shortstop Carlos Correa tied the game. Morales punched a grounder up the middle. The ball evaded reliever Tony Sipp and caromed off the mound. Correa rushed forward and felt the ball bounce off his glove. Cain raced home to tie the game and set up Gordon’s eventual RBI.
“We love each other,” Gordon said. “We have fun together. And we fight together. That’s what we did today. We never gave up.”
The top of the inning lasted 40 minutes. The bottom lasted seven pitches. Wade Davis threw all of them. He also handled the ninth for the two-inning save.
The victory sets the stage for Cueto, Kansas City’s erstwhile ace, to face Collin McHugh in Game 5. Kansas City struggled to solve McHugh in Game 1. The Astros bruised Cueto for four runs in Game 2. Because Cueto was reticent about pitching on short rest, the Royals turned to Yordano Ventura for Game 1 and Monday’s potential series finale.
On the mound only three days after his last start, Ventura struck out eight in five innings, but could not suppress Correa. Correa smashed game-tying homer in the third and a go-ahead double in the fifth, which was a prelude for the seventh-inning bombing of Madson.
The Royals appeared set for heartbreak. The offense supplied two hits against Lance McCullers, a rookie making his postseason debut. A seventh-inning rally short-circuited on a controversial decision at third base, when Terrance Gore was called out on a replay reversal. The deficit expanded to four soon after.
“It’s easy to get down that late in the ballgame,” Cain said. “It was 6-2, and those guys with the momentum. That’s the kind of team we have, a high-character team willing to do whatever it takes to win a ballgame.”
Yost looked bright-eyed in the morning, despite a night spent tossing and turning. He went to bed around 11 p.m. and awoke at 1 a.m., he said. He never returned to slumber. “I didn’t sleep worth a damn last night,” Yost said.
He contributed his insomnia to excitement, to the thrill of October. Both he and other team officials swore his players showed no strain related to potential elimination. One staffer compared the environment in the clubhouse pregame to a regular morning in March, with players sharing laughs as they loosened up.
“They know what’s ahead of them,” Yost said. “They’ve got to win.”
The Astros did not take batting practice. The Royals did. And so two hours before the first pitch, Gordon shared a seat in the dugout next to Luke Hochevar, his closest friend on the team. Gordon knew Monday might mark his final game as a Royal. On the field, first-base coach Rusty Kuntz played catch with Christian Colon and gabbed with Danny Duffy.
Ventura was still the oldest starter on the mound on Monday. Houston countered with McCullers, a 22-year-old with a 95-mph fastball and a hammer curve.
The Royals claimed the lead in the second inning. Perez looked shaken after lining a foul ball into the stands and striking a child. An adult scooped up the boy and sprinted to the concourse, where he was treated with first aid, according to an Astros spokesman.
Perez removed his cap and shook his head. He managed to focus in time for the next pitch. He clobbered an opposite-field shot for a two-run homer. Inside a joyous clubhouse, he interrupted a postgame interview to gaze at a nearby television.
“You see my homer up there?” Perez said.
The Astros tied the game with a pair of solo blasts. Ventura hung a curveball in the bottom of the second, and Carlos Gomez deposited it into the Crawford Boxes in left. An inning later, Correa pulled his hands inside and hammered a 96-mph fastball. The pitch was a ball, and still Correa powered it out.
Correa bested Ventura once more in the fifth. Ventura issued a two-out walk to outfielder George Springer. With the count full, Ventura hummed a fastball over the heart of the plate. Correa ripped a rocket into right. The ball evaded Hosmer’s glove by inches and rattled off the wall. Springer’s helmet flew off his head as he barreled home for the go-ahead run.
The Royals had little answer for McCullers. When he buzzed through the sixth, McCullers rolled his shoulders and slapped two fingers across his own neck. Some in the Royals dugout interpreted this as a throat-slashing gesture, a requiem for Kansas City’s season, despite McCullers’ protests later that he was signaling toward his own teammates.
“C’mon, man,” Kansas City pitcher Edinson Volquez said. “You’ve got to get 27 outs. Not 17.”
McCullers actually procured 19. But when he hit Perez in the seventh, Yost fired his fastest bullet. Gore replaced Perez at first base. He stole second on the first pitch from reliever Will Harris. There he idled while Gordon struck out. But with Rios at the plate, Gore jetted into third.
Both of his feet arrived before Luis Valbuena dropped a tag. The momentum from Gore spilled Valbuena into foul territory. Astros manager A.J. Hinch challenged the call. The replay showed that Gore’s feet left the bag for a split second; it was unclear if Valbuena kept his glove on during the interlude.
The replay crew in New York ruled Gore out, a decision that stunned the Royals. Yet the two homers against Madson, for whatever reason, appeared to have the opposite effect.
When the inning ended, Moustakas charged off the diamond and lit up the dugout with expletives.
“I’m not ready to go home yet!” he hollered.
The message acted like kindling. Just as it did in the eighth inning against Oakland, the dugout came alive. Ryan Stoneberg, the strength and conditioning coach, kept reminding the players about the memories of that game. Jonny Gomes pointed out that each at-bat might be each man’s last for the season. The message: make it count.
Up came Rios, who had only one hit in the series entering Monday’s eighth inning. He roped a first-pitch cutter off Harris for a single. Escobar shuttled a curveball up the middle for another hit. Ben Zobrist deposited a hanging curveball in center for a third single.
“We had our biggest at-bats at the most important times,” Moore said.
Hinch stuck with Harris to face Cain. He roped a single into left to bring home a run. Now Hosmer entered the fray, aware of his miserable postseason, hoping to alter the narrative with one swing. But he did not aim for the fences.
Hosmer fouled back two fastballs from southpaw reliever Tony Sipp. He ignored two sliders in the dirt. Then he ripped an RBI single into right, opening the door for Morales’ grounder and Correa’s error.
With the game tied, Sipp struck out Moustakas. Hinch sent Gregerson to face backup catcher Drew Butera. It was Butera’s first postseason plate appearance. He outlasted Gregerson in a 10-pitch dueling, fouling off three fastballs before Gregerson threw a 3-2 slider in the dirt.
“That’s why this was truly a team win,” Hosmer said.
The bases were loaded for Gordon. He was hitless for the day, with little success all series. He sought to hammer anything from Gregerson, but after he missed a first-pitch slider, he decided to hunt a fastball. He found a heater and bounced it into second baseman Jose Altuve’s glove.
“I was pumping my fist after getting an out,” Gordon said. “I usually don’t do that.”
A thrilled group of teammates greeted both Gordon and Hosmer after the run. Hosmer would later crush a homer off reliever Josh Fields in the ninth. Davis smothered the Astros for the last sixth outs. One man accomplished what four Astros could not.
The story does not end here, not with Game 5 so close. Both clubs have absorbed such punishment in this series, both physical and mental. But on Monday, Kansas City erased a deficit that looked insurmountable and answered any questions about how their collective heart compares to last year’s bunch.
On the ground floor of Minute Maid Park, walking toward his news conference, Yost kept shaking his head. He had watched his team do this before. To see it again was a welcome sight.
“They just don’t quit,” Yost said. “They just don’t quit.”