Friday, October 31, 2014

Midnight for Cinderella: The Flip, the Slide, the Hold, and Crowning the Team of the Decade

When I was young, the players seemed as old as my parents. That's because, for the most part, they were. I looked up to guys like Kirby Puckett and Joe Carter, burning their World Series heroics into my brain. Those memories endure much longer than most from the early 1990's. Now, twenty years removed from the canceled World Series of 1994, a new era of heroes are carrying the game and creating timeless memories of their own. This year's series will likely be known as the Madison Bumgarner series. His performances in games one and five were masterful. As he came into the game Wednesday night, the fear that San Francisco's one run lead would hold spread throughout Kauffman Stadium. As the game neared its end, one thing was clear- the greatness of Madison Bumgarner in the 2014 World Series is the kind of otherworldly dominance we don't often see in not only baseball, but any sport.
Game seven is always something special. There is a tension in the air that consumes the hearts of anyone and everyone watching. For a series so divided by lopsided victories and seemingly random bursts of offense, this game was not going to be that way. Two thousand, four-hundred sixty-one games had been played this MLB season, and a champion had yet to be crowned. The Royals and Giants would send their game three starters to the mound, but both were on a short leash. Jeremy Guthrie, aged thirty-five years, threw a strike to begin the game. He asked for the ball to be tossed aside, he wanted a keepsake from that time he started the last game of the season. Opposing him was Tim Hudson. At thirty-nine years, one hundred seven days old, he became the oldest pitcher to start game seven of the World Series. Both men got through the first inning, but before long the heat began to simmer underneath their feet.

In the second inning, Guthrie clipped Pablo Sandoval on the elbow. Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt followed with a pair of singles. There were no outs. Two pitches later, Michael Morse hit a sacrifice fly ball to right field. Sandoval scored. On the play, Pence advanced to third, scoring three pitches later as Brandon Crawford followed with a sacrifice fly ball of his own. Silence filled the home dugout. Even after obtaining the third out, there was an uneasy feeling that they needed to get back into the game before the Giants decided to bring in their nuclear weapon- Bumgarner. It would be a game of bullpens. As the game turned to the bottom half of the inning, Hudson, too, began to struggle. Billy Butler led off the inning with a clean single up the middle. Alex Gordon saw one pitch and drove it into right center. Butler raced around from first and scored. Salvador Perez only got one pitch as well. Tim Hudson lost control of an eighty-nine miles per hour sinker and it landed in the side of Perez's left leg. The all-star catcher, starting his Major League record one hundred fifty-eighth game of the year, was down in pain. After a lengthy medical advisory, Perez stood and walked to first. Mike Moustakas flied to left. Gordon flipped on the wheels and sped to third on the throw, narrowly escaping a tag. Omar Infante drove in Gordon on a fly ball to center. The game was tied and Perez was able to rest at first. After allowing a single to Alcides Escobar, Bruce Bochy pulled his starter. Hudson only tossed twenty-eight pitches.

In came Jeremy Affeldt to pitch for San Francisco. He had been drafted by the Royals and pitched the first five seasons of his career there before being traded to Colorado in 2006. He managed to get Nori Aoki to ground into a force play at second to end the inning, but the damage was done. How quickly the mood had changed in the Royals' dugout. In the bottom of the third, there was one play that seemed to tilt the game.

With Lorenzo Cain on first and no outs, Eric Hosmer chopped a ground ball slightly right of center in the infield. Second baseman Joe Panik fielded it with his glove and flipped it to Brandon Crawford who was gliding into second to get the force play. Crawford turned, grabbed the ball from his glove and fired to first base. Hosmer made the decision to slide head-first into first. The initial call was safe, but upon a challenge by Bruce Bochy, the call was overturned. Hosmer was likely safe if he ran through first base. That line of logic is debatable. There is no doubt, however, that if Panik takes the time to toss the ball from his bare hand, Hosmer is safe. The double play was succeeded by a Billy Butler groundout to end the inning.

After allowing a pair of singles and making one out in the fourth, Jeremy Guthrie's night was through. He had thrown forty-nine pitches, and left the game with only a chance to take the loss. On that one out, Pablo Sandoval advanced from second to third. Kelvin Herrera came into the game for Kansas City. The hard-throwing righthander had already made quite an impact. He was brought in to face the power-hitting Morse. It was a battle of strength, and Morse won. A single into right field scored Sandoval, and the Giants were up a run. Herrera got the next two outs, but the run meant only one thing- San Francisco had a reason to bring him in.

