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Royals turn to Jeremy Guthrie, their man on a mission, for Game 7

Jeremy Guthrie will take the mound for the Kansas City Royals in Game 7 of the World Series on Wednesday night.

He left everything behind. His family, his friends, his girlfriend, his glove. He packed his bags for Europe, walked away from the game, and was prepared to never come back. It was 1999, and Jeremy Guthrie, having just finished his freshman year at BYU, was off to Spain to serve a mission for the Mormon Church, and over the next two years, he did not pick up a baseball—he barely even thought about baseball. “It wasn’t one of those things where I prayed one night and said, ‘Lord, if I do this, you promise [to do this for me],” Guthrie recalled last week during the World Series. “It was not that way. It was: ‘I'm going to give this up, and I know whatever happens will be the best for me.’”

On Wednesday night, a man who once walked away from baseball will take the mound at Kauffman Stadium with a championship at stake. It’d be fitting, wouldn’t it? A 35-year-old pitcher who has never been anything more than a middle of the rotation innings eater, who has lead the league in losses twice, now leading this improbable Royals team to a Game 7 win in the World Series?

There are enough stories on the 2014 Royals to make a seven-part HBO miniseries. (And you can be sure that, with one more win, there will be at least one movie about this team.) There are the players who were once busted prospects—Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer—and are now October heroes. There’s the crotchety, much-maligned skipper, Ned Yost, who has led Kansas City to the cusp of the title. There’s the architect of the organization, general manager Dayton Moore, born in Kansas and a Royals fan growing up, who made a hotly-debated trade a couple winters ago and was nearly run out of town. Even the fans are made for Hollywood.

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But in Game 7, there will be no better story than that of Jeremy Guthrie, who will likely be the most important player in the most important game in Kansas City in nearly three decades. An 11-year journeyman with a 4.23 career ERA could author the final chapter of what may well be the best sports story of 2014.

After the Royals’ 10-0 win over the Giants in Game 6, you have to like Kansas City’s chances of pulling off this miracle championship: 14 of the last 15 teams to force Game 7 went on to win the series-deciding game. The last team to win a Game 7 on the road? The 1979 Pirates. But whether you believe in the Royals, whether you believe that they can complete this storybook October with a parade down Grand Boulevard, probably comes down to this simple question:

Do you believe in Jeremy Guthrie?

A few hours before the Royals’ stunning blowout of San Francisco on Tuesday, a rollicking win that forced the first World Series Game 7 since 2011, there was no hesitation in Yost’s voice. “We’ll start Jeremy Guthrie,” the manager said after a reporter asked him who would start on Wednesday. “And he’ll be backed up with everybody we’ve got.”

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Guthrie does not have a triple digit fastball like Game 6 winner Yordano Ventura. He doesn’t have a nickname like staff ace James "Big Game" Shields. He may be the most unlikely Game 7 World Series starter in history. When he arrived in Kansas City in a July 2012 trade with the Rockies, there was not much to believe in. Moore sent Jonathan Sanchez, 1-6 with a 7.76 ERA at the time, to Colorado to acquire Guthrie, who was 3-9 with a 6.35 ERA. This didn’t exactly make ripples in the baseball world like the blockbuster that brought Shields to the Royals from Tampa Bay that December in exchange for super prospect Wil Myers, who became the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year. Guthrie was the first piece of a remade rotation that would eventually include Shields, Vargas (signed as a free agent in 2013) and, eventually, homegrown fireballer Ventura.

This season Guthrie was easily Kansas City's fifth-best starter, but in the postseason, he has quietly and unexpectedly been the most consistent one. Despite having not pitched in 17 days, he allowed one run over five innings against Baltimore in Game 4 of the ALCS, a clutch effort that sent the Royals to the World Series with a 2-1 win, and he outpitched San Francisco's Tim Hudson in Game 4 of the World Series last Friday, allowing two runs over five innings.

But to understand Guthrie, to understand what makes him tick as a pitcher, you have to know that he does not let baseball define him. “When I left, baseball was not something that I foresaw in my future, at least long‑term,” he recalled. “I loved the game. I enjoyed playing it, but I was burned out. I had pitched poorly as a freshman, and quite frankly it was not fun.”

After Guthrie returned from his mission, in 2000, he transferred to Stanford and, refreshed and reborn, became a college star—he threw a 13-inning complete game victory in the NCAA regionals in 2002. He was a first round draft pick in 2002, but after struggles in the minors, he didn’t become a regular starter until he was 27, when he was plucked off waivers in 2007 by Baltimore. Five years later, after a disastrous stop in Colorado, Guthrie arrived in Kansas City.

“Everybody has a story,” he said. “I’m no different. But what I learned as a missionary in those two years away are the foundation for everything that happens to me in my life. Sometimes it's used for [something] positive. I remember a number of articles saying, ‘This kid's very mature, this kid is this, this kid is that because of his mission.’  And when I pitched poorly for three years, 'Now [he is] not a good pitcher, and the two years off hurt [him], and baseball wasn't important and church was more important.’…Everybody has a reason and an explanation for why it is that way, and when it flips, a lot of those reactions just automatically flip over even though nothing has really changed except the result. So results don't drive what I do. I don't think they should drive anybody, but it’s the effort that you put in and the experience that helps you become who you are.”

Because he has walked away from the game and come back, because he has been through so much in his long baseball journey, Guthrie believes that what happens Wednesday night in Kansas City, with 40,000 blue-towel waving fans roaring and the world watching, will not define him.

Guthrie, though, also sounds like a man who’s ready for the biggest moment of his baseball life. “I felt very comfortable all season long with the way I've been able to execute pitches,” he said on the eve of Game 7. “Had good games, had bad games, but I feel—similar to what I saw in the paper from their pitcher, Madison Bumgarner—that I feel very good right now. I feel like I’m in as good of shape and in as good position to pitch well as I've been all season long. And that's a good place to be, to not have to worry about being fatigued or not have to worry about any lingering soreness. I feel that whatever I bring to Game 7 will be my best.”