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From Triple-A to Game 1 hero, Moustakas carries Royals to victory

Stellar outfield play and a go-ahead home run by Mike Moustakas in the 11th inning carried the Royals to a Game 1 win against the Angels.

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Given the relative anonymity of the Kansas City Royals to most of the country, when his home run cleared the right field fence at Angels Stadium in the 11th inning Thursday night, it may have caused you to wonder, Where on earth did Mike Moustakas come from?

There are several answers to that. Moustakas, the Kansas City Royals third baseman whose solo homer won Game 1 of the best-of-five AL Division series, 3-2 over the Angels, came from the minor-league Omaha Storm Chasers, where he was sent last May looking like a formerly prized prospect gone bust. He also came from nearby Chatsworth, Calif., about an hour north of Angels Stadium, which is why he had “tons” of friends and family on hand to witness his big moment on Thursday. And he came out of the 2007 draft, where he was the second pick overall, behind Detroit ace David Price.

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​Moustakas came out of all those places, which is to say, he came out of nowhere, much the way the Royals have in these playoffs. They are only two games into the postseason, but you’re already starting to get that feeling about them, aren’t you? The feeling that you need to get to know these guys better because they might be around for a while? The feeling that no matter what obstacles they face every night that things are going to work out for them in the end? The feeling that someone new is going to do something heroic somewhere along the line?

The feeling is unmistakable. Although starter Jason Vargas and a squadron of relievers pitched well, Kansas City really had no business winning Game 1, since its traditional formula was ineffective against the Angels. The Royals’ speed game that ran the Oakland A’s out of the postseason two nights earlier was slowed almost to a stop. They stole only one ultimately meaningless base and their first baserunner, Nori Aoki, was picked off. They had to pull reliever Kelvin Herrera after only one batter in the seventh because of forearm tightness. They had only one hit after the fourth inning. But after Moustakas' blast, none of that mattered.

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“I’ve always heard that anything can happen in October, and I’m seeing that is very true,” said pitcher Danny Duffy, who was a starter during the regular season but pitched a scoreless inning of relief in the 10th for the win. "We’ve got a scrappy team. A very, very talented team. A very raw team. So we’re excited.”

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And they’re exciting, sometimes unintentionally so, as when Aoki tracked down a C.J. Cron fly ball on the warning track in the seventh, taking a stumbling, circuitous route to the ball before catching it as he tumbled on the warning track. Then he smiled and tipped his hat to his teammates in the dugout because these are the Royals, and the Royals are fun.

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“Our guys are loose,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “Why shouldn’t they be? This is a great ride we’re on.”

The Angels, conversely, didn’t enjoy the ride in Game 1, and things probably won’t improve much unless they get the expected production from their big bats. Mike Trout’s much-anticipated playoff debut fell flat -- he was 0-4 with a walk, the same as their other slugger, first baseman Albert Pujols. Among them, Trout, Pujols and left fielder Josh Hamilton -- who, in fairness, was returning from a shoulder injury that sidelined him the last month of the season -- were 0-13 with two walks.

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“We couldn’t get that one hit, especially late,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “We hit two home runs (by Chris Iannetta and David Freese) to keep ourselves in the game, but outside of that we really didn’t pressure those guys very much.”

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All of the Angels’ squandered opportunities gave Moustakas the chance to be the hero, which, in light of how he had a slash line of .152/.223/.320 when he was demoted to Triple-A in May seemed about as likely as, well, as the Royals being two wins away from the AL Championship series. Moustakas had been a disappointment, to put it mildly, for most of his four seasons and the Royals had run out of ways to get him jump-started when they sent him to Omaha. He was so lost at the plate that when reporters in Omaha asked him if his problem was mental or mechanical, he said, “It could be anything. That’s why I’m here, to figure it out.” He figured it out well enough to hit .355 with a .960 OPS in Omaha, earning a return to Kansas City after only eight games. He didn’t exactly start ripping line drives upon his return, though, which is why he was batting ninth on Thursday night and Yost said he was considering pinch-hitting for him against left-handed pitching.

Moustakas described the Royals’ two postseason games as an “emotional roller coaster,” but he could have been talking about his own season, or even his career. Playing third in Omaha to playing the hero in the ALDS is a long journey.

“You have to be proud of him for staying with it, and coming as far as he’s come,” Yost said.

The Royals have come a long way as well. But it’s probably time to stop thinking about where they came from and start recognizing how far they just might go.