Lost Leads and the Power of Never Say Die: The 2015 World Series
It was the belly flop that announced a dynasty. When the history of the Kansas City Royals rise from perennial doormat to dominating champion is written, Eric Hosmer‘s head-first slide across home plate in Game 5 will be the play that stands out. That was no ordinary play: it scored the tying run for the Royals in the ninth inning. As in three of their four losses, the New York Mets held a late lead but could not keep the Royals from the key hit, the key steal, the key run that tipped the contest in the other direction. Kansas City’s ability to survive and even thrive under pressure made more than a champion; it made baseball exciting.
To hear Royals manager Ned Yost, his team focused on nothing short of the World Series from the start of spring training. His team’s rise from years of cellar-dwelling in 2014, the furious August and September winning streak that vaulted K.C. to a playoff spot and the American League pennant counted for nothing. Losing the World Series to the San Francisco Giants hurt. The pain still felt fresh this spring, enough to remind Yost’s young players losing would never be fun.
The lesson held once the regular season began, one in which most “experts” predicted K.C. would return to its usual losing ways. Quickly gaining control of the American League Central Division, it was obvious by the All-Star Game that the Royals would win their first division title in 30 years.
That 1985 team was Kansas City’s only previous World Series winner, a last hurrah for a team that had gone to the playoffs almost annually for the previous decade. Yes, the Royals won the World Series the weekend before the date on which the original “Back to the Future” is set. Like that movie, the championship seemed a guarantee of a bright future that never was. A winning season for K.C. felt as likely as the gravity boots and hover boards of the movie series.
The 2015 team seemed to understand they were fated for greater things than most other Royals rosters over the years. They ran up the best record in the American League, which guaranteed the team home field rights in every playoff series. This did not seem to matter in the first round, where the Houston Astros, another team newly returned to success after years in the wilderness, held a 6-2 lead in the eighth inning of Game 4, the Royals quickly scored five runs to force a fifth game. That one saw the Astros score two runs before the Royals tallied seven. The Toronto Blue Jays suffered a similar fate in the league championship series, falling to the Royals in six games during which they also looked good but not good enough.
In the National League the Mets had spent much of the season as a team with great pitching and nonexistent offense. Two key players revived the New Yorkers’ bats, Yoenis Cespedes and David Wright. A trade with Detroit brought the power-hitting Cespedes to Gotham, where his bat made the Mets a force to be reckoned with. Wright, the third baseman and team captain, spent much of the season on injured reserve but came back late in the season to boost the team.
The team’s two playoff series showed the Mets to be a much stronger playoff team than predicted by many (outside the New York media, that is). The Los Angeles Dodgers powerful pitching duo of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke pitched well but got little help from the offense, allowing the Mets to win the divisional series in five games. Against the red-hot Chicago Cubs, the Mets’ great starting pitching shut down their powerful lineup and swept baseball’s lovable losers to punch their World Series tickets.
Entering the championship series, the Mets looked to have one big advantage over the Royals: starting pitching. Each game showed this strength. In Game 1, despite a World Series first (an inside-the-park home run to lead off the game by K.C. shortstop Alcides Escobar) the Mets closer Jeurys Familia was closing out a 3-1 lead. Familia does not give up home runs; even if he did, Kansas City’s cavernous Kauffman Stadium does not allow many either. That did not faze K.C. outfielder Alex Gordon, who launched a powerful blast to dead center, tying up the game. The Royals won in 14 innings.
The Royals started play in the Series keeping a massive secret. Not long before the game, Yost received a call. It concerned Edinson Volquez, their scheduled starter for the game. His father had just died back in the Dominican Republic but his family wanted Yost not to tell him. The elder Volquez would not have wanted to ruin his son’s big moment. Yost spoke to Chris Young, the team’s scheduled starter for Game 4, and told him to be ready to go in on a moment’s notice. Although he left with a deficit, Volquez pitched well. It was only after Yost took his starter out that he escorted him back to the clubhouse. His family was waiting to speak with him. Young entered the game in extra innings and got the win.
Game 2 saw the only game the Mets did not lead late; the National Leaguers scored an early run off Johnny Cueto, the ace pitcher Kansas City traded for in the middle of the season. The Royals quickly scored four off Mets’ Samson-haired ace Jacob deGrom on their way to a 7-1 laugher. Cueto’s performance did nothing to dampen expectation of the huge payday he is likely to enjoy as a free agent this off-season.
Game 3, the first in New York, saw the Mets finally break through for a 9-3 laugher. By this point, it was understandable if the New Yorkers believed they had to run the score up to ensure a win. Game 4 showed the necessity of putting the Royals away early. Despite a pair of home runs by rookie outfielder Michael Conforto, the Mets could not hold an eighth-inning lead again. This time an error by second baseman Daniel Murphy helped the Royals score the runs to tie and win the game 5-3. Murphy had become a playoff hero for the Mets in their two previous playoff series, belting home runs in six consecutive games against the Dodgers and Cubs. Against the Royals, he suddenly became punchless. Now he was being fitted for goat’s horns as well.
Game 5 saw the desperation for the Mets. Like the Astros and Blue Jays before them, they found themselves powerless to prevent a strangling by the Royals’ anaconda of an offense. Unlike most teams, K.C. batters did not swing and miss as most teams do, leaving the New Yorkers struggle for answers. Manager Terry Collins was now feeling the heat for waiting too long to put Familia in the night before (though it didn’t matter as the closer blew his second save of the series).
Volquez had returned from his father’s funeral to take the hill for the start. Although he looked good, he again left with a deficit, this time 2-0. Mets starter Matt Harvey looked sharp for eight innings. The top of the ninth brought a problem: Collins told Harvey before the game he would put Familia in for the final inning if he could get them a lead. Although the starter had done just that, he felt he could finish the game and lobbied his manager to go back in. Against his better judgment, Collins gave in.
Centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, suffering through a poor series at the plate, led off the inning with a walk. Hosmer, who in 2014 finally became the star Royals fans had expected him to be for years, drove Cain in with a double. Quick to admit his mistake, Collins went out to get Harvey and bring in Familia. It was too late.
Hosmer had moved to third base when catcher Salvador Perez, a durable player who gives playing through pain a new meaning, hit a ground ball to Wright at third. He looked Hosmer back to the base before throwing Perez out. Against baseball convention, Hosmer then raced for home. The Mets’ first baseman Lucas Duda has a weak throwing arm and Hosmer decided to test him. Duda’s throw sailed wide as Hosmer belly-flopped across the plate with the tying run.
Although the Royals did not score again in the inning, to all watching it was obvious what was about to happen. Finally in the 14th inning, the inevitable Royals rally occurred. Five K.C. runs crossed the plate and the American Leaguers won a 7-2 clinching victory. Perez won the Most Valuable Player award but there were so many contenders for the honor.
Every Royals player took the field at some point during the 2015 World Series. Even 20-year-old Raul Mondesi, Jr., who was added to the team roster just for the series, got an at-bat. This made him the first player in baseball history to take his first major league at-bat in the World Series. Along with Volquez’s perseverance and Hosmer’s slide home, this fact points out the true team nature of K.C.’s win. As a team official said, “They play with no fear.”
A five-game World Series does not sound exciting. The television ratings would seem to bear this out; this was not a widely-viewed series. For those who did tune in, a true underdog story played itself out in all its drama. For everyone who thought the Kansas City Royals would never be good again, who could not believe a team could be this exciting to watch, they were rewarded with a team too good to be true and too good to lose. May this fitting champion keep this fire inside for years to come.
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Senior Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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