God, I Love the Wild Card

BaseballFact #1: I love the wild card games in Major League Baseball.

Fact #2: I’m glad the Nationals are not playing in these “win or go home” games.

Last night saw the Kansas City Royals win a thriller from the Oakland A’s at Kauffman Stadium in 12 innings.  The K is a wonderful place to see a ballgame.  Tonight, I’m sitting on the couch waiting to see who will survive the National League Wild Card game and face the Nats on Friday night in the NLDS.  The game is at PNC Park – one of the great places to watch a ballgame.

If you look over to the right-hand column of my blog, you’ll see a link to the name Joe Posnanski.  Joe is among the best writers about baseball, and it just so happens that KC is his home.  His post on last night’s game had some of the funniest lines I’ve ever read from a sportswriter.

The first concerns the description of the bizarre double-steal attempt that went bad.   Here’s Joe’s description:

The Royals really are the closest baseball thing to a Coen Brothers movie. With two outs, the Royals tried some sort of double-steal with Billy Butler at first and Eric Hosmer at third. If I got the play right, and can write this without breaking down in convulsions, Butler was supposed to get hung up between first and second, distracting the A’s long enough to allow Hosmer to steal home. This, of course, ended in humiliation, with Hosmer being thrown out at the plate by 800 million steps, but as is often the case the spectacular ineptitude of the play was doubled or trebled by the Ned Yost explanation, where he explained that Butler left early and Hosmer left late and, otherwise, the Royals would have score a run.

Any comedian will tell you that you can’t explain comedy, and every effort to do so will just dig you deeper into anti-comedy, and maybe that’s why the straight-laced Yost always comes across so absurdly in these situations. Eric Hosmer is a generally lumbering first baseman, and Billy Butler might be the slowest player in baseball, and any complicated running play with these two is destined to become a Will Ferrell movie. It would have made me feel so much better if Yost had not given a considered answer on how that madcap scheme might have worked but instead said, “Yeah, that was crazy, right? Woo hop! Brain cramp! Hey, it’s the first postseason for me too!”

Posnanski has been a long-time Ned Yost critic…and there was a great deal of criticize last night.

The Royals, for many years, did not have anything concrete to believe in. They would talk the happy talk of spring training about how they believed they had better players, believed this pitcher would improve and that outfielder would build on last year’s success, and their defense would get better. But this was the misty kind of belief. There was no blueprint for winning that anyone actually could spell out, no clear line to victory like: “We will score more runs than other teams because we will hit more home runs” or “We will keep people from scoring because we have strikeout pitchers” or anything else like that.

The very best part of this year’s Royals team has been the replacement of that old bleary belief with a clarity of vision. It’s not an easy vision. But it’s clear. These Royals know what they’re up against. They can’t hit home runs. They don’t walk. They don’t have a starting pitcher who will get Cy Young votes. They have a manager who will occasionally just leave the planet. They don’t have as much money. They are not very deep.

OK – that’s something to work with. Now, how do you use all that? No power? Well, let’s steal lots of bases. No great starter? Maybe not, but let’s put together five really good ones and build a legendary back of the bullpen. Kooky manager? Maybe, but remember a manager can only hurt so much and, anyway, sometimes the nutty stuff will work. No depth? All right, have Alicedes Escobar play all 162 games at shortstop and Salvy Perez catch more games in a season than any Royals catcher ever.

The point is – if you actually can get people to believe these steps will lead to victories, they will do those things with vigor. And, as Patton believed, a good army is an army in motion. The Royals’ players and management believed the team could run and bunt and slice and dice their way to enough runs. They believed that their bullpen was invincible and a late-inning lead was a guaranteed win. The Royals believed that they could win games even if Ned Yost did stuff that made the head hurt. It all became a part of their chemistry.

And that was what I thought about after Yost left the farm in the sixth inning. The Royals trailed Oakland by four runs, 7-3, and it sure seemed like they would lose. After they fell behind, they did all sorts of unsound things like try to steal a base when down four runs and sacrifice bunt anytime a Royals player reached base and swing at baseballs that were only marginally in the field of play. But they did it all with such enthusiasm, with such force of will, with such optimism that chemical reactions were sparking again and again.

And, of course, they pull it out in the 12th.

Now it is on to two intriguing teams:  San Francisco and Pittsburgh.  I can’t wait to see what tonight brings.

More to come…

DJB

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