Heading into today's ballgame, each team turned to its number-four starter in the hopes that each man--both of whom possessed skill-sets that on their less-than-effective days could set their team up for a long, long game of the most excruciating kind--could silence the opposing attack well enough to allow for a crucial victory.
A win for the Kansas City Royals meant they would need just one more win in the last three games of the American League Championship Series--two of those games coming at Kauffman Stadium, a park better suited for their punchy brand of baseball--to grant them entrance to the World Series.
A theoretical win for the Toronto Blue Jays drew the series to an even two wins apiece, turning the remainder of the series into a best-of-three affair, a decidedly more desirable outcome for the Jays and their faithful.
Ned Yost elected to start Chris Young, a move which he hoped would neutralize the Jays' powerful right-handed bats but carried with it the substantial risk of sending a fly-ball pitcher prone to allowing home runs in to face the most powerful lineup in baseball into Rogers Center, née Sky Dome (named thusly for its nefarious creator, SkyNet, builders of the stadium with the intent of creating such a monstrous offense--the name change only came later when prudence dictated the name be changed to obfuscate the association between the Jays and the original architects, soon to be responsible for mankind's demise, in large part to preserve their stealthy plan, keeping it undetectable to the unsuspecting masses).
For his part, John Gibbons turned to veteran knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, just nine days shy of his 41st birthday, a hurler who had been on a favorable hot streak and generally enjoyed better turns on the mound within the confines of the Rogers Centre.
Mere hours removed from a game in which the Royals never had better than a 6% chance to win the game after the conclusion of the third inning, the Royals returned serve with an ace of their own, meting out an emphatic victory in which they piled on for nine runs in the last three innings to win by a dozen runs, 14 - 2.
For R.A. Dickey, the margin for error is so thin as to render the width of the metaphorical razor insufficient for means of description. His knuckleball is an obstinate colt with a mean streak, one that deceives its owner into thinking it has been broken, tamed, sometimes going months at a time without incident, falsely placating him into the assumption that he has finally bent it to his will.
Just when Dickey's defenses are lowered, it bucks him off its back, refusing to stay in the zone when diving low and refusing to dip below a crushable level when staying up.
The knuckleball did not bend to Dickey's will this afternoon.
Alcides Escobar started the game off innocently enough, bunting for a lead-off single to the left side of the infield. Sure, it was a single, but it was hardly a harbinger of doom. More than that, it reeked of pesky Kansas City small ball that would lull a normal man into a sense of security, the verity of which could change depending upon any number of factors, with and without meaning in equal measure.
Ben Zobrist's massive dong to right in the next at-bat?
That was the harbinger of doom.
It took two at-bats to shine a blinding spotlight on Dickey's inability to command his pitch, and with a repertoire that only features one secondary offering--a mediocre fastball that only works off of his knuckler--this meant time would be standing still for Dickey as he watched his stubborn pitch betray his misplaced trust.
Zobrist's homer put the Royals up 2 - 0.
Lorenzo Cain walked and then stole second with Eric Hosmer at the plate. Hosmer singled sharply up the middle. Cain held up to make sure it passed through the infield. Kevin Pillar charged hard and hurled the throw homeward. Fortunately Mike Jirschele had rightly held Cain at third, saving the runner and run for another time.
This worked out perfectly for the Royals as during Kendrys Morales's ensuing at-bat Russell Martin--who led Major League Baseball in passed ball thanks almost entirely to his struggles catching Dickey--was unable to corral a diving Dickey pitch in the dirt, allowing Cain to race home, scoring the third Royals' run (one upheld upon Toronto review).
Morales grounded out, moving Hosmer to third. Mike Moustakas flew out to center, a ball hit plenty deep enough to score Hosmer, and Salvador Perez exhibited a measure of mercy, striking out to end the top of the first.
The Royals led 4 - 0.
Chris Young stepped to the mound in the bottom of the first, and other than walking Josh Donaldson--who then stole second--Young worked his devil magic, striking out the triumvirate of Ben Revere, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion.
The Royals got back to work in the top of the second, looking as though they were going to blow out the floodgates. With one out, Alex Rios reintroduced himself to the Toronto faithful who booed him vociferously the previous night, hanging dong to deep left center.
Escobar took a knuckler off the hand. After Zobrist moved Escobar to second with a groundout, Cain worked a walk to end Dickey's day just five outs into the game.
