Brandon Moss' power, Ned Yost's reflexively ordered bunts, the A's blowing a big lead, the Royals stealing runs with speed — the AL Wild Card game seemed like the 2014 season in a microcosm, or at least a whole playoff series instead of a single game. At 12 innings and nearly five hours, it was certainly an adult-sized portion, but not nearly enough for Royals fans who waited 29 years since the team's last postseason appearance. They'll get more because Kansas City prevailed 9-8 when Josh Donaldson was unable to stop Salvador Perez's hard shot down the third base line, allowing Christian Colon to bring home the winning run.
Billed as a matchup between two hired guns acquired via blockbuster trades— James Shields for the Royals, Jon Lester for the A's — and envisioned as a low-scoring affair where every run would loom large instead turned into a high-scoring, seesaw battle with five lead changes and no shortage of questionable decisions on the part of both managers. Nine runs? The Royals hadn't scored that many since August 17, when they plated 12.
For most of the first seven innings, it appeared as though things might go Oakland's way with Moss the hero — player and team salvaging their late-season slides by coming up big when it counted most. After clubbing 21 homers and hitting .268/.349/.530 in the first half while earning All-Star honors, Moss sank to .173/.310/.274 with four homers in the second half while playing through torn cartilage in his right hip, but his recent cortisone shot appeared to help. With two outs and a man on first base in the first inning, he turned on a Shield changeup at the knees and hammered it 426 feet to rightfield, staking the A's to a 2-0 lead.
His second shot, a 432-foot three-run homer to dead center in the sixth inning off Yordano Ventura, would put the A's up 5-3 but some of the game's twists and turns between those two blasts are worth revisiting.
The Royals responded to Moss' first homer by scratching out a run in the bottom of the first via an Alcides Escobar infield single, a fielder's choice that replaced him with Nori Aoki, a steal of second, a walk to Hosmer and then an RBI single by Billy Butler. The Royals ran themselves out of the inning, however; Butler was apparently instructed to try a delayed double-steal, but his execution was so poor that the A's quickly caught on and shortstop Jed Lowrie threw home in time to catch Hosmer trying to score. On the play, however, A's catcher Geovany Soto injured his left thumb while applying the tag, and after being rung up on a called strikeout in the top of the second, he left the game.
That injury loomed large, because Soto — who had never caught Lester before —had been tabbed by manager Bob Melvin for his ability to cut down the running game. Including his time with the Rangers, he threw out 43 percent of would-be base thieves this year, while replacement Derek Norris threw out just 17 percent. This drop off would come back to haunt Oakland.
While Norris had caught Lester, the pair initially had trouble finding a groove. Royals hitters stepped out to disrupt the pitcher's rhythm and sat on his cut fastball, and it resulted in Kansas City taking the lead in the third via a Mike Moustakas single, a sacrifice bunt — the first of four KC would pull off in the game — a Lorenzo Cain RBI double and a Hosmer bloop single.
Shields labored through the first two innings, throwing a combined 45 pitches, but he settled into a groove, needing 35 to get through the next three frames and at one point retiring seven in a row. With a clean sixth inning, he would put Yost in a position to call on his "HDH" relievers — Kelvin Herrera for the seventh, Wade Davis for the eighth and Greg Holland for the ninth — a trio that help the Royals go 65-4 (.942) in games in which they led after six, about five wins better than the average AL team (.875) in that situation. But as with the September 14 game against the Red Sox when Yost was forced to deviate from his plan and called the wrong number in the sixth inning en route to a Daniel Nava grand slam — because how could his seventh-inning guy come in early? — Yost bungled the situation after Shields started the sixth by allowing a broken-bat single to Sam Fuld and a six-pitch walk to Josh Donaldson.
With the lefty-swinging Moss followed in the order by lefty Josh Reddick, switch-hitter Jed Lowrie and lefty Stephen Vogt, Yost bypassed lefty Danny Duffy — who began the year in the Royals' bullpen and held lefties to a minuscule .137/.225/.161 in 139 plate appearances — in favor of Ventura, a rookie righthander who had thrown 73 pitches on Sunday and who had just one relief appearance all year. Granted, Melvin might have countered with righty Jonny Gomes for Moss, but it was a chance worth taking, particularly given Duffy's ability to handle righties (.230/.301/369 this year) in case Melvin chose to dig deeper into his bench. Thrust into an unfamiliar situation, the effectively wild Ventura fell behind 2-0, and then Moss pounced on a 98 mph fastball and gave the A's a 5-3 lead, deflating the boisterous Kauffman Stadium crowd of 40,502.
