While Game Four was not technically a do-or-die game for the Kansas City Royals, a loss to the New York Mets would have knotted up the World Series at two games apiece. After leaving Kansas City holding a commanding two-game lead in the series, there was no way to spin letting the series slip to a 2 - 2 tie as anything other than a seriously concerning situation.
A win, however, would have put the Royals on the verge of their first World Series Championship in 30 years, showing two generations of dazed fans something they couldn't have imagined in their wildest of wild dreams.
To even the series, the Mets turned to left-hander Steven Matz, who was making his ninth major-league start on the game's biggest stage. To retake a two-game advantage in the series, the Royals sent Game One hero Chris Young to the mound on three days' rest after spending 53 pitches to get through three no-hit innings in Tuesday's five-plus-hour marathon.
After ceding a ground-ball single up the middle to Alcides Escobar, the rookie southpaw Matz struck out Ben Zobrist swinging. The momentum of Zobrist's swing took his back leg out of the batter's box and onto the plate. Alcides Escobar was off running on the pitch, but Zobrist's follow-through took him into Travis d'Arnaud's throwing path, erasing the lead-off runner with a batter interference. Lorenzo Cain sent a fly ball to right, and Granderson settled under it for the final out of the first.
Chris Young did his thing, inducing a routine grounder from Granderson into the teeth of the shift before getting two fly-ball outs, the latter being caught by a diving Alex Rios on a nice grab to bring a close to a perfect first for the Royals' fourth starter.
Matz faced the 4-5 left-handed combo of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and got Hosmer to strike out on a curve in the dirt before working through a seven-pitch at-bat with Moustakas that ended in a grounder to the left side of the infield. With two outs, Salvador Perez poked a grounder through the right side for the second Royals' hit of the night, but Alex Gordon got his bat sawed off on a sinker in the upper-inside corner of the strike zone and grounded right up the line to first basemen Lucas Duda, who caught the ball with a foot on the bag.
The 6'10" Princetonian went back to the grind in the second. With the powerful and aggressive Yoenis Cespedes at the plate, Young got the Cuban slugger to chase a 2-2 slider down and away for a swinging strikeout. Having fielded a grounder hugging the line to end the previous inning himself, Duda was paid back in kind as he stroked a grounder over the bag into the expectant glove of Eric Hosmer. Hosmer trotted a few steps to the bag and recorded the second out of the frame. Travis d'Arnaud grounded out harmlessly to Moustakas at third, and Young was through another inning without allowing a baserunner.
As the first Royal to come to bat in the third, Alex Rios put a charge into a 94-MPH sinker on the outer edge of the plate, but it died on the warning track with Cespedes ranging back to catch it with relative ease. Chris Young predictably followed with a strikeout, and Alcides Escobar ripped a hot grounder to David Wright who had a momentary issue corralling the ball before gathering himself with just enough time to get Escobar at first.
The two teams headed to the home half of the third tied at zeroes.
Michael Conforto jumped on Young's first offering in the heart of the zone and sent it screaming well into the second deck down the line in right. As is the risk with Chris Young, this fly ball was hit very far. Chris Young giveth, and Chris Young taketh away.
With one swing of the bat, the Mets led 1 - 0.
After a Wilmer Flores bloop single, Young spiked a 58-foot fastball on the first pitch to Steven Matz that got past Perez and allowed Flores to advance freely to second without sacrificing the out that Matz was intent upon sacrificing. One pitch later, Matz laid down a bunt to move Flores 90 feet away from scoring the second run of the game.
Granderson followed with a routine fly to right that should have given the strong-armed Alex Rios a decent chance to throw out Wilmer Flores at home.
Of course, that chance was incumbent upon Rios knowing that the ball on course to enter his glove was only going to be the second out of the inning, not the third. Rios caught the ball and took two steps toward the dugout before realizing that he had not just caught the final out of the inning. Seeing that Flores was racing homeward, Rios snapped a throw home, but it wasn't in time to stop Flores from being the second run of the night for New York.
Ned Yost and crew challenged whether Flores left the bag early, but video evidence was insufficient to overturn the call on the field that he had tagged up and hadn't left before the ball was caught. The Royals were left to wonder what might have happened if Rios set under the ball ready to charge and throw home.
The Conforto hung dong was one thing, but the Royals saw two costly mental errors--the spiked pitch to a pitcher who was squaring to bunt anyway and the inexcusable lapse from Rios--lead to a two-run advantage for the Mets.
This was not Royals Baseball™.
