Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 2, 2014

Joy And Despair Share The Bottom Of the 12th

Sometimes it’s a shame that one team has to lose. That was the inescapable thought in the wee hours, after very late Tuesday night had yielded to ridiculously early Wednesday morning. Most fans in my time zone were surely snug in their beds by the time catcher Salvador Perez laced a breaking ball from Jason Hammel down the line, past a diving Josh Donaldson at third. The ball shot into left field for the game winning single as the Kansas City Royals won the American League Wild Card Game, defeating the Oakland Athletics 9-8 in 12 innings.

Those who opted for the pleasures of pillows and down comforters may have been sharper at work Wednesday morning, but they missed what will surely be one of the most remarkable games of this postseason. The visiting A’s led 2-0 before the Royals sent a man to the plate. Coco Crisp led off the game with a full count single off of Kansas City ace James Shields, and three batters later Brandon Moss began the scoring with a solid homer into the right field seats. But by the last of the 3rd the home squad had completed its first comeback of the contest. The Royals used a pair of singles around a stolen base to plate one in the 1st, and then added two more in the 3rd with a double, a pair of singles, and a sacrifice bunt.

The 3-2 lead lasted until the top of the 6th inning. The A’s chased Shields after just 88 pitches, his lightest workload in more than three years, with a single and a walk to start the inning. Moments later K.C. manager Ned Yost may have been second-guessing his decision to bring in Yordano Ventura. Moss sent Ventura’s third pitch sailing into the night for his second homer of the game. The three-run shot pushed Oakland back in front and stunned the capacity crowd into silence. The A’s added two more runs before the inning was over, and the easy assumption was that a 7-3 lead was good enough, especially with left hander Jon Lester on the mound for Oakland. In last year’s playoffs Lester went 4-1 with a 1.56 ERA for Boston, helping the Red Sox to a championship.

Lester was in the midst of setting down twelve straight batters when his teammates gave him the lead. But in the last of the 8th, down to their final five outs, the Royals rallied for the second time. They got to within 7-6 off Lester and reliever Luke Gregerson, in typical Kansas City fashion. Three singles, two walks, three stolen bases, and the final run scoring on a wild pitch. Still the Royals were still a run short as they came to the plate in the 9th, facing A’s closer Sean Doolittle. But when pinch hitter Josh Willingham blooped a single to right to lead off the inning, one had the sense that Kansas City wasn’t done. Sure enough, a sacrifice bunt and a stolen base followed, allowing Nori Aoki to knot the score with a fly ball out.

With the crowd reawakened and having seen two leads evaporate; it would have been no surprise if Oakland had gone quietly. It looked at first like they might, as Royals’ reliever Brandon Finnegan set the A’s down in order in the 10th and allowed just a two-out single in the 11th. But in the top of the 12th the Athletics played some good small ball of their own. Josh Reddick reached on a walk, moved to second on a sacrifice and third on a wild pitch, then raced home with the go-ahead tally on a single by pinch hitter Alberto Callaspo.

This merely set the stage for one more Kansas City rally. With one out Eric Hosmer sent a drive to deep left center, where two Oakland outfielders converged. But Sam Fuld and Johnny Gomes leapt for the ball but neither caught it, and Hosmer rumbled into third base with a triple. Two pitches later Christian Colon’s infield single sent Hosmer sliding headfirst across the plate to tie the game again. One out later Colon recorded Kansas City’s seventh stolen base of the game, putting him in scoring position with Perez at the plate. Moments later Perez’s hit was sailing down the line, Colon was racing around third, and Royals fans were experience postseason joy for the first time in more than a generation.

It is true that Kansas City’s victory means the Royals have won the last three playoff games played at Kauffman Stadium. But the first two in that string were Games 6 and 7 of the 1985 World Series. The Royals hadn’t been to the playoffs since that stirring rally from a three games to one deficit against the Cardinals; and most seasons since they didn’t come close. Between 2001 and 2012 they lost 90 or more games ten times in twelve seasons, while posting just one winning record in that entire time.

One can’t help but feel good for the Royals and their fans, the very embodiment of the term “long-suffering.” Whatever may happen in the ALDS against the big-budget Angels, this small market team’s refusal to quit on Tuesday night gave the Kansas City faithful a moment they will remember for a long time to come.

But one thing about never making it to the playoffs is that a team’s fans never have to experience the pain and cruelty of sudden October defeat. That is something that followers of the Oakland A’s seem doomed to be reminded of every autumn. Playing in front of small crowds in an awful stadium built for football, the A’s have now made it to the playoffs eight times in the past fifteen years. GM Billy Beane has been celebrated in a best-selling book and been played by Brad Pitt in the subsequent movie. But in those eight Octobers Oakland has advanced past the Division Series but a single time. What’s worse, the gut-wrenching loss Tuesday night marked the eighth time during that stretch that the A’s have played an elimination game in the playoffs. It also was the eighth time that Oakland has lost that game.

In the end the contest was a mirror of Oakland’s season. At the trading deadline the A’s had the best record in the majors. Then Beane dealt slugger Yoenis Cespedes to Boston for Lester. Oakland staggered down the stretch, becoming the final team to qualify for the playoffs. So it was Tuesday night that the A’s looked to have things well in hand in the middle frames, only to be overtaken at the end. After a thrilling 12 innings, Kansas City moves on and Oakland goes home. Sometimes it’s a shame that one team has to lose. But in the Great Game one team always has to lose.

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