Monday, October 20, 2014

Requiem for Summer: The Kansas City Royals, The San Francisco Giants and the Wild, Wildest World Series

When a pair of underdogs meet, who can be the favorite? Is it the team with the immediate postseason experience or is it the team that hasn't lost in over three weeks? The San Francisco Giants have five winning seasons in their last six, with 2013 as the only hiccup. their two World Series championships were both rather dominant performances, beating the Texas Rangers in five games back in 2010 then sweeping the Detroit Tigers two years later. The Kansas City Royals have been a doormat, but in the past two seasons, have seen a resurgence leading to this year's magical playoff run. Each team comes into the World Series as a surprise. It is the first World Series (not shortened by a strike or a war) in which neither team won ninety games. For a postseason full of close games and dramatic endings, these two have been authors of some of the best.

A tale of two cities. Often times, as it was last year, the two teams competing for the World Series have similar pedigrees. The Red Sox and Cardinals finished with the best records in their respective leagues. Each team had won two World Series titles in the previous ten seasons. Where 2014's climax begins is not a place of commonality, but of polarity. Since the renaissance of San Francisco baseball five years ago, the Giants have been in the World Series three times. Before 2010, their National League title drought lasted all the way back to 2002, when they fell to Anaheim in seven. The Kansas City Royals, as noted many times in the last month, haven't won the American League since they won it all in 1985. So here we are, one team drowning in postseason and championship experience, the other is the epitome of ripened young talent with no sense of how they should play in October.

When the Wild Card was expanded from one team per league to two, it was a point of polarization to baseball fans. Some viewed it as a forced 'game 163' to replicate the drama of previous one game playoffs as well as the frantic chaos of 2011's last day. A main purpose to the change was to reward the division winners by forcing the Wild Card teams to burn a top starting pitcher. In 2012, St. Louis and Baltimore escaped the Wild Card games. The Cardinals made it through to the National League Championship Series. The following year, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay fell flat in the Division Series after winning the one-game playoff. In its infancy, the Wild Card game has only become more exciting, but this year may be proof that the game's effect can have more positive outcome than previously thought.

Since Madison Bumgarner's gem in Pittsburgh, the Giants have only lost twice, one apiece to Washington and St. Louis. The Royals have been perfect. Since overcoming a late deficit in the Wild Card game, the Royals have only trailed in three innings. A major similarity comes in the form of their respective bullpens. The Giants' relievers have been slightly better, with opponents hitting .164 to the Royals' .179. They've given up nearly the same number of hits and earned runs. Essentially, if either team could enter the late innings with a lead, the game was as good as done. Each team has proven they can manufacture runs and take advantage of the smallest of mistakes. So it is easy to say that anything before this season is out of context. So what happened when the Giants came to Kansas City in August?

On August 8th, the Royals got their first taste of Madison Bumgarner. It didn't take long for the home club to strike. In the bottom of the first inning, Billy Butler homered to left field. Omar Infante had doubled two batters earlier, making Butler's shot go for two-runs. The tally would stand as sufficient until the top of the third inning. Pablo Sandoval singled to right. Michael Morse soon followed suit. Kansas City starter Jason Vargas's rough inning continued, as he gave up a double to Joaquin Arias and another single to Matt Duffy. The last two hits plated Sandoval and Morse, tying the game. Arias was thrown out at home to end the inning, but the damage was done. The Giants were alive. Three innings later, in the home half. Omar Infante singled to left. He advanced to third on a botched force play at first. Again, it was Billy Butler at the plate. He knocked an easy single to right field, scoring Infante. That would be all the Royals would need. They added a second run on the next at bat, but Bumgarner was already beaten. Kansas City took game one by a score of 4-2.

August 9th saw the ageless Tim Hudson take the hill for San Francisco against Kansas City's gambling chip James Shields. Unlike the previous game in the series, this would be a much more lopsided affair. The winning run came in the bottom of the fifth inning, but it was the bottom of the seventh that sealed the game. Hudson gave up a trio of hits to start off the inning, including a double to Butler. The Royals took a two run advantage on Lorenzo Cain's RBI single, and Hudson was pulled. In his place, charged with damming up the potential flood of runs was Jeremy Affeldt. The first batter he faced was Raul Ibanez, who grounded into a double play. It seemed as if the Giants could escape with a manageable two-run deficit, but more was in store for the home team. Mike Moustakas doubled, scoring Alex Gordon from third. Alcides Escobar singled, scoring Moustakas, advancing to second base on the play at home. Jarrod Dyson followed with another single, scoring Escobar. The barrage of hits left Kansas City up five runs, an insurmountable deficit for the Giants to face with the Royals' bullpen ready to go. The Royals took game two, 5-0, and looked to sweep on Sunday's finale.

August 10th was San Francisco's last chance to salvage a win in the series. Tim Lincecum, the embattled righthander, a month and a half removed from his second career no-hitter, would find early trouble against the Royals' streaking offense. A double by Butler scored Nori Aoki, waiting on second base following a steal. Salvador Perez was sitting at third after Butler's double, and scored on a wild pitch. Next would be defensive stalwart Alex Gordon. A home run to deep right field scored Butler, and the Royals were quickly ahead four runs. The Giants added a run of their own in the third, but in the fourth inning, the home team added to their lead. Tim Lincecum was bounced after giving up a one-out RBI single to Aoki. He would be charged with Aoki's run after Perez homered him in against Juan Carlos Gutierrez. The Giants would finally threaten to get back into the game in the top of the seventh inning, as Andrew Susac doubled off starter Danny Duffy to score Adam Duvall and Joe Panik. Jason Frasor would be called on in relief of Duffy. Two batter's in to Frasor's day, Hunter Pence scored Susac, leaving Duffy with four earned runs. The Giants would threaten again in the top of the ninth. Greg Holland came on to close out the sweep for Kansas City. After two strikeouts, two singles, two steals and a walk the bases were loaded for Pablo Sandoval. Tension mounted as the home run threat loomed large. Strike one. Ball one. Ball two. A deep shot into center field. For a moment it might have looked like it would carry. As the ball came to rest in the vacuum glove of Jarrod Dyson (pun mildly intended), the game was over. The final score, Kansas City 7, San Francisco 4. The Royals had swept the Giants.

This series was in the middle of Kansas City's eight game winning streak that was augmented by the visit of South Korean super fan SungWoo Lee. As it stands, the Royals have swept each team they have faced in the playoffs, including the Giants if the early-August series has any relevance. It is unlikely that the results of those three games will have much impact on the four to seven we are about to take in. What is interesting is to see that the October master, Madison Bumgarner, looked mortal once. The most baffling part of this World Series is that back in August, as these two teams played a relatively meaningless series, no one could have predicted that it would eventually be the matchup to decide the league's champion. Two underdogs enter, one leaves as a surprise for the ages.

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