With two outs recorded in the third, former teammates Chris Young and David Wright (the man who applied the tag "Invisi-ball" to Chris Young's mystifying pitching) became embroiled in an eight-pitch plate appearance, eventually resulting in Young's first free pass of the game. Luckily for Young and the Royals, Young coaxed a pop-up out of Daniel Murphy, allowing the Royals to finally escape the inning but not before the Mets had seized a 2 - 0 lead.
First up in the fourth, Zobrist got called out looking on a sinker just inside off the plate, much to the switch-hitter's chagrin. A bit closer than the called third strike before him, Cain walked back to the dugout the second consecutive Royal to fall victim to the backwards K. Hosmer feebly grounded to second to end the Royals' fourth without a threat to Matz and the Mets.
Young settled back down in the fourth, striking out Cespedes for a second time, getting Duda swinging to follow, and coaxing an infield fly from d'Arnaud to finish his third perfect inning in four tries.
With one out in the fifth, Salvador Perez pulled a sinking fly ball to the gap in left-center. In a scene eerily lifted from Game One, Cespedes raced to try to catch the ball. Clearly averse to diving, Cespedes couldn't quite reach ball in stride and--just as in Game One--kicked the ball off toward the foul line in left as a result of his pursuit.
Were it any of the Royals who are more fleet of foot, the Royals might have been looking at a reenactment of Escobar's lead-off inside-the-park home run--or more certainly at least a triple.
Perez trotted into second with a double.
Alex Gordon followed by turning on an inside curveball and pulled an RBI-single to right.
Rios flew out to center for the second out of the inning, and with the pitcher's spot in the lineup on deck and Gordon at first with two outs, Yost elected to spend pinch-hitter Kendrys Morales in a relatively low-leverage situation. Morales singled, but Escobar followed with a routine fly ball to Granderson in right, stranding Gordon and Morales and leaving the Royals with the motley crew of Jarrod Dyson, Christian Colon, Paulo Orlando, Raul Mondesi, and Drew Butera as potential pinch-hitters with four innings to go.
Morales's appearance as a pinch-hitter for Young meant his night was over after four innings of work. Chris Young struck out three while walking one, allowing just two hits, though the two hits eventually crossed the plate. Both of Young's runs were earned, though Rios did him no favors in what could have been an out at home.
Yost pegged lefty starter-turned-postseason-reliever Danny Duffy to face the Mets' lineup starting with rookie Michael Conforto. As if the fates wanted to punish Yost for making a questionable move in spending Morales's single plate appearance in such a low-leverage opportunity, the lefty-on-lefty matchup did not work out in Ned Yost's favor as Michael Conforto poked his second home run of the game out over Alex Rios in right field.
Duffy gathered his druthers and overwhelmed Wilmer Flores, who froze and watched strike three go by with his bat on his shoulder for the first out of the frame. Matz lined out to Cain for out number two, but Granderson hit a slow roller to Hosmer, who had to wait for the ball and was just far enough from the bag to not be able to dive to the bag in time to get the out.
With Duffy facing the right-handed David Wright, Curtis Granderson broke for second on a 1-2 count. Perez jumped from his crouch to take the elevated change-up in a prime position to nab Granderson. Fortunately for the Royals, Granderson also appeared to have aged 50 years from the point at which he reached first base to the moment that he decided to take off for second. Perez rifled the throw to second and got Granderson by two comfortable steps.
The Mets led 3 - 1 heading to the top of the sixth.
As apparently neither manager is aware that bad things tend to happen when a pitcher faces the batting order a third time, Matz came out to face the Royals' order a third time approaching 80 pitches on the night.
Zobrist jumped on the first pitch he saw and scorched a double to the gap in left-center. Cain ripped a grounder up the middle and drove in Zobrist.
The Royals trailed 3 - 2, and Steven Matz's night was over with the tying run aboard and no outs in the sixth.
Terry Collins lifted his left arm, produced his left pointer, and fingered southpaw Jonathan Niese, presumably to match up against lefties Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. Hosmer watched a 3-2 cambio skip into the dirt. The pitch diving into the dirt proved fortunate for Lorenzo Cain, who was attempting the delayed steal on the pitch because delayed steals are that stupid thing that the Royals love to do. With the pitch in the dirt, d'Arnaud had no play at second, and Cain waltzed into second standing, though one shouldn't draw direct correlation between process and results. With the count full, Hosmer flew out to center. Moustakas fisted a weak grounder to David Wright, who fielded it cleanly and threw out his Royals' counterpart with ease for the second out of the frame.
