From maligned to genius in less than a month, the evolution of Ned Yost

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports
From maligned to genius in less than a month, the evolution of Ned Yost
From maligned to genius in less than a month, the evolution of Ned Yost

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – At 4:30 a.m. last week, already awake for 90 minutes, Ned Yost began vacuuming his condo. He can't help but get up at 3 a.m. these days, the anticipation of the next day of this incredible Kansas City Royals run to the World Series rousing him from his slumber. With nothing better to do, Yost figured his place could use a once-over, seeing as vacuum hadn't met carpet once all summer and his grandkid was coming to town to watch grandpa continue the biggest surprise of the postseason, even bigger than the Royals: Ned Yost, effective manager.

"I wake up excited," Yost said. "I wake up happy. I wake up anticipating Tuesday."

Now that it's here – now that Yost, the most maligned Ned since Homer first met Flanders, is managing heightened expectations in addition to a ballclub trying to make the first undefeated run ever through a postseason – the permagrin will dissolve into the dead-eyed face of a manager running through all the permutations a manager must. The sorts of decisions that damned Yost to the reputation he's doing his best to abolish.

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As the Royals beat the Oakland A's in the wild-card game, ousted the Los Angeles Angels in the division series and trucked the Baltimore Orioles in the ALCS, Yost's propensity for ham-handed decision-making has all but disappeared. The focus will again laser in on him Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET for Game 1 at Kauffman Stadium, the first World Series game the Royals have hosted in 29 years. That number is a lagniappe to every word written and spoken about this series, a triumph for a city that forgot what postseason baseball looked like and another shot for an opponent that doesn't understand Octobers without it.

Ned Yost is the first manager to win his first eight postseason games. (AP)
Ned Yost is the first manager to win his first eight postseason games. (AP)

Bruce Bochy has helmed the Giants to two championships and a crack at another. Yost was the guy fired with 13 games left in the season because the Milwaukee Brewers had no confidence he could rescue his club from a spiral that almost saw it miss the playoffs. His past chased him here, chased him throughout the summer, as he bunted at inopportune times, as he trotted out rote rationale behind irrational bullpen maneuvering, as he birthed the hashtag #boomyosted that grew synonymous with managerial folly.

Certainly an 8-0 record hasn't turned Yost into a genius. It has prompted a reconsideration, one that necessitates a look at those eight games from which the takeaway is that of a manager whose impulses seem to suit October far better than they did the previous months.

Much of that, of course, is that the Royals happen to be playing their best ball of the year, an amalgamation of incredible glovework, impermeable bullpen and just enough starting pitching and offense. That's the Royals' secret sauce, and outside of his insertion of rookie Yordano Ventura into the wild-card game (which didn't work) and his allowing soft-tossing lefty Jason Vargas to face Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Howie Kendrick in the sixth inning of the division series' first game (which did work), it's difficult to fault Yost with any of his pitching choices.

The Vargas situation, in fact, epitomizes Yost's benefits and detriments simultaneously. Like so many managers, he believes irrationally in his players, and he listened when Vargas vowed to retire the heart of the Angels' order. The third out, a wild catch by Nori Aoki in right field, prompted Vargas to bound into the dugout and roar: "I told you I'd get 'em!" To which Yost replied: "He almost got you."

Vargas chuckled at the recollection, a typical Yost reaction. One thing never in question is how much the Royals enjoy playing for him. Every day, Yost will stroll through the clubhouse, giving one player daps, needling another, making sure to communicate in the language of a man with 40 years of experience in pro ball.

Yost has the Royals back in the World Series for the first time since 1985. (USA Today)
Yost has the Royals back in the World Series for the first time since 1985. (USA Today)

Counterbalancing his fluency there was the seeming illiteracy in the game theory that plays out nightly on the baseball diamond. The Brewers collapse told Yost he needed to be different this time around, and as the Royals transitioned from a developing team to one focusing on winning games, Yost, too, tried to change, hard though it was.

"You have to evolve," Yost said. "You have to evolve."

He sounds not like a man trying to convince himself of this as much as a strict adherent of the philosophy. Even in the throes of a playoff race, he did so. On Sept. 15, the day after Yost's infamous explanation of why he allowed reliever Aaron Crow to blow a lead instead of turning to bullpen ace Kelvin Herrera – "Aaron's inning is the sixth inning," Yost said, despite the fact it was demonstrably untrue – pitching coach Dave Eiland pulled Yost aside and told his boss he needed to change. Herrera wasn't the seventh-inning guy and Wade Davis the eighth-inning guy and Greg Holland the ninth-inning guy. They were all arms, all ready and eager to be deployed at any time.

"If we get to the postseason, we're probably going to have to use these guys for four outs, maybe five outs," Eiland said. "And if we're going to get through September and into October, we're going to have to do it now. So I finally convinced him."

Yost's reliance on his three-headed relief monster propelled the Royals past managers considered his superiors and here, to the cusp. He said he listens to his coaching staff more than ever, that "I've been able to adapt, I've been able to apply and I've been able to be flexible with everything they bring to the table. And look at where we're at."

The place when waking up at 3 a.m. doesn't seem so weird. Yost was asking his mentor and former Braves manager Bobby Cox whether he devolved into insomnia during October runs, to which Cox replied: "Yeah, and ain't it the greatest feeling in the world?"

Close to it, though there's still four more wins to scratch out. Otherwise, it's a goal interrupted, second best, which Yost spent all year telling his team isn't enough. Time after time, Yost would tell the Royals stories of his good friend Dale Earnhardt and his voracious desire to win.

In one story, Yost talks about being in the pits at an Earnhardt race when his crew wanted to do some quick repair work before sending him back out, hopeful he could slink his way toward the front and muster a seventh- or eight-place finish. Earnhardt got mad. He wanted four new tires. Seventh or eighth could kiss his rear bumper.

"I'm gonna lose if I don't get first place anyway," Earnhardt said.

The Royals players remember these stories, not because it's Dale Earnhardt as much as because how they embody their manager. The evolution of Ned Yost is underway, and its initial results are more promising than could be imagined. Now comes the tough part. Will it be #boomyosted, the bungler or Boom! Yost!, the tactician?

His tires are fresh, his arms rested, his carpet cleaned. And he can't wait to find out.

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