The Kansas City Royals had plenty of chances, but the final score doesn't lie: the American League's best team in the regular season is now one loss away from winter.
Clutch hitting carried the Houston Astros to a 4-2 victory on Sunday afternoon, lifting them to a 2-1 lead in the ALDS. 24 hours from now, the Royals' season could be completely over.
Dallas Keuchel out-dueled Edinson Volquez to continue his home dominance, though it was by no means one of his best starts of the season. Kansas City brought a great approach into the game. It was clear that the normally swing-happy hitters were content in waiting Keuchel out to raise his pitch count. They forced him to throw a season-high 124 pitches in his seven innings of work. They put at least one man on base in six of those frames. But Keuchel blanked the Royals in RISP opportunities, getting nine outs in as many chances.
The 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position stat was the story of the game. After both pitchers twirled three scoreless innings to open the game, Lorenzo Cain launched a leadoff home run in the fourth frame off Keuchel. Immediately afterwards, Keuchel was gifted a strike call to save him from walking Eric Hosmer, and that eventually proved to be enormous. Kendrys Morales reached on an error. He advanced to second on a wild pitch. Salvador Perez walked later in the inning. Kansas City couldn't cash in.
In the top of the fifth, the Royals had a similar chance to extend their 1-0 lead. Ben Zobrist doubled and Hosmer walked to put two on with two out, but Hosmer wildly flailed at a breaking pitch in the dirt to end the frame. With consecutive opportunities to give Volquez some breathing room blown, hope that one run would be enough would immediately fade in the bottom half of the fifth.
Volquez cruised through the first four innings, facing two over the minimum. He allowed just one hit. With one out in the fifth, he walked Luis Valbuenna and allowed Chris Carter to double down the left-field line. With two men in scoring position, Volquez needed a strikeout, but with two strikes to the nine-hitter Jason Castro, he grooved a hittable pitch that found too much of the plate. Castro bounced it into right-center field to drive in both runs. 2-1, Houston.
The Astros added a run in each of the next two innings to extend their lead. In the sixth, Carlos Gomez lined a jam-shot single to plate the team's second run. In the seventh, Carter walloped a moon-shot home run to left field. Carter, who hit .199 and did not have one three-hit game all season, finished 3-for-3.
Kansas City put men in scoring position in the sixth and seventh innings, but could not score. Keuchel made pitches when he needed to despite not being his sharpest, which is all that matters in October. In all, he yielded eight base runners (five hits and three walks) and struck out seven Royals. Hosmer and Alex Gordon each went down swinging twice.
Volquez took the loss, but he didn't pitch poorly whatsoever. In fact, it's staggering when you see the performances he's gone up against in his postseason career:
Edinson Volquez's 3 opposing pitchers in his #postseason starts: Halladay’s No Hitter in 2010, Bumgarner in 2014 WC & Keuchel today. #ALDS— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 11, 2015
Six of the final nine men to bat against Volquez reached base. That was ultimately the difference in the game. He struck out eight batters over his 5.2 innings, which spanned 87 pitches. He allowed three hits and walked four. Three runs were charged to him.
Alex Gordon got a run back in the ninth inning when he crushed an opposite-field homer against Luke Gregerson. Alcides Escobar blooped a one-out single into left-center field to bring the tying run to the plate, but the Royals were unable to capitalize to finalize the 4-2 loss.
The Royals have five home runs in this series, but they've all been solo shots.
It's all on the line for Kansas City tomorrow. For the second straight year, Yordano Ventura will be thrown out on the hill in a lose-or-go-home situation for the Royals. He will be opposed by Astros rookie Lance McCullers, who was good in the regular season, but he's not Keuchel. The game starts at 12:00 pm CDT because...yeah, nobody really knows why.