Sam Mellinger

Cool comeback, Royals, but now it has to matter

Eric Hosmer (left) hit a home run that scored Ben Zobrist (right) in the ninth inning on Monday in Houston, capping the Royals’ comeback in Game 4 of the ALDS.
Eric Hosmer (left) hit a home run that scored Ben Zobrist (right) in the ninth inning on Monday in Houston, capping the Royals’ comeback in Game 4 of the ALDS. jsleezer@kcstar.com

The most famous game in Royals history did not win a playoff series. The human memory is a tricky thing. The moments that stick out often leave out critical details. They can be something like the star of the show, but would be meaningless or even nonexistent without supporting actors and a crew to make it all worth remembering.

You know why this is being brought up today. The Royals just kept their season alive with a stunning comeback in Houston. If they have the storybook ending, the eighth inning of Game 4 against the Astros will live forever. But if not? Washed away by history. This happens over and over and over again in sports. We have examples here locally, across the country, and throughout history.

There is a story about Mike Moustakas you should hear. But since we are here in Kansas City, we will start with that unforgettable Saturday night in 1985. Game 6 of the World Series. The Denkinger Game did not win the series and, actually, even that call did not win the game for the Royals. Not by a long shot.

Denkinger blew the call, but the Cardinals still had to blow the game. Jack Clark had to drop the pop-up. Darrell Porter had to give up the passed ball. Todd Worrell had to give up the hits. All of that, and the Cardinals still had to lose Game 7 the next night.

The best individual performance in Royals history did not win a playoff series. This was Game 3 of the American League Championship Series in 1985. We have come to call this The George Brett Game. In Toronto, they often add an expletive between the George and the Brett. This was the night Brett yelled to his teammates, “Climb on my back.” He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, one of the best 30 or so players of all-time, and he was never better than that October night in Kansas City.

Brett homered in the first, saved at least one run with perhaps the best defensive play of his life in the third, doubled off the wall and basically bullied his way around the bases in the fourth, homered again in the sixth, then singled and scored the winning run in the eighth. All of this after essentially calling his shot before the game.

All of that, and, well, it did not win anything more than one game of a league championship series. The Royals still had to win three of the next four just to advance to the World Series.

These are not outliers cherry picked from history to make a point. This is the rule.

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David Tyree’s helmet catch did not beat the previously undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl. Eli Manning was sacked on the next play. The Giants still had to go 25 yards, the winning touchdown coming four plays later when Manning lofted the ball to Plaxico Burress in single coverage near the corner of the end zone.

The Flu Game did not win the 1997 NBA Finals. Michael Jordan was amazing that night in Game 5 — 38 points with seven rebounds and five assists and three steals and a walk back to the huddle leaning on Scottie Pippen like a man lost in the desert. But the Bulls did not with the championship with the Flu Game. They did that a few nights later, in Game 6.

The Bill Buckner Game did not decide the 1986 World Series. The Mets scored the winning run when the ball went through Buckner’s legs, but that was Game 6. Two nights later, the Red Sox had a 3-0 lead going into the sixth. They bullpen imploded, and the Mets celebrated.

The Steve Bartman Game did not decide the 2003 National League Championship Series. Even if we concede that Moises Alou would’ve caught that ball if Steve Bartman hadn’t leaned over the railing, the Cubs still led 3-0 with one out in the eighth inning at that point. They still had to meltdown, and even after that, they still had to blow another lead the next night in Game 7.

We could play this game all day. The Royals have some of this in their recent history, too. Last year’s Wild Card Game will live forever here. It is often said that Kansas City sports changed that night, that a town learned to love baseball again through an epic comeback in a winner-take-all playoff game.

There is some truth in there, for sure, but how different would it be remembered if the Royals were swept by the Angels in the ALDS, instead of sweeping the Angels and then the Orioles? Still would’ve been an unforgettable night, and still would’ve given Kansas City an actual playoff series for the first time in 29 years. But the run to the World Series allows a town to fully embrace that moment.

The Astros, actually, have been on the other side of this little phenomenon. Maybe you remember Albert Pujols’ home run off Brad Lidge in the 2005 NLCS. The ball shot off of Pujols’ bat and traveled what felt like a thousand feet. Cameras caught Andy Pettitte, Lidge’s teammate, mouthing oh my god at the sight.

In the moment, it sure seemed as if Pujols had pushed the series into the Cardinals’ control. Lidge would go from saving 42 games in 2005 to a 5.28 ERA the next year. Questions about that home run would follow him the rest of his career, even as he remade himself as a perfect closer — 48 for 48, including the playoffs — with the World Series champion 2008 Phillies.

But the Astros came back from that Pujols home run to win the series two days later in St. Louis. Depending on the moment, we might remember Pujols’ home run for its majesty. But without winning the series, it is demoted from A Moment to a footnote.

That is the Royals’ challenge now. This is a completely different team than a year ago, when winning that Wild Card Game meant success. They are too good to be satisfied now.

“Our ultimate goal is to win the World Series,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “Anything short of that is going to be a goal unaccomplished. It means a lot.”

To Yost’s point, here is the Moustakas story. In the wake of that incredible comeback in Houston on Monday, the Royals’ clubhouse was an intense mix of joy and relief. Nearly everyone in that room used the word “crazy” to describe what happened, and most of them used it more than once. Jarrod Dyson suggested asking the Lord how that happened, because, “I don’t know, man.”

Moustakas stopped to talk to some reporters. He was the one leading the dugout cheers after the seventh inning, the loudest voice among many loud voices. This has always been Moustakas’ move. This part of his personality — a desire to lead, a willingness to immerse in the bigger cause — was one of the first things mentioned after the Royals made him the No. 2 pick in 2007. Moustakas did not use the word “crazy.”

Instead, he talked about showing up to the ballpark the next day to take batting practice and ground balls. Someone asked if he would watch Monday’s game again, or even just the eighth inning. Moustakas shook his head.

“No,” he said, “because we have to go win another game.”

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Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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