Forget the payrolls, as Kansas City outfielder Jarrod Dyson rightly points out. They don’t matter when you hit the field or step into the batter’s box. The wealthiest teams in baseball have been known to collapse like insolvent counties.
The Los Angeles Angels joined their ranks ignominiously Sunday thanks to a Royals team that seems to know nothing of the meaning of rolling over and playing dead. And these Angels, who’d run roughshod after the All-Star break and turned into a threshing machine while all around what remained of the American League West deflated, looked and played like zombies in a division series game they had to win just to stay alive.
All last week the Royals’ mini-ball style seemed among the top talk around the game. How they overthrew the better-endowed but lesser-cohesive Oakland Athletics was a tale to be told for generations to come. How they overthrew the regular season’s best baseball team will probably equal it. Don’t expect the Angels to be among the gatherings gathered to listen to the tales.
It doesn’t matter now that Mike Trout, the game’s best all-around player and the likely American League Most Valuable Player, finally remembered who he is after starting this American League division series 0-for-8 and hit a mammoth home run off James Shields in the top of the first Sunday. Or that Albert Pujols joined him to cut an eventual Royals lead to 5-2 with a similar blast off Shields.
What matters now is that the Angels’ few flaws on the season came up to consume them at a time when the Royals believed nothing much more than something by which the Angels once lived themselves. No Royal would phrase it quite the way Darin Erstad did in 2002, when the Angels were the upstarts going all the way to the prize, but these Royals do play as though, in Erstad’s words, “As long as we have an out, we have a chance.”
That’s how they overthrew the A’s in the wild card game. That’s how they turned the Angels aside in the first two division series games. Show these Royals a weakness, show them a flaw, show them even a sliver’s worth of opening, and they’ll use everything they have to exploit them. Come Sunday, the Royals proved they don’t need extra inning thrillers to win, either.
When Angel manager Mike Scioscia sent C.J. Wilson out to start a must-win Game Three, the Royals must have been salivating. Wilson’s only been as inconsistent as the day is long all season. Even this popgun offense could do something against that kind of pitcher.
All Wilson had to to was load the pads in the bottom of the first. And all Alex Gordon had to so was figure out that he could be just a little bit better than Wilson’s best slider, reach for the one going away from him, and yank a bases-clearing double for his effort. Just like that the Angels were in the hole 3-1. And the Royals didn’t even have to lean off a base, never mind steal it.
“They were just up there trying to put the ball in play,” Wilson told reporters after the game. ”Then they went into damage mode and started swinging for homers. They’re hot right now. That’s what happens.”
Sticking with Trout and Pujols was one thing, but sticking with Josh Hamilton really hurt the Angels. Hamilton’s pricey and injury-addled this season, reducing him to what Yahoo! Sports’s Jeff Passan describes as “slider bat speed on fastballs, changeup bat speed on sliders, knuckleball bat speed on changeups.”
That’s what Hamilton brought to this division series when the Angels needed the Hamilton who drove in thirteen runs in the 2011 postseason or who drove in seven with four bombs as the 2010. His only run batted in this time came on a ground out to first base in the eighth Sunday, after Howie Kendrick opened with a double and Erick Aybar singled him to third and promptly stole second. But Royals reliever Wade Davis swished C.J. Cron for the side.
You wonder now whether Scioscia wishes he’d gone instead to a pitching plan that helped the Angels secure the AL West when Garret Richards, their best pitcher on the season, went down for the rest of it with a frightening leg injury while covering a base down the stretch. He used a bullpen-start approach, usually leading with Cory Rasmus, who gave lights-out work in those situations, mostly, and half the time when using the idea the Angels won.
Rasmus got nine consecutive outs once he was brought in Sunday to relieve Kevin Jepsen in the sixth. Any odds on whether Scioscia wishes he’d sent Rasmus out to start the game instead? He went through nine Royals and dispatched them every whichy way possible.
Forget how gleeful the Royals must have been when Gordon cleared the bases with a drive the other way into the left centerfield gap and drove Wilson out of the game in a hurry. Maybe Scioscia hooked Wilson a little too soon but in a win-or-be-gone game on a night Wilson clearly had nothing left in the tank, it couldn’t hurt to go to his pen early and often, could it?
