Even after finally losing, Royals have reasons for optimism in Game 2
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — So yes, the manner by which the Kansas City Royals suffered their first defeat of this postseason — and their first playoff loss in five days short of 29 years — was dispiriting. It seemed headed that way starting with the game's very first at-bat, by the Giants' Gregor Blanco, which ended with a result that hasn't seemed to have happened all month: A ball was struck in the direction of Royals centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, and Cain could not catch it.
Things quickly snowballed from there, as Kansas City starter James Shields' "Big Game James" nickname was further undermined, and the 40,459 berserk Violet Beauregardes in attendance turned silent. The Giants led 3-0 by the end of the first inning, thanks to a Buster Posey single, a Pablo Sandoval double and a two-run home run by Hunter Pence, and were well on their way to a 7-1 trouncing.
Even so, by the light of a new day — which will bring with it Game 2 of this World Series, starting at 7:07 PM Central — Tuesday night's result wasn't much of a disaster for the Royals. For one thing, if they couldn't have expected the lopsided score, they might have anticipated the bottom line result. That was because of the opposing starter they faced, Madison Bumgarner. Playoff tested at the age of 25, Bumgarner has been this postseason's single most dominant pitcher — the NLCS MVP entered the game with a 1.42 ERA over four starts — and he was just that again on Tuesday, allowing three hits in seven innings by consistently crossing up the Royals with his cut fastball.
"Bumgarner, he was dynamite," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "Man, was he good tonight." The prevailing wisdom before the game was that even though the game was played in Kansas City, the Giants needed to win it for the sake of their long-term prospects, with Bumgarner on the mound, more than the Royals did. That it proved a rout does not change that reality.
In fact, Kansas City emerged from the blowout able to point to a few definitive positives. One was the way it scored its lone run, which ended Bumgarner's World Series shutout streak at 21 2/3 innings and his record-setting postseason streak of shutout innings pitched on the road at 33 1/3 (those streaks will officially be recorded at 21 and 32 2/3 innings, respectively, because Major League Baseball counts strangely). It came on a 379-foot, seventh inning blast by Salvador Perez, the big Royals catcher.
Postseasons are physically taxing on catchers, who usually must sustain their nightly beatings without a break — Perez's backup, Erik Kratz, hasn't squatted once so far — and this one has been particularly tough on Perez, who has so far twice been hit in the head with backswings and once took a foul tip off his thumb. If those incidents had contributed to the struggles at the plate of one of the game's best-hitting backstops, Perez wasn't saying so, but his numbers suggested that they might have been. When he stepped in against Bumgarner in the second inning, the playoff batting average that glowed next to his name on the scoreboard read .118. After he grounded into a double play, it read .114. After he struck out swinging in the bottom of the fourth, it read .111. He was 4-for-36 in October, with nine strikeouts and no extra-base hits.
With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, though, Bumgarner threw a 93 mile-an-hour fastball up and in to Perez, and Perez turned on it. Yes, it proved to be the Royals' only run, but it was also a genuine reason for optimism. "I think the biggest thing is Salvy getting that home run," said first baseman Eric Hosmer of his positive takeaways from Game 1. "If we can get him hot, that makes our lineup that much deeper and more effective. Salvy putting that big swing on it, it does a lot for his confidence right there. As a hitter, it really gets you feeling good."
The Royals could also feel good about the relievers they used in Game 1. It is sometimes better, in playoff situations, to get blown out early rather than lose a close one late, as the former situation allows a manager to use his mop-up men, saving his big arms for future fights. That's what Yost was able to do on Tuesday. Shields lasted just three innings, allowing seven hits and five runs, but the manager could thereafter plays things out with Danny Duffy, who had previously worked one playoff inning; Tim Collins, who had previously worked 2/3 of one; and then Jason Frasor, who had worked only three.
Yost not only kept his late-inning Cerberus of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland on the bench, but also his fourth option, Brandon Finnegan. "I didn't want to bring Finnegan in," Yost said. "I didn't want to bring Herrera in these games. Finnegan, Herrera, Davis, Holland — they could be in the next four out of five days. So we were going to try to finish it up with Danny Duffy and Collins and Frasor." Mission accomplished.
A final positive for the Royals was that they could immediately look forward to a Game 2 in which they appear to hold the starting pitching advantage. Whereas Giants starter Jake Peavy is, at this point, a battler, Kansas City rookie Yordano Ventura has the look that Peavy did a decade ago, when he, too, was 23. Ventura this season delivered his average fastball in excess of 96 miles an hour, and he has had 11 days to recover from the shoulder tightness that forced him off the mound in the sixth inning of Game 2 of the ALCS.
"His side sessions have been absolutely dynamite," said Yost, situating Ventura on the same metaphorical level as he had Bumgarner. "I can't recall too many pitchers in my career that have his type of composure, his type of confidence and his type of stuff at that young an age. So we're really confident that he's going to come out and pitch a great game tomorrow."
Despite their Game 1 chainsawing, the Royals — with Bumgarner out of the way, with the battered Perez having finally put a good swing on a ball, with their key bullpen arms fresh and with Ventura set to start — find themselves in a situation that is anything but dire. "It's been awhile since we've lost, but you're not going to go through the whole postseason sweeping it," Hosmer said. "We did it up to this point. We just gotta bounce back."
If they don't in Game 2, only then will they be in genuine trouble.