Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 12, 2014

Triumphant Royals Head Home, Reeling O’s Follow

“The series ain’t over,” insisted Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones to the assembled media after Game Two of the ALCS. Jones is correct of course, notwithstanding the fact the he and the O’s find themselves in a two games to none hole to the Royals as they head to Kansas City. Teams have rallied from such a deficit. Just two years ago San Francisco lost the first two games of the NLDS at home to Cincinnati. The Division Series being best-of-five the Giants were in even more trouble than the Orioles are now. Yet they came back to beat the Reds three straight times, and then rallied again after falling behind the Cardinals three games to one in the NLCS, before finally sweeping the Tigers in the World Series.

But if history provides some proof that Jones was offering up more than mere bravado Saturday evening, it’s hard to ignore the extent to which everything seems to be going right for the Kansas City Royals. In their first trip to the postseason in 29 years, the Royals have now won six straight games. For the franchise it’s nine victories in a row, counting the final three games of that distant 1985 World Series. The young Kansas City team has seemed anything but awed by either their presence in the tournament or their October success. With four of the six games they’ve played so far going to extra innings, Kansas City has played a total of 62 frames. The Royals have been behind at the end of just three of those innings, and none at all since the 8th of the Wild Card Game when they trailed Oakland 7-6.

During the regular season the Orioles hit the most home runs in the majors, with 211. The Royals were at the other end of the list, dead last with just 95 balls leaving the park. But in Game One Kansas City took Baltimore pitchers deep three times. Shortstop Alcides Escobar, who had just three homers all year, opened the scoring with a 3rd inning shot into the left field seats off Baltimore starter Chris Tillman. The Royals plated three more before the inning was over, thanks to a bases loaded, broken-bat blooper down the right field foul line by Alex Gordon that landed fair by a foot and wound up as a bases-clearing double. Then after Kansas City starter James Shields was unable to hold leads of 4-0 and 5-1, left fielder Gordon and third baseman Mike Moustakas both went deep in the top of the 10th to provide Kansas City’s eventual margin of victory.

After serving as the Royals’ offensive star in Game One with four RBIs, Gordon was a non-factor in Game Two, striking out four times in as many at-bats. But Moustakas, the number nine hitter in the Royals batting order, hit his fourth home run of the postseason and second in as many nights in the 4th, breaking a 3-3 tie. With the score knotted at 4-4 in the top of the 9th, Moustakas came to the plate again, this time with pinch-runner Terrence Gore on first base after a single by Omar Infante. This time the burly third baseman’s key contribution traveled no more than 30 feet, a perfect sacrifice bunt to the left side that moved Gore into scoring position. Escobar followed with a single to right to put the Royals on top, and after a Baltimore error, center fielder Lorenzo Cain brought Escobar home with an insurance run with his fourth hit of the night.

Cain had already helped his team both on the bases and in the field earlier in Game Two. He followed right fielder Nori Aoki’s 1st inning single with a double. When Eric Hosmer then broke his bat on a little blooper to short left, Cain correctly judged that the ball would fall beyond shortstop J.J. Hardy’s reach, and took off for third. The daring base running allowed him to score right behind Aoki. Then in the 6th Cain robbed Hardy of a certain double when he raced into the gap between center and right and, fully extended, made a diving catch of the blast off the bat of the Baltimore shortstop.

If the Royals hold their early advantage and go on to represent the American League in the World Series, the contributions of Escobar and Cain will serve as reminders that every once in a while the forward-looking deals that small market teams are forced to make do in fact work out. After the 2010 season Kansas City GM Dayton Moore knew he had to move his ace Zack Greinke. The pitcher had won the Cy Young Award for a team that lost 97 games in 2009, but had made it clear he was tired of the Royals consistent losing. Moore’s choice was to watch Greinke leave as a free agent in two more years, or get as much as he could for him in a trade.

Moore was able to work a deal with Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin. In exchange for Greinke the Royals got Escobar and Cain, then a pair of unproven youngsters with little major league experience. Now both are key cogs in the outstanding Kansas City defense, and this season Escobar batted .285 with 31 stolen bases and Cain hit .301 with 28 steals. The Royals also got a couple of pitching prospects in the Greinke trade, one of whom Moore later sent to Tampa Bay as part of the package to acquire Shields, the Royals ace and Game One Starter. Because of that prospect from the Brewers the Kansas City GM was able to keep his top minor league pitcher Yordano Ventura, who was the starter in Game Two.

The ALCS ain’t over, as Baltimore’s Jones correctly noted. But with their usual speed and great defense, plus a sudden power surge and every broken bat blooper seemingly finding a safe spot to land, the Royals are headed home in command of the series.  Kansas City looks a lot like a team intent on making up for a nearly three decade absence from the playoffs.

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