All things considered he probably should have gone to Rasmus right out of the chute there. Instead, he went to Vinnie Pestano. And for awhile it looked like the Angels would have some room to breath even with a measly 1-0 lead.
But Scioscia hooked Pestano for Hector Santiago, who’d been an effective if somewhat inconsistent starter on the regular season. Santiago finished Pestano’s work in the second, getting the final two outs of a 1-2-3 inning, but he walked Nori Aoki to open the third. He got Lorenzo Cain to pop out to the back of the infield, but he couldn’t keep Eric Hosmer from hitting one high over the left center field fence.
It tells you how infectious the Royals’ run and gun cockroach style of mini-ball becomes among their players that Billy Butler, of all people, he who looks like the Incredible Hulk next to the Royals’ collection of lizardry, stole second on Santiago and catcher Chris Ianetta after working out a walk following Hosmer’s blast. The Royals would strand him, but the scoring wouldn’t stop there.
Mike Moustakas would rejoin the unlikely Royals bomb squad with a launch over the right field fence on Angel reliever Mike Morin’s quarter in the fourth, followed not too much later in the inning by Cain’s sacrifice fly. The Royals would tack on their eighth run in the more conventional way (for the Royals, that is) in the sixth, when Aoki shot one up the pipe for a single sending Omar Infante home.
It was Moustakas who pried the win out with an eleventh-inning bomb to open the set. But it would be the Angels going out with the proverbial whimper and not the proverbial bang.
The Royals needed something other than a sacrifice fly from Cain in the fifth inning and got it. With Kole Calhoun (one-out line single to center) on second and Trout (walk) on first, Cain made a pair of diving catches, running just about the length of the field to spear Pujols’s bloop, then sliding into Kendrick’s sinking liner to quell that threat. Call your office, 1969 Mets.
“I think it’s a whole new ball game,” Scioscia would concur, “if Cain doesn’t make those catches.”
An inning earlier, they needed Shields to re-horse on a dime after he got into even more serious trouble with Pujols’s leadoff bomb, Erick Aybar’s one-out double, and a plunk against 2011 postseason hero David Freese. Fortunately, Shields had Hamilton to face after Freese took his base. Never mind Hamilton wrestling Shields to a full count, the righthander got him to force Freese at second before pounding a swishout into Cron for the side.
Kaufmann Stadium merely rocked and rolled the night away while the Royals finished what they started. A pair of hair raisers is all well and good but every so often you need an old-fashioned battering to break the monotony. The crowd did not go unappreciated by the upstart Royals, who’d edged the Angels in the Angels’ house before fanning their behinds roundly at home.
“This is a special time in the city right now and they’re enjoying this as much as we are,” Shields marveled after the game. ”This is the best atmosphere I’ve ever been a part of.”
Just wait until the Royals take on the Baltimore Orioles in the League Championship Series in a few days. The team with the fewest home runs in baseball this year against the team with the most. If the Royals find a way to cockroach the Orioles and their nuclear bats, too, Kansas City may not have the proper medication to calm the long-suffering Royal faithful down.
As for the Angels? It doesn’t feel anywhere within ten nautical miles of delicious to know they’re the first team in the division series era to be swept out of a division series after posting baseball’s best record on the regular season. Their few flaws—the rotation depth fractured by Richards’ knee injury and losing Tyler Skaggs to Tommy John surgery; the lack of bench depth; the parched farm system—turned into a humiliating postseason exit.
“Anything happens in the playoffs,” Scioscia said in his usual style, which most take to be matter of fact but some think betrays a manager who’s too cool for his own good. Once upon a time Scioscia looked like a composed genius. Now he looks like a man clinging stubbornly to things that haven’t worked since his first and only World Series conquest, twelve years ago.
”You don’t go in with any badge saying you won the most games,” he said, quietly, “and you’re certainly not going to get any points for that going into the playoffs.”
Figure that out by himself, did he?