NEW YORK — They should have been thinking about the long flight back to Kansas City for Game 6. They should have been thinking they’d just run into Matt Harvey on the wrong night in November. They should have been thinking that some missions are more impossible than others, and this was one of them.
But those are the kinds of thoughts other teams think. Not this team. Not the team that just won the 2015 World Series on a shocking Sunday night at Citi Field, the Kansas City Royals.
If there ever was a team that could find itself two runs down to the Dark Knight in the ninth inning of a World Series game and think, “Cool, we’ve got these guys right where we want them,” this was that team — the kings of improbability. They’d spent an entire postseason acting as if down were up. So why stop now?
Maybe that’s why their general manager, Dayton Moore, turned to one of his special assistants, Jason Kendall, as the ninth inning was about to begin Sunday night and uttered these unlikely words:
“Get ready. We’re about to find a way to win the World Series.”
Wait. Really? Who could possibly have felt the earthquake in this park as Harvey sprinted to the mound, trying to finish off the first complete-game shutout in a potential World Series elimination game since Curt Schilling in 1993, and thought to himself, “Yeah, we’re good?”
Who could possibly have spent the previous eight innings watching Harvey rise to his greatest postseason moment to spin eight innings of dazzling four-hit, nine-strikeout, no-run baseball and sensed the world was about to change?
Only a GM who had seen one postseason miracle after another unfold before his eyes, and knew he had a dugout full of guys who couldn’t wait to spring another one. That’s who.
“I just had a feeling,” Moore found himself saying many hours later, after the stunning 7-2, 12-inning ambush of the New York Mets that carried the Royals to the pinnacle of their sport. “I don’t usually make those predictions. But I just had a feeling.”
OK, now here’s the really crazy part: He wasn’t alone.
The moment Lorenzo Cain ground his way through a seven-pitch at-bat to work a leadoff walk against Harvey to start the ninth, Royals legend George Brett sat in those same stands and said: “I’ve seen this movie before.”
Pitcher Chris Young found himself saying: “Here we go again.” And the Royals’ dugout surged with adrenaline, as the men about to head for home plate told one another emphatically: “We’re down to our last at-bats. Make them count.”
Then off they went, to finish off their fantastic journey with one final amazing trick that would even make Penn & Teller ask: “How the heck did they do that?”
We would tell you that what followed was pretty much impossible, except that this was the Royals. So what followed was actually just the latest, greatest summation of who they are.
So of course Eric Hosmer would charge home with the tying run on a routine ground ball to third base. He’s a Royal.
And of course the guy who would eventually single in the winning run in the 12th inning, backup infielder Christian Colon, was a fellow who hadn’t even made it into the batter’s box — let alone gotten an epic World Series hit — in four weeks. He’s a Royal.
And of course, this team would somehow go on to score seven runs on a night when you would have bet heavily against it even scoring one, because, well, they’re the Royals. And they’ve been pretty much willing themselves to do that for weeks now.
“If that game doesn’t epitomize what our club is all about,” Young said, “then I don’t know what does.”
How unlikely were these games they kept conjuring up ways to win over this past month? Let’s sum that up for you:
• First off, it’s a good thing for Dayton Moore he didn’t know that only two other teams in the history of baseball had ever won the World Series the way the Royals did — by finding themselves at least two runs behind in the ninth inning or later of a clinching game and then scrambling back to win. And don’t go looking for any YouTube highlights of the previous two — because they happened in 1929 (A’s) and 1939 (Yankees).
• Then again, this was a plot line we’d seen over and over and over again. The Royals won 11 games in this postseason. In seven of them, they trailed by at least two runs at some point, then roared back to win. No team had ever done that. But this team did.
• And in six of those 11 wins, the Royals were losing heading into the sixth inning. No team had ever won six games that way in a single postseason, either. But this team did.
• And just in this World Series, the Royals not only trailed in all five games but won three games in which they trailed in the eighth inning or later. No team had ever done that before in any of the first 110 World Series in history. But this team did.
“You guys know what we do all season,” said the World Series MVP, Salvador Perez. “We never quit. We never put our heads down. We never think about, ‘OK, the game is over.’ No. We always compete to the last out. And that’s what we do tonight.”
And there’s one other thing to remember here: In nearly every one of those insane comebacks, they did it the hard way. How many home-run trots did they make during any of them? Exactly one, by Alex Gordon, in the ninth inning of Game 1 of this World Series.
But in the rest? There wasn’t a Kirk Gibson or Bill Mazeroski impression anywhere to be found. Just the usual collection of squibbers and bloops, ropes and gappers, and a whole lot of courage on the base paths.
“Once we tied it, I said, `We’ve got this game,’ just because our bullpen is so good. So really, after we tied it, I felt totally relaxed. I even said, `My heart should be beating faster than it is.'”
