KANSAS CITY — “It’s not a death sentence to lose Game 1,” the steely skipper of the Royals, Ned Yost, reminded the interview room at Kaufman Stadium late Thursday night. It was moments after the Royals’ 5–2 loss to the Astros in the opening game of the ALDS—the 2015 postseason still had that new car smell, the Royals’ Unfinished Business tour this October still just getting revved up. After one game, nobody expected doubt and panic to be coursing through K.C.
And yet there was something about the Astros’ win that felt bigger than your typical Game 1 victory, and a question during Yost’s postgame news conference pinpointed exactly why. “Does knowing that Keuchel would be there in Game 3 put any more importance on tomorrow?” Yost was asked. Replied the manager, sensing the (ZZ Top-bearded) elephant in the room: “Tomorrow will be a big game for us, yeah.”
Yes, Dallas Keuchel—his numbers at home, if you need reminding: 15–0, 1.46 ERA—looms in Game 3 this weekend in Houston, and that’s why the Astros’ win felt so significant, why Friday afternoon’s Game 2 suddenly feels as close to a must-win as you can get this early in a series. To lose Game 2, Ned? Well, yes, that could very well be a death sentence for Kansas City.
It’s the cruelty of October: One loss can change everything, even early in a series. And just two wins at the start of the playoffs can suddenly give you the aura of a team of destiny. How quickly things have changed for the Astros, who were fighting for their lives just a week ago. Now? The Astros look formidable: Two days after beating the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, the Astros overcame a ferocious K.C. crowd; a 47-minute rain delay that figured to derail Collin McHugh’s start; a George Brett impersonation from Kendrys Morales (the DH became the first Royal with a multi-HR playoff game since Brett in ’85); and a brilliant relief appearance from Chris Young, to beat the AL’s best regular season team. There’s a reason why even the Royals say this Astros team—young, hungry, and fearless—reminds them of those brash K.C. kids of ’14.
Its manager, A.J. Hinch, is pushing all the right buttons right now, as Yost seemed to do a year ago. Hinch played hobbled Carlos Gomez in the wild-card game, and the centerfielder rewarded him with a home run at Yankee Stadium. In Game 1 of the ALDS he sat Gomez for Jake Marisnick, who doubled off Yordano Ventura and scored on Jose Altuve’s single to give Houston a 3–0 lead. After the rain delay, as Yost pulled his starter, Ventura, Hinch stuck with McHugh, who allowed just one run over four innings after returning. “We’ve got a little bit of a soft rule of about an hour or so,” Hinch said. “It was starting to get to that point.”
For the most part, the Astros followed the formula that made them the surprise team of 2015 and propelled them past the Yankees on Tuesday: Their starter gave them a solid outing; the homer-happy offense provided the fireworks (with George Springer homering in the fifth and Colby Rasmus in the eighth) while again striking out a ton (14 times!); the defense made plays; and the bullpen closed things out, with three scoreless innings from Tony Sipp, Will Harris, Oliver Perez and Luke Gregerson.
A driving rain began to fall in the stadium in the second inning, as a bolt of lightning overhead sent fans beneath the overhang. After the completion of the inning, the tarp was rolled out, with nearly disastrous results, beginning the 47-minute delay. With the stoppage, Ventura’s night was over after two innings and 42 pitches. Said Yost, “We were considering bringing him back [in Game 4], and when he sat there, [pitching coach Dave Eiland] and I said O.K., 50 minutes max, for him. Forty-five for a young guy is more like our number.”
Chris Young, Ventura’s replacement, presented the Astros with a completely different look: While Ventura’s fastball is the hardest in baseball among starters—96.1-mph average, according to Fangraphs—Young averages 86.6 mph on his heater, one of the slowest fastballs in the game. Young is 6'10", but he seems much taller on the mound. Even without the big fastball, he can be intimidating. Young struck out the first batter he faced.
He struck out the next, and the next, and the next, and the next, and the next. Six in a row, from a pitcher who struck out 83 hitters in 123 1/3 innings in the regular season. Young’s showstopping performance seemed to give the Royals and Kauffman Stadium a jolt—he gave up just one run (Springer’s home run) over four innings, justifying Yost’s decision to take out his young starter, Ventura, who is now available for a Game 4 start.
Hinch, meanwhile, opted to keep McHugh in the game, and his righthander never let the Royals back in the game, matching Young’s dominance. Out of the rain delay McHugh struck out the first batter he faced, Alex Rios, on three pitches, on his way to a 1–2–3 third inning, and rolled from there. On the night he allowed just four hits, two of which were solo home runs to Morales. “That wasn’t even his best tonight, and he got through a pretty good lineup and battled,” said Hinch. “Man, he gutted it out with some really good breaking balls and some really good cut fastballs.”
In Game 2, it’ll be a duel of two July acquisitions, Johnny Cueto and Scott Kazmir, and given how these two performed down the stretch, it’s impossible to predict what will happen. Kazmir hasn’t won since Aug. 22, with a 6.52 ERA in his final six starts. Hinch said on Thursday that Kazmir’s success against Kansas City this season—a 2.11 ERA over 21 1/3 innings—factored into his decision to go with the lefty, despite his recent struggles. “It’s hard to get a good approach on those guys, because they don’t strike out,” Kazmir said on Thursday. “They want their pitch and they won’t stop until they get it.”
The Royals struck out just four times in Game 1, but other than the fireworks provided by Morales, the offense was silent. Yes, it was only one game, and as Yost will remind us, too soon to begin writing the obituary. It seems unlikely that this 95-win team that for much of the season was the best team in the league, by far, will go quietly in the night—but if it loses Friday, it could be a very quick exit for the defending AL champs.