When Royals manager Ned Yost on Wednesday considered the matter of pressure on a team that might be burdened by expectations a year after it splurged on house money, he shrugged and compared the notion to, well, “your imaginary friend you had when you were 4 years old.”
“If you think it’s there, it’s there,” he said. “If you don’t (it isn’t).”
That imaginary friend, such as it is, loomed more tangibly after the Royals were straitjacketed 5-2 by Houston in Game 1 of their American League Division Series on Thursday at Kauffman Stadium.
On a night the Royals were mandated to set a tone by injecting some doubt into the surging, upstart Astros — percolating with the same wild-card adrenalin the Royals enjoyed last year — they were reeling from start to finish save for two home runs by Kendrys Morales and the inspired relief pitching of Chris Young.
So now the Astros are emboldened and energized, and even if their style is distinct from what the Royals employed last year there suddenly is some kindling for a wildfire here.
“This is a first for a lot of our team; we’ve never denied that,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “We haven’t pretended like we’ve been there before. We haven’t tried to govern any of the excitement or exuberance that goes on when you’re on the stage for the first time. …
“We’re going to have to deal with a lot of firsts if we’re going to get to where we want to get.”
Sounds a lot like stuff we heard last year about and from the Royals.
Meanwhile, the team that won its first eight playoff games in 2014 sprung from the wild-card game was trying to downplay the difference.
“It’s OK; it’s only one game,” catcher Sal Perez was saying in a locker room so subdued that the loudest noise was the sound of showers flowing.
It’s “just one game,” chimed in first baseman Eric Hosmer.
And after all, Yost said, “You take it day by day. It’s a five-game series. The first team to win three is going to be the winner. It’s not a death sentence to lose Game 1.”
All of which is completely true.
But now, whether or not they directly acknowledge it, the Royals have to win Friday.
At least if they expect to win this series and avert what would now be considered a breakdown a year after merely making the playoffs for the first time in 29 years felt like a borderline miracle.
Every series, every game, even, has its own organic dynamic, free to flow however.
But since the advent of the divisional series in 1995, 47 teams have fallen behind 2-0.
Five have come back to win.
And only two of those lost their first two at home.
Consider, too, that Houston’s starter on Sunday at home will be Dallas Keuchel, the AL All-Star Game starter who is 15-0 with a 1.48 ERA at Minute Maid Park this season.
Yost did allow how the Keuchel factor perhaps ratcheted up the urgency for Friday’s game pitting the Royals’ Johnny Cueto vs. Houston’s Scott Kazmir.
“Well, a little bit,” he said. “You look at Keuchel’s numbers at home. They’re really impressive. Tomorrow will be a big game for us, yeah.”
Must-win is an overused term in sports in many ways, especially as it reminds of what Duane Thomas of the Dallas Cowboys said when he was asked whether Super Bowl VI was the ultimate game.
“If it’s the ultimate game,” he said, “how come they’re playing it again next year?”
Meanwhile, this is a franchise that has had a penchant for bucking odds in its last two postseason appearances — even if they were 29 years apart.
In 1985, the Royals rallied from a three-games-to-one deficit against Toronto to reach the World Series against the Cardinals — and won that after lagging behind 3-1 to the Cardinals, too.
Then there was last season in the mystical wild-card game against Oakland, when the Royals trailed the Athletics 7-3 after seven innings.
No team in baseball history had come from farther back that late to win, and at that stage Baseball-Reference.com’s “win probability chart” calculated the Royals chances of coming back as 4 percent.
Oh, and Oakland pitcher Jon Lester had been 85-1 in games in which he’d had a lead of three or more runs.
But come back, of course, the Royals did.
That both transformed them then and informs them now.
Perez alluded to that game afterward, noting the Royals have been in undesirable situations before and adding, “Anything can happen in this game.”
True, but that works both ways — and this is an entirely different time and place no matter how much continuity the Royals have.
And the mojo and momentum, for what it’s worth, is all Houston unless and until the Royals seize it back.
The Royals may not want to admit that, of course, and who knows whether there’s anything to be gained by conceding the point or if they’d prosper by embracing it.
When Perez was asked about whether Game 2 now constitutes a must-win, he smiled and said, “Yeah!”
Then, as if to debunk the point, he added, “We have to win tomorrow. We have to win Sunday in Houston. And Monday, you know, we have to win.”
More solemnly, Hosmer said, “We’re in the playoffs. Every game is a have-to-win situation.”
Hosmer also clearly was more conscious of how one game has flipped everything until further notice.
“If we can get out of here … (1-1),” Hosmer said, “I think that would give us new life heading into their place.”
But they’ll have an anvil over their heads if they don’t.