HOUSTON — Ned Yost could not sleep Sunday night. He dozed off in his hotel room at 11 p.m., was awake by 1 a.m. and was up for the rest of the night. “Didn’t sleep worth a damn,” the Royals’ manager barked Monday morning at Minute Maid Park, a few hours before Game 4 of the ALDS.
Yost’s insomnia had nothing to do with lineup construction: On Monday, he rolled out the same order for the fourth straight game. And certainly, it had nothing to do with his club facing elimination—Yost's team, after all, has proven to be the Walking Dead of October: unkillable this time of year.
Which is what we should have remembered when Kansas City was six outs away from elimination and down four runs on Monday. Asked after the stunning 9–6 comeback win if, in the Royals' dugout, the thought crossed anyone’s mind that this could be the end for the AL Central champs, Jarrod Dyson laughed. “What, did you just expect us to roll over?” he asked.
Kansas City entered the postseason as the AL’s reigning champion and its best team, winners of 95 games during the regular season, and yet this October it has been somewhat forgotten. The powerful Blue Jays seemed to be everyone’s World Series pick in the AL entering the playoffs. The surprising Rangers have been the best story in baseball for weeks. The upstart Astros, with their wild-card game win at Yankee Stadium and 2–1 lead in this series entering Monday, had quickly turned turned into this postseason’s team of destiny. The Royals, America’s darlings a year ago? An afterthought this postseason. But no longer.
If the Royals go on to win this series, if they go on to the World Series and finish what they started a year ago, they’ll look back on the epic top of the eighth inning at Minute Maid Park—it lasted 53 pitches and 40 minutes—as the turning point of their postseason: the inning they rose from the dead. Trailing 6–2, Alex Rios singled to start the inning, and when the next two batters did the same, the bases were suddenly loaded. Lorenzo Cain then produced the fourth consecutive single of the inning, and after Eric Hosmer made it five straight—coming through with just his second hit in 16 postseason at bats—the score was 6–4. Kendrys Morales then hit a ball up the middle that Houston shortstop Carlos Correa was unable to field, and the two-run error enabled Kansas City to tie the game. Alex Gordon followed with a ground out to score Hosmer, allowing the Royals to take the lead. They never looked back.
Even as everyone else did, Kansas City never stopped believing. “We always feel that we're still in games, and we still have a chance,” Hosmer said. “That's the mentality for this whole entire team. It's never quit, and the character we showed today—that's what a championship ball club does.” Asked to rank the Royals' October wins over the last year, going back to last postseason, backup outfielder Terrance Gore said he would put the win over the Astros third behind last year’s wild-card game comeback against the Athletics and the pennant-clinching win over the Orioles in Game 4 of the 2014 ALCS. “But yeah,” Gore said, “this was very sweet, too.”
Sweet for Kansas City, and certainly one of the worst losses in franchise history for the Astros. More than anything, this game exposed Houston’s need for a power arm in its bullpen. Once a strength of the team, the relief corps has struggled mightily since the start of September. This summer, the Astros made a run at acquiring Aroldis Chapman from the Reds and Craig Kimbrel from the Padres but they fell short in both cases. Luke Gregerson had a fine season, with 31 saves in 36 chances, and he mows down lineups with finesse and guile, but his fastball averages below 90 mph, and we were reminded again in that fateful eighth that there is something to having a shutdown, fire-breathing reliever come out of the bullpen in October.
Now, what will be forgotten from this game is Correa’s historic performance at the plate. His big blast in the bottom of the fourth made him the youngest shortstop ever to hit a postseason home run. He homered again in the eighth, making him the second youngest player ever to have a multi-homer postseason game. It was a seemingly star-making performance on a day did not start well: In his first at-bat, Correa was hit in the elbow by an errant Yordano Ventura pitch. It’s hard to believe that Ventura was throwing at Correa, as might have been assumed, in retribution for Alcides Escobar getting hit in the top of the first. This was more likely Ventura, who had such serious control issues earlier this season that he was sent down to the minors, trying to go inside on the likely AL Rookie of the Year winner. The Royals had, in fact, been attacking Correa inside all series, and with much success: Leading up to Game 4, he had gone 3-for-13 in the series (all singles) with five strikeouts. Ventura went inside again on Correa in the fourth inning, and the young shortstop shuffled his hands in and hit a ball all the way to Waco.
What will be forgotten is Carlos Gomez’s big home run in the bottom of the second. Starting consecutive games for the first time this postseason, Gomez, playing through an oblique injury, connected on a hanging breaking ball and homered for Houston’s first run to make the score 2–1.
What will be forgotten is how the bandbox in downtown Houston rocked as the Astros took the lead on Correa's double in the bottom of the fifth. When the roof is closed and the team is rolling, the noise at Minute Maid is deafening. But as the Astros' collapse unfolded, you didn’t need to crack open the roof to let the air out of the ballpark.
What will be forgotten is 22-year-old Lance McCullers’s impressive postseason debut. The 6'2", 205-pound son of the ex-major league pitcher, the righthander who announced himself on June 3 against the Orioles with the most dominant pitching performance (11 strikeouts and one run allowed over nine innings) by a rookie since Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game 17 years ago. On Monday, he was in control, allowing two runs over 6 1/3 innings and striking out seven, an impressive feat given that the Royals struck out fewer times than any club in baseball. He did it with some variety, too: McCullers, who can throw 100 mph, tossed 54 curveballs out of his 110 pitches, punching out seven Royals on the pitch.
The Astros are not done, of course. As outfielder George Springer said after the game, “We still feel good about our team, we still like our chances.” And he should. But if we all learned something in Game 4, it’s that Houston is facing a team that refuses to go quietly into the October night. Which we should have all known already.
Only one thing is certain now: Ned Yost will sleep soundly tonight.