Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Until the Night Closes In: The Three Pitches That Defined the Fountain City Marathon

The Kansas City Royals scored on the first and last pitches they saw Tuesday night. At just over five hours, game one of the World Series was one of the longest and most tightly-contested fall classic openers in recent memory. One hit set the tone, the other sent us home. In the middle, a third and perhaps even more crucial hit turned the tide and canceled the Mets' upset after party. There was a delay in the game that had nothing to do with the game itself. One starter pitched, blind to the news that his father had just passed away. It was an opening night like no other, so captivating that it didn't end until the date had changed.

Matt Harvey settled in. His warmup tosses now done, the man dubbed 'The Dark Knight' awaited his first foe. In his last start, Harvey was nearly perfect. Much like Tuesday night, it was game one against a favored opponent. Harvey had cut down the Cubs so completely that it felt for a time that their power-based lineup would again go hitless this season. The Cubs found the outfield, but Harvey and the Mets won the game. The World Series is a much different monster, however. The Kansas City Royals were much more seasoned in the ways of October than either the Mets or the now vanquished Cubs. In to the batters' box walked Alcides Escobar, the Royals' speedy shortstop just three days younger than yours truly. Last year he batted .310 in the World Series, but only amassed two runs batted in over seven games. The Mets offense had gone down in order to Edinson Volquez in the top half of the first. The next pitch would be Matt Harvey's World Series debut.

Power is what Harvey possesses. The one drawback from having high velocity to the plate is that it can mean even more energy is reflected back with solid contact. Escobar, like his Royals kin, loves a first pitch fastball. So when the Dark Knight delivered a ninety-five miles per hour fastball to start the home half of the inning, the lumber-wielding Venezuelan swung away. There was a defined crack that cut through the boisterous crowd rumblings. From the vantage point of broadcast television and likely many at Kauffman Stadium, the ball looked as good as gone. Escobar paid no mind to the prospect of a trot around the bases. His instinct was to run until the ball was past the wall. Center fielder Yoenis Cespedes, the heart and soul of the New York revival of the second half of the season, was running to his right to make a play on the pop fly that now looked more like an easy out. It would not be an easy play, but his stride would carry long enough to get the out. There was one step too many, however. Cespedes had to adjust to the ball, as he had misplayed it near the warning track. He would have to catch it backhanded. The coordination was off, and the ball bounced off of his leg, cruising away from he and left fielder Michael Conforto. By the time the ball bounced off of the fence, Escobar was around second base. Conforto bolted to make the play, his twenty-two year old legs cycling around. He hurled the ball toward the infield, but by the time it met the cutoff man to add some power, Alcides Escobar was three steps from home. It was an inside the park home run, the first in the World Series since 1929. Kauffman Stadium was now a living, breathing, hysterical creature. Escobar didn't slow down until he met his teammates at the top of the home dugout steps. It had taken one pitch, and Kansas City was up one to nothing doing just what they did best- running.

The score remained as such for a few innings. Edinson Volquez had dominated. Throughout the baseball twittersphere and everywhere but the competing dugouts, word spread of grimm news. Volquez's father had passed away in his native Venezuela earlier in the day. The decision to not notify the Royals' starter was surely difficult, but none the less it was made. Later on, once he had exited the game, Volquez would be united with his family.

In the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings, the Mets tacked on runs to take a three to one lead. The magic that had led them to the final week of October was back in their bats. Volquez left, at the time, charged with the loss should New York hold on. In the bottom of the sixth, Kansas City fought back. A sacrifice fly by Eric Hosmer and a single by Mike Moustakas tied the game at three. The Royals' trademark powerful bullpen could take over.

In the eighth, fate reared its ugly head. With Kelvin Herrera pitching and two outs, Wilmer Flores chopped a high grounder to first. It would be a difficult play for Eric Hosmer, but one he had made in the past. His glove was low, and when the ball bounced infront of him, Hosmer couldn't adjust. The ball bounced down the right field line, scoring Juan Lagares. Suddenly the face of the Royals was now their goat. The Mets had the lead on the road, and it was getting late.

A year ago, the World Series ended with an infield fly that landed in the glove of Pablo Sandoval. At third base was Alex Gordon, who had been held there on a controversial but likely correct call following a botched play in the outfield. He was the tying run with Madison Bumgarner on the mound. Ninety feet from extending the series, Gordon was left to wander the offseason wondering if he could have made it home.

In the bottom of the ninth with one out, Alex Gordon stood in against Mets closer Jeurys Familia. There was a clamor within the pockets of Mets fans that dotted the now worrisome home faithful. Familia had done the job time and again throughout the postseason, and there was little reason to believe he couldn't do it again here. The Mets were two outs from stealing home field advantage. Gordon saw five pitches, the last of which was the one of consequence. The deepest part of Kauffman Stadium measures four hundred and ten feet from home plate. His return shot lifted deep... high and into the crisp blackness of the midwestern night. As the ball drifted out over the fence, the game was tied at four. Moments from falling into a one game hole at home, the Royals were alive. The core of Kansas City players who were relatively anonymous to the world thirteen months ago- Gordon, Hosmer, Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez among others -were more than just veterans of postseason baseball. They were forging a legacy hellbent on being remembered for ages. The game would go beyond the normal confines of a nine inning game.

To the tenth. Eleventh. Twelfth. Thirteenth. Fourteenth inning. I had already fallen asleep, as I'm not a fan of Eastern Time schedules. Here in Indianapolis and elsewhere east, the game had reached well into the next day. This was partly due to a power outage with the replay system, which also affected the national broadcast. Even with that minor hiccup, this was a long game, too long for me. Thank god for the internet, I guess.

All games must end. In the bottom of the fourteenth, the Royals loaded the bases without the Mets recording an out. All it would take is a deep fly ball and the game would be over. Bartolo Colon had been brought in to pitch for New York. Following an error and a single, Colon walked Lorenzo Cain intentionally, hoping for a force play double-up at home and first with the next batter. It was a gamble, sure, but with no outs, it was all the Mets had left. Bartolo Colon is a forty-two year old, eighteen-year veteran. Somehow, by perhaps the grace of his own strange body, he still pitches around ninety miles per hour. His fastball was all he used against the next batter, Eric Hosmer. With the weight of his error still lingering on the minds of all of those watching, Hosmer needed to be the guy for his team. Ball one. Foul, strike one. Foul, strike two. A punchout would be huge for Colon and the Mets. It would open up better double play possibilities on the next batter. Ball two.

The last pitch of the game was Bartolo Colon's fiftieth- a ninety miles per hour fastball. Hosmer lifted it to right field. The only question would be if it was deep enough. Alcides Escober waited for the moment to tag third and dart home. Right fielder Curtis Granderson stepped back to field the ball on a step to allow more leverage into his throw. The sound of the ball hitting Granderson's glove preceded Escobar's steps by only the twinkling of an eye. The hard crunch of infield dirt marked the shortstop's pace toward the plate. Granderson's throw was strong and direct. Hosmer barely left the batter's box. He had done his job. As the baseball and Escobar closed in on home plate, the result was clear. Just as he had done in the first inning, Alcides Escobar crossed home plate in stride. There was no play. Five hours and nine minutes after first pitch, the game was finally over. Eric Hosmer had re-written his story and Alcides Escobar had shown the world how fast he can fly.The Royals survived their first test in Matt Harvey, but the Mets' army of prodigious young pitchers was far from through.

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