Feeling uncomfortable with the right-handed Salvador Perez facing the lefty Niese, Collins trudged to the mound again, this time fingering Bartolo Colon. Colon promptly botched the pick-off throw on what would have been a sure out, and Cain raced to third with two outs.
After looking his way into a two-strike count, Perez fouled off four pitches way outside and another inside before Colon finally put Perez away on a slider low and away on the tenth pitch of the at-bat. The Royals' threat to tie was left 90 feet from home with just nine outs separating them from a World Series knotted up at two games apiece. Any one of the five outside pitches Perez swung at were well outside of the zone, but restraint is not a concept with which Salvador Perez is familiar, at least not when he is standing inside the batter's box.
Luke Hochevar entered in relief of Danny Duffy, and Oplakia watched as each outfielder behind him recorded a routine out.
Alexes Gordon and Rios put Addison Reed offerings into the field of play, but their screamers were hit directly to defenders. Pinch-hitter Jarrod Dyson--getting just his fourth at-bat of the postseason--scratched his way through a six-pitch at-bat with just one ball in the count but eventually struck out, swinging over a slider in the dirt.
Ryan Madson--who has followed up a stellar regular season with a troubling postseason thanks almost entirely to his 57.1 HR/FB%* heading into tonight's action--came in to face the Mets in the seventh, starting with Lucas Duda. Duda popped up to Moustakas, a man entirely on his own on the left side of a shifted infield for the left-handed slugger. Chase d'Arnaud's brother struck out looking for the second out of the inning.
*For those curious, that's INSANELY high.
Then Michael Conforto strutted to the plate.
Having emphatically hung dong in both the third and fifth innings, including his first professional home run off a lefty (if the half-heard broadcast was both heard correctly and then said broadcast relayed a bit of information that was factually accurate, neither of which are things to be taken for granted), Conforto had every right to feel confident. Madson pulled the string twice to get Conforto into a 2-2 count before missing with a fastball away.
Feeling the power of his change coursing through his reinvented veins, Madson pulled the string one more time. For the first time in Game Four, Conforto failed to reach a base, let alone all four, striking out to end the seventh.
Still trailing 3 - 2, the Royals had just six outs left to work their devil magic.
The rec-bespectacled Tyler Clippard toed the rubber in the eighth. Facing his first batter, he welcomed an Alcides Escobar chopped comebacker to the mound for the first out of the frame.
Five outs remained for the Royals to try to reverse course and retake control of the World Series.
With the patient Ben Zobrist in the box, Clippard dug himself a 2-0 hole before getting a called strike low that was borderline. Tempting fate not once but twice, Clippard missed outside two more times, putting Zobrist aboard without needing to produce anything at the plate other than a smile and a tip of the cap.
Intent upon trying to change the score of the game with a single swing of the bat, Lorenzo Cain came up taking huge cuts on the first two pitches of the subsequent plate appearance. After fouling off an 0-2 pitch, Cain watched a high fastball sail by to run the count to 1-2. Trading fouls for balls, Cain worked his way into a full count and dug into the box. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Cain watched as Clippard missed low and away, moving the tying run into scoring position and putting the go-ahead run at first in the form of a man who played the part of the hero in the 14th inning of Game One racing home from first on a single.
Having recorded just one out and walking two, allowing Clippard to continue was not an option for Terry Collins. Out came the right fingering finger. In came Jeurys Familia.
Though Familia blew the save in Game One when Alex Gordon hung that magnificent ninth inning dong with two outs and hope on the ropes, that blown save was his first since July 30th. Down the stretch and through the playoffs, Familia was fantastic. On the entire season, Familia blew just five saves, and three of them were bunched in a two-week cluster in the last half of July.
Regardless of what happened in Game One, Familia is very good. Five outs is a tall order for a modern closer to fill, but the Royals had little cause to expect to a comeback victory at this point.
Eric Hosmer squared in the right batter's box and took a huge cut at a fastball low. Despite his established status as the Son of God, Hosmer's impatience seemed to show a vulnerability--a pasty, unseemly underbelly that exposed a weakness to be exploited.
He swung again--this time offering at a pitch that was at least a strike--and topped a weak grounder to the right side of the infield. Cain and Zobrist were off on contact, but this looked to be a routine sacrifice groundout, good for moving both runners 90 feet closer to scoring but also looking like the second out of the inning.
Daniel Murphy charged the ball with the only real play at first.
