KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The perfect baseball play unfolded in 10 seconds. All of the teachable moments, the harping on fundamentals, the decades of know-how – everything came together in one brilliant burst. The Kansas City Royals are going back to the World Series because their obsessiveness with minutiae makes up for all of the fancy things they can't buy. Because they refused to let the 90 feet that separated them from glory last October prevent them from taking those same 90 feet with pure execution this time.
"Good send, Jirsch," Alex Gordon said. He was standing in the corner of the Royals' clubhouse, plastic underneath his feet sparing the carpet from the torrent of Dom Pérignon and beer drenching the proceedings. Mike Jirschele, the Royals' third-base coach, happened to be walking by, and the two men locked eyes. Similarly stoic and square-jawed, they'll forever be linked because Game 7 of the World Series last year ended with Gordon on third base after Jirschele kept him from running into what looked sure to be a season-ending out. On Friday night at Kauffman Stadium, in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, Jirschele did not hold his runner. The flawlessness of everything that led to this moment made him windmill his right arm with the sort of conviction the Royals will take into their chance at redemption.
Kansas City is champion of the AL again, its rollicking 4-3 victory against the Toronto Blue Jays a reminder of what great baseball looks like. It is Lorenzo Cain spitting on two nasty sliders to draw a walk, and it is Eric Hosmer dumping another slider down the right-field line, and it is Cain busting toward third base because Jirschele has spent the last nine months imploring him to do so, and it is Hosmer taking a strong turn at first base and goading right fielder Jose Bautista into firing the ball toward second base, and it is Jirschele knowing this is Bautista's tendency and waiting for the right moment and the right guy to send, and it is Cain being that right guy in that right moment and locking eyes with Jirschele at the right time, and it is the synergy of all those little things leading to a tie game being broken on a runner scoring from first on a single and sliding into home with such ferocity he tears his knee raw, and it is that guy not caring because the best relief pitcher in the game is about to come out and do what he does.
Only it's not that simple, because what Wade Davis did in the ninth inning – coming back into the game after a delay from rain and jubilation from Cain covered an hour – personified another trait the Royals so value: mental wherewithal to complement physical superiority. For Davis to stare down the situation he created, first and third with no outs, and escape by retiring the presumed AL MVP, was about right for this team that last season learned how good it is and spent this year reminding the rest of the world.
"When we came back from the rain delay, the whole thing was lined up," Royals outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "Who has the most stones?"
Call it stones or cojones or moxie or whatever euphemism best fits. The Royals, kings of the comeback this postseason, outdid themselves on a night when so many things were conspiring against them.
Before the rain soaked the 40,494 at Kauffman Stadium, the Royals held a 3-1 lead and had Davis warmed and ready in the bullpen to pitch two innings. Manager Ned Yost instead called on Ryan Madson, a steady reliever whom the Blue Jays slaughtered during the season. Yost feared the weather would prevent Davis from pitching the ninth. After Madson surrendered a game-tying home run to Bautista and issued a walk, Yost called on Davis anyway, a tacit admission of strategic blundering that looked even more ill-advised when the delay lasted 45 minutes.
The stadium, sapped of energy following Bautista's home run, flicked its breaker box back on as Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna started the bottom of the eighth against Cain. His walk brought up Hosmer, the Royals' cleanup hitter who deposited a hit into right and set into motion the 10 seconds of chaos.
Every day, Jirschele implores the Royals' hitters to sprint toward him. "You run your ass off!" he yells on the bench, in between innings. Run hard and he might send them home. Don't and he won't. "I'm not happy," Jirschele says, "when I have to shut you down."
Cain is one of the fastest players in baseball, sneaky with his speed because he walks around the clubhouse like an old man with arthritis. He read Hosmer's hit perfectly, barely pausing before tearing toward second base and taking a strong turn. About halfway between the bases, Cain lifted his head and looked toward the third-base coaching box, where Jirschele was positioning himself to make a decision. The second he saw Bautista pivoting to throw toward second – a habit Jirschele said he noticed in earlier ALCS games – he sent Cain. Forget that there were no outs. Jirschele waited for this moment, and he wasn't going to squander it.
"Perfect scenario," said Rusty Kuntz, the Royals' baserunning coach. "Everything had to go click-click-click. And it did. When it goes click-click-click like that, you have the chance for a perfect outcome."
Bautista's throw came in to shortstop Troy Tulowitzki on the second-base side of the bag. Hosmer had hustled back to first, fearful Bautista would try to back-pick him, and realized what unfolded at home only when the crowd roared: Cain slid in ahead of Tulowitzki's throw and gave the Royals the lead they'd frittered away less than an hour earlier.
"That's our style of play," Hosmer said. "With no outs, it's an aggressive move, but it's just a great send by Jirsch."
Cain popped up, the adrenaline masking the pain in his right knee. He doesn't consider himself superstitious, except for one item of gear: kneepads. Cain thinks he hits poorly when he wears them. Instead, he wore a circular scrape over the bone bruise through which he has played all postseason. "All my skin is gone," Cain said. "Just blood and nastiness. You see the white meat. It's gross."
This was no time to sweat bumps or bruises, particularly with what they were asking Wade Davis to do. Never had the 30-year-old closer pitched in a game like this, where he threw a full-tilt inning, sat for an hour and came back to record three more outs. And these three outs were to face the New York Mets in the World Series.
