As the lights shut down at Citi Field, with security guards ushering the celebratory Royals party off the diamond, Ned Yost cast his mind back to Oct. 12. His team had just captured the World Series, completing a 30-year journey back to the promised land for his franchise, a pursuit that came within six outs of ending three weeks earlier.
Yost began to laugh when he recalled his mindset in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the American League Division Series at Houston. The Royals trailed the Astros by four runs. Yost began to think about how he would congratulate Houston manager A.J. Hinch and his team for their accomplishment.
Then Alex Rios hit a single. Alcides Escobar did the same. Ben Zobrist managed a third. Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer each ripped one-run singles. Astros reliever Tony Sipp and rookie shortstop Carlos Correa combined to mangle a double-play ball hit by Kendrys Morales, which left the game suddenly, stunningly, tied.
The rally happened in a flash, quick enough to catch Yost by surprise.
“When Morales got that ball up the middle, I was like ‘OK, what’s the score now?’ ” Yost said after his team won the Fall Classic in five games over the Mets.
There would be plenty more comebacks to follow. On their road to a title, the Royals recorded eight come-from-behind victories. The method became their modus operandi. They won only three games in the postseason by the more conventional fashion.
To win a title requires talent, chemistry and good luck. In the case of the Royals, it also required a steel-enforced resolve, the refusal to acquiesce to the competition before the 27th out was recorded. This is the story of their eight comebacks.
No. 1. Oct. 9: Game 2, American League Division Series vs. Houston, Royals 5, Astros 4
Deficit: Down two, bottom of 6th
Win Expectancy: 23.3 percent
You have to start somewhere. During the first 14 innings of the first round, the Royals allowed themselves to be outclassed and outgunned by the upstart Astros. Houston captured Game 1 without much difficulty. The Astros dinged Johnny Cueto for four runs in the first three innings in Game 2. Oh, and just for kicks: Dallas Keuchel was set to pitch Game 3.
Instead of redemption for 2014, the Royals appeared set for a colossal disappointment. To revive themselves, they relied upon their two prime offensive generators. Lorenzo Cain bashed a one-out double to right. Facing Oliver Perez, a lefty reliever who embarrassed him the day before, Eric Hosmer hit an RBI flare to left on a true, emergency hack. Asked later what pitch he hit, Hosmer started to laugh.
“I have no idea,” he said.
The Royals received the most unexpected gift to tie the score. Salvador Perez accepted a walk from right-handed reliever Josh Fields with the bases loaded. That set the stage for the postseason debut of Alcides Escobar’s magic. Escobar lifted the first pitch of the bottom of the seventh into right field, where it fell between center fielder Jake Marisnick and right fielder George Springer.
“I’m not sure what happened,” Cain said. “I’m just happy it fell.”
Escobar raced into third. Ben Zobrist plated him in the next at-bat. The Royals gave themselves room to breathe in this five-game sprint.
“Championship teams win those type of games right there,” Hosmer said. “So it’s a big win for us.”
No. 2. Oct. 12, Game 4, American League Division Series at Houston, Royals 9, Astros 6
Deficit: Down four, top of 8th
Win Expectancy: 3.2 percent
In the immediate aftermath of this game, fans debated how it compared to the previous season’s miracle in the American League Wild Card Game against Oakland. It is worth noting that this season-saving, four-run comeback occurred on the road. And it occurred only moments after the Royals weathered a hellacious assault, in the form of homers by Carlos Correa and Colby Rasmus off Ryan Madson, in the bottom of the seventh.
As that inning ended, Mike Moustakas began screaming on his way back to the dugout. He refused to accept the possibility that his season might end in six outs. The sentiment became contagious. When their dugout should have been silent, the group raged with emotion.
“We love each other,” Alex Gordon said. “We have fun together. And we fight together. That’s what we did today. We never gave up.”
What followed already holds a place in franchise lore: Five straight singles cut Houston’s lead to two. Morales punched a grounder off Sipp’s glove, past Correa and into the outfield. In his only postseason plate appearance, backup catcher Drew Butera moved the line with a walk off closer Luke Gregerson. Gordon plated the go-ahead run with a ground-out.
Hosmer added a two-run homer in the ninth. Minute Maid Park sat stunned. Inside the Astros’ clubhouse, a champagne celebration was canceled. The Royals stood on the brink of winter, and refused to backpedal any further.
“The percentages of baseball certainly weren’t in our favor,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “These guys went out and took the game.”
No. 3. Oct. 14, Game 5, American League Division Series vs. Houston, Royals 7, Astros 2
Deficit: Down one, bottom of 5th
Win Expectancy: 39.6 percent
The spotlight belonged to Johnny Cueto after the Royals outlasted a talented, tenacious Astros opponent in the fifth game of this series. But it is worth remembering that in the early going, Kansas City’s faith in their erstwhile ace was wavering. Heading into the game, the team pledged to remove Cueto at the first sign of trouble.
