Friday, October 10, 2014

Escaping the Void: The Baltimore Orioles, The Kansas City Royals, and the Everlasting Grace of Fate

Sunday night, the damn-near impossible happened. Baseball is full of altercations with fate, but long-suffering seems to be the essence of all tribulation lately. In this young century, we have been treated to a series of drought-endings and milestones that can stand up against any fifteen year period in the game's history. Half of the league's thirty teams have made the World Series. The Red Sox and White Sox ended near century-old streaks of failing to win a title. Colorado, Tampa Bay, Arizona and Florida, despite having only joined the league in the 1990's, all at least made the World Series, with the latter two winning. Pittsburgh ended a two-decade long streak without a winning season. This year, we've encountered yet another pair of surprises. The Kansas City Royals, long the punching bag of the American League Central Division, made the postseason for the first time since they won the World Series in 1985. Baltimore, the perennial odd-man-out in the American League East Division, caught fire in the right year, winning their first division championship since 1997. On Friday, October 10th, these two will begin the American League Championship Series and, at long last, find the promised land.

If you had told me two months ago that the Orioles and Royals would be playing for the American League crown, I would have taken your car keys. By all means, each team has done a considerable amount to develop into a contender, but let's face the facts- most everyone had already penned Detroit and Oakland into the ALCS after bolstering their respective rotations at the trade deadline. Baltimore lost All-Star catcher Matt Wieters for the season after Tommy John surgery in June. Then they lost young phenom third baseman Manny Machado to knee surgery in August. In September, the O's lost cleanup hitting Chris Davis to a twenty-five game suspension for taking Adderall. These all appeared to be proverbial nails in the Baltimore coffin. Yet there were the Orioles, clinching the AL East with a roster featuring budding-superstar Adam Jones and the criminally underrated Nick Markakis. They managed to out-pace the Central division champion Detroit Tigers to earn home-field advantage in their first round matchup.

In that series, the Tigers looked as strong as they do every October. Their ALDS pitching rotation featured the last three Cy Young Award winners in the American League. Detroit's lineup featured J.D. and Victor Martinez complimenting Miguel Cabrera in a power plant middle of the order. Ian Kinsler had established himself as a well-rounded leadoff man for the Tigers. On paper, it looked like the road team might actually be the favorites, but the old adage of 'you can't script October' was proven more true than ever this year. For seven innings of game one, the teams looked close. Then the floodgates opened as Baltimore put up eight runs in the eighth inning. While Detroit's offense is typically more than capable of handling that task, that day they were laid to waste. Game two saw Detroit jump out to a 5-3 lead after four innings, and it looked like they might head home with the series tied at one. Again, the eighth inning was damning. Four runs crossed the plate, putting the O's up one run going to the ninth. Closer Zach Britton cut down a timid Detroit side, 1-2-3, and Baltimore headed to Detroit looking to clinch.

On the other side, the darling Royals managed to squeak into the playoffs by the hair on Eric Hosmer's chin. Year after year, they began the season with such promise of overcoming their drought. Kansas City always had a stellar young roster, but they could never find a rhythm to last 162 games. The James Shields trade was beginning to look like the last mistake of General Manager Dayton Moore. Then magic happened. Fate intervened, allowing the Royals to break through, into the Wild Card game. They escaped Oakland in one of the best games I had ever witnessed. Riding high on the emotions of an extra-inning comeback, I figured complacency would set in. They had made the postseason and fought their way into the ALDS, where they would meet the Los Angeles Angels, baseball's best team in the regular season. David and Goliath much? I recall thinking that Kansas City would be swept, annihilated even, by the almighty Angels. There are just some fates that are so seemingly sealed that even baseball, for all its autumnal magic, could not overturn. Yet once the series began, the baseball world was given a wake up call like no other.

