Three pitches into a subtly pivotal game of the American League Championship Series on Monday night, a game that had the capacity to virtually end it if the Royals were to win, Kansas City had pounced on Toronto for a 1-0 lead on Alcides Escobar’s triple and Ben Zobrist’s groundout.
In the bottom of the inning, starter Johnny Cueto smiled at an ornery Roger Centre’s crowd’s taunts of “Cue-to, Cue-to,” flashing much the same bravado he had by tipping his cap when they booed him in the bullpen before the game.
Then he struck out Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion and pumped his fist at his side as he stalked off after his seventh straight hitless postseason inning.
It all looked eerily easy for the Royals as they sought to take a 3-0 series lead in the ALCS, typically overwhelming leverage that only one team in Major League Baseball history has squandered.
And that proved to be a cruel mirage in an abrupt reversal of the game — and rerouting of the trajectory of the series — that unfolded.
The dormant Blue Jays-you’ve-been-worrying-about sprung awake and Hulked out with an 11-8 victory.
What might be called a market correction to the Royals’ portfolio was ever-lurking.
“Our lineup, we feel like, is second to none,” said Toronto third baseman Josh Donaldson, who along with Troy Tulowitzki and Ryan Goins had a home run and three RBIs.
So even as the Royals were creating an optical illusion otherwise, that reality always was hovering.
Not just because the fickle Cueto was pitching and would muster only three more outs before an unceremonious exit, the latest evidence the Royals were fleeced when they acquired him for John Lamb, Brandon Finnegan and Cody Reed.
It’s perfectly appropriate to blame the exasperating, bewildering Cueto for this, sure, but something else was brewing, too.
Much as you might have been able to avoid thinking of that elephant in the room with “ignore me” written on it, there it sat all along:
Toronto, you might have heard, had the most prolific offense in baseball this season.
Just because the Blue Jays were muzzled to a combined three runs in the first two games of the series and had failed to hit home runs in back-to-back games for only the third time sinceJuly 10 didn’t mean the Royals had somehow discovered a magic antidote for that.
It just meant that the Royals were able to contain it and fend it off for a while before it inevitably resurfaced and resumed doing what it does.
Like The Terminator, or the interminable Jason in the Friday the 13th series, or a compulsive talker.
“The home-run ball, which is what we’re known for, was a huge part of the game,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said.
By the time the debacle was over, the Blue Jays had uncorked three home runs, their first since the much-scrutinized, celebrated and debated bat flip of Jose Bautista in Game 5 of their American League Division Series against Texas.
That’s a pertinent reference in more ways than one.
Because as much as the Royals have earned a never-surrender reputation over the last year, punctuated by two major late-game comebacks this postseason, that’s hardly a characteristic exclusive to them.
The Blue Jays, after all, had trailed Texas 2-0 in that series.
Then they trailed 3-2 in Game 5 under bizarre, controversial circumstances before unleashing a four-run seventh capped by Bautista’s three-run homer.
That scene embodied so much about Toronto’s resilience and pride and passion to compete, something the Royals were able to suppress for a crucial early advantage.
But that was neutralized some Monday, if not vaporized.
Yes, the Royals still lead the series 2-1.
But that’s a lot different than being up 3-0 and trying to become the 34th of 35 teams in MLB history to clinch a series after seizing such an advantage.
(The only exception: the 2004 Red Sox, who rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Yankees in the ALCS and went on to sweep St. Louis in the World Series)
Now the series is truly underway, anchored in reality instead of the fantasy that the Royals had managed to conjure for two games.
Now a series with two more games in this hitter’s paradise in Toronto is what it actually figured to be: a game-to-game mystery, nicely symbolized by the Game 4 matchup Tuesday between the Royals’ 6-foot-10 deception artist Chris Young and Toronto knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
Just like the tumultuous best-of-five ALDS against Houston, in which the Royals trailed two games to one and faced imminent elimination when they fell behind 6-2 in Game 4, it serves to remind how warped much of the Royals’ last postseason was.
Propelled by their improbable back against Oakland in the AL Wild Card game, they won eight straight games to get to the World Series before succumbing to the Giants in Game 7.
This postseason is more like the World Series itself, a non-stop drama that you couldn’t fully absorb or assess until the last chapter was written.
The alternative was nice while it lasted for the Royals.
But it also was inevitable it would be unsustainable for reasons beyond just Cueto.
“There’s no quitting in that locker room; I’ll tell you that,” Tulowitzki said. “No matter if our backs are against the wall, we’re faced with elimination, we still believe.
“That’s not the case with every team. (But) there’s a reason we’re here.”