One year ago Tuesday night during the American League Wild Card Game, Royals manager Ned Yost marched briskly from the pitcher’s mound at Kauffman Stadium and somehow stood tall as he absorbed ferocious boos from the home crowd.
The catcalls after the Yordano Ventura-for-James Shields pitching change backfired were of such intensity that it’s hard to know how much harsher they would have been for, say, Satan.
By the time the Royals had tumbled into a 7-3 abyss in their first postseason appearance in 29 years, the caterwauling was even more harsh and shrill in the echo chamber of social media as the rest of the nation was being introduced to the local Twitter phenomenon of #Yosted.
Then, of course, the Royals ascended from the ashes and beat Oakland 9-8 in 12 innings in the most indelible, incredible game you’ll ever see.
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Amid this reinvention of the Royals, who on Thursday at Kauffman Stadium will begin American League Division Series play against Houston, no one’s image has been more radically transformed than that of Yost.
On Tuesday during a pep rally at Kauffman, he bounded from the dugout to the field to a roar from the crowd that spoke both to the team’s success but also to the altered perception of Yost.
“WELCOME TO YOST SEASON,” read a sign held by a child.
In the span of a year, Yost has morphed into King Midas. Virtually ever since that wild-card game, Yost has had a touch of gold that seems to prevail even if his decisions don’t make scientific sense.
Whether that holds up during the playoffs, of course, can’t be known, and that will be the measure of this season — especially given all the tinkering and exhaling the Royals did in September.
But less than a year after being roasted by The Wall Street Journal under its “The Dunce and the Chessmaster” headline, Yost was toasted (more or less) in the Sunday New York Times Magazine under the umbrella of “How Ned Yost Made The Kansas City Royals Unstoppable.”
The Times’ study of Yost, in fact, explores the unorthodoxy of his way — brimming with gut feelings and hunches and traditional baseball wisdom — in a game now dominated by sabermetrics experts.
None of those analyses would have pointed to a lot Yost has done this season.
Bat Mike Moustakas second in the order just to get him going at the start of the season?
“People thought I was nuts when I put Moose in the two hole,” Yost said, “and he had the year of his life.”
On the belief that slumping Alex Rios could find himself the more distanced he was from an early-season broken hand, Yost continued to play him when it appeared Rios’ season had fizzled out.
Rios validated Yost’s belief when he sizzled from Aug. 19 to Sept. 25, hitting .382/.387/.584 with eight doubles, two triples and two home runs.
“It just took him a long time to get his tempo and to get his rhythm at the plate,” Yost said.
Perhaps nothing makes the point better, though, than Yost’s counter-intuitive insistence that Alcides Escobar should be leading off.
As an impulsive swinger hitting .257 with 26 walks to his 75 strikeouts, little about Escobar’s profile suits the role.
Except for the most important thing of all: With Escobar affixed to the top of the order through Sept. 6, the Royals were 82-54.
They went 8-13 with him ratcheted down to the No. 9 spot — and then won five in a row when he was reinstated to the top.
“That’s a mystery to all of us,” Yost said, “but it works.”
Whether there is a causal relationship in this is secondary, and that’s a part of this baseball managing job that has been overlooked in the contemporary hysteria over cold-blooded, rational analysis that we all have at our fingertips.
Because it removes the human factor in a game that ultimately is as much or more about that than anything else.
Yost and his staff’s job isn’t simply to understand and apply numbers. It’s to get beyond the numbers and know what’s relevant and what isn’t and what makes an individual or team click.
It’s to know, for instance, that Moustakas — through ups and downs that included a demotion last year to Class AAA Omaha — would be a guy who appreciated the reassurance of a hug when he was told he was being sent to the minors.
That sort of overarching concern and faith was crucial, Moustakas said at the All-Star Game.
Having “the pulse on the heartbeat of the clubhouse and the players,” general manager Dayton Moore said, is essential to a manager’s job and one of Yost’s greatest assets.
There are plenty of reasons why it didn’t look good for a long time under Yost’s stewardship. Sure, there were purely poor decisions along the way. There also were decisions based on the long haul at the expense of the moment and concessions to nurturing the psyche of a young team.
Within that, Yost had to adjust, too, surrendering some of his set ways to accommodate the reality of this generation of players.
“You can’t pretty much run everybody’s lives,” outfielder Jarrod Dyson said.
But Yost, Dyson said, came to realize he had to let them be themselves as long as it was within a certain boundary of professionalism, a tweak that has paid dividends.
“We take pride in all that,” Dyson said. “We back him up, he backs us up.”
The thing about all this is that, adjustments notwithstanding, Yost remains fundamentally the same person even as all around him seems to have changed.
“The same guy you were booing is now the same guy you’re putting in a parade,” Royals first-base and outfielders coach Rusty Kuntz said. “It’s all askew. You are who you are, you are what you are …
“Ned just keeps on going, and everything around might change, but he is who he is.”
And so what if all of this was enabled by an unfathomable comeback, one whose consequences otherwise evoke only a shrug to Yost.
“We won that game,” he said, “and that’s all that really matters.”