"It's not a death sentence to lose Game 1." – Ned Yost
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – For a noted clinician, Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost seemed to be ignoring the facts in the aftermath of his team's 5-2 loss to the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the ALDS on Thursday night. If dropping Game 1 of the division series isn't a death sentence, it's at very least a sudden cardiac arrest that necessitates a defibrillator and a prayer.
Baseball frowns on teams that lose the opening game of the best-of-five series at home, watching 28 of the 39 go on to eventual defeat. That history, of course, is little more than a collection of what happened to others, and in a sport as random as baseball it doesn't necessarily repeat itself. And yet the Royals understand the calculus of Game 2 on Friday afternoon: win or spend the rest of October watching others on TV instead of playing them.
Because what they face going forward is no average gauntlet. Game 3 is in Houston, where Astros starter Dallas Keuchel will stand atop a mound on which he has been perfect this season: 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA, 139 strikeouts in 129 1/3 innings and a frightening ability to prevent home run balls with his turbosinker. When Keuchel pitches at Minute Maid Park, the upstart Astros feel like they can play for one run and let the AL Cy Young favorite handle the rest.
"I almost expect to win," Astros reliever Tony Sipp said. "I know he can't say that. I can."
Fresh off Keuchel's short-rest gem in their wild-card win against the New York Yankees, the Astros strolled into Kauffman Stadium on Thursday and cribbed the style the defending AL champions rode to the pennant last October. They ran aggressively and successfully. They hit home runs. They chased good starting pitching with smooth relief. If not foolproof, the formula is rather close, and it embodies the danger of these Astros when their different outfits work so harmoniously.
Heading into the game, the Astros' hitters teemed with confidence against Kansas City starter Yordano Ventura. Don't swing wildly, they told one another. Let him walk you, they said. It will rattle him, they hypothesized. And 18 pitches into the game, the bases were loaded, Ventura had not an out to his name and the Astros were primed to dispatch of him before the fans at Kauffman Stadium reached their seats. Houston plated a pair of runs, not nearly as bad as it could've been for Kansas City but a warning shot nonetheless: The Astros weren't some wild-card pushover.
It wasn't just the way the top two hitters, Jose Altuve and George Springer, were barreling balls all night. Or how the Astros' starting pitcher, Collin McHugh, returned after a 49-minute rain delay to spin six innings of two-run ball while Ventura exited after the two innings. Or even how every ball hit seemed to end up inside the glove of an Astros fielder, their positioning exquisite, their opponent playing to its every swinging stereotype.
No, it was how for the second time in three days the Astros went into hostile territory and did what they do. Springer and Colby Rasmus hit home runs, matching the pair whacked by Kendrys Morales that accounted for both Royals runs. Jake Marisnick, filling in for the ailing Carlos Gomez in center field, laced a pair of hits and patrolled Kauffman Stadium's cavernous center field with the precision of a drone. And the Astros' maligned bullpen, the worst in baseball during September, tossed three scoreless innings, same as it did to finish off the Yankees.
"We mean business," Astros closer Luke Gregerson said. "We're going to come in here. We're not going to be intimidated by anybody."
Least of all Johnny Cueto, the Royals' erstwhile ace and the arm on which Game 2 rides. When Kansas City traded for Cueto before the July 31 deadline, it did so with the idea he would start Game 1. Instead, a month of struggles relegated him to the second game, and the Royals' season only rides on it.
Waking up their bats is imperative, too, and Astros starter Scott Kazmir presents an interesting case. The good: He threw seven shutout innings the last time he faced Kansas City and has allowed fewer than a batter an inning in three starts against the Royals this year. The bad: Of the 123 starting pitchers who have thrown at least 25 innings since September, Kazmir's 6.52 ERA ranks 118th. Even Cueto, in 106th place, can snicker at that.
The hope is in Game 2, because while Game 3 isn't a death sentence, either, every walk into the batter's box will feel like the Green Mile. "You look at Keuchel's numbers at home," Yost said. "They're really impressive." And it's not just the left-handed Keuchel who excels in Houston. The Astros were 53-28 there this season, tied for the best home record in the AL and the third best in all of baseball.
That's what made Thursday so exciting: The team with the worst road record in the AL backed a do-or-die win with a victory in one of the game's most hostile environments. In a short series, rationality often gets thrown out the window and the game's noise takes over. Playoff baseball is frenetic like that, a complete free-for-all that for some provides electricity that can feel positively static.
"It gets the hair on my back standing up," Rasmus said.
Cast aside such an image and conjure instead the prospect of the Houston Astros, for years not just also-rans but a franchise that dropped a nuclear bomb on itself intentionally, in the American League Championship series against the winner of the Toronto-Texas series. It, similarly, will test the win-Game 1-on-the-road hypothesis after the Rangers bested Blue Jays ace David Price. Nothing went according to plan Thursday. Entropy can provide some of the most compelling baseball.
Here, where Dr. Yost prescribed his team a good night of rest before Friday's vital game, the baseball itself wasn't any great shakes. It was just good enough for the Astros. The damage they did wasn't irreparable. The monitor is beeping, though, and the Royals better jolt themselves awake, lest they hear the word "Clear!" and see a pair of rubbed-together paddles that can't save them from themselves and history.