Nobody notices the zit when the beauty queen does her makeup, and over the last month or so the Royals have done a remarkable job covering their own blemishes.
When the winds are right and the starting pitcher can get through five or six innings and the offense can grind enough offense, the Royals come at you like a hungry grizzly bear. For all but two nights in the last month, the Royals have been a hungry grizzly bear.
But they also have flaws, like all teams have flaws, and when the wind shifts and the starting pitcher fails them and the front-end relievers aren’t good enough to get a lead to the stars, then the Royals either need a how-the-heck comeback or they stumble. In the fourth game of the World Series, the Royals stumbled.
“It just didn’t work tonight,” Royals manager Ned Yost says. “It doesn’t work every night, you know.”
They lost 11-4 at AT&T Park on Saturday, baseball’s championship now turned into a best-of-three series. At the very least, there will be a game six in Kansas City on Tuesday.
The Royals will face the terrific Madison Bumgarner in game five tonight, but should also feel good about having their best three starters lined up, their best three relievers now rested, and two of the potential three remaining games at home. It won’t be easy, but when has it ever been?
Of all the Royals’ remarkable tricks over this wild month, their greatest has been to make a lot of people forget about their flaws. Baseball is a game of failure, and every world champion since 1927 has had flaws.
They have done this with makeup. Lots of makeup, expertly applied over a few particular blemishes but especially the gap between a normally solid rotation and three one-inning rock stars who may be revolutionizing how Major League Baseball teams are built.
The makeup went to heck on Saturday, smeared by a conspiracy of bad breaks and a line of letdowns from the pitching staff they’ve come to trust so much.
Starting pitcher Jason Vargas gave the Royals only four innings when they needed at least five, could’ve used six and would’ve been thrilled with seven. Vargas’ short night put extra strain on the pitching staff’s bridge to the rock stars, which was exposed in a gruesome way when Jason Frasor and especially Danny Duffy did not have it in the fifth. That turned a 4-1 lead into a tied game going into the sixth inning that’s been the source of so much angst and drama for the Royals all season.
With Kelvin Herrera having thrown 27 pitches the night before (and 32 two nights earlier), Yost gave the sixth inning to Brandon Finnegan, a 21-year-old rookie who pitched his first competitive game this season for TCU back in February.
Finnegan gave up hits to the first two batters he faced, first on a broken-bat blooper and then on a drive that lifted maybe a foot or two above shortstop Alcides Escobar’s glove. Those are the kinds of small breaks that have been going the Royals’ way, almost exclusively, and when reversed helped expose a vulnerability the coaching staff plans each game around.
The Giants then took the lead on a fielder’s choice and consecutive singles, marking the first time this postseason that the Royals had fallen behind after taking a lead. Finnegan and Tim Collins tag-teamed to give up four more runs in the seventh, erasing whatever fading chance the Royals had of pulling off a comeback like they had in the Wild Card Game.
When the Royals have their formula working, and can scratch together enough runs and cover whatever gap exists between the rotation and the back end of the bullpen, they are something like a python choking out its prey.
But when something goes wrong — and it went very wrong for three straight innings on Saturday — the Royals are more like a heavyweight knockout artist who forgets to protect his chin.
The takeaway here isn’t how things can go so wrong as much as it is the Royals’ remarkable ability to keep things so right over the last month.
“Most nights we do a pretty good job doing it,” Yost says. “It just didn’t work tonight.”
The Royals are two wins from a world championship because they’ve kept the trains running on time. Losing game four is more of a reminder of the infrastructure they need in place to celebrate.
Game four was the Royals’ chance to turn a championship into an overwhelming probability, but even by losing it they have to feel good about their chances going forward.
The (small) upside of failing to get to superstar relievers Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland during Saturday’s game is that those guys are now fully rested and without any restrictions for what is now a three-game series with two in the familiar Kauffman Stadium with the familiar American League rules.
Also, because of the travel day on Monday, the Royals could get four innings in each game from a group that has been essentially untouchable.
This is a good situation, in other words, a formula they’ve found enormous success with needing to work two more times in three tries. Getting it to work isn’t nearly as easy as the Royals have made it look for most of the last month. That’s the bad news.
The good news is it’s also not as hard as it looked on Saturday. The Royals, flaws and all, needn’t do anything they haven’t already done to complete what would be remembered as one of the greatest success stories in recent baseball history.