KANSAS CITY — Suddenly, it all looked so familiar: the roaring sea of blue, the late-inning procession of fire-breathing relievers out of the leftfield bullpen, the fireworks lighting up the sky over the towering scoreboard. Ned Yost took his familiar seat in the victorious manager’s seat after the game, praising the virtues of his players after a gut-wrenching one-run postseason win. The comedy duo of Salvy and Eskie — two heroes of the 2014 storybook Royals and two heroes of Friday’s Game 2 of the ALDS — sat side by side at the postgame press conference, cracking (mostly indecipherable) jokes. The faithful spilled out onto the massive parking lots outside the stadium, dancing and chanting in unison, as they did so many nights last October.
Maybe you’ve heard: the Astros are the new Royals. That may be so, but one thing has become clear this October: for the Royals to beat the new Royals, they need to be the old Royals. After a dud of a Game 1, for the 5 1/2 innings of Game 2 of the ALDS, the Royals looked liked they were in deep trouble. And then a familiar script emerged. The Astros led 4–2 entering the bottom of the sixth, but after a Lorenzo Cain double, an Eric Hosmer single, a Kendrys Morales single, and a Salvador Perez walk, we were tied 4–4. In the seventh, Alcides (Eskie) Escobar tripled, and scored the game-winning run. It took 15 innings, and the K.C. swagger was back — really, you could feel it come back the moment the Royals tied the game in the bottom of the sixth, and turned it over to their lock-down bullpen for the final three innings: Kelvin Herrera to Ryan Madson to Wade Davis.
“Once we tied that ballgame up in the sixth inning,” Yost said after the game, “you feel really good really good about your chances of holding the score right there until you score.”
The Royals reminded us why they were the league’s best regular season team. They reminded us with their bullpen, which — it should be said again, given how unhittable the 2014 unit was —is actually statistically better than it was a year ago, even without Greg Holland.
Houston’s first 13 batters in Game 2: six hits, two strikeouts, one home run, four runs.
Houston’s last 24 batters: two hits, seven strikeouts, no runs.
The Royals reminded us with their offense. Their lineup may not bash like Toronto or the Astros, but they are as balanced and deep as any other in the league (11 hits in this game from eight different players), and they are relentless, as they showed in the fateful sixth, in how they rallied for two runs. Recounted Astros manager A.J. Hinch, to make the point of just how difficult it is to put away the Royals hitters: “We had a two strike-double to Cain, a two-strike one-armed single to Hosmer, a two-strike rolling groundball to second base from [Kendrys] Morales right-handed,” he said. “They just continued to compete through their at-bats. They didn’t get to where they’re at without a pretty good offensive club … We’re going to think about that overnight, over the next couple nights on how to finish at-bats a little bit better to where it ends on our favor.”
And they won without a dominant performance from Johnny Cueto, who figured to be the most important player in Game 2, a virtual must-win for the Royals. When Royals GM Dayton Moore swung the deal to land Cueto at the end of July, it was hailed as exactly the move that the Royals, even as they were cruising to the division crown, needed to make to win the World Series. Here was the bona fide ace — Cueto was 7-6 with a 2.62 ERA at the time of the move, after a 2013 in which he went 20-9 with a 2.25 with the Reds — to put them over the top. Except he was far from that guy for Kansas City over the last two months, and no one seemed to know why. They tried everything to crack the mystery: they had him turn his left shoulder later as he started his motion to the plate. They had Perez set up lower. They told him to relax. There were signs that Cueto was coming around down the stretch, but he still didn’t look like the dominator he was in Cincinnati.
No, it was not vintage Cueto on Friday. He struggled early, but he did not unravel. After giving up runs in the first three innings, he settled down and kept the Royals in the game, allowing four earned runs over his six innings. “He finally really got dialed in after the third inning and kept us right there through six,” said Yost. “I looked at Dave [Eiland] and said, what do you think of his outing? Dave said he pitched good enough to win.” It was far from a masterful October performance, and perhaps this was a good sign for the Royals going forward, but you have to think they’ll need a better Cueto if they’re going to go far this postseason.
If the Astros lose this series, they’ll look back at this game as the one they should have won. With a two-run lead heading to the bottom of the sixth, a bullpen that had turned around their late-season struggles and ace Dallas Keuchel going in Game 3, this was Houston’s chance to take full control of the series. Asked after the game whether taking one game in Kansas City was mission accomplished, Hinch replied, “No, not after that loss, I don’t feel like mission’s accomplished … We were in position to win that game.”
There is not doubt, though, that the Astros are in good position as the series swings to Houston. They will have Keuchel in Game 3 on the home mound, where he was 15–0 with a 1.46 ERA this season. They have a pair of games in Houston, where they were 53–28 this season, tied with the Blue Jays for the best home record in the league. They have their phenom, Lance McCullers, lined up for a potential Game 4 start: the rookie was 4–1 with a 1.86 ERA in 10 starts.
October sometimes isn’t about being the best team. It’s about being hot at the right time, and no team knows that better than Kansas City after its miracle run a year ago. After Game 1, and for much of Game 2, the Astros looked like they could be too hot to handle in this series. Then the Royals that we all know finally showed up, and really, it’s impossible to say where the things go from here.
Houston, we now have a series.