Davis bided his time with teammates in the Royals' batting cage beneath their dugout. He rode a stationary bike. He wore hot pads on his arm. He stretched. Anything to stay loose. Davis didn't throw a single pitch, either. Just some light tossing.
"I was trying to save every bullet I had," he said.
Every five minutes, Yost and pitching coach Dave Eiland came up to Davis and asked the same question: "How do you feel?" And every five minutes, Davis gave them the same answer: "I'm good."
"It wasn't false bravado," Eiland said. "He has none. He's straightforward. All business. … He was very convicted he wanted to go back out. If there was any sort of hint of doubt in his voice or look in his eye, he wouldn't have went back out."
The Royals still feared the outcome. Their longtime closer, Greg Holland, walks around today with a brace on his arm after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Relief pitchers abhor weakness, and even if Davis' arm were barking, he'd be likelier to bark along with it than say something felt wrong. Yost was inclined to second-guess himself until he looked at Holland.
"Don't worry about nothing," Holland said. "Wade wants to go to the World Series."
So out Davis went, and Russell Martin looped his first pitch, a 95-mph fastball, into center field. Pinch runner Dalton Pompey stole second base, then third base, and there Davis stood, "about as bad as it could get," he said, "when there was a man on third with no outs. I was just hoping for some magic."
Something supernatural exists in his right arm. "Wade is the closest thing to Superman when it comes to that bump," Cain said. "When he's on that mound, he's unhittable." After Kevin Pillar walked, Davis struck out pinch hitter Dioner Navarro for the first out. Pillar stole second base as Navarro whiffed, giving the Blue Jays runners on second and third with one out. A sacrifice fly would tie the game. A single likely would put Toronto ahead.
"I knew Wade had that extra gear he finds in those situations," Yost said, "and, boy, did he find it."
With the infield in and Ben Revere at the plate, Davis dialed a 2-1 fastball up to 97 mph. The pitch was well outside and borderline high. Umpire Jeff Nelson called it a strike, just as he had a similar pitch against Navarro. What should've been a 3-1 count was instead 2-2 – Revere's career OPS on 3-1 is .993 and 2-2 is .635 – and he struck out on the next pitch, a vicious 88-mph curveball.
"It's incredible to watch," Madson said. "He's the best pitcher I've ever seen. … I was sitting there watching in amazement. I didn't know how to react."
Not just at Davis but the entire situation. Two on. Two outs. One-run game. Top of the ninth. World Series on the line. And up stepped Josh Donaldson, the AL MVP favorite. Power vs. power. Excellence vs. excellence. The dream playoff moment. Donaldson dug in. Davis, ready to throw his 27th pitch, stared him down. He threw three straight 97-mph fastballs: ball, swinging strike, ball. And on the fourth fastball, at 95 mph, away from Donaldson's nitro zone, Davis induced another swing.
"It's exactly what I was hoping he'd do," Davis said. "Roll over one."
The ball squirted toward third base, the position Donaldson plays, the spot he ended up splayed out face-first last year with the A's after Salvador Perez's shot down the line won the AL wild-card game that started this run. Mike Moustakas fielded Donaldson's groundball cleanly, chucked it to Hosmer and set off a celebration that didn't want to end.
Shortstop Alcides Escobar was named ALCS MVP a year after Cain, who arrived with him from Milwaukee in a 2012 trade for Zack Greinke, won the award. General manager Dayton Moore, the team's architect, went from player to player, congratulating all, none more than Davis, to whom he said: "Oh, my gosh. I've never seen anything like that in my life." The game proved so tense that second baseman Ben Zobrist said his 37-weeks-pregnant wife, Julianna, started having contractions during the game.
In the middle of it all was David Glass, the Royals' 80-year-old owner who after years of fielding teams that performed commensurate to their low payrolls gave Moore the resources necessary to build a foundation that turned into this. He admired all of it: Game 6 and the atmosphere and the American League championship trophy he held.
"But," Glass said, "I do want one of the little round ones with the flags on it."
Baseball's championship trophy is a beautiful little piece of art, and the Royals haven't won it in 30 years. The Mets' drought is 29, and they'll come into Kansas City on Tuesday with designs on quelling the Royals with the dynamic, hard-throwing starting pitching. The Royals' fundamentals go far beyond their baserunning, of course. Their predilection for contact doesn't wane even in the face of overwhelming velocity. On 95-mph-plus pitches, according to Baseball Savant, the Royals this season ranked first in batting average (.284), second in slugging percentage (.436) and had the lowest strikeout rate (15.1 percent) in all of baseball. If there is a team build to handle the Mets, it might be Kansas City.
Perhaps then the sour taste of Game 7 and Madison Bumgarner and Jirschele's hold at third base would go away. Amid the party, the two faces of the moment couldn't avoid it, even if Game 6 felt like a redemptive moment for a man whose biggest transgression was doing his job well.
"They ask, 'Do you feel better?' " Jirschele said. "And I say, 'No, because I made the right call last year, too.' "
"He makes the right call every time," Gordon said. "If I could've been a little bit faster … that's who you should blame. The slow white guy running around the bases."
Gordon smiled, and so did Jirschele, and they went their separate ways, to congratulate friends and family and everyone involved in a night like this. The Kansas City Royals were American League champions again. Ninety feet didn't stop them this time. After a night like Friday, they're not sure anything can.