Royals manager Ned Yost
It’s a formula that doesn’t seem to work for anyone else. But in Kansas City, it’s as much a part of the landscape as a rack of ribs. So the stunner the Royals were about to break out in Game 5 of this World Series was just one more entry for their greatest hits collection.
There was Cain’s leadoff walk. Then a first-pitch stolen base. Followed by a swing of the bat that will define Hosmer’s remarkable postseason. As he awaited Harvey’s 0-1 pitch, Hosmer’s postseason batting average stood at a cringe-worthy .190. But once he’d finished pummeling Harvey’s final pitch of the night to the track in left for an RBI double, his average with runners on base stood at .343. It was his 17th RBI, the most in postseason history by a player 26 or younger. Any more questions?
“When Hoz hit that double,” recalled Brett, “I said, ‘Here we go again.’ And you know what? I’m pretty sure everyone in [the Mets’] dugout was saying, ‘Here they go again.’ And everyone in the stands was saying, ‘Oh my God. Are they gonna have another comeback?'”
The correct answer, of course, was: Sure, they were. Just another day at the office for this group.
A Mike Moustakas ground ball moved Hosmer to third. There was one out. And as Perez wriggled into the box to face Mets closer Jeurys Familia, the hard drive in Hosmer’s head whirred with the scouting report his team had been given before this World Series ever began:
So he was about to do something only special players have the ability to do. He saw a play in his head that hadn’t happened yet — and knew precisely how he’d react when it did.
He envisioned Perez chopping a ground ball to Wright — and the moment Wright looked away and floated his throw toward first base, Eric Hosmer knew he was going to break toward home plate.
“You’ve just got to realize who’s on the mound,” Hosmer said. “Hits are hard to come by off that guy. So you’ve got to take any chance you can.”
But what was really at work here was this, said his manager, Ned Yost: “He wasn’t afraid to make the last out of the game at home plate. And that’s the thing about these guys. They play with no fear.”
Except, as he motored toward the plate, legs pumping furiously, Hosmer actually was afraid he was about to make the last out at home. He just figured that “it’s a lot easier to take that chance when you’re up, three games to one.”
He saw Duda take Wright’s throw, then turn to fire home. Asked if this was the fastest he’d ever run in his life, Hosmer quipped: “It was the fastest I’ve ever felt. I don’t know if it was the fastest I’ve ever run.”
“The way it ended last year, with everything that happened, such a magical run, you knew it couldn’t end like that again. You knew that story had to have a way better ending than losing Game 7.”
Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer
Had Duda merely delivered a strike to the plate, Hosmer would have been out, this game would have been over and that flight back to Kansas City in the morning would have been to play Game 6, not to jump on the parade floats. Instead, a panicked Duda launched his throw halfway to Staten Island. And this World Series would never be the same.
“Once we tied it, I said, ‘We’ve got this game,'” Yost said, “just because our bullpen is so good. So really, after we tied it, I felt totally relaxed. I even said, ‘My heart should be beating faster than it is.'”
But they’d all seen this movie before. They knew pretty much how it ended. They just didn’t know the hero would be Colon, a guy who had vanished so deep into the background in this postseason that his last at-bat was Oct. 4, the final day of the regular season. One 12th-inning RBI single later, though, it was time to cart the champagne into the clubhouse.
A year ago, the journey of the Royals didn’t end this way. A year ago, the journey ended with one more unfortunate meeting with that Madison Bumgarner guy. And as the Giants celebrated, the team in the other clubhouse filed the sting of that loss under “Unfinished Business.” Then the Kansas City Royals showed up this spring, ready to finish it.
“The way it ended last year, with everything that happened, such a magical run, you knew it couldn’t end like that again,” Hosmer said. “You knew that story had to have a way better ending than losing Game 7.”
But to rewrite that ending, the Royals had to do something that no American League team had done since the 1961 Yankees: Lose Game 7 one year, then win the World Series the next year. Fortunately, Madison Bumgarner never did appear on the mound to spoil their dreams this time around. And magic happened.
Not merely for the men who wear the uniforms, though. This one wasn’t just for them. This one was for the people of Kansas City, who spent 30 years waiting for a night like this to arrive.
Sixteen teams won a World Series in all those years when the Royals weren’t winning one. The Red Sox won for the first time in 86 years. The White Sox won for the first time in 88 years. The Phillies became the first team from their town, in a quarter-century, to win a title in any of the four major professional sports.
But in Kansas City, the wait went on. And on. And on. And on. Until this group arrived.
“I thought a lot about that,” Moore said. “And I said, ‘Gosh dang, if we don’t break this 30-year drought now, we never will.’ It’s funny how your mind starts going down that trail.
“But you know what?” said Dayton Moore, on the night his team pulled its final Houdini act of 2015, “We don’t have to go down that trail anymore.”