Murphy bent to scoop the ball up, but it glanced off the underside of his glove and rolled away from him on the dirt toward the lip of the grass.
Zobrist and Cain raced onward. Zobrist scored on the error, and Cain sprinted from first-to-third on a ground ball that traveled all of about 115 feet from home plate.
The game was tied 3 - 3.
Mike Moustakas stepped in against the Mets' fantastic closer and poked a grounder past a diving Murphy. The inexplicably herculean hero of the NLDS and NLCS was suddenly stripped of his potency, left watching as modest grounders scooted by him--one an unforgettable error that will likely haunt the dreams of tortured Mets' fans for years to come, the other a taunt from the fickle mistress known as Fate with Murphy cast as the modern-day Tantalus with balls slowly trickling by him just out of the reach of his lustful glove.
Despite Collins going to his closer to record five outs, the Royals led 4 - 3.
Salvador Perez ripped a liner to the gap in right-center. Hosmer raced home. Moustakas raced to third on the gapper.
The Royals suddenly possessed a 5 - 3 lead.
Alex Gordon pulled a grounder to the right side of the infield. This time Murphy was able to cleanly field the ball. Salvador Perez got caught in no man's land and tried to evade Murphy's tag, but Murphy applied it with just enough time to flip the ball to first for the double play that ended the Royals' rally at just three runs.
The double play was a consolation prize, but surely one that Murphy, the Mets, and Mets fans alike saw as insufficient.
Leaving nothing to chance, Ned Yost turned to the cyborg in his bullpen to complete the six-out save. Wilmer Flores? Helpless strikeout victim. Pinch-hitter Kelly Johnson? Harmless fly ball to defensive replacement Paulo Orlando in right. Curtis Granderson? Routine grounder to Zobrist. 12 pitches for Wade Davis? Three outs? Sounds about right.
On to the ninth. The Royals led 5 - 3.
Trying to keep the Mets' deficit to just two runs, Hansel Robles entered and struck out Paulo Orlando and Wade Davis looking for the first two outs of the frame. Of course, Davis never lifted the bat from his shoulder, so that strikeout was a given. Alcides Escobar flied out to center for the final out of the top of the ninth, and the Royals took to the field with three outs left to secure the hopefully penultimate victory.
With the Mets' hopes relying upon David Wright, Daniel Murphy, and Yoenis Cespedes to get something going, the Royals' cyborg closer walked back out to the mound, determination oozing from his every pore, machinery whizzing and whirring beneath the skin of his right arm. David Wright worked a 2-2 count before falling victim to Wade Davis via strikeout. Davis spent two pitches before offering Daniel Murphy a strike, which he watched go by. Murphy fouled off the next pitch and grounded away from the shift. The grounder took a tough bounce, and Moustakas got a glove on it but was only able to knock it down, ceding the single to Murphy.
Representing the tying run, Cespedes stepped into the box and lined a single into shallow right over the leaping Ben Zobrist. Orlando got to the ball quickly, and Murphy held at second. Lucas Duda came to the plate as the winning run with plenty of pop in his mighty bat.
Wade Davis was not concerned. Cyborgs are famously unflappable.
Duda went the other way on a soft liner to the left side of the infield. Absolving himself of his sin two plays earlier, Moustakas snagged the sinking liner. Yoenis Cespedes had drifted off of the bag as the liner came to Moustakas, and the Royals' third baseman fired off the throw to first to double up Cespedes for the final out of the evening.
Despite facing a one-run deficit with five outs remaining, the Royals once again snatched a victory from a team who seemed set to extinguish the Royals' hopes. Unfortunately for the Mets, hope is something the Royals don't need. They've got devil magic. The Royals have no use for hope. It seems a mere formality they're going to win.
Predestination seems to be at work with this team. Logic simply doesn't come into play when a team so frequently comes back from the dead to win time and time again. This comeback may not have been as epic as Game Four in Houston or last year's Wild Card team, but they continue to defy logic with regularity. Familia had not blown a save since July 30th until Game One. Now the Royals have gotten to him twice in three appearances. Murphy didn't do Familia any favors with his boner in the eighth, but it seems like no matter the situation, the Royals are seldom out of it.
These things shouldn't happen, yet they do with these newfangled Royals. Long-suffering fans may not know how to reconcile this never-say-die attitude with their conditioned responses borne from two decades of abject futility, but there isn't a soul among them who isn't ecstatic at the opportunity that Game Five presents the Royals and their fans tomorrow.
With three games to go, the Royals need to win just one to call themselves "champs." Those words feel damn good to type.