In the current global political climate where Vladimir Putin and his army of Russian hacker stooges tamper with international elections with impunity as if it’s all a quaint game of Risk™, a series pitting a recently dominant World Champion squad down on their luck against the St. Petersburg Rays—the jewel in Vladimir Putin’s cold, analytically inclined crown of sport—was rife with symbolic implications.
America may not be the same, proud nation many that for so long served as a beacon for freedom and the just rule of people. The Royals may not be the same scrappy team that relied on its defense and stringing together singles and doubles while swiping bases in impossibly unrepeatable sequences that confounded their opponents. But with each searching to reclaim its identity, tonight’s battle presented an opportunity.
From the early goings of tonight’s battle, it became evident that Tropicana Field (née Putin Stadion) had been designed specifically to damn American baseball teams—and really the American pastime in its entirety—to a waking nightmare of a Sisyphean existence. Devoid of light, life, character, and natural grass, the distinctly Soviet confines of Tropicana Field served as the emblem of Russian ideals, a faceless monolith announcing Russia’s workmanlike character with nary a hint of poetry or beauty in its decidedly functional structure, catwalks in play as a subtle middle-finger extended from the Russian people.
With light, love, and freedom all abstract concepts in the Russian night, the Kansas City Royals charged forward into the fray, setting forth to do battle against the Devil Rays of St. Petersburg with a sparkling new lineup shaken up in the blind hope that it could perhaps yield what previous incarnations had been unable to yield: runs.
A leadoff single from newly minted leadoff man Alcides Escobar surely tricked Ned Yost into instantly assuming he’d solved the season’s offensive Rubik’s cube, but the Fates quickly caught on to Yost simply having peeled the stickers off and thrown them back on in a slapdash fashion. Lorenzo Cain was called out on strikes looking at a pitch that was low and in—in both regards, likely not a strike. Eric Hosmer—wait for it... wait for it—grounded out to second, and Salvador Pérez predictably went down flailing despite seeing one strike in his six-pitch at-bat.
Not so fast, Ned.
On the second pitch of his outing, former Soviet hurler Nate Karns watched as Alcides Escobar lost a pop fly in the dastardly Russian dome, leaving left fielder Alex Gordon to attempt to pull a rabbit from his hat with a dive not quite in time to snatch the ball from the air. Corey Dickerson stood on second, snickering like only a good Russian soldier can, and Brad Miller followed with a liner that Karns tried to snag, only to have it redirected to the outfield with the carom off his stabbing mitt.
Two bad breaks for freedom; one run scored for Putin’s Devil Rays.
Eventually Karns got his three outs with Jorge Soler—no stranger to oppression by communist forces—making a key diving play in shallow right to rob Steven Souza Jr.—a name so blatantly American as to draw instant suspicion—of a hit to put an end to the first, but any deficit with this offense is worrisome.
After the Royals pissed away another chance to score when Whit Merrifield’s one-out single and subsequent advancement to second on a Blake Snell wild pitch was squandered, Nate Karns watched in terror as human catfish Colby Rasmus stroked a triple off the top of the padding just out of a leaping Jorge Soler’s reach.
With a run looming just 90 feet from home plate and no outs yet recorded, something strange happened. Embued with the power of American resilience, Nate Karns stared coolly into the Devil Rays’ dugout—one from which he was fortunate enough to escape two offseasons ago—then at the odious enemy soldier standing at third base, and finally toward the heavens.
Knowing that he only had his own freedom-fueled gumption to call upon, Karns summoned every last bit of his filth and might. The right-handed warrior for freedom vanquished each of the next three Devil Rays, exerting his dominance over the trio of Tim Beckham, Kevin Kiermaier, and Derek Norris, sending them trudging back to the dugout three mystified strikeout victims.
If ever there were a more emphatic small victory for The American Way, Karns’s three strikeouts while up against the wall in Стадион Пу́тин could stand with some of Rocky Balboa’s early round heroics standing while getting pummeled by Ivan Drago.
Taking the cue from his battery mate, noted patriot Drew Butera came to the plate in the top of the third and THROTTLED a 3-1 Blake Snell fastball middle-in sending it screaming into the mostly empty stands in left-center. With one freedom-loving swing of the bat, Drew Butera announced that the American Way was here to stay despite what Putin’s interference in our democracy might suggest with the most patriotic dong hanging the world may ever see.
After Drew Butera’s 14th career home run, the Royals’ hit parade got under way. Alcides Escobar stroked a line-drive double to left and fear flushed across the pubescent Blake Snell’s face. Lorenzo Cain lined a single to center, only to watch as All-World Center Fielder Kevin Kiermaier let down Mother Russia. Gearing up to make a throw home to try to get Escobar at the plate, Kiermaier missed the ball entirely, and Cain’s single skittered all the way to the wall. Lorenzo Cain being a fast man meant that Kiermaier’s boner resulted in a little league home run.
Up 3-1, Hosmer and Pérez both got on base, but Jorge Soler and Whit Merrifield stranded them. After 35 interminable pitches, Snell escaped the inning but not before angering President Putin with the trio of ceded runs.
