The wrong team is flexing, and that is not a metaphor. The Blue Jays' clubhouse is quiet. The men in that room scored more runs and hit more homers than anyone else in baseball this year. But they are quiet. Across the hallway, in the Royals' clubhouse, they are smiling. Joking. Flexing. We mean this literally.
Salvador Perez is standing in front of his locker. The game ended 46 minutes ago. Some of the reporters in here had to leave to hit deadline. Others left because they want to get home. Perez has been in the trainers room. It was another rough night for him.
The base of his middle finger took the brunt of Josh Donaldson's 32 1/2-ounce bat on a backswing, the sting amplified by a chilly night. Perez jumped back in pain, went down on his right knee, and winced in agony. The trainer asked him to flex his hand. Perez could not, at least not at first. After a minute, maybe two, the feeling started to come back.
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When Perez came out of the trainer's room, finally, he proclaimed his hand "all good" and covered any concerns with that smile Royals fans have grown so used to seeing on television. Like, when someone asked about the home run he hit in the fourth inning. That's his third in six playoff games, so what's the deal with that?
"Workout," Perez said, lifting his right arm in a sort of Mr. Olympia pose. "Eat good, workout, you're good."
The symbolism here is impossible to miss. The Blue Jays were the baddest team in the American League this season. The Royals won more games, but the Blue Jays won more highlights. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista have hit the two longest home runs of the playoffs, as measured by ESPN's Home Run Tracker. Bautista's long look and longer bat flip set off another debate around the sport's growing civil war between emotion and establishment.
But here, at least on this one crisp night, the Royals were the ones celebrating. The Blue Jays were the ones squished.
Bautista essentially gave up one at bat in the fourth, openly questioning strike one, demonstrably pouting on strike two, and then watching strike three split the plate. Later, after catching the last out of the sixth, he faked fans like he would throw the ball into the stands only to take it into the dugout with him. That's as close as he got to a highlight. Emotion can be a wonderful thing, until it turns against you.
Edinson Volquez was good enough to make even a little offense stand up. His fastball touched 97 mph, and was harder on average than any point in nearly three years. The offspeed stuff was nasty, too, the movement helping him get through the Blue Jays' order three times — particularly in a 37-pitch sixth inning.
"When the starter goes six innings and then the bullpen's coming, it's very hard to beat us," Alcides Escobar said.
Baseball can be a wild game. The Blue Jays led all of baseball in home runs. Bautista, Donaldson, and Encarnacion combined for 120 by themselves. Among American League teams, only the White Sox hit fewer than the Royals' 139.
But six games into the playoffs, the Royals have hit nine homers. The Blue Jays have hit eight.
If you believe in messages, in intangibles, in the kind of thing that rips swagger from one side and throws it to the other, that was an important moment.
The Royals — from the top of the front office to entire coaching staff to the bottom of the roster — believe in those things very much.
Seven-game playoff series can take wild and unpredictable turns. Last year, you remember, the Royals won Game 6 of the World Series 10-0. They lost Game 7 at home the next night.
But as far as one-game statements go, the Royals just made a clear one. In a series between two teams who've cleared benches and exchanged brush backs and lobbed entertaining trash talk, the Royals are now in control. In a series that invites the tired and cliched comparison to a boxing match, the Royals struck the first blow.
In the Division Series against the Astros, the Royals trailed in the fifth inning or later of every game. In the ALCS opener, they scored twice in the third, one more in the fourth, Volquez did not give up a hit until the fifth, and the Royals did not even require cybercloser Wade Davis for the ninth.
"There's only so many crazy comebacks you can pull off in a postseason," Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. "It was nice to get out to a lead."
This is a nice start to the series for the Royals, but that's all it is. One of the many ways homefield advantage is overrated in baseball is that the 2-3-2 format helps shrink the edge. If a road team can split the first two, it gets three in a row at home. That means taking control of the series by winning two, or even clinching with a sweep of the home games.
According to WhoWins.com, baseball teams that win the first two games at home win the ALCS 81 percent of the time.
The Royals did well here, in other words. But they need to do it again on Saturday.