Liam Hendriks came in and without spending a pitch walked back to the dugout with his teammates, having picked off a snoozing Escobar at second for the final out of the inning.
Chris Young returned to the hill given a five-run cushion. Three batters later--Chris Colabello, Troy Tulowitzki, and Russell Martin, for those keeping track at home--Young & Co. sauntered back to the dugout to bat again.
For the next four innings, the Royals' offense struggled to mount anything resembling an attack against Aussie right-hander Liam Hendriks. He quickly silenced the whispers that he might be a mole for Ned Yost's squad after a stint with the club in 2014. Alex Rios was the only Kansas City batsman to reach base against Hendriks, singling to center with two outs in the fourth.
With Escobar batting in the fourth, Rios deemed his place at first untenable. He took off for second and slid in well ahead of Martin's throw to Ryan Goins at the bag.
As has happened twice to the Royals this postseason, what was initially ruled a successful stolen base attempt was overturned upon appeal from the opposing dugout. Just as with Terrance Gore's eventually unsuccessful steal of third in the ALDS, Rios employed a pop-up slide [inarguably the safest way to slide into a bag] and, for a fraction of a second in the midst of the pop up, lost contact with the bag as Goins's glove rested on his back.
Once again, review erased a Royals' baserunner to the consternation of baseball purists and partisan Royals fans alike.
Other than Rios, the Royals would not see a runner standing at a base until the top of the seventh as bad-starter-turned-rock-solid-reliever Liam Hendriks kept the Royals in check during his longest appearance of the season, despite having gone longer than two innings just twice in 58 regular-season appearances.
After inducing an infield-fly from the bat of Kevin Pillar to kick off the bottom of the third, Chris Young ran into a bit of trouble.
Relying upon deceit and its occasionally volatile relationship with contact for his survival given his atypically low velocity, Young watched as Ryan Goins blooped a weak fly ball between the ranging Alcides Escobar and the hard-charging pair of defensive dynamos Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain. Dumb luck having plotted against him, Young was unable to direct his fastball-slider combination to hit the strike zone, and he walked the powerless Ben Revere on four pitches.
With two on and one out, Josh Donaldson--American League leader in runs and runs batted in--stepped into the batter's box.
The two battled mightly.
Equipped with an arsenal overmatched by the one possessed by the presumptive AL MVP, Young fought to a full count with the vaunted slugger. Donaldson ripped a near-double down the line into the corner, hooking it just foul into the side wall at the foul line. His contact was of the most dangerous kind, especially in this bandbox. Given another chance to square a Young offering up, Donaldson sent a fly ball deep over Gordon's head in left. It hit the turf and found a home over the wall on a bounce, plating the first Toronto run of the night.
The lead was cut to 5 - 1 with Donaldson and Revere at second and third.
As if he was stuck in the Seventh Circle of Hell, the murderer's row of Jays' hitters continued its terrifying march to the box, this time presenting Chris Young with the unenviable task of facing Jose Bautista.
Much like his teammate before him, Bautista ran the count full.
Unlike Donaldson, the ball he put in play was nowhere near the warning track.
Bautista grounded out to second, plating Revere and advancing Donaldson to third.
With two outs and a runner at third, the similarly mighty Edwin Encarnacion dug in to face the tricky, 6'10" Ivy Leaguer. On the third pitch of the at-bat, Young coaxed a routine fly-ball to left, escaping the inning having limited the legitimate threat to just two runs.
Young sent the next five batters he faced down in order, but with two outs recorded in the fifth and the heart of the order in the queue for the third time, it was clear that Ben Revere was the last Toronto batter that he would face. Revere poked a seeing-eye grounder back up the middle and raced down to first, ending Young's afternoon-turned-evening at 4.2 valuable innings.
While he lacked the five innings to qualify for the archaic 'win' by just one out, Young allowed just three hits, two walks, and two earned runs while striking out four Jays. Responsible for the runner left at first, he did exactly what the Royals needed him to do after Johnny Cueto buried them about 20 hours earlier.
Chris Young: "Wins for a pitcher, it's a somewhat ridiculous stat. It has been for a long time."— Andy McCullough (@McCulloughStar) October 21, 2015
Luke Hochevar came in to face the dangerous Josh Donaldson, and--possessed by the spirit of Chris Young--Oplakia baited him into an infield-fly to the right side to escape the threat.
