A Ballad to the ’14 – ’15 Royals: Part I, “Almost” (2014)

If you’ve ever been in a baseball dugout at virtually any level, from little league to the majors, you’ve probably been in a game where your team is down by an insurmountable amount of runs.  You’ve also probably had one of those teammates who remind everyone “still got three outs!”, “let’s get them back, one at a time!”, or something in that vein.  It’s irritatingly optimistic, but also, at it’s core, inherently true.  Baseball is built on this idea of scraping specs of hope from the crushing inevitability of failure.  The 1914 Boston Braves, the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, Bill Mazeroski’s Game 7 Home Run in 1960, all the way to the 2004 Boston Red Sox.  We hold these as examples of why the game is so great, and why, like the hope that we so foolishly hold on to, is timeless.

On the other end of that stick is tragedy.  It is being Ralph Terry, who gave up that infamous home run in 1960.  It is Mariano Rivera, the normally invincible closer, who saw one too many of his normally untouchable cutters escape into center field.  John McGraw’s New York Giants were the team that watched hopelessly as the normally hapless Boston Braves rolled past them in the standings to take the National League Pennant, and sweep Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics to take their first World Series.  These are the teams and figures that are relegated to footnotes in history.  The “plus ones” to events that will forever shape the game, for better or worse.

In 2014 and 2015, baseball saw one team, with a strikingly similar core group of players, experience both of these worlds.  And it was possibly the greatest postseason experiences of recent memory.  Let’s begin in 2014 with the newly minted Wild Card Game…

It’s the 8th inning, and the Oakland A’s lead the Kansas City Royals by a 7-3 score.  The A’s pitcher, John Lester, fresh off winning a World Series with the Boston Red Sox, is cruising.  The A’s had just piled on 5 runs in the 6th, and it seemed as though the Royals simply had no answers.  Then,

  • Single
  • Stolen base
  • Ground out
  • Single (scores a run)
  • Stolen Base
  • Single (Scores a run)
  • Stolen Base
  • Wild Pitch (scores a run)

All of that happened… in a row.  If you’re counting, that’s now a 7-6 score, and there’s a whole lot of green hats starting to look a little bewildered.  They seemed to compose themselves and get the next two outs (despite the tying run standing on third base), but like that irrepressibly positive bench outfielder was saying earlier, there’s still three outs to go.  The Royals would tie the game in the 9th, thanks to the speed of Jarrod Dyson (The loneliest place in Kaufmann Stadium that night was behind the plate, where Derek Norris allowed 7 stolen bases to the speedy Royals, a postseason record), and the game marched on, into the 12th inning.  Alberto Callaspo gave the A’s the lead in the top of the inning, but it was an epic collision between Sam Fuld and Jonny Gomes in the outfield that gave Eric Hosmer a triple, and a subsequent dash to home on a grounder tied the game.  That (and the last of the stolen bases for the Royals), gave Salvy Perez all the room he needed.  A ground ball squirts past Josh Donaldson, and it’s game over.  Royals win.

Kansas City would go on to make quick work of the Anaheim Angels and Baltimore Orioles, sweeping both clubs on the way to their first World Series appearance since 1985, and a date with the New York Giants, looking to win their third World Series title in 6 years.

The series would prove to be a see-saw battle, with each team trading wins through the first four games.  San Francisco took game 5, thanks to a dominant shutout performance by Madison Bumgarner, shutting out the Royals, and setting his team up to take the series in six.  The Royals would have none of it, however, and took the sixth game in dominant fashion, shutting out the Giants 10-0.

The table had been set, and the pieces in place.  The greatest event in all of sports, the 7th game of the World Series began.  It seemed as though when the usually sluggish designated hitter Billy Butler scored on an Alex Gordon double, images of Enis Slaughter began dancing through historians heads, and the Royals seemed destined to take down the Goliath that was the Giants.

Enter Bumgarner.  Exit, that thought.

Madison Bumgarner had just pitched a complete game shutout not two days earlier, and yet here he was, jogging out to the mound, trying to close out the Royals and take home a third World Series title for his team.  He was dealing up to the ninth inning, when probably the most hotly debated event in recent World Series history occured..

It starts innocently enough.  A looping line drive, seems to be a single to get a rally going.  Watch carefully though, and you see the sudden turn the ball takes, away from Gregor Blanco, a decent (though not outstanding) outfielder.  It rolls to the wall, Juan Perez chasing after it.  Ok, easy double, maybe a triple.  Then he bobbles it, and suddenly a thought flickers…

He could go all the way…

The only thing stopping Gordon?  Third base coach Mike Jirschele, who put up the most important stop sign in recent history.  Scouts and fans alike would debate the viability of sending Alex home, the prospect of tying the final game of the World Series on the line.  The science says, they would’ve been disappointed. Gordon held at third base, relying on Salvador Perez to drive him home and tie the game.  One final crack at Goliath.  One more rock in the slingshot.

This is what ensued.

 

ALMOST

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