It’s been a couple of days since the Royals won the 2015 American League pennant. Normally, it would have made sense to get a post up celebrating a return trip to the World Series as soon as possible. Yet Game Six was so special, it makes sense to have waited a couple of days. It wasn’t just a baseball game. It was a moment to be savored, shared and revisited. The Wild Card Game is the gold standard for this franchise. A once in a lifetime type of game that will resonate forever. Never to be replicated. Game Six of the 2015 ALCS comes damn close.

The Blue Jays annoy, yes, but they were a formidable opponent. The Royals had been on cruise control in the Central for months, and after the trade deadline when Toronto added David Price and Troy Tulowitzki, it was all but assumed the two teams would meet at some point in October. Baseball doesn’t always follow the script, but when it does, it can be of the highest order.

What a series. What a game.

The LoCain dash from first enters Royals pennant lore. It stands along with George Brett’s home run off Goose Gossage in Game Three of the 1980 ALCS, Jim Sandberg’s bases-clearing triple in Toronto in Game Seven of the 1985 ALCS, and Alex Gordon’s face-plant catch against Baltimore in Game Four of the 2014 ALCS. Four pennants. Four signature moments.

More on that in a moment.

Ned Yost’s bullpen management has left something to be desired this October. One year removed from masterfully figuring out which relief buttons to press, and when, Yost has backpedaled. In the ALCS in particular, he stuck with his starters (with the exception of Edinson Volquez in Game One and Chris Young in Game Four) too long, trying for some reason to squeeze another inning out of those arms, while the best bullpen in the game was idling. Yost narrowly escaped disaster in Game Six with this gambit.

Yordano Ventura pitched another gem through four innings. His only mistake was a belt-high fastball Jose Bautista put into orbit. In the fourth, Ventura wobbled, issuing back to back walks to open the frame. Let’s not kid ourselves. While the calendar said this was Game Six, it felt very much like a Game Seven. With the unpredictable Johnny Cueto set to take the mound the next game, while no one on the Royals would admit, there was an urgency to finishing the series.

So when Ventura put two runners on to start the inning, it felt like his leash suddenly should be getting short. Another alarm that should have been sounding in the dugout was the fact the Jays were, after the second walk, a batter away from flipping the order for the second time on the evening. The Times Through The Order Penalty is real, and in this series, it was spectacular. The Jays are the league’s best offense, and the best offense only got better when they faced a Royals starter for a third time in a game. To tempt fate with Ventura on the hill was especially foolhardy. Here is how Ventura does against the opposition each time through the order.

Split G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip tOPS+ sOPS+
1st PA in G, as SP 28 252 228 18 56 7 2 3 16 59 .246 .307 .333 .640 .315 84 83
2nd PA in G, as SP 28 244 220 27 53 6 1 5 22 58 .241 .316 .345 .661 .306 90 83
3rd PA in G, as SP 25 184 162 25 44 14 3 6 19 37 .272 .348 .506 .854 .314 143 122
4th+ PA in G, as SP 8 13 11 0 1 0 0 0 1 2 .091 .231 .091 .322 .111 -4 -9
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/26/2015.

That jump in his tOPS+ (OPS+ relative to his own total) and sOPS+ (OPS+ relative to the league average in that situation) should be a cause for concern in a general game in July, let alone a short series in October. The number that is really scary is the gain in slugging percentage – nearly 150 points from the second to the third time through the order. And I shouldn’t have to tell you the Jays lineup is stocked with thunder.

Another point to consider is Ventura’s swing and miss rate. He threw 77 pitches on the evening, but generated only four swings and misses, meaning the Jays had him measured. They simply weren’t missing when swinging on a pitch in the zone.

location.php

There is an alarming cluster of foul balls on middle-middle pitches. His swings and misses were on chase pitches – balls either up or down and out of the zone. He was getting the called strike low in the zone, but the Jays batters were waiting for an elevated pitch. It was only a matter of time before they would be able to turn those fouls on pitches in the upper two-thirds into balls in play. Again, the Royals were entering the danger zone.

Ventura, however, rallied. He retired Ben Revere (one of the few Jays who doesn’t hit for power) on a fly to left for the second out. Up stepped Josh Donaldson. Gulp. He ripped a cut fastball down to the left side.

The ball left Donaldson’s bat at 113.8 mph. That was the hardest ball Donaldson hit all year. Go back and read those last two sentences again. Let that sink in for a moment. Get a cold drink of water and realize how close the Royals were to surrendering the lead in that situation. Donaldson is probably going to be the MVP of the AL. He has hit balls hard all year. He absolutely destroyed that pitch from Ventura.

And Mike Moustakas saved the day.

OK. So Ventura got through the fifth inning. The Royals are holding on to a one-run lead. That should be enough for Ventura, right? Not so fast. For some reason, he returns for the sixth. To face… GULP… Bautista for a third time. Ventura gets him on a fly ball. Now, Edwin Encarnacion. This Jays lineup, man… It does not take a holiday. Encarnacion doubles and finally (Finally!) Yost comes from the dugout to get the ball from his starter.