In the top of the second, Cueto yielded a two-run shot to third baseman Luis Valbuena. Cueto would not pitch out of the stretch again, bound for a complete-game masterpiece. But his team still trailed halfway through the night.
The go-ahead rally started with an Astros mistake. Houston starter Collin McHugh hit Perez with a pitch. Astros manager A.J. Hinch let him face Alex Gordon, who lined a ground-rule double. Hinch set Mike Fiers to face Alex Rios.
An $11 million disappointment during the regular season, Rios suffered a year from hell. A wayward fastball broke his hand in April. Back in late May, he failed to find traction. Just as he appeared to heat up in late summer, he contracted chickenpox. Heading into the postseason, it was possible the Royals would use some combination of Jarrod Dyson, Paulo Orlando and Jonny Gomes in right field.
Instead, the team stuck with Rios. He notched the first hit in the Game 4 rally. Now he smacked a double to give his team a lead they would not relinquish. At second base, he unfurled a tremendous fist pump, his largest show of emotion as a Royal. Playing in his first postseason after 12 years in the majors, he had a right to celebrate.
“He’s more of a laid-back guy,” Cain said. “But to get some emotion out of him right there, I love it. I love to see it. He came through in a huge way.”
No. 4. Oct. 17, Game 2, American League Championship Series vs. Toronto, Royals 6, Blue Jays 2
Deficit: Down three, bottom of 7th
Win Expectancy: 10.7 percent
There is no dome over Kauffman Stadium. But still the ballpark can be deafening. Just ask Blue Jays second baseman Ryan Goins.
Toronto ace David Price gave up a single on his first pitch of the game to Escobar. He retired the next 18 men he faced. It was a historic example of dominance. He opened the seventh with a 92-mph fastball. The pitch caught plenty of plate, but Ben Zobrist still swung late. A harmless pop-up rose into right.
Goins ran backward. Right fielder Jose Bautista ran forward. Goins would later say he heard someone call for the baseball. It was not Bautista. It was no one, no one except the 40,000 fans ringing the park, screeching in his ears. Both the ball and Goins fell into the grass.
“I didn’t think there was a chance that ball dropped,” Zobrist said.
What separated the Royals from their competition this October was not just their ability to generate mistakes by the opposing club. It was their ability to pounce, immediately, as soon as they sensed blood in the water. Price still held a three-run lead, so there was little reason for manager John Gibbons to act. Price’s earlier efficiency would cost him — his pitch count was low enough that he stayed in the game and absorbed a five-run pounding.
Cain singled. Hosmer singled home Zobrist. With Kendrys Morales up, first-base coach Rusty Kuntz instructed Hosmer to run on Price, who had not allowed a stolen base all season. Hosmer broke for second as Morales hit a sure-fire double-play ball. Instead, Cain scored and Hosmer was safe at second.
“The key to that whole inning, believe it or not, was Hosmer stealing second base,” Yost said. “That was a double-play ball. That allowed us to get to a point we could score five runs. That was huge.”
Gibbons left Price in the game. The decision did not pan out for Toronto. Moustakas tied the game with a single. Gordon capped the rally with a ringing, go-ahead double.
“You take advantage of some mistakes from the other team,” Hosmer said. “And just try and make the most of it. It worked out well for us.”
No. 5. Oct. 27, Game 1, World Series vs. Mets, Royals 5-4
Deficit: Down one, bottom of 9th
Win Expectancy: 18.1 percent
A super hero, Eric Hosmer called him after the game. The captain of the team. The heart and soul of a champion.
That is how the Royals view Alex Gordon, their longest-tenured player, their franchise pillar. He endured so much failure, both personal and team-wide, before the club reached its renaissance. Along the way, Gordon became the best left fielder in baseball, a perennial Gold Glover and All-Star.
Heading into the postseason, an odd set of circumstances — a mid-season groin strain, a late-season slump, the curious talismanic effect of Alcides Escobar — pushed Gordon to the No. 8 spot in the batting order. But he was in perfect position to face Jeurys Familia in the ninth inning of the first World Series game.
Heading into that inning, Familia had not blown a save since July 30. He saved five games in the first two rounds. Familia would blow three saves in the World Series, but he could not have known that when he fired a 97-mph fastball over the plate.
“You get in that situation with Familia on the mound, you know how good he can be,” Yost said.
In the previous at-bat, Gordon saw Familia quick-pitch Perez. He kept that in mind when Familia tried the same tactic against him. The pitch was elevated, but Gordon still surprised himself with his titanic, game-tying blast over the wall in center field.