Unfamiliar with what it was like to pitch with a lead of any sort, Karns lost the first two batters he faced with full-count walks. Evan Longoria singled to load the bases, but then—as if he was a ringéd child summoning Captain Planet—he kissed his own ring, held a clenched fist in the air, struck out Kansas City native Logan Morrison, and induced a Steven Souza Jr. ground-ball double play, silencing the Russian brass marching band before they could sound their pro-Russian clarion call.
Snell and Karns threw down zeroes in their respective next half-innings, sending the game to the fifth with the score still 3-1, Kansas City.
In the fifth, however, the Royals got back to work. Eric Hosmer stroked a one-out double to center, one made closer than it probably should have been by a near-perfect catch-and-throw from Kevin Kiermaier that required a crafty slide to the third-base side of the bag by Hosmer to evade the tag. Salvador Pérez ripped a single to left to plate Hosmer before communist forces turned two on a subsequent Jorge Soler ground ball.
Karns again held the Devil Rays at bay in the bottom of the fifth, and the Royals came back to the plate in the top of the sixth with a look of determination in their eyes. Whit Merrifield stroked a liner to center. The Merrifield single signaled the end of Blake Snell’s night. The 13-year-old southpaw finished the night having yielded four runs on ten hits and one walk, striking out one Royal along the way.
Cheslor Cuthbert faced right-handed reliever Austin Pruitt and sent a lazy fly to right. This should have been just one out, but Merrifield took off from first unaware of where the ball was in right, and Souza recorded an unassisted double play throwing Merrifield out at first after catching the Cheslor Cuthbert fly ball. Fortunately, Alex Gordon rendered the Merrifield gaffe (another in a long line of lost Robert Ludlum novels) null as he leaned into a hit-by-pitch from Pruitt. With two outs, Gordon took off for second, sliding in safely as the ball got away from Brad Miller—who was covering second—and taking off for third on the throwing error from Derek Norris. Drew Butera singled in Gordon, and the Royals led 5-1.
Now cruising, Karns worked around a leadoff “single” (aided by Whit Merrifield’s troubles fielding tricky, knuckling grounder) from Evan Longoria striking out two more Devil Rays en route to another scoreless frame.
The Royals added two more for freedom in the top of the seventh. The first came after Lorenzo Cain singled, stole second, and advanced to third on a sharp Eric Hosmer single that got to Souza in right too quickly to score on the hit. With Perez batting, Hosmer broke for second, eliciting a throw from Norris that got away from its receiver again, allowing Cain to waltz across the plate for the sixth Royal run of the evening. Pérez eventually walked, and with Merrifield batting Hosmer stole third as well. Cuthbert hit a Hosmer Special to second, but Miller delivered a throw that pulled Logan Morrison off the bag, allowing Cuthbert to reach safely on the throwing error and pushing Hosmer across home plate. 7-1, Royals.
After getting a quick fly-ball out from Tim Beckham, Karns watched as a “single” evaded a diving Eric Hosmer—a play seen all too often—and hit Derek Norris with a pitch, putting an end to his night at 6.1 innings. On the evening, Karns allowed six hits, two walks, and one hit-by-pitch while otherwise stymieing the Russians’ attack, racking up ten strikeouts in Karns’s most dominant start as a Royal.
Matt Strahm entered in relief and induced a ground ball that on another night on another field might have been an out. Instead, Hosmer erred toward trying to field the ball for two seconds too long and was unable to get back to the bag in time to record the out as Corey Dickerson hustled down the line to beat the throw from Merrifield. Strahm got Brad Miller looking, but with the bases juiced uncorked a wild pitch, that allowed the second Devil Rays’ run to cross the plate, a run charged to Karns because that’s how baseball works. Strahm eventually got Logan Morrison swinging, but the Russian squadron had added a run to their tally and their former teammate’s ledger.
Feeling that the fight for the cause was well in hand and opting to save some of their energy for the next night, the Royals were sent down easily in the top of the eighth, getting Matt Strahm back out on the mound in no time. Strahm got Peter Bourjos looking to start the frame, but Colby Rasmus destroyed a fastball middle-out, sending it screaming out of the yard to dead-center. Strahm finished off the Devil Rays without allowing any further damage done, but the St. Petersburg nine had trimmed the Royals’ lead to four, 7-3.
The Royals did nothing offensively in the top of the ninth, and Joakim Soria entered to try to hold the four-run lead. Soria induced a grounder to the left side of the infield, and Alcides Escobar came across the bag to field the ball, only to pull Hosmer off the bag with an errant throw, putting the leadoff runner aboard. Fortunately, Soria added two more strikeouts to the Royals’ pitchers’ totals, bringing the count to 16, and got a screaming grounder to second to end the night and secure the victory for the American cause.
This was but the first of four scheduled skirmishes in Mother Russia, but the Royals sent Vladimir Putin a clear message about freedom’s health. The former Devil Ray Nate Karns was positively dominant. Were the defense behind him not uncharacteristically shaky, three of his six hits allowed could reasonably have been outs. The Royals’ offense combined to amass 13 hits and earn two walks and a hit-by-pitch. With the Butera bomb and four stolen bases (Hosmer had a pair, and Cain and Gordon each had one), the Royals scored a shocking seven runs.
It was just one night, but on this eve, all of America won. Take that, Vlad.