Sam Mellinger

Royals must rediscover momentum, moxie and magic

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher James Shields walked off the mound and into the dugout after being pulled in the fourth inning against San Francisco Giants in game one of the World Series on Tuesday October 11, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, MO.
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher James Shields walked off the mound and into the dugout after being pulled in the fourth inning against San Francisco Giants in game one of the World Series on Tuesday October 11, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, MO. The Kansas City Star

The Royals are here because they kept playing long after people stopped believing.

They are here, in the World Series, because they came back from a sweep against the Astros and a bungled game against the Red Sox and an injury to their first baseman and another bungled game against the Red Sox.

They are here, still four wins from completing baseball’s greatest story in some time, because they found a way to make defense and relief pitching win in a sport recently dominated by power hitters and ace pitchers.

If nothing else, these Royals have proved themselves to be fantastically resilient. And in the list of holes they’ve played themselves out of, a 7-1 loss to the Giants in the first game of the World Series on Tuesday would not even earn a medal.

But the Royals shouldn’t kid themselves either.

“We knew this wasn’t going to be easy,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “So we’ll see what we’re made of.”

Winning the World Series just got harder, and not just because the Royals have to win four of the next six, or because they lost home field advantage in a series where that matters, with Billy Butler serving as their designated hitter. It’s not even that 10 of the last 11 teams to win the opener ended up winning the World Series (though Royals fans of a certain age will point out they lost the first game in the 1985 Series too).

The Royals hadn’t lost in 24 days, and for a team that’s made belief and momentum and all these wonderful intangibles such a big part of this incredible run, that has to mean something. They’ve also watched James Shields now have three very bad starts out of four this postseason and have been reminded clearly that the best pitcher in this Series is the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner, who has given up six earned runs in 38 2/3 innings this postseason.

Losing big is what (almost) always happens when you fall behind big against a good pitcher in the playoffs.

The good part is that, despite what this month has shown, what happens in one baseball game usually has very little to do with the next. The bad part is the Royals have to make sure of that now.

Their worst two moments showed up quickly Tuesday night, and the one most people will probably be talking about is Shields giving up three runs in the first inning ... and being lucky to keep it at just three.

But just as concerning was the third inning, when Mike Moustakas roped a double to the right field wall, screamed and clapped his energy back toward the dugout, the Royals with runners on second and third with nobody out and the top of the order up. Kauffman Stadium rocked. For a moment, you started to think about the Wild Card Game and everything that’s happened since and figured this might just be the next comeback.

Then, three awful at-bats. Alcides Escobar struck out, swinging three times at pitches that looked out of the strike zone. Nori Aoki struck out on three pitches, the last one in the dirt. Lorenzo Cain walked — he really has been fabulous all year — and then Eric Hosmer hit the first pitch he saw (a slider) for an easy groundout.

“We had our chances,” Moustakas said. “We just didn’t take advantage.”

One of the striking parts of this loss was what the stadium felt like for virtually the entire night. The energy and noise around Kauffman Stadium has been one of the emerging stories nationally around this Royals’ rise, but no fan base can make a rock concert out of a dentist appointment.

There is no good time in the postseason to play a clunker, but nobody needed the Royals’ return to the World Series to also be the return of the mid-July Royals. But here they were. Mucky defense, no offense and bad starting pitching.

Danny Duffy looked in control, if uncomfortable, and Cain had some good plate appearances. Really, other than that, it’s hard to find much that went right.

“We’ve lost before,” Duffy said. “Just something we’ve gotta bounce back from. That’s what good teams do.”

Now, to be clear, the Royals remain well equipped to finish off what felt impossible for nearly all of the last two decades and win a world championship.

Game two’s matchup of Yordano Ventura against Jake Peavy is closer to even. The Royals still have a ferocious back end of the bullpen, still have a wicked defense and still have a lineup that’s shown much-improved pitch selection and a remarkable knack for rising to the moment in the last month.

If the charmed part of their postseason run is over, they just have to start the next part.

They’ve come back from much worse to get to this point, so it wouldn’t even be a mild surprise to see them do it again.

But with the notable exception of the Wild Card Game, one of the most important things the Royals have done this postseason is avoid any kind of trouble. They had trailed for just 2 1/2 of the 68 combined innings in sweeping the Division Series and ALCS.

It’s true that the Royals’ most spectacular moments have been coming from behind, both with that 24-6 run through July and August and in that epic comeback against the A’s.

It’s also true that this team has always been at its best when the pitching and defense keeps them from needing to come from behind.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Twitter: @mellinger.

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