Sam Mellinger

Mike Moustakas’ catch embodies this crazy playoff run for the Royals

Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas went airborne to make a catch on a foul ball hit by Baltimore Orioles Adam Jones in the sixth inning Tuesday at ALCS playoff baseball game on October 13, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, MO.
Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas went airborne to make a catch on a foul ball hit by Baltimore Orioles Adam Jones in the sixth inning Tuesday at ALCS playoff baseball game on October 13, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, MO. The Kansas City Star

Fifteen steps mark the most incredible catch of a young ballplayer’s life. Forty feet make up what might be the greatest play in a remarkable and franchise-changing playoff run already full of them.

The Royals, somehow, now stand one win from the World Series. We’ve already had an epic comeback, four home runs in extra innings, Mike Moustakas turning into Reggie Jackson and the 2014 Royals turning into America’s Team.

But we haven’t seen anything quite like this.

“It was pretty awesome,” Moustakas says.

The Royals beat the Orioles 2-1 in taking a three-games-to-none lead in the American League Championship Series at Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday. This cute little story now carries the weight of a freight train and the video that will be watched millions of times and forever remembered as the moment that defined the night the Royals moved to the brink of their first World Series since 1985.

“That’s one of the best catches I’ve ever seen in baseball, ever,” says Alcides Escobar, the shortstop who knows what he’s talking about. “Unbelievable play. Wow. That’s an incredible play, man. Wow.”

It’s a popup, top of the sixth inning, scored tied at one. Adam Jones is at the plate. Jason Frasor on the mound. The sixth inning has been a problem for the Royals most of the season, and perhaps their biggest worry during the playoffs. Jones is a critical out here.

“We need that out,” Frasor says.

Jones swings at the second pitch, a slider, and the ball goes maybe 150 feet in the air, arching toward the seats behind third base. Moustakas has already made a diving catch on a line drive that helped keep the score close. He sprints toward the warning track for an even more spectacular catch.

“Wind blow it back, wind blow it back,” Lorenzo Cain says. “I thought that ball was going out of play.”

The ball is hit high enough that Moustakas gets to the seats a few seconds before the ball lands. This is crucial, because it gives him time to size up against the railing to the dugout suite behind the visitors dugout and better see where the ball will land. A strong wind is blowing the ball back toward the field, but not over the railing. If Moustakas is going to do this, he’s going to need some help. There was no reason for anyone involved to know it, but this whole thing was happening 11 years to the day after another playoff game turned on a ball headed toward the stands.

“You decide if you’re going to catch the ball, right?” says Tim Anderson, one of the fans in the dugout suite. “But then everybody just lets Moose do it, versus (Steve) Bartman with the Cubs.”

The crowd here has been bonkers, again. There isn’t a minute of this game played without some section or another standing and screaming. It’s the kind of crowd you can get lost in, because everyone is dressed the same — blue Royals pullover, or an Alex Gordon jersey. But just for a moment, they go mostly silent. There is an understanding about what this means.

“If it was a Baltimore guy, would we have interfered?” Anderson asks. “That’s the question.”

Moustakas leans against the rubber railing, which the players know can be sticky. Once you make contact with that railing, it can be tough to move down. The ball is falling a bit over his head, so Moustakas leans back on the railing, horizontal, shoots his glove up and behind him.

He’s falling now, but the instant before he loses his balance over the rail, the ball lands in his glove. The momentum takes Moustakas into the suite. The players and coaches on the field saw the ball go in his glove, but some wonder if the fall or a fan knocked it loose.

They didn’t need to worry.

“You could kind of see them, they’re like, ‘Come on Moose, we got you, man,’” Escobar says.

“Thank God,” Rusty Kuntz says. “They prevented him from doing a header.”

Moustakas never hits the ground. One fan leans over, Moustakas essentially laying flat on a bed of arms, and screams: “HOLY (EXPLETIVE)! HE CAUGHT IT! HE CAUGHT IT!”

The fans caught him, too, mostly on his hind parts, and lifted him back over the rail.

“I was crowd surfing,” Moustakas says. “Then they just tossed me back on the field and just told me to go get them again.”

There is some appropriate symbolism here. The Royals and their fans have grown a bond over these last weeks and months. The players appreciate the loyalty — 29 years and no playoffs — and the fans appreciate the ride. Last week, a few players invited fans to drink on what turned into a $15,000 bar tab.

You don’t have to think too hard to see how this represents the Royals’ season in some real ways.

That ball should’ve gone deep into the seats. The wind pulled it back, which is a nice break. Moustakas took full advantage by never quitting, and he should’ve been the one to make a play like this.

He’s the one who was sent to the minor leagues in May, his swing a mess and some of the team’s struggles put at his feet. He took the demotion with grace, adjusted his approach to be quicker to the ball, and has become a breakout star in the playoffs.

There is no clear explanation. Team officials don’t see any major change in his mechanics from the end of the regular season. He’s always loved playing baseball in a very genuine and personal way. Maybe the spotlight and opportunity to reset has unlocked something. Maybe he’s re-energized. Maybe this is just a small sample size.

Whatever the reason, Moustakas’ rise has been one of the defining stories of the Royals’ playoff surge. During the regular season, only five players with 500 or more plate appearances had a worse adjusted on-base-plus-slugging percentage. During the playoffs, he’s hit four home runs and now made the play that will forever mark the night the Royals moved to within one win of the World Series.

We’re at the point where things sure seem to be happening for a reason, aren’t we? Moustakas should have been the one to make that play, and he should have had some help from fans.

This team has spent most of the last two weeks giving grown adults reasons to cry, and for good reasons. Old friends who haven’t talked in years are getting together to watch games.

Fans who’ve waited far too long for moments like this are seeing things and feeling things they’ll never forget. Nobody can be sure how any of this will end, of course, but for now 2014 is starting to feel an awful lot like the new 1985. Sports don’t always work this way, but when they do there’s nothing better.

There are more moments to come, starting on Wednesday, when the Royals play for another champagne party and a spot in the World Series. They’ll have that opportunity in no small part because of Moustakas’ play, and the fans who were able to pay him and this team back by softening his fall and helping him up after a catch that will play on video forever.

When people watch that video, it’s so fitting that they’ll see a player giving himself up for a catch, then fans catching him and helping him up to the field.

Once Moustakas got back to his position at third base, he pointed to Anderson and the other fans in that suite. They pointed and screamed back, a team and its fans, enjoying one more moment together.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow on Twitter @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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