Judging the Royals

The best game I ever saw: The Royals beat the Athletics

Kansas City Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain poured champaign over his head after the Royals defeated the A's in Wednesday's wildcard playoff baseball game on October 1, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, MO.
Kansas City Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain poured champaign over his head after the Royals defeated the A's in Wednesday's wildcard playoff baseball game on October 1, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, MO. The Kansas City Star

It’s 1:17 in the morning and I’m sitting here covered in champagne and beer, trying to figure out how to describe what I just witnessed. Half a dozen players asked me how I was going to write about that game. Longtime Royals scout Art Stewart wanted to know if I’d ever seen one like that. Eric Hosmer walked by and said: "Un-real." A dozen other players and coaches said they’d never seen anything like it. Then Jason Frasor said: "Why don’t you just say it was the best game you ever saw?"

OK: the Royals played 12 innings, kept their playoff dreams alive, drove a crowd of over 40,000 people insane while beating the Athletics 9-8 in the best game I ever saw.

Jason Frasor was right.

Game notes

If you think I can sum this one up without writing a novel, you’re kidding yourself. The media reversed course more times than a running back in the open field. When the A’s hit their first home run—in the first inning—the person next to me said: "Game over."

Well, it’s hard to be more wrong than that.

Then, after the Royals took the lead, writers started making plans to cover the Royals celebration; that lasted until the sixth. Next everyone started writing the Royals obituaries and that lasted until the eighth. After a while I figured maybe we ought to quit writing the story before the game was over and just watch; the damn thing was too crazy to predict.

So here are some random game notes that I took during four hours and 45 minutes the game lasted:

*At the end I thought they game might turn on the wild pitch Jason Frasor threw. The twelfth inning started with a leadoff walk to Josh Reddick, Jed Lowrie bunted him over to second base and that’s when Frasor replaced Brandon Finnegan—who pitched great.

Frasor threw a pitch in the dirt, Reddick advance to third and then Alberto Callaspo singled to left. No wild pitch, Reddicks’s still on second and the A’s probably don’t challenge Alex Gordon’s arm.

The Royals comeback made Frasor the winning pitcher; no comeback and he would have taken the loss.

*Ned Yost was getting roasted for pulling James Shields in the sixth inning, but Shields had given up a leadoff single, walked a batter and was about to face Brandon Moss for the third time. Moss had already homered and lined out—he was seeing Shields well—and had Yost let Shields face Moss and it didn’t work out, Ned would have been roasted for that move as well. Ned brought in Yordano Ventura, Moss homered off him and that’s when it seemed like the Royals were in real trouble.

*The A’s had a slew of lefties coming up so you might ask why Danny Duffy wasn’t brought in the game, but Danny scuffled in his previous outing. Had anyone known Brandon Finnegan—a rookie—would pitch as well as he did, Yost probably would have made that move instead.

*If you were wondering why Yost did not pinch hit for Jayson Nix in the eleventh inning, there was nobody left on the bench but Raul Ibanez and Erik Kratz.

*If you were wondering why the Royals bunted Dyson to second base and then had him steal third in the ninth inning; it’s harder to steal second with a left-handed pitcher on the mound, but easier to steal third—the left-handed pitcher’s back is to the runner.

*There was no post-game press conference; it was replaced by a postgame party. But just in case you were wondering what the hell happened with Billy Butler in the first inning:

With Billy on first and Eric Hosmer on third, Billy was supposed to wait for Jon Lester to throw the ball to home plate, break for second and then stop before he got to the base. Hosmer was supposed to break for home on the throw to second.

But Billy didn’t wait for Lester to throw the ball to home plate and wandered too far off first. Lester—who does not attempt many pickoffs to first base—saw Billy in no-man’s land and the play broke down completely. Hosmer was thrown out at the plate, but injured catcher Geovany Soto’s thumb on the play.

After that the Royals stole back-up catcher Derek Norris blind, so maybe the play worked after all.

*Salvador Perez had one of the worst at bats of the night and the game winner; so he went from goat to hero. He struck out with a runner on third and less than one out with the game on the line—chasing sliders all over the place—then hit the game winner down the third base line…on a slider he chased out of the zone.

It’s better to be lucky than good.

The narrow margin between success and failure

Take a 162-game season and divide it by nine; that will give you 18 nine-game series. Now say a team wins five out of nine games all season long; that team will win 90 games, probably go to the playoffs and be judged a success. But now say that team only wins four out of nine; now they’ve won 72 games, lost 90 and people are getting fired.

In 2013 the Royals won 86 games, finished 10 games over .500, but didn’t make the playoffs. This season the Royals won 89 games and that got them a wild-card game. Had the Royals finished with the same record they had in 2013, they wouldn’t be in the playoffs; the two wild card teams would have been Oakland and Seattle.

Three more wins and you’re in; three more losses and you’re out.

So the idea that the 2014 team is a whole lot better team than the 2013 team is probably not accurate; the 2014 team is three games better and that was just enough to push it into the playoffs. Fans are excited, Ned Yost has been mentioned as a manager of the year candidate—although lots of people were upset about the way he handled the pitching Tuesday night—and Dayton Moore’s James Shields/Wil Myers trade has former critics eating their words. (Although I’m pretty sure those critics will be happy to do a U-turn and start being critical when the opportunity presents itself.)

But ask yourself this:

What if Wade Davis had developed a sore elbow this season? The Royals could have easily been three games worse, fans would be calling for Ned Yost’s firing and Dayton Moore would go back to being an idiot who traded the team’s future away and didn’t make the playoffs—all because one guy’s elbow got inflamed.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Wade stayed healthy, the Royals did make the playoffs and Kansas City baseball fans got to watch the most exciting season in 29 years. But before we label one team a bunch of losers and another team a bunch of winners, remember this:

The margin between success and failure is narrow.

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