The questionable bullpen management continued in the eighth. With rain approaching the Royals went with Ryan Madson in the top of the inning. The postgame reasoning was completely understandable. The cover was off the tarp. The Royals surely knew a delay was imminent. They didn’t want to get Wade Davis into the game only to have to shut him down for an extended period. They wanted to steal an inning against Madson.

The only problem is, sometimes the Baseball Gods don’t want you to be able to steal an inning. The Jays lineup had turned over again and the eighth inning was to feature the top three hitters. Revere singles on a grounder to the hole at shortstop. Donaldson gets caught looking.

Let’s not turn into a crowd with pitchforks regarding Madson. He has pitched extremely well for the team this year. For the first two batters of the inning, he made great pitches. It was not an egregious decision by Yost to bring him into the game. It seems the final three in the bullpen is a combination of Madson and Herrera for the seventh and eighth and Davis for the ninth. It’s reads like a bullpen-by-numbers, but I don’t think that’s necessarily so. In this game, Yost needed to put out a fire in the sixth. It was a fire Yost started by not removing his starter in a timely fashion, but still… In that situation, Yost likes to go with Herrera. Never mind the inherited runner numbers – Herrera  allowed eight of 20 to score in the regular season, a 40 percent rate that was highest among regular relievers – when Yost needs a big out, he trusts Herrera.

Anyway, Madson looked good for the first two batters. The pitch Revere hit was up and on the outer half that was placed in just about the only spot where the Royals couldn’t get him out. The curse of the BABIP Gods. His pitches to Donaldson were up, but he was thoroughly overmatched by the sequencing and after swinging and missing a 90 mph cutter and fouling off a 94 mph fastball, he watched a 97 mph fastball go by for the third strike.

One out. A runner on. A three run lead. Jose Bautista coming up.

The Big Book Of Baseball Management states you save your reliever for the ninth inning. The footnote to that chapter says you can bring your closer in earlier in October. If there was ever a situation, it was this one. Rain coming or no. You have the heart of the best lineup in the AL. You have the best reliever in baseball. Don’t play around. Bring him in.

I don’t have to tell you what happened next.

Even after the Bautista home run, Yost allowed Madson to pitch to Encarnacion. The Royals were fortunate he only reached base on a walk. So in a case where the Royals wanted to save their best reliever in case a rain delay happened, they were forced into using their best reliever just ahead of that delay.

After about a 45 minute break, the game resumed. And then, for the second time this October, Lorenzo Cain did his thing.

That play was amazing on so many levels. Let’s start with the fact it was the only time all year a player scored from first on a single when he wasn’t running on the pitch. Wrap your head around that little stat nugget for a moment.

Next, by now you have read all the stories about how third base coach Mike Jirschle knew about Bautista’s tendency in right field to loft a throw to second base in that same situation. Jirsch was windmilling Cain from about the moment he was between second and third. Watching the play unfold from the stands, I thought Jirsch was insane. That he had lost his mind in the excitement of the moment. Then, seeing the ball from right field floating toward second base, I understood.

Credit to Jirsch for the send. Credit to LoCain for flying. The man got faster as he cruised the 270 feet necessary to put the Royals into their second consecutive World Series.

Just an amazing play all around. My favorite part may be the reaction of Eric Hosmer when he realized what just happened.

With a one run lead, there was still a ballgame to close out. And after nearly an hour on the sidelines, Davis returned to send the Royals back to nirvana. Not surprisingly, he stumbled, allowing a first pitch single and a walk. The lead runner stole second and third. Runners were at the corners for pinch hitter Dioneer Navarro. Let’s be perfectly honest. The Royals caught a break. With the count 1-1, Davis got a called strike on a pitch outside the zone. To Davis’ credit, he went right back. Same pitch, same location. This time, Navarro swung and missed. One out.

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 7.17.37 AM

You can barely see the plot of the fourth pitch. That’s how close it was. With the zone expanded, Navarro had no chance.

Davis got the exact same call on Revere. This time, Davis went down with a curve that Revere missed for the second out.

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 7.24.09 AM

The Blue Jays weren’t happy, and they probably had every right to feel that way. From Brooks Baseball, here is home plate umpire Jeff Nelson’s strike zone on left-handed batters.

fastmap.php

The Royals were the only team to put a pitch in that area all night. It just so happened that two of them came in the ninth inning. A break, for sure.

With two outs, the tying run at third and the go-ahead run at second, up stepped Donaldson. I’m sure you recall Donaldson was the third baseman who stretched out for Salvador Perez’s grounder down the line in the Wild Card Game last year. The hit that kicked off this over year long celebration of baseball in Kansas City. Once again, with the Royals season in the balance, Donaldson would play a central role. The Baseball Gods have a wicked sense of humor.

Donaldson smashed another one to Moustakas. Just like the clincher in 2014, Moose powered a throw across the diamond, into the glove of Hosmer. The draft cornerstones of the Dayton Moore regime hooking up once again to send the Royals to their second consecutive World Series.

Back to back.

What a game. What a series. What a season.

What a 12 months of baseball in Kansas City.