October baseball has such a strange rhythm. There are times when you have to wait over 48 hours for a series to be settled. And sometimes, you have a sense of the future before dinner.
With a game at high noon in Houston on Monday, this is very much a showdown for the 2015 season for the Royals. The game this afternoon isn’t about advancing, a position the club found themselves in so frequently last October. This is about survival.
The Royals find themselves on the brink of elimination thanks to the usual masterful pitching performance from Dallas Keuchel and their recent alarming lack of ability to string together anything resembling an offensive rally. They put runners on base against the Houston ace in every inning with the exception of the third. Three separate times the placed the leadoff runner on base to open the frame. (Not counting the Lorenzo Cain home run, which wasn’t really putting a runner on base, although maybe we should because the next batter, Kendrys Morales, reached on an error. Fine… Four separate times.)
Credit to the Royals bats for taking an approach to the plate that helped them get on base. They worked three walks from Keuchel, who walked that many only six times in 33 regular season starts. They collected five hits. Sadly, these baserunners were an exercise in isolation.
If I had told you prior to the first pitch of the series, the Royals would hit five home runs through their first three games, you would have been excited. If I had told you all five home runs would come with the bases empty, you still probably would have felt OK. Then, if I had told you those five runs represented more than half their total, you probably wouldn’t have been so enthused. The offense has flipped the switch to full frustration mode. Plenty of base runners. Home runs. And not enough runs.
Obviously, you have to tip your cap to the starting pitching of the Astros. Keuchel wasn’t as sharp as he was in the Wild Card game last week, but that’s a standard only Jake Arrieta should be held to at this point. Keuchel was able to slam the door on any kind of rally the Royals were putting together.
Truly, the Houston ace made one mistake all afternoon and it was a hanging slider to Cain on the 10th pitch of his at bat.
The result was majestic.
The LoCain Leanback is a thing of beauty.
Edinson Volquez pitched well early, but the walks will kick you in the ass. He walked four in over five innings, but that includes pitching around Colby Rasmus all afternoon. Still, he put Luis Valbuena on in the top of the fifth. Chris Carter followed with a double, his second of three hits on the day. To give you an idea of how things are going right now, consider that Carter, who finished the regular season with a .199 batting average, never had three hits in a single game in 2015. Then, with runners on second and third, the ninth batter in the Houston lineup, Jason Castro, clips a 1-2 pitch up the middle for a base hit.
It wasn’t a bad pitch from Volquez. Nor was it a bad sequence. After Castro took two strikes, Volquez went down and away with a change.
It wasn’t exactly a booty-knock, but it was close enough. Castro connected off the end of his bat and hit a six-bouncer up the middle, just to the right of second base. Two runs.
That inning is just how things seem to be going for Kansas City of late. The Astros got their chance on a walk and a double, and they capitalized. The Royals, who had runners in scoring position in the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh innings against Keuchel, could never get that hit.
The Astros added a run in the sixth when George Springer led off the inning with a double that was in and out of Cain’s glove. While the degree of difficulty was high, it’s the type of play we’ve grown accustomed to in Kansas City. In fact, the ball hit off the heel of Cain’s glove. His momentum and angle of the ball, cause it to simply spin forward and out of the pocket. It’s not a mistake or an error. Cain did everything right. His jump was outstanding, his route was close to perfection. He just simply couldn’t keep control of the ball.
Naturally, Springer scores the Astros third run.
Again, that’s the difference. The Astros got a chance and capitalized. The Royals had myriad opportunity, but could never do more than hit a pair of solo home runs.
One other defensive moment to note was Alex Gordon cutting down Carter in the third inning. A perfect throw from the Royals left fielder isn’t something we get to see that much anymore since the entire universe knows what Gordon can do to baserunners. Gordon added an opposite field home run in the ninth. Hopefully, that’s a harbinger of good things to come from the Royals new eighth place hitter.
The positive news from Sunday is the season is still a functional thing. The Royals, despite the frustrations, are alive. Barely. They have one chance to send this series back to Kansas City. They have two chances to avoid elimination.
Ballgame at noon. Take a long lunch. Savor every postseason opportunity.