Someone Has To Blink First

The second round of the baseball playoffs continued where the first one left off, with tense, exciting, rollercoaster individual games in two series that didn’t come close to going the full distance. The Royals swept the ALCS against the Orioles, yet the first game was decided in extra innings, they won the second one by breaking a tie with a two-run ninth-inning rally and the final two games were decided by the same bare 2-1 score – not that close, yet very close.

It was similar in the National League, where the Giants needed one over the bare minimum to dispatch the Cardinals in five, yet the games themselves were hotly contested and extremely competitive. The opener, won 3-0 by the Giants, was a relatively tame affair predictably dominated by the stingy pitching of Madison Bumgarner, but the other games were all hairy, see-saw battles decided late, either by walk-off home runs (by the Cards in Game Two and the Giants in Game Five), or by unlikely, opportunistic rallies by the Giants off various Cardinal sins, if you will (passed balls, wild pitches, errant throws to home, first base, etc.).

I’m getting older and my memory may be at fault, but I can’t recall a baseball postseason with so many tight, dramatic games and surprising turns, and with so few one-sided stinkers. The only laughers were the Giants’ 8-0 win over the Pirates in the NL wild-card game, and the Royals’ ALDS-clinching 8-3 win over the Angels, which was still thrilling because it involved a team winning a series before their rabid, long-starved fans for the first time in 29 years. True, some of the reversals were the result of poor play, but this didn’t dampen the excitement any unless you happened to be a fan of the bobbling team. And yes, the games have been long, even longer than the Wagnerian three-hour average mark reached during the season, but this hasn’t bothered me so much for a number of reasons. Firstly, these are the important, meaningful games, where there is expanded video-review and there are more strategic meetings and pitching changes. With so much at stake, I don’t mind the umpires and managers trying to get things right, and at least the games have been eventful, with base-runners and game-turning situations galore. And lastly, winter is coming and baseball will be over soon enough, so I welcome the boys of summer lingering awhile.

The stunning sweep of the postseason thus far by the Kansas City Royals is one of the most amazing, feel-good baseball stories in recent memory, for a lot of reasons. It’s a David and Goliath story and usually these involve some adversity or setbacks along the way to up the dramatic ante, but so far the Royals have yet to lose a game in October and became the first team in baseball history to win their first four extra-inning games in the postseason, which they managed in their first five games. As their manager Ned Yost commented, the Royals seemed to gain all the playoff experience they would need in the crucible of their incredible, come-from-behind win against Oakland in the AL wild-card game and since then, they have believed. Along the way they’ve gathered a lot of attention and new fans, to go along with the core of die-hard ones who have supported them through their preposterously long dark days. It’s an irresistible story and they’re almost an impossible team to dislike, both for their unassuming personality and for the dashing brand of baseball they’ve been playing. Athletic, defensively gifted, fast, opportunistic, with all kinds of pitching, situational hitting and surprising power, they play baseball that’s both exciting and efficient, manic yet poised. Old-school, fundamentally sound baseball; you could drop this team into any era of baseball except the home run-happy 1950s or 1990s and they could win.

They finally broke through this year and, although they played well down the stretch and actually overtook the Tigers to briefly occupy first place, they showed few signs of being a ballclub this talented, this special. I commented in my last post that I wasn’t all that surprised by their sweep of the Angels and that I liked the looks of them against Baltimore, but I never dreamed they would sweep the Orioles too, not in a million years, and neither did anybody else. They almost lost the first game, blowing 4-0 and 5-1 leads with some uncharacteristic mistakes – some shaky relief pitching from Brendan Finnegan (a rookie lefthander who seemed to have ice in his veins up till that point), a caught-stealing by Jarrod Dyson, a throwing error by Mike Moustakas. But they won the game with some recently characteristic, extra-inning power – a solo homer from Alex Gordon in the tenth followed by a two-run shot from Moustakas, which made up for his earlier blunder.

The Royals won the second game in the ninth inning against Baltimore’s normally airtight closer Zach Britton, stringing together a single, a sacrifice bunt, a double, a Baltimore error and a single, good for two runs. The Royals stole only one base in the Series (and were caught once), but their speed is about much more than the stolen base. They use their wheels on defense – they have one of the best defensive outfields seen in a long time, a key in their huge park – plus they exert pressure on opponents’ pitchers and defense with their constant aggressiveness on the basepaths, whether stealing or not. The ninth inning rally in Game Two was a good example, as was the way they scored in the first inning of Game Four, turning a cheap single, a hit-batter, a grounder and an aggressive, feet-first slide at home plate into the only two runs they would need to win – as they say, speed kills.

I wasn’t able to see much of the ALCS – a bit of Game One at the bar during a gig, all of Game Two, and just the ninth inning of the last two games, which were eerily similar. When I tuned into Game Four, I thought for a moment it was a replay of the game from the night before, because the situation was identical – a 2-1 score, with Royals’ closer Gregg Holland pitching to Adam Jones of the Orioles. This time around, with a trip to the World Series just three outs away and a minimal one-run lead, there were some understandable signs of nerves from Holland and his teammates. He walked Jones instead of popping him up as in Game Three, then the dangerous Nelson Cruz hit a sharp grounder which Escobar managed to snare and brilliantly record the out at second on, but no double-play. So, two long-ball threats in Delmon Young and J.J. Hardy due up with a man on, the 29 years of anticipatory longing from the K.C. faithful creating a palpable, almost insupportable tension. But, as he and his bullpen mates Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis have done from the seventh inning on most of the year, Holland shut the door, easily retiring the two Orioles as the 40,000-strong sea of blue erupted in the stands; at last, at long last the Royals had made it back to the promised land of the World Series.