“He tried to quick pitch me and left the ball right there to hit,” Gordon said. “And with a guy like that you can’t miss pitches that he gives you to hit.”
Inside the dugout, Hosmer wrapped Gordon in a hug. The homer removed responsibility for a potential defeat from Hosmer’s shoulders, after Hosmer committed a game-changing error early in the night. The game lasted five more innings, but in the 14th, Hosmer lifted the game-winning, walkoff sacrifice fly.
“We never get frustrated or hang our heads when we’re down,” Gordon said. “We always feel like we can come back and either make it a game or win the game.”
No. 6. Oct. 28, Game 2, World Series vs. Mets, Royals 7-1
Deficit: Down one, bottom of 5th
Win Expectancy: 39.6 percent
After a miserable performance in Toronto during the second round, Cueto rebounded with another gem, this one a two-hitter. But he still entered the middle of the game down a run and in danger of a defeat.
Up to this point, the Royals had mounted little offense against Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom. That would soon change. The rally began with Gordon, who led off with a walk. Rios followed up with a single.
The start of the flurry reminded of the depth of the Kansas City lineup. The game-tying hit reminded of its good fortune. With two on, Escobar tried to lay down a bunt. But he could not get a clean handle on a pair of fastballs from deGrom.
“After that, down 0-2, I said, ‘I’m going to swing the bat now,’” Escobar said.
The new approach was a boon for the Royals. DeGrom hung a slider. Escobar cracked a game-tying single. The floodgates opened: Hosmer hit a two-run single. Moustakas followed up with a run-scoring hit of his own. The four-run blitz gave Cueto the chance to cruise.
The most fascinating aspect of the Royals’ success against deGrom was their ability to make contact. In 94 pitches, deGrom generated only three whiffs. None occurred with his fastball, a first for him in the majors.
“We don’t swing and miss,” Yost said. “We put the ball in play, and we find ways to just keep putting the ball in play until you find holes.”
No. 7. Oct. 31, Game 4, World Series at Mets, Royals 5-3
Deficit: Down one, top of 8th
Win Expectancy: 22 percent
As the Royals gathered for their post-parade bash at Union Station on Tuesday, Ben Zobrist never touched the microphone. He did not seek the spotlight during his tenure in Kansas City. But the moments kept finding him. He played a critical role in so many of these rallies, even if he rarely launched the definitive blow.
Zobrist provided a disciplined approach that stuck out like a sore thumb in this free-swinging lineup. He posted a .365 on-base percentage in this postseason. And as the Royals searched for a spark at Citi Field, Zobrist led off with a walk against Mets reliever Tyler Clippard. Cain did the same.
“That’s part of passing the baton, taking a walk when you need to,” Zobrist said.
Mets manager Terry Collins brought in Familia. Facing Hosmer, Familia induced a groundball to second base. Daniel Murphy charged forward. He put down his glove. The ball skipped by him. Cain scored, the ballpark groaned and the Royals had life.
Granted an inch, the Royals took their mile quickly. Moustakas whacked an RBI single. Perez did the same. Kansas City pushed itself one victory away in a manner that had become routine.
“It’s a team that just looks for a little crack,” Yost said. “If we find a little crack, they’re going to make something happen. It’s amazing how they do that.”
With their lineup, no lead was safe until the 27th out. The Mets would learn that lesson, once more, in most painful fashion on the season’s final night.
No. 8. Nov. 1, Game 5, World Series at Mets, Royals 7-2
Deficit: Down two, top of 9th
Win Expectancy: 5.7 percent
Matt Harvey waited until his teammates had begun to filter out of the dugout. He bounded up the steps and sprinted toward the mound at Citi Field. The crowd treated him a conquering hero, and, yes, he had conquered the Royals for eight scoreless innings. He only required three more outs to send the World Series back to Kansas City.
Harvey could not collect one. He picked up two strikes on Cain, but lost him with a walk. In the stands, Hall of Famer George Brett took notice.
“As soon as Harvey walked that guy in the ninth,” Brett said, “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. We’re winning this game.’ ”
Brett was right. Hosmer drilled Harvey’s last pitch, a 94-mph fastball, into left for a run-scoring double. The deficit was halved, and Harvey was done. Collins summoned Familia. Once an executioner, Familia had served as fodder for the Royals all series. In this moment, his defense betrayed him once again.
With Hosmer at third base, Perez hit a grounder toward the left side. David Wright swooped in front of shortstop Wilmer Flores. Wright tried to look Hosmer back to third, but Hosmer didn’t budge. Wright threw to first for one out. Hosmer took off. Lucas Duda tried to nab him at the plate.
You know the rest of the story. The Royals etched it into collective memory, as they did with so many other moments this postseason. They were a team unwilling to admit defeat. And so they stood triumphant over the rest of the game.