KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Nobody quite understood what was happening. Salvador Perez cocked his head askew. All the players on the Kansas City Royals' bench suffered from a case of celebratus interruptus. The umpiring crew raced toward the burgeoning mob at home plate. And after tempers cooled and the detritus of an almost-brawl in the World Series cleared, everyone realized the entire scene mushroomed from the tired act that is Hunter Strickland getting a little sore after another meltdown and just wanting to fight.
The 2014 World Series jolted to life in the sixth inning of Game 2. Until that point, it registered similar to the sloppy Game 1, a runaway San Francisco Giants victory. Then the Royals of every prior day in October arrived, slapping hits, shooting gaps, running bases and frustrating a pitcher badly enough that machismo replaced wits.
Along with Strickland's composure went any chance the Giants had, a tie game devolving into a 7-2 victory by the Royals in front of 40,446 at Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday night. The sixth served as the Royals' fulcrum, erasing their uncharacteristic bad play with a deluge of offense followed by a swell of anger, Strickland locking eyes with Perez and challenging him to a fight like a playground bully who seemed to forget his antics were being beamed by 20 high-definition cameras to millions of people.
Here, according to the participants' best recollection, is how the World Series nearly turned into a donnybrook: After Giants manager Bruce Bochy inserted Strickland, a 26-year-old rookie whose fastball tops out at 100 mph, with runners on first and second base, he put Perez in an 0-2 hole. Strickland then bounced a slider, which moved the runners to second and third.
"After he threw that breaking ball to Salvy, he didn't want to throw another one in the dirt," Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas said. "I'm pretty sure Salvy was hunting dead red and got a pitch, and he smoked it out to center field."
The ball bounced to the wall, plating the second and third runs of the inning, giving Kansas City a three-run cushion. For the first five innings, Royals starter Yordano Ventura and Giants starter Jake Peavy teetered, pitching well enough and leaving the game in the hands of the teams' bullpens. It was the Giants' depth against the Royals' power, and Kansas City would prove mightier, Strickland's appearance sealing that.
When Perez cruised into second base, he said Strickland side-eyed him. Perez didn't understand why. He did no special dance on second base, no celebratory antics beyond the usual point to the dugout and hand-clapping. All of it could have died there on second base, if not for misplaced manliness manifesting itself.
"You know how baseball players are, bro," Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. "They're macho. 'You can't look at me like that.' "
Up stepped Omar Infante, who deposited Strickland's second pitch, a 98-mph fastball, into the back of the Royals' bullpen. As he crossed first base, Infante pounded his chest. Strickland started yelling into his glove. To call Perez's stroll home leisurely would oversell the pace at which he moved. As he rounded third, Perez peered at Strickland once, twice, three times, uttered a few words, tinder to Strickland's flourishing inferno. By the time he reached home plate, Perez was taking baby steps, slow and calculated, each to remind Strickland the poor form of staring down a guy who just doubled off you. Get beat and own it.
This did not sit well with Strickland.
"Get out of here!" he yelled at Perez.
"Why are you looking at me?" Perez responded. "I didn't hit a homer. Omar hit a homer. Look at him."
The scoreboard read 7-2, the decibel meter throbbed and the histrionics were just starting. Giants catcher Buster Posey ran out to calm Strickland, but it was too late. He'd jawed with Bryce Harper after giving up a previous postseason homer, and Infante's marked the fifth he yielded this October, setting off a new wave of frustration. Strickland challenged Perez to meet him on the mound. Perez declined the invitation. The crowd warbled even more. The Royals leaked onto the field. Some Giants did, too.
Second-base umpire Ted Barrett sprinted in to help home-plate umpire Eric Cooper keep the Royals away from Strickland. Barrett's presence proved a far greater deterrent than may be realized. He commands an immense amount of respect – enough that baseball imported him to serve as home-plate umpire the day after Boston and Tampa Bay nearly brawled in May – and players immediately backed away, lest they tempt a hidden talent of Barrett's: He was a former amateur boxer.
"Everyone knows about Teddy's boxing career," Hosmer said. "I don't think anybody's messing with him."
Little incentive existed for the Royals anyway. One of the Giants’ great hallmarks is their tranquility, their ability to take a moment and shrink it to the size of a gumball, and here they were – or here one of them was – blowing it up to something he couldn’t handle. After the game, Strickland apologized for what he did. It won’t happen again, not in a high-leverage situation, Strickland damned to the back end of the bullpen, where he probably belonged already, and the Giants’ depth trimmed by that and a back injury to the man who replaced him, Tim Lincecum.
All of that is material to the Royals, whose ability to scratch out wins often depends on other teams not playing like their typical selves. Oakland folded late in the wild-card game. The Angels looked more like a 98-loss team than one that tore through a 98-win season. The Orioles bowed against Kansas City's relentlessness. It's why Game 1, the Royals' first lost this postseason, seemed so unfamiliar: For a month, the Royals have been the ones dictating the direction of a series.
Whether the series effervesces with something different henceforth is unlikely, with Alex Gordon claiming: "It's forgotten right now, it was forgotten after that inning." This is not true. It may not be avenged, but it will be remembered, will be brought up again inside the Royals' clubhouse for the duration of a series growing more intriguing by the day.
Unless San Francisco can sweep its three home games or the Royals can thieve them, the World Series returns here, this place that remembered the splendor of such games after three decades of silent Octobers. Normally this time of year, at 9:30 p.m. CT on a Wednesday night, people are picking out Halloween decorations or watching another mediocre reality show or doing anything but obsessing over baseball.
And yet at 9:30 p.m. CT on a Wednesday night, on the dot, a combustible asset stood on a pitching mound, a trolling catcher incited him and the 2014 World Series became a series. It shifts to the most beautiful park in the land, one in which the noise reverberates like it's located in a tunnel, and the calculus is rather simple.
Five games to play. Two evenly matched teams that don't like each other. One championship to win.
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