The Pirates and the Giants have their work cut out for them before they square off in the National League wild card game Wednesday. Unless they think they can come up with even half the hair-raiser the American League game was Tuesday night, that is.
Frankly, Bernard Malamud and Douglas Wallop themselves couldn’t have written Tuesday’s script. Kansas City, which hasn’t seen the Royals anywhere near the postseason since the Reagan Administration, wouldn’t have bought it prior to Tuesday night.
Roy Hobbs’ mammoth game-ending blast didn’t finish the opposition’s second-worst collapse of the season. Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo. didn’t disappear into the ether after putting paid to a double deflation. Those guys were fiction. The hunt-and-peck Royals, whose idea of power is AAA batteries rather than full generators, were only too real so far as the Athletics were concerned Tuesday night.
What’s it going to take to get rid of these cockroaches? the A’s must have been wondering when the game got to a twelfth inning. An atomic suicide bomber? Forget it. Even that probably wouldn’t have subdued these Royals, who kept crawling out from under the baseboards after they pushed the game into extra innings in the first place.
They kept crawling right up to the twelfth, when they re-tied the game after Eric Hosmer tripled high off the left center field fence and Christian Colon, a late-game entry, snuck him home with a chopper up the line that nobody could snatch even with a net.
Then Jason Hammel—one of the starters obtained from the Cubs at the onset of the A’s mid-season pitching makeover, who’d actually pitched very well in September—threw a pitchout that catcher Derek Norris, in the game after Geovanny Soto left with a thumb injury, dropped. Allowing Colon to steal second. Right before Salvador Perez, the Royals’ catcher, shot a nice, nasty little 2-2 slider up the third base line and right past the pad, enabling Colon to shoot home with the 9-8 winner and Kauffmann Stadium to go nuclear.
And to think that, four innings earlier, Perez stood a good chance of being one of the game’s shames, after the usually free swinging backstop struck out chasing a slider from Oakland reliever Luke Gregerson that wasn’t anywhere near the plate, after the Royals had shrunk the game’s worst deficit from three runs to one. Omar Infante suffered a comparable fate to follow up, and it looked for awhile as though Royals fans would have too long to remember those sliders.
Perez’s twelfth-inning redemption means this one’s going to sting in Oakland, instead, and for at least as long as it’s going to cause Royals fans to feel as though they’d had their first sinking into a bubbly hot tub with champagne lining the rim in almost three decades. No matter where and how far these Royals go from here, this one’s going to feel delicious.
What the hey, these Royals even have a knack for outrunning their few mistakes, never mind their opponents. Let speed-less Billy Butler get himself in a rundown so Hosmer can try stealing home to tie it in the first only to get nailed because someone on the bench thought a double steal might work against Jon Lester, the Oakland starter, but didn’t account for Butler leaving first too soon? No problem.
Pity the A’s. They’d tempted the baseball gods once too often this season. And those gods refused to deliver them from evil. Collapsing to a mere wild card after looking like a possible runaway AL East champion was bad enough. Collapsing in extra innings after squandering a four-run lead in the wild card game was even worse.
It’s enough to make the most recalcitrant A’s fan ask aloud why the hell their heroes didn’t just give up the ghost over the weekend rather than push back to get to this in the first place. What the hell did Sonny Gray throw that season-ending, wild-card entering six-hit shutout for? What the hell did we deal for Lester and Samardzija and Hammel for? And what was the point of stranding the potential winning Kansas City run in the tenth and the eleventh when it wasn’t supposed to get that far in the first place?
But it also let the Royals avoid thinking about how their own manager damn near blew the wild card game for them before they got anywhere near the chance to push it to extra innings in the first place.
All season long Ned Yost has been fodder for to-death analyses as to why he’s so horrible a manager that the Royals would win, if they won, in spite of him. There was even talk of his job being in danger after he managed himself into a mid-September loss to the Red Sox when reaching for his weakest, not his strongest bullpen option. On Tuesday night Yost almost put the truth to every one of those analyses–and with damn near the same move.
The Royals had wrested back a 3-2 lead with James Shields still on cruise control for the most part after he’d surrendered a two-run homer to Brandon Moss in the top of the first. Yost lifted Shields in the sixth following a broken-bat leadoff single by Sam Fuld and a walk to Josh Donaldson that was as borderline as the night would be long.
But the skipper didn’t go to either Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, or Greg Holland, who just so happen to be his three best bullpen bulls and three of the best in the game this season. He went to Yordano Ventura, a starting pitcher who’d worked on Sunday. Ventura’s first assignment was Moss. Two high fastballs later, Moss hit one over the center field fence.
Josh Reddick singled to follow up, took second on a wild pitch, and moved to third on a Jed Lowrie fly out. Then Yost brought in Herrera. Herrera surrendered two runs one of which was charged to Ventura, but bringing in Ventura instead of staying with a Shields who probably had the full sixth left in the tank and maybe one more was the one that could have cost Yost the season.
Except that the Royals’ swarm finally pecked Lester—for whom the A’s dealt Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox on behalf of just such nights in the first place—out of the game in the eighth. Single, steal, runner to third on a ground out, RBI single, steal, walk, Lester gone, and the Royals getting into the Oakland bullpen. And, raising questions as to whether A’s manager Bob Melvin left Lester in about one hitter too long.
Gregerson relieved Lester. Then it was RBI single setting up first and third, pinch runner stealing second, man home on a wild pitch. Just like that the Royals closed it to 7-6. Never mind those nasty slider swishouts on Perez and Infante. Who’s got the Black Flag? Anyone?
Davis and Holland kept the A’s off the scoreboard further, though Holland had to do some fancy dancing to keep it that way, shaking off the bases loaded by getting Lowrie, who hasn’t hit well in that situation his entire career (.206 lifetime coming into that plate appearance), to line out to right.
Then the Royals showed A’s closer Sean Doolittle the game wouldn’t be over until the Royals said it’d be over. Josh Willingham, imported from the Twins on the season, opened with a pinch single. Jarrod Dyson pinch ran, took second on a sacrifice, and stole third promptly enough, before Norichika Aoki sent him home with a sacrifice fly. All of a sudden, what the A’s might have thought was in the bank was going to extra innings.
Brandon Finnegan went out to the mound for the Royals and pitched two sterling relief innings while the Royals spent those first two extras pushing the winning run to third in each but unable to push one home. Finnegan’s tank went empty in the top of the twelfth after a leadoff walk to Reddick and a sacrifice bunt, but Jason Frasor couldn’t shake off a wild pitch handing Reddick third on the house and pinch hitter Alberto Callaspo singled Reddick home with the tiebreaker.
But the moment Colon crossed the plate, the Royals—who seemed to spend most of the night on the run as it was, with seven individual men stealing bases on the night—ran out onto the field for the party. I won’t be shocked to learn the party went 48 hours straight. Even knowing the Royals ran themselves out of the frying pan and toward a potential division series exterminator known as the Angels.
If the Pirates and the Giants think there’s nothing they could possibly dream up to top what went down in Kansas City, it’s probably very sound thinking, indeed.