Sunday, October 25, 2015

ALCS: Royals Win Pennant on the Run

By Jeff Kallman

In 1946, it was Enos Slaughter's mad dash home in the eighth inning while Johnny Pesky held the ball. (Actually, he didn't, but Pesky had no chance to throw home in time after taking a high throw in from center field.) And it meant a World Series triumph for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Almost 70 years later, it was Lorenzo Cain's mad dash home while Jose Bautista threw to second. Also in the eighth inning. But it meant a trip to the World Series for the Kansas City Royals Friday night.

A trip no Royals team even in the golden age of George Brett ever accomplished. The greatest of Brett's teams never got to the World Series back to back.

But here the Royals are, headed for a Series against the New York Mets that promises at minimum to be as arduously exciting as the American League Championship Series they just finished against the Toronto Blue Jays.

You could say that only something even more dramatic could rescue the Royals after Bautista himself tied the proceedings with a 2-run homer in the top of the eighth. Right after Royals reliever Ryan Madson atoned for Ben Revere's leadoff high-chop single by dropping strike three called in on Josh Donaldson.

You could also say Cain had no qualms whatsoever about delivering. With a little help from third base coach Mike Jirschele, who took a lot of (unwarranted) heat for not sending Alex Gordon last year. Slaughter actually ran a stop sign. Jirschele had no intention of holding one up.

Especially since Bautista probably shouldn't have been facing Madson in the first place. Every pair of eyes in Kauffmann Stadium wondered why Royals manager Ned Yost — who had Wade Davis warmed in the pen — didn't reach for his closer and dare a five-out save out of him after Revere reached, or even after strike three to Donaldson with Bautista looming.

Madson was good on the regular season, but touched for 5 runs in five and a third postseason innings, and Bautista is more than a match for him. And the Royals are about to face a World Series opponent whose manager thought nothing of asking his closer Jeurys Familia for a 6-out save to get the Mets to the National League Championship Series in the first place.

These stakes were bigger, the Royals being five outs from the Series. Sure enough, Madson sent Bautista a high enough fastball on 0-1. And, sure enough, Bautista sent it high enough over the left field fence. And Madson was left in long enough to walk Edwin Encarnacion on a full count.

Then Yost went to Davis, who promptly got a popup hauled in by second baseman Ben Zobrist on the outfield grass and Troy Tulowitzki on a swinging strikeout. And then the rains gave the ballpark a shower and the tarp came out over the field post haste.

Some 47 minutes later, Cain finally opened the bottom of the eighth. He wrung an eight-pitch walk out of Toronto closer Roberto Osuna. Then Eric Hosmer lined a 2-2 service high and toward the right field corner. Bautista on his horse could only let it hit the turf and bounce into his glove.

Cain had about a 17-step lead off first base when Hosmer hit the ball. But he gunned it and was slightly more than halfway to third base by the time Bautista ran the drive down. Throwing in to second base is probably what's been hammered into Bautista for as long as he's been playing right field and running down high line drives. He'd done it all postseason, and the Royals knew it.

Who else knew Jirschele would let Cain go all the way in? Who else knew Cain had exactly that in mind even on his self-admitted not-a-hundred-percent-legs? From somewhere in the Elysian Fields Enos Slaughter was pumping his fist and hollering wildly. From somewhere among the ghosts on the Warner Brothers lot, the Road Runner was crowing beep-beep!

"I felt like that I cut it off quick enough, I could throw to second and I would prevent [Hosmer] from going to second, and prevent Cain from scoring," said Bautista soberly after the game, a stunned Wile E. Coyote unable to halt his prey. "But I was wrong.

"But God knows what would have happened had I tried to throw home. If I throw the ball home, the situation's probably men on second and third with no outs. So, it's not a guaranteed run because I threw to second, but they were in a pretty good position to score at least one."

Yes, there were two very questionable strikes thrown to Ben Revere and pinch-hitter Dioner Navarro. Yes, there's going to be a lot of controversy over Mike Moustakas's second-inning bomb, for which a fan seemed to reach but which was held up on review. And, yes, Moustakas's drive did clear, by inches perhaps, but clear enough on a slowed-down replay.

Now, however, they're liable to forget or downplay even Bautista's mammoth thump off Royals starter Yordano Ventura in the top of the fourth to cut the Royals' early 2-0 lead in half.

Even Blue Jays starter David Price settling down after Moustakas's homer to pitch more like the man who helped mean the American League East for the Blue Jays in the first place, until the Royals put a man on second with one out in the seventh against him. (You might care to note than in four of Price's eight postseason losses he did pitch well enough to win, including Friday night.)

Even Moustakas's staggering snatch of Donaldson's speed-of-light liner in the fifth, denying a likely game-tying RBI hit. Even Revere's stupefying catch of Salvador Perez's high flyer against the left field bullpen fence, taking an RBI double away in the seventh. Even the Royals' vaunted bullpen blowing a save after the sixth inning for the first time since they returned to the postseason last year.

Even Davis's escape act in the top of the ninth — overcoming a leadoff single from Russell Martin and two stolen bases from Martin's pinch runner Dalton Pompey during a walk to Kevin Pillar — by striking out Navarro (with a little help from that slightly high pitch called strike two instead of ball three) and Revere, before getting Donaldson to ground out to third with Bautista on deck. "At that point," Davis would say later of Pompey's theft of third, "it was about as bad as it could get, a man on third with no outs. Just hoping for some magic and get out of it."

Even the staggering Game 3 comeback from a should-have-been Toronto blowout to an 11-8 narrow Toronto win. Even the Royals' Game 4 vengeance, a 14-2 obliteration. Even Cliff Pennington, an infielder by trade, taking one for the Blue Jays in the ninth of that massacre. Even Marco Estrada's Game Five masterpiece. Even Alcides Escobar, the Royals' leadoff pest, bagging the series MVP with his 11-for-23 performance at the plate.

None of that got anywhere close to Cain for sending every jaw in the ballpark or in front of a television set to the floor.

"I heard the crowd roar diving back into first," said Hosmer after Game 6, "and didn't really know what had happened at first. It was a credit to Cain for running the whole way, and it was a credit to Jirsh for sending him. That's our style of play."

About the only time on the night that Cain ran faster was in from the outfield, to the pennant winning celebration, after Moustakas threw Donaldson out to end it. And why not? He'd only run the Royals' pennant across the plate in the previous inning.

Beep-beep!

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