The run that won the American League championship wasn’t produced by a blast or a series of base hits. No, the tie-breaker scored in the eighth inning of the Royals’ 4-3 triumph over the Blue Jays in Game 6 of the AL Championship Series originated in a notebook of observations collected by third-base coach Mike Jirschele.
Because Jirschele studies defensive positioning and strengths and weaknesses of outfielders, he knew the Royals could turn an improbable play.
Lorenzo Cain scoring from first base on a single was that play.
“It was a helluva send,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “It happened because Jirsch did his homework.”
Here’s the scene, followed by what Jirschele knew:
After a 45-minute rain delay, the game resumed with Cain leading off the eighth. The Blue Jays had just tied the game on Jose Bautista’s two-run homer in the top of the inning, and the Royals started their response with a great plate appearance by Cain, drawing a seven-pitch walk by Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna.
Eric Hosmer worked a 2-2 count and got around a slider to send it down the line. It wasn’t hit hard enough to reach the wall, but Bautista in right field had to race over to cut it off.
When Cain realized the ball was down he quickly rounded second base, picking up Jirschele only a step or two beyond the bag. Cain was going to reach third base with no problem.
“The main thing Jirsch tells us is to keep running hard, never stop and we’ll go from there,” Cain said.
As Cain approached third, he didn’t slow down but was surprised to see Jirschele continuing to windmill his arms.
“I was definitely confused,” Cain said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
But Jirschele did. He saw Bautista field the ball, turn and throw to second base. Hosmer had made a wide turn at first and Bautista’s throw was an attempt to hold Hosmer.
Jirschele knew Bautista’s tendencies.
“I knew if I had somebody that could run coming into third base, we were going to go ahead and wheel him,” Jirschele said. “It’s my job to recognize that on a ball like that if he throws to second, and you have somebody who can run, they’re going to have to catch it at second, turn and throw home.”
Cain rounded third as Bautista’s throw was on its way to second. Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitzki took the throw at second base and fired home, but not in time to catch Cain.
Bautista said afterward he thought he made the right play.
“I felt I cut it off quick enough to where if I threw to second I would prevent (Hosmer) from going to second and Cain from scoring,” Bautista said. “Obviously, I was wrong.
“At the same time, if I throw the ball home the situation is men at second and third with no outs … It’s one of those tough ones. Now, I wish I had thrown the ball home.”
The Royals led 4-3. Kauffman Stadium, in a state of depression over Bautista’s two-run, game-tying home run an hour earlier, roared.
Hosmer hustled back to first and didn’t see Cain until he crossed the plate. Hosmer had just driven in his 23th career playoff run, tying George Brett for the Royals’ career postseason RBI record, and the play had no bigger fan than the legendary third baseman.
“If Cain’s not running hard that play doesn’t happen,” Brett said. “So give Lorenzo a lot of credit. He plays the game the right way. He hustles.”
Earlier in the ALCS, the Royals faced a similar scenario. Jirschele recalled a similar play with Kendrys Morales on third and a ball hit toward Bautista. Jirschele couldn’t send the slower Morales then, but he remembered what Bautista did with the ball.
“I knew if I had speed coming in there, I’d have that opportunity and it came at the right time,” Jirschele said.
In a series in which speed didn’t play much of a factor, it won a game for the Royals. Along with a coach who knew exactly what to do. Just as he did in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, when Jirschele held Alex Gordon at third base after a single and error created a sliver of hope for the Royals against the Giants.
Jirschele held Gordon, who watched the game end from third base. Jirschele sent Cain to win the game that sent the Royals to the 2015 World Series.
“I know he took a lot of heat last year, although he made the absolute right decision in holding up Alex Gordon,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “But it was just really neat to see that unfold the way it did tonight.”