Sam Mellinger

A toast to Ned Yost: Royals manager paints a game three masterpiece

Royals manager Ned Yost gave a thumbs up to Kansas City fans in the crowd after the team’s 3-2 win over the San Francisco Giants in Friday night’s World Series game at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
Royals manager Ned Yost gave a thumbs up to Kansas City fans in the crowd after the team’s 3-2 win over the San Francisco Giants in Friday night’s World Series game at AT&T Park in San Francisco. The Kansas City Star

The breakout star of these playoffs is a former taxidermist who in the offseason answers his cell phone with a whispered hello so as not to startle the deer he named after the players he leads.

We can talk about Lorenzo Cain, or Madison Bumgarner, or Eric Hosmer or anyone else, but doesn’t it always come back to Ned Yost?

Come for the World Series, stay for the Royals manager. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll cheer.

The Royals beat the Giants 3-2 for a two games to one lead in the World Series on Friday at AT&T Park, and the primary thing people are talking about is the manager who appears to be bowling with bumpers in the gutters.

He has been ridiculed and criticized so much and for so long that it is now part of his permanent record, but in a postseason with Bruce Bochy, Mike Scioscia, Clint Hurdle and Buck Showalter, the best manager of them all is the one the Wall Street Journal called a dunce a few weeks ago.

Lucky, good, smart, dumb, whatever — the story of the Royals being two wins from a world championship is largely the story of Yost(ed).

Game three of this World Series is everything about Ned, good and bad, breakout genius and perceived stooge. It was a work of art, really, and come to think of it that’s the best way to take in these playoffs: Yost as a valuable piece of modern art, the kind of thing you’re not always sure how to interpret but at the very least have to respect the success.

Yost is swimming in success right now, and game three is his masterpiece.

The most reasoned criticism of Yost has always centered on his stubborn tendencies, the way he often decides on a plan or judgment of a player and refuses to deviate. Over the years, it has sometimes felt like he made decisions the way school kids paint by numbers.

Maybe it’s coincidence, maybe it’s success, but game three was a gorgeous example of Yost willing to adjust.

For the first time since mid-September, he started Jarrod Dyson, giving the Royals nine innings of one of the best defensive outfields in modern baseball history — Alex Gordon, Dyson and Lorenzo Cain, left to right. Cain made that work almost immediately, with catches in the first and second innings that regular right fielder Nori Aoki probably would’ve played into base hits.

Yost also moved Alex Gordon — who was zero for his last 15, with seven strikeouts — up four spots in the order. He roped an RBI double to center field and scored in the sixth, accounting for the two runs that would prove to be the difference.

No story about Yost is complete without a fair amount of second-guessing, of times he appears completely off the tracks with decisions that make the heads of longtime baseball men spin. The sixth inning provided those examples.

“My whole mindset is, ‘I’m not getting beat in the sixth inning with the bullpen I’ve got,’” Yost says.

As it should be, and the sixth inning has been the drama inning for the Royals throughout the postseason and much of the regular season. It is the bridge between a solid if unspectacular starting rotation and three relief pitchers who may or may not be aliens. It is the difference between a good but flawed team, and one that is as reliable as the sunrise.

Yost let starter Jeremy Guthrie come out for the sixth, a fine gamble, especially after the Royals stretched their lead from one to three runs in the top of the inning. But he didn’t have anyone warming behind Guthrie, which was curious, and brought in Kelvin Herrera after an RBI double by Michael Morse.

Herrera was fighting his command, walking Gregor Blanco on four pitches, which was enough for Yost to get lefty Brandon Finnegan warming up. Herrera got three outs in a row after that, albeit with one more run scoring.

That put the Royals up one run, but down one inning from Herrera. Yost had said earlier that he did not want to use Herrera for more than one inning, but became convinced after talking with him and catcher Salvador Perez. Herrera said he made an adjustment mentally, and Perez told Yost the pitcher looked good.

Yost has always put so much trust in these conversations with his players. More times than not, he’s been rewarded for empowering his guys to tell him how they feel with the freedom from being judged if they say they can’t go.

Like seemingly all things with this Royals team, Yost’s trust had to survive some rocky moments before ultimately working out. Herrera was due to bat fourth in the inning, and after the first two batters made outs Yost admitted to hoping the third, Jarrod Dyson, would do the same. Dyson singled, which meant Herrera’s first at-bat in the big leagues came in the seventh inning of a World Series game with a man on base.

“That was one of those decisions that’s tearing you apart,” Yost says.

Herrera walked the leadoff batter in the bottom of the seventh, and then, with Finnegan warm in the bullpen, stayed in to face lefty Brandon Belt. This being the Royals’ postseason, the decision played out brilliantly, Herrera striking him out and the Royals getting out of the inning with the lead.

So, to review: a starting pitcher began a third trip through a lineup with no bullpen safety net, a relief pitcher nobody wanted to throw two innings not only threw two innings but took his first big-league at bat to do it, and a lefty got warm and was not called upon to face a lefty.

And it ended with the Royals shaking hands, now two wins from becoming world champions.

“I’m getting really good at protecting a one-run lead because a lot of times that’s exactly what we have to deal with,” Yost says. “But I have the necessary tools to be able to do it. It’s not me doing it. It’s the guys that we put out there.”

Yost’s transformation — at least as far as it goes with public opinion — from dunce to (American League, at least) champion will be one of the lasting stories of this postseason. He put Yordano Ventura in an awful spot in the AL Wild Card Game, but has otherwise been unassailable.

That’s quite a change from the regular season and most of Yost’s 11 years as a manager. The guy who’s been criticized and second-guessed as much as anyone in the game over the last decade is now on the sport’s biggest stage, everything he touches turning to figurative gold. Who saw this coming?

Gold. That’s the color of the ring Yost is now two wins from putting on his finger, you know.

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

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