Wednesday, October 1, 2014

For One Night Only, pt. 1: The Great Gambler's Game (or) The Royal Resiliency of Kansas City

As the ball escaped the outstretched glove of a diving Josh Donaldson, it was over. Salvador Perez had sent Kansas City to the Division Series. The Royals had vanquished the mighty Athletics and won their first postseason game in nearly thirty years. But to merely summarize a game on its final play would be like explaining a film with its climax. The 2014 American League Wild Card game will surely be considered one of the wildest games in postseason history, silencing the critics of the one-game playoff and setting a precedent for drama that will be very difficult to match.

The Kansas City Royals and Oakland Athletics are an odd couple of sorts. While both teams claim small-market charm, the have vastly different postseason pedigrees. The A's are in the playoffs for the third consecutive year, their first in that stretch as a Wild Card team. In the last two years, both teams have pushed most of their chips to the center of the table, and for good reason. The Athletics have always been a bridesmaid in the postseason, while the Royals just never get invited to the wedding at all. The Kansas City Royals boast the longest postseason drought in American professional sports, having not seen the playoffs since they won the World Series in 1985. Tuesday night, each team's season hung in the balance of a one game playoff, a game that would become an instant classic.

When the A's traded for Jeff Samardzija, then Jon Lester, losing valuable young talent in the process, the first that crossed my mind was- Kansas City. In the months after the 2012 season, the Royals decided to make a splash, trading top prospects Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi for the Rays' ace James Shields as well as right-hander Wade Davis. It was seen as a mammoth risk to some, given Meyers' perceived potential. Yet on Tuesday night, Shields was on the mound for the first Royals postseason game since 1985. While a pitcher cannot make all the difference in a team's ascension, it is quite evident that the trade did not hurt Kansas City's chances.

As for that Oakland trade, well it received equal but opposite criticism. The Athletics gave up prized prospect Addison Russell for Samardzija and lost sparkplug fan-favorite Yoenis Cespedes in the deal for Lester. Initially, the deals were praised, and seen as the last moves needed to crown Oakland as our overlords. The months that followed the trade deadline proved otherwise. The A's fell off, and did not clinch a postseason seat until the very last day of the season. The two gambling narratives collided in Kansas City Tuesday Night, and only one could be validated.

A game featuring two ace-caliber pitchers is often expected to be a defensive struggle, yet almost instantly, the tide had turned sharply into a shootout. In the top of the first, Brandon Moss connected for a two-run home run, quieting a crowd that had not sat down in about a week. Kansas City would plate one in the bottom half, cutting the lead to 2-1, but a baserunning blunder was an early candidate for the play that won or lost the game. With Billy Butler on first, Eric Hosmer was ninety feet from knotting the score. The Royals tried a distraction play, sending the block-footed Butler to steal, allowing Hosmer to run home while the defense was paying attention to the runner between first and second. The plan bombed fantastically, as the Oakland defense caught Hosmer at the plate. Threat over. 

Two innings later, the Royals had another chance, knowing they had no choice but to capitalize. Mike Moustakas stood on third, having singled and been bumped over by Alcides Escobar. Lorenzo Cain doubled to left, plating Moustakas. Hosmer, the goat of the first inning debacle, dropped a bloop single to left. Cain, running on the pitch, sped around third and scored easily, igniting the home faithful and giving Kansas City its first postseason lead since game seven of the 1985 World Series.

James Shields' night ended in the sixth inning, following a walk and a base hit. With two on and nobody out, Brandon Moss stepped in against new pitcher Yordano Ventura. The Royals' bullpen had been a cornerstone of their success all season. With one swing, Moss drove a Ventura fastball to straightaway center and over the wall. In an instant, Kansas City went from up one, to down two again. Moss had silenced the long-suffering home crowd once more. Derrick Norris, who replaced injured starting catcher Geovanny Soto, punched a ground ball over second base, scoring Josh Reddick from third. Norris then scored on a Coco Crisp single to center. You could hear a pin drop in Kauffmann Stadium. The Athletics batted around in the sixth inning. The team that looked like world-beaters had finally reappeared. Kansas City would eventually escape the inning, but not before their 3-2 lead was turned on its head and left as a dizzying 7-3 deficit.

