Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 29, 2016

A Walk-Off To Remember In Kansas City

For all of its timeless rhythms and comfortable familiarity, part of the Great Game’s eternal appeal is the knowledge that something unexpected, something a fan has not seen before, has the potential to occur at every game. Through six innings on Sunday at Tropicana Field, followers of the Tampa Bay Rays had good reason to believe they were witnessing just the second no-hitter in their team’s history. Jake Odorizzi had faced the minimum number of Yankee hitters through six frames, retiring the first sixteen batters in a row. After Dustin Ackley reached on an error by shortstop Brad Miller, Odorizzi quickly induced an inning-ending double play grounder from Ronald Torreyes. Among all of those outs there was scarcely a single hard hit ball, nor one that required a brilliant defensive play to preserve the potential pitching gem.

But just as the game moved into its later stages and the crowd of 20,000 could begin to give serious thought to Odorizzi joining Matt Garza in the franchise’s record books, everything changed. After Jacoby Ellsbury grounded out leading off the 7th, Brett Gardner became the second New York baserunner by outlasting the Rays hurler in an eight pitch at-bat, finally drawing a walk. Moments later second baseman Starlin Castro launched the second pitch he saw over the fence in the deepest part of the park. When the ball left Castro’s bat Odorizzi turned away from the plate and bent over as if in pain, hands on his knees; for that one swing ended not just his bid for a no-hitter, it wiped out the shutout and even Tampa Bay’s 1-0 lead. In a split second history turned into a 2-1 loss.

As dramatic as was Castro’s moment under the dome in St. Petersburg, fans know that the hard part is throwing a no-hitter, not breaking one up. Had Odorizzi retired the Yankees second baseman, there’s no way to know if he would have navigated his way through another seven outs without a hard ground ball finding its way between the outstretched gloves of two infielders. As the home run reminded disappointed Rays fans, it only takes one swing to deny a pitcher that particular achievement.

Which makes what happened in Kansas City on Saturday all the more remarkable, because it required an extended sequence of events to go just the right way. Fans of every club know the joy of cheering on late inning rallies by their heroes. Over the weekend the Royals swept the visiting White Sox on the strength of three such comebacks. Trailing 5-2 after six on Friday evening, Kansas City stormed back with four in the 7th and an insurance tally in the 8th to win 7-5. Sunday afternoon Chicago’s Chris Sale held the Royals in check through seven innings, but after the left hander departed the home nine wiped out a 4-2 deficit by plating three in the bottom of the 8th to win 5-4.

Between those two come from behind victories was Saturday’s game. Sometimes the late inning rally takes place in the home squad’s final chance at the plate, producing the exquisitely sweet walk-off win. But rare indeed is the walk-off to match the Royals comeback against Chicago’s bullpen in the middle game of the series between AL Central foes.

The visitors spent most of the evening feasting on Yordano Ventura’s offerings. The Kansas City starter was touched for four runs in the 2nd inning, with Tyler Saladino’s three-run homer doing most of the damage. Ventura then gave up a two-run shot to Avisail Garcia in the 4th and yielded an unearned run in the 5th. Against this seven run onslaught the Royals managed just a single run off White Sox starter Carlos Rodon and two relievers through the 8th.

Despite the huge lead the White Sox turned to closer David Robertson to pitch the 9th. Robertson came into the contest with twelve saves on the season and a sparkling 0.96 ERA, having allowed just two earned runs in eighteen and two-thirds innings. When he struck out leadoff hitter Paul Orlando on four pitches, the Royals were two outs away from a thorough trouncing. The sabermetric site Fangraphs.com calculated Kansas City’s win expectancy at that point as 0.1 percent, making the Royals odds of winning 1,000 to 1.

What followed was a single, a double, a walk to load the bases, and another walk to force in a run, making the score 7-2. After a coaching visit to the mound, Robertson faced Whit Merrifield, who hit a grounder back up the middle. Perhaps on another day it would have skipped past the mound into the waiting glove of one of Chicago’s middle infielders. Or perhaps on some other occasion Robertson would snare the ball. In either of those situations there’s a good chance that a game ending double play swiftly unfolds. But on Saturday the ball glanced off Robertson’s glove and into short right field, past the spot deserted by the White Sox second baseman who had broken toward the bag when the ball was hit.

Instead of game over it was 7-4, and soon it was 7-6 after Lorenzo Cain hit into a fielder’s choice and Eric Hosmer doubled. That was all for Robertson, whose ERA went from below one to approaching four as a result of twenty-nine mostly ineffectual pitches. Still as Tommy Kahnle took the mound and Drew Butera stepped into the batter’s box, the White Sox were one out from escaping, and the Fangraphs.com needle had only moved up to a 14.1 percent chance of a Kansas City victory.

That all changed when Butera lashed a double to left, bringing home Hosmer with the run that knotted the score at 7-7. After a pair of intentional walks loaded the bases rookie Brad Eibner, playing in just his second big league game, came to the plate. With all 31,000-plus at Kauffman Stadium standing, Kahnle and Eibner dueled through nine pitches, the count going to full. The tenth pitch was a 98 mile per hour fastball that the rookie laced into right field, past the diving first baseman, for the game winning single.

In their runs through the playoffs to two consecutive World Series the Royals built a reputation for finding a way to rally and win games. But nothing in that string of postseason success can match what happened on Saturday night, which was the largest 9th inning comeback in franchise history. As the delirious blue clad fans made their way out of the four decades old ballpark, many of them were surely telling themselves that now they had seen it all. But it is the glorious nature of the Great Game that such assurances are always true only until the next time.

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Responses

  1. Nice piece. The Jays’ comeback against the Sox on Saturday was pretty impressive.

    Don

    • Thanks Don. Yes, Toronto’s rally was right up there, especially against a team with a powerful offense. It’s easy under those circumstances for players to think they’ll never catch up.

      M-


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