I remember a similar situation back in the 2001 World Series. The Arizona Diamondbacks had Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, each worthy of the Cy Young award. The New York Yankees knew that it would be hard to beat either pitcher. Johnson won game one. Schilling took game two. In game four, Arizona sent Schilling out again. He pitched magnificently, but the Yankees managed to take the game. Johnson started game six and the Diamondbacks won 15-2, setting up an incredible game seven. Schilling, on three days rest for the second time in the series, was set to pitch. He gave up only two runs in just under eight full innings. He was replaced by Johnson, who had thrown one hundred four pitches the night before. It was the correct decision, as Johnson got the last four Yankees out before his offense came from behind to win in the bottom of the ninth. The dominance of Johnson and Schilling left a mark on the series. They share MVP honors. 

Similarly this year, there was a pitching presence that loomed large over the series. The difference being that it was only one man in 2014. The entire series had been based around when Madison Bumgarner was pitching. After splitting the first two games, the Royals knew they had to take either game three or four because they didn't want an elimination scenario on the table with Bumgarner starting game five. After his masterful showing in that game, there was a sense of relief in the Royals' clubhouse. Jarrod Dyson said he was happy because they didn't have to face Bumgarner again. As the Giants batted in the top of the fifth, the man was up and throwing in the bullpen. He would come into the game in the bottom of the inning.

The frustrations grew for the Kansas City offense with each inning. A one-run deficit seemed insurmountable. It was as if their scrappy hit-and-steal philosophy was within grasp, but Bumgarner was there to thwart any chance of entry like some medieval dragon guarding a castle. In the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, the Royals went down in order without a fight. The only chance Kansas City had before the ninth inning came in Bumgarner's first innning of the night. With Omar Infante on second, Nori Aoki lined a fly ball to left. Juan Perez was starting over Travis Ishikawa for defensive purposes, and it payed off. Running full-stride, Perez made the catch to keep Infante at second and quiet the roaring crowd.

In the ninth, the Giants were still up only one run. Bumgarner was in for his fifth inning of the game. Eric Hosmer struck out. Then Billy Butler popped out in foul territory along the first base side. As Alex Gordon came on as the last hope for the Royals, things looked bleak. He blooped a line drive into center. Gregor Blanco misplayed the ball. As it rolled all the way to the wall, Gordon took off. Perez bobbled the ball on the warning track. Gordon sped past second base. Then came the moment to define the series. Mike Jirschele, the Royals' third base coach, held his runner at third. It is possible Gordon could have been safe at home. He could have ended the game on a play at the plate. We will never know. Ninety feet away, the tying run stood. Salvador Perez, the only man to score on Bumgarner in five World Series appearances, came up. He pushed the count to two balls, two strikes. On Bumgarner's sixty-eighth pitch of the game, Perez made contact, driving the ball high to the left into foul territory. The national broadcast camera focused on third base. There was Gordon, the tying run. He could only watch as Pablos Sandoval got under the popped-up fly ball. Just before Sandoval caught the ball, Gordon began to walk slowly to the home dugout. He knew it was over.

As Sandoval secured the catch, the World Series had been won. Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey embraced, finally allowing themselves to show the emotion they had held back throughout the series. A dynasty was born. For the Royals, the magic ride that had brought them all the way to game seven of the World Series had turned into a pumpkin. Cinderella's clock hit midnight. The capacity crowd, disappointed but proud in their team, chanted "LET'S GO ROYALS" even as the Giants celebrated on the field. They were not supposed to be here, and there was reason to cheer for the team that had revitalized baseball in Kansas City.

Madison Bungarner pitched twenty-one innings in the 2014 World Series. He gave up one run on nine hits. 

As the game was coming to a close, I got a text message from a good friend. It read 'Watching major baseball history with Bumgarner here. In 30 years, we'll be telling our kids about it.' How true of a sentiment that is. There are so many stories that bond generations in baseball. I can say I witnessed Joe Carter and David Freese hit walk-off home runs. I saw Endgar Renteria and Luis Gonzalez hit walk-off singles to drive in the World Series winning run. Bumgarner's performance in the 2014 World Series might trump them all.

The initial scoring of the game gave Bumgarner the win. Soon after the game was over, the win was changed to give it to Jeremy Affeldt. When told of the scoring change, Affeldt gave the news to his wife, they embraced and wept. Though Madison Bumgarner will always be remembered for his classic outing, Jeremy Affeldt will go down as the winner of game seven of a World Series.

The San Francisco Giants became the first team to win the World Series as a second wild card team. Their road past Pittsburgh and through Washington and St. Louis had few faults. Kansas City gave them a test like they had not seen in their three trips to the World Series, but ultimately it was theirs again. For the third time in five years, the Giants, the team of the decade, are World Champions.

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