The cliché is true, finally, the Royals facing a must-win game and all around them the baseball world wants to know how they will react. This is the kind of moment that is supposed to be too big for them, supposed to make them cover their eyes and grab their knees and wait for the storm to pass.
There was a time that some people inside the Royals organization felt this way, too. That’s hard to imagine now, with the Royals winning their ways into the hearts of strangers with Billy Butler dancing after stealing a base and Jarrod Dyson shaving ZOOM into his head. But it’s true.
Some people inside the organization thought their team played too tight, that a group of 20-somethings carried the burden of a franchise playoff drought that predated their own births a bit too personally.
And maybe, as the Royals face elimination in game six of the World Series at Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday, they can remember that a mouse may have changed everything.
This was in Chicago, before the first game of the last series of the regular season. The Royals were closing in on ending that 29-year playoff drought, but weren’t quite there. They had a chance to do it that night, which meant this was the most important baseball game of most of these players’ lives, and then, well, then everyone heard Alcides Escobar scream.
The mouse wasn’t big, but it was frisky, and the clubhouse divided into two distinct groups: grown men who chased the mouse, and grown men who jumped from it.
Eventually, Liam Hendriks caught it in a shoebox. The relief was only temporary, because someone wanted to see the mouse and out it went again, terrorizing a room full of big leaguers alternately laughing and scattering and remembering who’s doing which so the offenders can be properly hazed later.
The men in that room were preparing for one of the biggest games of their season, the kind of thing that push big leaguers to the edge of stress, and instead they were laughing and pointing about a mouse.
Maybe that sounds like a small thing, but it was important to the men in that room and some who rely on them.
It was a sign that, sure, maybe they’d played tight and nervous in Boston and Chicago and against the Tigers at various times of the season, but that’s all in the past now.
The questions about this group were never whether they’d play hard, or care. But some of the questions were about whether they could handle the unique and unfair burden of a franchise desperate to shake a sorry history.
This is at least part of why general manager Dayton Moore talked George Brett back into the dugout last summer. They called him the hitting coach, of course, but in reality he was more like the team’s swag coach. He was there, in Moore’s words, to “rescue us mentally.” Brett’s charge then and what he’s seen since is at least part of why he gets sensitive to questions from reporters he thinks blame this group for a stretch of incompetence they had nothing to do with.
Brett did what he could, but after about two months didn’t feel like he was getting his message through, so he stepped away. He’d always suspected that might be how it would go. He played his entire career with a fear of failure, and has always said a ballplayer can’t be sure what he can do until he does it. These Royals would have to do it.
The first milemarker of the Royals doing it would the night after the mouse, when the first three batters got on base and the Royals scored three times in the first inning and Jeremy Guthrie handed a lead to Wade Davis and Greg Holland. The win clinched a playoff spot, the drought now over, and the Royals’ party in the clubhouse and later at a hotel in Chicago was perfectly appropriate for the accomplishment.
That was a major step, but then came the Wild Card Game, when the Royals were down four in the seventh inning with Jon Lester on the mound and at least some officials and employees started thinking about their offseason. The Royals came back, of course, first tying it in the ninth and then winning it in the 12th and what else did they need to feel liberated?
“Something lifted after the Wild Card Game,” Royals manager Ned Yost says.
Ever since, the Royals have played without a care or stress in the world. Holland flew from Kansas City to North Carolina for the birth of his first child, then from North Carolina to Anaheim to save game one of the Division Series. Lorenzo Cain went from Kansas City to Oklahoma for the birth of his first child, then from Oklahoma to Baltimore on virtually zero sleep and got two hits in the first game of the Championship Series.
Playoff games turn quickly, often on the lightest breezes, and the Royals have shown themselves masters at navigating the trouble.
They haven’t been tested like this since the Wild Card Game, of course. Their inclination to play (literally) fast and loose has been encouraged this entire postseason by a positive feedback loop of sorts. They trailed for just two innings, combined, in winning seven straight during the Division and Championship Series.
Surely that makes it easier, and it’s fair to wonder how much the Royals have left after a long season full of drama and turning points. James Shields, the ace, has now made 39 starts and pitched 252 innings. Alcides Escobar, the shortstop, has made every start since opening day —175 games ago. Wade Davis has pitched 82 times. It would only be human to be drained by now.
But that’s a different thing than shrinking in the moment, than worrying (or even considering) failure in an elimination World Series game. If the Royals lose the World Series, they will have lost a baseball game to a very good team and there will likely be a dozen things we can wonder about.
Whether they played too tight, or weren’t up for the moment won’t be one of them.
If there was any lingering doubt about that, a mouse in Chicago made sure.