In game one, the Royals held pace. Each team scored a run in the third and fifth innings. On and on the game rolled, resting into extra innings where the slightest mistake could end the game. In the eleventh inning, Mike Moustakas silenced everyone in Anaheim as well as pretty much everyone outside of northern Missouri with a solo home run to right field. The Angels' powerful lineup would be quelled in the bottom half of the inning. I thought to myself, "well, at least it won't be a sweep," and I doubt I was alone in that sentiment. The next night, Kansas City went up one run early and held that lead until the sixth inning, when Los Angeles tied the score. Again the game would go to extras, giving the Royals the distinction of being the first team ever to go to extra innings in their first three postseason games. Again, much like Baltimore's rallies in the eighth inning of their series, Kansas City struck in the eleventh frame. This time, the magic would be at the hands of Eric Hosmer. A line-drive, two-run home run to right field sent the road dugout into a frenzy. Minutes later, Salvador Perez, the hero in the Wild Card game, singled in an insurance run, sending the Royals home with the unreal possibility of sweeping the typically-Herculean Angels.

Baltimore's strength was just that- power. It seemed like on any given night, anyone in their lineup could knock a ball into the bleachers. On Sunday, in their third game with Detroit, offseason pickup Nelson Cruz started the scoring with a two-run shot in the sixth inning. Briefly, Comerica Park in Detroit went silent. It was as if they could feel their demise looming in the waning hours of the late afternoon. The Tigers' offense had barely mustered any baserunners as they arrived in the bottom of the ninth. Then the pristine foundation of a Baltimore sweep began to crack. Victor Martinez doubled to center. J.D. Martinez followed suit, doubling in a run to cut the lead in half with no outs. Zach Britton cut down Bryan Holaday swinging. One out. Then, the stoic and legendary guile of manager Buck Showalter made its grand appearance. They say you never want to put the winning run on base. Showalter instructed his closer to do just that, creating a possible double play situation. Jaws dropped from sea to sea as Britton intentionally walked Nick Castellanos. It was a true gamble, even with the lackluster Hernan Perez coming to bat. Lo and behold, Showalter's plan worked, as Perez grounded into a 5-4-3 double play to end the game, sending the Orioles to the American League Championship Series. It was a moment that will likely endure in Orioles history for sometime, and will surely be revived when Buck Showalter rightfully heads to Cooperstown.

As day turned to night, the eyes of the baseball world shifted from Detroit to Kansas City, where a capacity crowd was ready to witness the improbable. After one inning, the Royals were up three runs to one. After three, they extended their lead by two. Los Angeles mustered one run in the fourth, but the home team countered with two more, bringing a World Series favorite to its knees. It was David beheading Goliath. There was no mercy, no letting off of the gas. They added another run in the sixth inning, and the home locker room celebration was already in waiting. The Angels could only turn out one more run. For all of their might, a lineup stacked with once-in-a-generation talent, they only scored six runs in the series. It ended appropriately, with Mike Trout, the Angels' meteoric center fielder, striking out swinging. That last moment of the series sent a message to the league that no matter your success in the regular season, there is no guarantee of that in October. The omens of postseason play can ruin a man, and the absolutely dumbfounded look upon the faces of the slain West division champions proved just that.

This year's American League Championship Series is the first since 2005 to not feature Boston, New York, or Detroit. Is this an ushering-in of a new era in the Junior Circuit? Only time will tell if the three perennial power teams can bounce back to prominence in the coming years. For now, we are treated to something special. Baltimore and Kansas City have never met in the postseason. In my lifetime to date, the likelihood seemed grim that the two would ever make the postseason in the same year. Yet here they are, two teams built on speed and power. Two teams with similar modern histories and gutsy managers willing to risk everything for a run or an out. This series is a treat, not just for the fans of the teams in play, but for the true baseball fans around the world. One team will make the World Series for the first time since the 1980's. They will face off against one of the only two teams to win the National League in the past four seasons. Tomorrow starts the NLCS, and with it comes its own drama, but tonight is for these two unlikely champions of fate.

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