Jon Lester continued to roll, and the few hits Kansas City could muster were met with less and less enthusiasm. It was as if all of the fire that had preceded this night of euphoria had been quenched completely. In the eighth inning, Lester began to crack. The speedy Lorenzo Cain knocked in Escobar to cut Oakland's lead to three. Cain swiped second and sped home on a line drive single by Billy Butler. Lester left before Butler came to bat, but Cain's run was charged to the lefty. The Royals were down two with only one out. Butler exited for pinch runner Terrance Gore, who stole second base with little effort. A wild pitch by reliever Luke Gregerson plated Cain with ease. One run lead. With Gore at third with one out, Gregerson played to the Royals' emotions, giving the next two batters messy outside pitches at a moment everyone wants to be a hero. Two strikeouts ended the threat. The go-ahead run at second would be left there. After eight innings, the Athletics led 7-6.

In the home half of the ninth, Josh Willingham singled, and was quickly replaced by Jarrod Dyson, another bullet in Kansas City's base stealing arsenal. A bunt moved him to second. One away, game-tying run 180 feet away. Dyson took third with ease. Nori Aoki lobbed a long fly ball to right. Dyson's steal proved to be a season-saving move, as he was able to saunter home and tie the game.

The A's went down in order in the top half of the tenth. Rookie Brandon Finnegan, who months before Tuesday night had been pitching in the College World Series, seemed at home in the pressure of postseason play. The previously malaise crowd was once again resembling a wall of unchained excitement, clamoring for their team to complete the seemingly unthinkable comeback. Eric Hosmer slid into first on an infield single, then advanced to second on a bunt by Christian Colon. A soft grounder by Alex Gordon moved Hosmer to third. With two outs, Salvador Perez came up with a runner on third. Same situation, same result. A lazy ground ball to second base quieted the Royal's attempt at a walk-off and sent the Wild Card game to the eleventh inning. The next six outs would be a near carbon-copy of the tenth inning, as Kansas City would again falter with a runner on third.

Oakland tried their hand at Kansas City's style of offense in the top of the twelfth. Walk. Bunt. But the difference came in the form of a wild pitch, allowing Josh Reddick to advance to third with only one out. Alberto Callaspo chipped a shallow line drive to left, scoring Reddick, giving the Athletics an 8-7 lead. This time, the Royals would not have an opportunity to squander. Oakland, despite their giving up of a four run lead late, were three outs from a date with Los Angeles.

With one away in the twelfth, Eric Hosmer crushed a deep fly ball to left center. Johnny Gomes and Sam Fuld collided at the wall, allowing Hosmer to glide into third. Christian Colon singled in the runner. Oakland would bring in Jason Hammel, the other piece acquired in the trade that brought Jeff Samardzija to the A's. Hammel and catcher Derek Norris tried a pitchout to catch Colon's attempt to steal second. Norris dropped the ball, allowing Norris to walk into scoring position. It would be the fateful last mistake of the Oakland Athletics' season. Following an Alex Gordon pop-out to third, Salvador Perez stood in again with a winning run in range.

With two outs, two strikes, and two balls, Perez sliced a ground ball past Donaldson and sent the near five-hour long game to rest. The Kauffmann Stadium crowd, which at times had been louder than a 747 takeoff and nearly as silent as a grave returned to their ear-bleeding level of unwavering joy. The gamble had paid off. It wasn't Shields. It was the gutsy play on the basepaths. Salvador Perez had, at times, been a goat in this game, missing opportunities to push his team into the next round. The third time was found to be the charm. Hosmer and Perez combined to push their team to a place they had never been- the American League Division Series.

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