The Royals are headed to the World Series for the first time since 1985 after beating the Orioles in Game 4 of the ALCS to complete a four-game sweep.
1. The Education of Ned Yost
There is much to be impressed by with the Royals' run to the World Series, but their romp through October goes far beyond the normal cause for celebration when a club reaches the Fall Classic. In beating the Orioles on Wednesday, Kansas City became the first team ever to open a postseason with eight straight wins. Six of those victories have come either in extra innings or by a single run. Perhaps more impressively, the last of those wins rarely felt in doubt despite the fact that the Royals needed to get 21 outs while protecting the slimmest margin possible.
Such is the overwhelming nature of their bullpen. In the ALCS, Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Jason Frasor and Brandon Finnegan pitched 16 innings and allowed just two runs for a 1.13 ERA, yielding only 11 hits and three walks and striking out 14. In Game 4, the fearsome trio of Herrera, Davis and Holland covered the last 3 2/3 innings and allowed only three baserunners, with none of them getting into scoring position.
The pitchers deserve the overwhelming majority of credit, of course, but Kansas City manager Ned Yost should be lauded as well. After being rightly criticized for his questionable — and, many would say, incorrect — bullpen choices in the Wild-Card Game win over the Athletics, Yost limited his bullpen whenever possible to those three pitchers and didn't hesitate to make a move at the first sign of trouble.
He did it again on Wednesday, removing starter Jason Vargas with one on and one out in the sixth inning even though he had allowed just two hits and hadn't even reached the 80-pitch mark. After Game 3, Yost said he turned to Frasor for the sixth inning because he had to plan for the possibility that, because of Monday's postponement due to rain, his team would have to play five games in five days. On Wednesday he abandoned that caution and went straight to Herrera.
There was good reason to avoid going to Finnegan. Not only was he pitching in college as recently as June, but he was the only member of the 'pen to have been roughed up in this series, giving up three hits and a run while getting only one out in Game 1 (leaving the rest of the bullpen with a 0.57 ERA in the ALCS). Frasor, though, had pitched a clean inning in Game 3, his only work in this series, and could have faced any of the three righty sluggers Baltimore had coming to the plate in Steve Pearce, Adam Jones and Nelson Cruz.
Instead, Yost chose Herrera, who worked around a two-out bloop single by Jones to get out of the jam without giving up the lead. Davis then pitched an easy eighth, surrendering only Nick Markakis' two-out single, and Holland finished things up in the ninth. Despite allowing a leadoff walk to Jones, he recovered to get Cruz to bounce into a fielder's choice — shortstop Alcides Escobar made a fine play to field Holland's wide throw and drag his foot across the bag — before striking out Delmon Young and getting J.J. Hardy to ground out to third for the final out.
2. No O in these O's
The Orioles led the AL in home runs this season while ranking third in OPS. Yet their offense was less and less productive as the series went on, and it deserted them completely as soon as the ALCS shifted to Kansas City. After scoring six runs in Game 1 and four in Game 2, both losses, Baltimore mustered just one run on three hits in Game 3, and only one run on four hits in Game 4. That lone run came courtesy of a Ryan Flaherty homer in the third inning. That was only the second home run of the series for the Orioles, who were doomed as much by their inability to build rallies without the longball as they were by their inability to hit the ball out of the ballpark.
In Game 4, Baltimore got a leadoff walk four times yet only had one inning in which it had two men on base at the same time. A pair of double pays — both by designated hitter Young — killed potential rallies early and prevented the Orioles from ever putting any real pressure on Vargas. Then once the Kansas City bullpen took over, the game was all but over.
3. D the Difference
If the biggest part of the Royals' success this postseason was their relievers, and the most memorable part of their ALDS win over the Angels' was the timely, late-game hitting by homegrown position players, then the part that will be most appropriate for the highlight reels was their spectacular defense. Outfielders Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson and Nori Aoki made a series of outstanding grabs and throws against Los Angeles, and third baseman Mike Moustakas stole the spotlight with a pair of sparkling plays against Baltimore in Game 3. In Game 4, it was leftfielder Alex Gordon's turn.
Hardy led off the fifth by hitting a line drive to left than sent Gordon back toward the warning track. He reached up and grabbed the ball on the run, then crashed face-first into the wall, falling to the ground but holding on to the ball. Aside from Flaherty's homer, that was as close as the O's came to an extra-base hit all afternoon.
Baltimore's defense was more charitable, and in the end, that was the difference in Game 4, as Kansas City capitalized on the game's only error to score their two runs in the first inning. Escobar opened the frame by reaching on an infield single and Aoki was hit by a pitch. Cain then sacrificed — on his own, according to Yost in his midgame interview with TBS — to move the runners up. Hosmer, the hero of the Division Series for his clutch hitting, followed by bouncing a ground ball to first. Pearce fielded and threw home attempting to get Escobar, who likely would have been safe anyway, but catcher Caleb Joseph was unable to hold on to the ball as Escobar slid in. The ball then scooted far enough away to allow Aoki to score as well. They were the only two runs the Royals would score all night. They were the only two they needed.