Let me start with some throat-clearing: I don’t plan to write many sports posts. I don’t consider myself an expert, so my contributions to the day-to-day analysis aren’t worth your time, though I do like to watch the teams I grew up with. But yesterday, the Kansas City Royals completed a game that, depending on what lessons are learned, could become a landmark for how the franchise proceeds, for good or for ill.
First, a little background: from its first year in 1969, the franchise experienced a quicker than normal learning curve. By 1976, they had won the American League West, which began a 10-year span where the Royals won seven division titles (well, six and a half, anyway, due to the strike-divided season of 1981), two league titles, and a World Series title in 1985.
Since then, nothing. For a little perspective, consider that when the movie Major League hit the theatres in 1989, the Cleveland Indians, the lovable losers of the film, hadn’t been to the playoffs in 35 years. The Royals have played 28 consecutive years, most of which in an expanded playoff format, without any post-season appearance, so we’re approaching that territory in the number of years in the wilderness.
In recent years, it hasn’t even been close. The team didn’t have a 100-loss season until 2002, and then proceeded to break that barrier three more times in the next four years.
If there was any recurring characteristic in how they lost, the Royals had a habit of giving the fan base a glimmer of hope, and then quickly making you foolish for holding such hope:
- In 1991, the Royals finished in 6th place out of 7 teams in the West; however, they had 82 wins and, with a new coach, some optimism for the next year. The next year, they lost 19 of their first 22 games and never contended.
- In 2000, they finished 77-85, but the lineup was full of young bats and promising starting pitching. In 2001, they began 4-12 and from the beginning of May to the end of the season, they dropped from 10 games back of first to 26 games out.
- In 2003, aided with some good fortune, the Royals contended and even led the division during some meaningful parts of the season. They finished 83-79, and for the first time in a long time, they made some offseason acquisitions with a playoff mindset. On May 8, 2004, the Royals lost to the Boston Red Sox 9-1, which included an inside-the-park home run when one of those high-profile acquisitions let the ball go through his legs in right field. By that time, the Royals were 8-20 and well on their way to a 104-loss season.
All of this is to say that there’s a particular kind of disappointment following this kind of franchise, where five months of talk over the winter about winning the next year, following the spring training games, and having the local newspaper publish a special section about the possibilities of success, then only to have that optimism so crushed so quickly. It creates distrust when the team has success, because you don’t believe it can last.
Which brings me to this weekend. The Royals entered Friday’s game one-half game out of first place, and beginning a three-game series at home against the division leaders, the Detroit Tigers. With a little over a week left in the season, the local sports radio media were rightly calling this the most significant series in 29 years. All three games were sold out. Friday’s game, in a microcosm of past history of disappointment, resulted in a 10-1 loss where the Tigers scored all 10 of their runs in the first five innings.
Saturday’s game was more interesting. Even if the sixth inning hadn’t happened the way it did, there was much to complain about. In the Royals’ half of the first inning, with a runner on second base and nobody out, the batter bunts to move the runner to third. In the third inning, with runners at first and second and nobody out, the batter – the same as in the first – does it again. In both cases, the runners were left stranded, which was another conspicuous failure in the game. This debate in philosophy over strategy is nothing new for Royals fans — for as long as current manager Ned Yost and general manager Dayton Moore have been with the team, many Royals fans have agonized over this outdated strategy of small-ball (sacrificing outs, relying on the stolen base instead of power), and nothing here will resolve this. The only thing I’ll say is that even with reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer on the mound, playing in the early innings as if you have to give up outs for one run instead of zero shouldn’t be taking place unless that one run is needed in the late innings. And, suffice to say, by the way the first game and a half of this series, the fan base was more than a little tense.
But that’s not the reason for this post. The reason for the post is what happened in the bottom of the sixth inning, involving a bizarre play and some creative umpiring. With the game tied 1-1 and with runners at second and third and one out (no sacrifice bunt this time), second baseman Omar Infante hit a line drive that was caught by the Tigers’ second baseman for the second out. So far, so good: the runners jog back towards their bases. Then, thinking that he could double off the runner at second, Tiger second baseman Ian Kinsler threw to shortstop Eugenio Suarez, who was moving toward the bag along with runner Eric Hosmer. The ball is thrown wide of Suarez and into left field. The runners advance, with Salvador Perez touching home from third base, and the game is tied. The crowd, with all of the previous frustration at watching this team get in its own way just to score the one run to tie the game, erupts in joy.
Problem was, Perez did indeed touch home, but not from third base. He had moved back toward third base, but when the ball went into left field, he immediately began running forward. In order to advance on a line out, the runner has to tag the base after the ball is caught. The replay showed that Perez’s foot was never less than a few inches away from third base. One of the Tiger bench players saw this and notified manager Brad Ausmus, who called for his team to throw the ball to third, so that the third base umpire could call him out. They threw the ball to third, but the umpires had not seen what Ausmus saw. They gathered and called Perez safe.
This season was the first in which teams could appeal certain calls made by the umpire on the field. It involves a call to New York, where a group of officials reviews the replay and either upholds or overturns the call on the field. When the crew chief called New York, the only response he got was that they could not review that call. Which was correct: the review of whether a runner tagged up after a catch of a ball in play could not be reviewed on replay. So the umpires gathered together again and, after a few minutes of discussion, called Perez out. After the game, crew chief Larry Vanover explained it this way: “We took a consensus of the information. Out of that crew consultation, we came up with the answer that he didn’t tag up.” It didn’t hurt that while New York was telling Vanover that they were on their own, the the stadium was showing for all to see that Perez had not tagged up. This lost run proved to be the difference, as the Royals fell to the Tigers 3-2.
Going into the next game, the Royals are two and half games back of Detroit for the Central Division lead, with nine games to go. The Royals are far from a lost cause for the 2014 season, but even if the Royals don’t make the playoffs this year, I think there are some different possible reactions on the outcome of this game. One way would be to lump this play at third with the genuine incompetence of this franchise’s last two decades-plus, and possibly associate a future curse based on that play if the team turns awful again. That would be disappointing. Salvador Perez was this year’s starting catcher for the All Star Game, and is signed with the Royals for several more years. He’s part of the team’s future, which may be an optimistic one for once. What may be a better take on this kind of gaffe is to advance on a learning curve on how to play meaningful games. I doubt Perez forgets to tag up on that kind of play under normal circumstances. Maybe in a future playoff game when an unexpected event occurs, that kind of gaffe doesn’t happen. Heck, I doubt Kinsler even makes that throw to second base in a normal stakes game, which should be an indicator that maybe the other team (even three-time defending division champions) has some nerves, too. I have no way of knowing, but it’s still better than the Royals fan base adopting the September 20 game as a negative milestone in franchise history.
As of right now, the Royals lead the third game 4-2 in the bottom of the fifth. At least the offense has finally arrived in this series, and it looks like the team isn’t rattled from yesterday’s debacle. Or this could be a setup for the Royals losing the trifecta: blowout, close game, and blown lead. The optimism will remain cautious for now.