The A's kept going. Reddick followed with a single, took second on a wild pitch and third on Lowrie's fly ball. Only then did Yost call on Herrera, who got Vogt to foul out to catcher Sal Perez, but then served up a trio of singles that added two runs. By that point, Lester was cruising. From the fourth to the seventh, he retired 12 of 13 hitters on a combined total of 47 pitches, yielding only a bunt single to Omar Infante and running his pitch count to 94. The Royals were running out of outs.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, however, the Royals responded, using their speed to spark a rally. Escobar reached on an infield single, stole second, took third on a ground out and scored on Cain's single, Lester's 104th pitch of the night. Melvin stuck with his flagging starter, but Cain stole second while Hosmer battled his way to a seven-pitch walk. Melvin summoned righty Luke Gregerson, who served up a single to Billy Butler, scoring Cain to cut the lead to 7-5.
Yost kept the track meet going, calling on pinch-running specialist Terrance Gore — a rookie who stole five bases in 11 games but made just two plate appearances after being summoned from the minors — to run for Butler. He stole second, and took third on a wild pitch as Hosmer scored to cut the lead to 7-6. The Royals had two cracks at getting Gore home with the tying run, but Perez and Infante both put together terrible at-bats, striking out swinging at pitches well off the plate while seeing a combined seven pitches.
The A's threatened in the ninth, loading the bases against Holland via three walks, albeit to no avail. Melvin summoned lefty closer Sean Doolittle, and Yost countered with righty Josh Willingham to pinch-hit for Moustakas. He dunked a single into rightfield, then yielded to another speedster, Jarrod Dyson. While everyone in the ballpark expected Dyson to take off for second base, Yost inexplicably burned an out by having Escobar bunt. Only after he reached second did Dyson steal third. The bad sequence wound up paying off nonetheless, as Aoki hit a fly ball to deep rightfield that plated Dyson and sent the game into extra innings.
With his main trio of relievers spent, Yost called on rookie southpaw Brandon Finnegan, a 21-year-old who was the 17th pick of the 2014 amateur draft with just 34 professional innings — and who had pitched at the College World Series just three months ago — under his belt. The kid set down the A's in order in the 10th and worked around a two-out single in the 11th. Meanwhile, the Royals' 10th and 11th innings followed a nearly identical pattern: get the leadoff man on (Hosmer and Infante via singles), bunt him to second, get him to third on a groundout and then shrug as a Royals hitter (Perez via groundout, pinch-hitter Jayson Nix via strikeout) made the third out.
Finnegan faltered in the 12th, walking Reddick to lead off the frame. Taking a page from the Royals' playbook, Lowrie (who had just two sacrifices all year) bunted him to second, and as Finnegan gave way to righty Jason Frasor, Melvin's choice of pinch-hitter, Alberto Callaspo, came through with an RBI single to give the A's an 8-7 lead.It would not hold, however. Righty Dan Otero, who had pitched the 11th, nearly served up a game-tying homer to Hosmer to start the bottom half of the frame. The ball hit near the top of the left centerfield wall as Fuld (playing centerfield after Crisp exited due to a hamstring cramp) and Gomes (in left) nearly collided, giving Hosmer a leadoff triple.
Christian Colon's chopper to third base brought Hosmer home with the tying run. Two batters, two pitching changes and yes, Colon's stolen base — the Royals' seventh of the night — later, Perez's grounder off Jason Hammel snuck by Donaldson and pandemonium broke loose in Kaufmann Stadium.
With the win, the Royals advance to face the Angels in the Division Series starting on Thursday night in Anaheim. For all of the naysayers who felt that last year's blockbuster Wil Myers-James Shields trade wouldn't be justified simply by a one-and-done cameo in the postseason, or that Yost's small-ball tactics would lead the team to doom, this win provides a raucous refutation to those assertions, at least for one night. It will be years before the trade score is settled, and Yost's style may yet wear out its welcome, but it takes a hard heart not to appreciate the joyful catharsis for the franchise and their fans over a moment of glory after nearly three decades of irrelevant baseball.
As for the A's, this was just one more stunning collapse to cap one of the worst fades in memory. They spent nearly five months looking like the best team in baseball, but after reaching their zenith at 28 games above .500 (72-44) with a four-game AL West lead over the Angels on August 9, they went an AL-worst 16-30 the rest of the way, depriving them not only of the breathing room for a full playoff series but even of a home game in front of their frenzied fans at O.Co Coliseum. Lester will hit free agency, and while they'll still have something to show for their summer swaps by retaining Jeff Samardzija, where Billy Beane's club goes from here is a question for a later date. For the moment, this goes alongside their particularly painful playoff ousters of 2000, 2001 and 2003 as just another opportunity that slipped away.