KANSAS CITY, Mo. – As the first game of baseball’s 2014 postseason bled deep into the night, those lucky enough to find themselves in Kauffman Stadium would be forgiven if they shared a thought that on the surface sounds blasphemous: It was worth the wait.
For 29 years – 29 years of sporting pain and misery and, most of all, losing – the Kansas City Royals stumbled the tortuous and torturous path of the saddest franchise in baseball. And in their first trip back to the playoffs in nearly three decades culminated with a rollicking, crazy, come-from-behind, 12-inning, walk-off 9-8 victory over the Oakland A’s in the American League wild-card game, the stadium shook as it hasn’t since Kansas City won the 1985 World Series.
This was the best game of the baseball season, and it wasn’t even October. By the time Salvador Perez laced a two-out Jason Hammel slider down the left-field line to score Christian Colon, baseball’s postseason had been kicked off in grand style, with the Royals advancing to face the Los Angeles Angels in the AL Division Series and the A’s collapse fully realized.
The Royals erased the managerial blundering of Ned Yost that got them behind in the first place, scoring three runs in the eighth inning and plating another in the ninth on a Nori Aoki sacrifice fly off A’s closer Sean Doolittle to tie the game at 7. Squandered opportunities in the 10th and 11th innings gave way to Perez’s heroics, which were preceded by a hitless five at-bats during which he looked feckless.
When Colon crossed the plate with two outs, after advancing to second base on a botched pitchout by Oakland, the Royals already had spilled out of the dugout, and the bedlam of 40,502 fans registered on the Richter scale. Not only did Kansas City have its home game, it would have at least one more in the division series, despite Yost.
Yost put Kansas City in an awful position with a folly-filled sixth inning of questionable pitching changes. With runners on first and second, no outs and a 3-2 lead, Yost pulled ace James Shields after 88 pitches – the fewest of his Kansas City career – and inserted rookie starter Yordano Ventura, who over the last four years had made two relief appearances. A’s designated hitter Brandon Moss launched a 99-mph Ventura fastball over the 410-foot sign in center field, his second homer of the night and the blow from which Kansas City almost didn’t recover.
By the time Yost retrieved Ventura, the over-capacity crowd at Kauffman Stadium showered him with boos, well-earned considering Ventura was perhaps the fifth-best option, behind left-handed rookie Brandon Finnegan, left-handed starter Danny Duffy, relief specialist Kelvin Herrera and Shields, for whom Kansas City traded two years ago eyeing this particular moment.
The A’s made similar trades over the summer, the last of which netted them Jon Lester, the two-time World Series champion with Boston whose early troubles relented until he again scuffled in the eighth inning. Kansas City scratched across three runs and had runners on second and third with one out when reliever Luke Gregerson struck out Perez and Omar Infante to end the threat. Doolittle blew the save in the ninth inning, allowing the tying run across and forcing extras.
In the top of the 12th, pinch-hitter Alberto Callaspo, a Royal for two of their worst years in the late 2000s, tomahawked a single to left field off reliever Jason Frasor, who failed to clean up the runner left on base by rookie Brandon Finnegan, who had held the A’s scoreless in the 10th and 11th innings.
Oakland felt good, particularly considering it was on the verge of escaping from a collapse that saw it blow a double-digit lead to the Angels in the AL West. Their collective failure down the stretch, brought on by injuries and an ineffectual offense, was staggering. No playoff team in history put up a winning percentage as low as the A’s .433 after the All-Star break.
And the lead was not safe with Dan Otero surrendering a one-out triple to Eric Hosmer in the 12th. Colon’s infield single scored him, and after Alex Gordon popped out, Perez’s liner became the biggest hit in Kansas City since October 1985.