Having watched the Blue Jays during their years of triumph, followed by the past 21 years of futility, I could relate. I feel happy for their fans and everyone connected to the team, but most of all for Billy Butler, who has suffered through more lean years than any other current Royal. He’s the epitome of the veteran, professional hitter but doesn’t look like a ballplayer so much as he does a beat cop or a high school gym teacher or the guy who runs the meat counter in your local supermarket. When I first became a baseball fan in the mid-’70s, the Royals were a model franchise, perennial contenders by 1976 after just seven years of existence. They finally got past the Yankees by beating them in the 1980 ALCS, only to be clobbered by the Phillies in the World Series. The last time they won anything in 1985, breaking the hearts of Blue Jays’ fans en route to a world championship, my sons, now both in their early thirties, were toddlers. Seeing the Royals play again in October has awakened all kinds of nostalgia in me that I didn’t realize was even there; I’ve missed them and it feels awfully good to see them again.

As for the Giants, they force one to ask – how do they do it, how do they keep winning once making it to the dance, with such an underwhelming lineup? They have only one genuine star in Buster Posey and an ace in Bumgarner, a couple of semi-stars in Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence, and yet they continue to squeeze out wins against seemingly superior opponents. Some feel it’s been a matter of luck, that their Series against the Cardinals turned on the unfortunate injury to catcher Yadier Molina. It was a tough blow for the Cardinals, as Molina is the very core of the team, but good teams find a way to overcome injuries, and Molina’s absence alone can’t account for the Cards’ failures – the poor throws, control problems, etc. Good teams find a way to take advantage of these sudden weaknesses in the other team no matter what their cause, which is just what the Giants did.

I’ve been searching for a word to describe the Giants and their brand of baseball – calm, opportunistic, gritty, battle-hardened, alert, sound – these all work. But in the end, although it’s not a very sexy word, the one I would choose to describe them is “efficient”. Not in the boring sense, but in the sense of not being wasteful. The Giants waste nothing, it’s not so much what they do that counts, but what they don’t do. They don’t waste chances, they don’t make mistakes, they don’t swing at many bad pitches or give away at-bats, they don’t give you much to hit and above all, they don’t lose much – the Royals are 8-0, but the Giants are 8-2. They managed to parlay nine runs in four games against the Nationals into three wins. The Cardinals out-homered them 8-3 in the NLCS, but the Giants outscored them 24-16 in the five games. During Game Four of the NLCS, one of the announcers mentioned that 12 of the past 22 runs the Giants had scored came without a hit on the run-scoring play. I was beginning to wonder if the Giants might find a way to score a run while playing in the field, or without even being on the field. Some would say that was luck too, but I beg to differ. It’s the mark of a deadly team forcing the opponent to make mistakes, which is what winning baseball games is all about. The Giants don’t win so much as they refuse to lose.

A lot of it has to do with manager Bruce Bochy, who is so stoical he appears to be in a drooling, barbiturate-induced trance half the time, but who sees and knows and anticipates every single little thing in a baseball game. I’m beginning to think he’s a genius, one of the truly great managers and if the Giants win a third Series under him, he’s going to the Hall of Fame. He really understands pitching and has a knack for instilling a team-first discipline, while convincing his individual players that, in the here and now – which is all that counts – they are capable of great things.

And so, after an interminable but unavoidable hiatus which robbed the postseason of its momentum, the World Series at last, and what a Series it should be. The two teams have never met in a Series before and have each taken the long, wild-card route to get here, just the second such meeting between wild-card teams in the WS. The Royals play National League style baseball and both teams are designed to play in their huge parks; they are eerily similar and very evenly matched, a case of an irresistible force in the Royals meeting an immovable object in the Giants.

Counting their wild-card victories, each team has scored 41 runs while giving up 25 in the postseason. The Royals managed this in two fewer games, meaning they have scored a little more and given up a little more but this all goes out the window now, it simply serves to underscore just how closely matched the two teams are. Both teams are built on pitching, deep bullpens, defense and fundamentals; the Royals have more speed and youthful athleticism, the Giants a smarter manager and much more experience, with a core of players who have been on this big stage at least once before, if not twice. There are all kinds of “past-mojo” scenarios in play, such as the mysterious even-year invincibility of the Giants lately, and the poor WS records of teams that have swept the ALCS – the 1988 and 1990 A’s, and the 2006 and 2012 Tigers – each of whom lost either in four or five games. But none of that is binding, it’s just stuff sportswriters and baseball nerds like to point out. There’s no reason to believe that because these things occurred in the past that they will continue to, or that the Royals’ undefeated streak will continue uninterrupted. Or is there?

It would be hard to bet against either of these teams, or to imagine either one losing, but of course one of them must. Someone has to blink first in this standoff and I have no idea who it will be. I have a tiny guy perched on one shoulder whispering in my ear that the Royals are the team of destiny and this is their year, while on the other there’s an imp equally insistent that the never-say-die Giants can’t and won’t lose. As a fan, I like both teams and would be happy for one in victory and sorry for the other in defeat.  Much to my surprise, even though I’m mostly an American League guy and the Royals are the feel-good underdog, I like the Giants just a little more. It’s not deliberate, I can’t help it. There’s just something about the way the Giants play in October after clawing their way to the dance that makes me fall for them every time, despite not carrying a torch for them during the season. As fans, we can’t really lose, but unfortunately, one of these worthy sides must, there will be pain. That’s what makes a close World Series match-up like this so compelling. Like the denouement in a great whodunit, the final mystery of the baseball season – which is the best team? – will be solved before our very eyes.

 

© 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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