In the top of the seventh, John Gibbons elected to turn the 5 - 2 game over to another member of the bullpen. Staring down the end of a 21-year career, the Jays' hopeful eyes turned to the only man on either side older than their Game Four starter 42-year-old LaTroy Hawkins, who was once a teammate of 2001 Hall of Fame inductee Kirby Puckett.
The aged Hawkins allowed all three Royals he faced to reach base, issuing a four-pitch walk to Salvador Perez before ceding back-to-back singles to Alexes Gordon and Rios. Without recording an out in what could well be the final appearance of his career, Hawkins trudged toward the dugout responsible for a runner at each base.
Enter Ryan Tepera.
Rookie right-hander Tepera did not make the Jays' postseason roster initially, added nine days ago when Brett Cecil suffered a minor tear in his left calf during a rundown in Game Two of the ALDS. Tepera did not make an appearance in the ALDS and had yet to appear against the Royals.
Not having pitched in over two weeks did not serve Tepera well.
Escobar gave Tepera one out via a fly ball to center, but a run scored in the process. Both Gordon and pinch-runner/defensive replacement Paulo Orlando advanced on the sacrifice fly. With Zobrist batting, Russell Martin watched as a second wild pitch eluded the grasp of his mitt, plating the second Kansas City run of the night via wild pitch. Tepera ended up walking Zobrist--control clearly not his friend at this point--and Cain followed with a single that drove in Orlando and moved Zobrist from first to third. Hosmer put a charge into a fly ball to center. Pillar reeled in the catch, but Zobrist scored with ease to put Kansas City up 9 - 2.
After Morales ended the top of the seventh with a fly-ball out to left, Yost turned the game over to Ryan Madson. Madson worked around a Troy Tulowitzki lead-off single, striking out two in his scoreless inning of work.
With Tepera trying to bail out the rest of the pen and eat another inning for John Gibbons, the Royals offense got back to business.
Salvador Perez muscled a one-out double to left.
Alex Gordon followed with a five-pitch walk.
Orlando singled to load the bases, the second time Tepera was tasked to pitch with the bases loaded. This time the chore was one of his own creation.
Escobar hit a sacrifice to Pillar in center--who made a sliding catch that froze Gordon and Orlando--plating Perez. Royals led 10 - 2.
Ben Zobrist singled to reload the bases.
Lorenzo Cain followed with a two-run single of his own, putting the Royals up 12 - 2. Tepera's seemingly interminable night was finally over.
Mark Lowe entered and struck out Hosmer to preserve the ten-run deficit for the Jays, though ten runs is a lot for even the potent Toronto offense to expect to score in just two innings against the Royals' stingy bullpen.
In the home-half of the eighth, Kelvin Herrera worked around a lead-off single from Ben Revere, sending the meat of the Jays' order down in order, two outs coming in the air and the other by way of a Bautista strikeout.
Lowe sandwiched two outs between a Morales single and Gordon hit-by-pitch, and Gibbons chose to turn to a position player to finish out the game for Toronto. Cliff Pennington entered and--despite apparently having four pitches and pumping 91-MPH heat--allowed two straight singles to Paulo Orlando and Alcides Escobar, the latter pushing the 13th and 14th Kansas City runs of the game across home plate.
An afterthought more than anything else, Franklin Morales quietly shut the door on the Blue Jays in the ninth.
Kansas City beat Toronto resoundingly, though 'resoundingly' may be an inadequate descriptor of the magnitude of the Royals' victory given that the score made it appear as though one team was playing baseball and the other scored two touchdowns. Through the sixth, the game still felt close with each stir of the Jays' snoozing offense feeling like it could close the gap with a couple of swings of the bat.
When Yost was able to turn the ball over to the best of their pen, the collective, defeated sigh of Gibbons and the Jays was both audible and palpable. Gibbons having turned the game over to the lesser arms in the pen, the Royals offense exploded for nine more runs in the last three innings, turning a modest lead into an insurmountable one with rapid, breathtaking precision.
The win was an exclamation of sorts. The Kansas City Royals stand one win away from advancing to their second-straight World Series berth. With three games to go to get that one win, the odds for a repeat American League Championship are in the Royals' favor.
That isn't to say this club will rest on its laurels and let that win come to them. That hardly fits their style. Tomorrow, the Royals have the chance to end the Jays' season a few wins shy of every team's goal heading into a season.
Edinson Volquez will try to punch that ticket tomorrow in a repeat match-up of Game One starters.
Just as this one was, tomorrow's game will be a WAR.