Royals continue to confound baseball logic
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- In a general way, there are two ways to perform magic for people. The first way you might call the David Copperfield way; another term for it might be “confident magic.” The magician is always in control. Missing cards appear, minds are read, assistants emerge whole from dangerous predicaments – and the magician acts like he knew it was going to happen all along.
Then there is a second kind of magic show, one where the magician – maybe it’s Penn & Teller or Lance Burton – seems as befuddled as the audience does. Birds keep flying in, bottles of champagne keep popping up, the man’s watch isn’t anywhere to be found, and when it all turns out in the end the magician just kind of shrugs as if to say, “How the heck did that happen?”
These Kansas City Royals are the second kind of magic act.
Thursday night in Anaheim, the Royals beat the Angels, 3-2, in an 11-inning game so implausible that, long after it was over, the Royals still did not seem quite positive they had won. The victory had required eight pitchers, a series of preposterous catches, a momentary blackout of common sense by Angels manager Mike Scioscia and, finally, an extra-inning home run from Kansas City’s No. 9 hitter, who had not hit one since August.
That No. 9 hitter, third baseman Mike Moustakas, once projected be the Royals first 40-home run hitter since … ever. Kansas City’s team home run record of 36, set by ‘80s cult slugger Steve Balboni, has long been a bit of an eyesore for the team. For three decades the Royals drafted, picked up and traded for a sequence of men with power in the odd hope of finding a Jim Thome or Ryan Howard or a Chris Davis. But, being the Royals, their efforts usually ended in dark comedy. There’s the story of Mark Quinn, who hit two home runs in his first big league game but then became obsessed with swinging the bat at any form of movement. He once went on a spectacularly long streak of games without a walk, and when he finally did draw a base on balls some smart-aleck set off the Kauffman Stadium fireworks.
Moustakas set a California high school record for home runs, and scouts gushed he had “80 power” which is as high as that scouting scale goes, and he mashed 36 home runs in Class AA and AAA when he was just 21. He showed some of that power when he got to the major leagues too, but other hits and walks proved elusive. This year he was sent to the minors for time with his batting average drowning in the .150s. He came back with a slightly more conservative swing, which brought the average up over the Mendoza line but at the expense of ever hitting a ball over a fence. His last home run was Aug. 25.
So when he came up in the 11th with the score somehow still tied, Moustakas wasn’t thinking about hitting a long ball. Royals legend George Brett had told him again and again that not thinking about home runs is the way to hit ‘em. Moustakas saw a hanging Fernando Salas change-up, turned on it and deposited the ball over the high right-field wall. An Angels crowd, which had been more and more desperately calling upon rally monkeys for support, slumped into its chairs. Beleaguered Royals manager Ned Yost somehow reached this point in the game without using his electrifying closer, Greg Holland -- who with a one-run lead dispatched the Angels comfortably to end the game. In the Royals’ clubhouse celebration, players and former players and executives kept looking at each other with expressions that said, “How did we do that?”
“I don’t consider myself the hero,” Moustakas would say. “This clubhouse is filled with heroes.”
In this, he was right because it took a variety of heroes and anti-heroes to keep the Royals and Angels tied going into the 11th inning in the first place. The theme was set early. On the first pitch the Angels saw, Kole Calhoun blasted a 400-foot shot to deep center field, and Kansas City’s superb center fielder Lorenzo Cain raced back to the wall, leaped and somehow pulled it in. Lo Cain is actually a Hebrew contradiction, “lo” meaning no and “cain” meaning yes. That more or less describes Cain’s brilliant defense, where at contact pitchers yell “No,” at completion they shout “Yes.”
“That was about as high as I can go,” Cain would say afterward, and, as it turns out, the Angels would test that. In the sixth inning, with two runners on, the Angels’ Howie Kendrick crushed a ball to deep right-center, and Cain again loped gracefully after it and, at the precise moment he leaped as high as he could … and the ball went about two inches over the top of his glove. Fortunately for the Royals, right fielder Nori Aoki was nearby, and he blindly and awkwardly stabbed his glove in the right general direction. The ball stuck in there.
It’s worth talking for a second about Aoki, because he so thoroughly symbolizes this team. As a young man, he was a major star in his home country of Japan, a whirlwind of a hitter a sort of a second Ichiro. At 29 he somewhat inexplicably fell off. He then found himself in Milwaukee, and this past offseason, he came to Kansas City. He was thoroughly disappointing until late September when, for no apparent reason, he briefly proved impossible to get out. He hit .458 the last two weeks of the season as the Royals held on to their first playoff spot in a generation.
But it is in the field that Aoki is a particular joy to watch; I have never seen a player look so confused while making so many good plays. It is like Aoki’s mind is a lost GPS voice repeating, “Still calculating,” but he somehow gets to the ball and catches it anyway. In addition to the backhanded stab over Cain’s glove, he also spun helplessly under a ball he’d lost in the lights, and he chased after one warning track fly ball by way of San Bernardino. But the balls all ended up in his glove, as always happens, and in this, he seems as surprised as everyone else. After catching the ball over Cain, he smiled and shrugged and theatrically tossed the ball into the booing crowd.
The Angels had the best record in baseball this year and for them to lose this game to the Royals took plenty of their own blundering. Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton went a combined 0-for-13, with Hamilton looking especially dazed. Scioscia, despite having one of the most powerful lineups in baseball, decided three times to have his hitters sacrifice, leading to zero runs and one particularly silly scene. In the eighth inning, Los Angeles’ Chris Iannetta led off with a walk – bringing up Calhoun, Trout and Pujols. Scioscia bizarrely decided to give up an out by having Calhoun bunt, even though Calhoun is a slugger who only hit into five double plays all year.
This was strange enough, but then even stranger, Calhoun worked to a 3-1 count against Royals super-reliever Wade Davis. This put Calhoun in an ideal hitting position, and it seemed impossible that the bunt was still on. But it was. Calhoun popped up the bunt and, had Moustakas been aware, he could have dropped the ball and gotten a double play because Calhoun was so defeated he did not even run to first base.
Of course it’s only one game, and there is still time for this series and baseball to regain its natural order. But for one more night in this crazy season, the Kansas City Royals’ magic worked. The clubhouse party was a mishmash of thrilled young players, elated club officials, and a few former Royals players like Mike Sweeney and Jeff Suppan and Jeff Montgomery who come from a time when absolutely nothing ever went the Royals’ way. Raul Ibanez, a 42-year-old hitter who played for some of those unfortunate Royals teams and plays for this one, too, says it like this: “It’s baseball. It doesn’t have to make sense.”
And Royals general manager Dayton Moore, who came to this team eight years ago and, like James Taylor, has seen fire and seen rain, puts his arm around you and says: “How did you like that game? For us, that’s a blowout.”