Unlike Monday night in Toronto, on Tuesday the Royals grabbed the quick lead and never let go.
The script was the same for the opening scene. Just like so many others this October, Alcides Escobar started the game by reaching base. Yes, he swung at the first pitch, but he missed that one. What we now call #PeakEsky was reached on the next pitch when he squared to bunt against the RA Dickey knuckleball and pushed one down the third base line, reaching when Josh Donaldson couldn’t get a handle. Ben Zobrist needed just two pitches to measure the knuckler before got one belt-high and sent it to the right of center.
A walk by Lorenzo Cain, a steal, a single by Eric Hosmer, and a passed ball netted another run. A Kendrys Morales ground out and a Mike Moustakas sacrifice fly checked the “productive outs” square off the Royals Offense bingo card and the Royals finished the inning with four runs.
Such a typical Royals offensive barrage. They needed just 22 pitches to power to four first inning runs. Quite simply, this is who they are. This is who they’ve been, especially in the postseason. The gameplan seems to be to swing early and often, attempting to “ambush” the starting pitcher. With the only AL team in the postseason with experience, maybe they’re trying to string together some early hits to rattle the cage. Maybe they’re just in a damn hurry to score some early runs to turn the game over to the bullpen. Maybe they’re so good at making contact, this is the best way to approach the game.
Sometimes the ambush works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Credit to this team they have actively changed their approach when it hasn’t, saving some of their best plate appearances for the later innings of close games. They didn’t really need to make that change on Tuesday.
With a four run lead before he set foot on the mound, Chris Young was tasked with holding the lead long enough to get hand it over to the bullpen. It seems weird to have that mindset about a starting pitcher, but if anyone was going to struggle in Toronto against the Blue Jays, you would figure it to be a starting pitcher with a profile like Young. He’s been an inspired free agent signing by Dayton Moore and company, providing much needed rotation depth. But pitting an extreme fly ball pitcher – his 59 percent fly ball rate is the highest in baseball among pitchers with more than 120 innings – against a power-mad team like the Blue Jays, seems like a recipe for trouble.
It wasn’t. Not even close.
As Young has all season, he’s proved the doubters (like me) wrong. Another brilliant effort. He threw 78 pitches on the afternoon. Fifty of them were fastballs, averaging just under 88 mph. Another 28 were sliders, clocking in at 80 mph. He threw a first pitch strike to 11 of 19 batters faced and recorded 10 swings and misses.
Young made it a point to work inside against the Jays right-handed thunder. His pitch plot from Brooks Baseball against those hitters reveals a plan he executed fairly well. Note the cluster of dark red (fouls) on the inside, just off the zone and also notice the absence of any pitch on the outer quarter of the plate.
The Jays bats weren’t able to get full extension, neutralizing their power. Most of the contact came against Young’s slider.
Young was simply brilliant. Calm and composed, he was the anti-Cueto. Before the game, I said best-case scenario would be for him to go five innings and allow just two runs. He didn’t quite make five, but with the Royals bullpen depth, it doesn’t really matter so much. The only time Young found himself in trouble was when he faced the top of the Jays order for the second time. He got the first two outs of the fifth and the order turned over for a third time. Ben Revere singled, and with the bats of Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista looming, Ned Yost rightly summoned the bullpen calvary.
It was a tremendous effort from Young. Following the game, he talked about the loss of his father and how he’s dealt with the sorrow through these last couple of weeks. Brilliantly chronicled by McCullough, it’s required reading.
After Dickey was removed from the game in the second, the Royals bats fell silent against old friend Liam Hendriks. The Jays desperately needed a band-aid, and Hendriks provided it, picking Escobar off second to get out of the second inning without throwing a pitch and then delivering four solid innings. It was his longest outing of the season.
If Hendriks applied the band-aid, the rest of the bullpen ripped it right off over the next three frames. The next three Blue Jay relievers couldn’t get anyone out without handing over some runs. A tight 5-2 game turned into a 14-2 laugher. If the goal was to escape Toronto with a minimum of one win, consider mission accomplished. They own a 3-1 series lead and have three chances to close out the series, the final two of which could come at Kauffman Stadium*.
The Royals now stand one game away from a return trip to the World Series. They are one game away from mounting a successful defense of their AL Championship. They are one game away from establishing themselves as a mini-dynasty. These are amazing baseball times.