There are words in baseball — code words, you might call them — that separate old school and new, classic ball (often referred to simply as “ball” as in “now they’re playing ball!”) and Moneyball, tradition and reform. “Momentum” is one of those words, and “grit” is another, and “clutch” is a third. You can usually get a good argument going with any of those three. “Heart,” too. And “Jeter.”
“Chemistry” is one of those code words. You will probably not hear a baseball broadcast through the World Series without lots of talk about players helping each other, liking each other, inspiring each other, cracking each other up, leading each other and so on.
There are people who believe that chemistry — whatever secrets are locked up inside that noun — is the secret to winning baseball teams. There are others who believe that chemistry, in the sports sense, is simply a made-up word. Where you stand on that question probably locates your exact place on the old-school-new-school-space-and-time continuum.
I believe in chemistry in baseball, thought not so much in the fuzzy clubhouse nirvana way. I believe that Tuesday night’s incredible, implausible, infuriating, intoxicating and impossible game between the Kansas City Royals and Oakland Athletics was all about chemistry. There were violent chemical reactions happening all over the place. It was like the surface of the sun.
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The first postseason game in Kansas City in 29 years began with what you might call “anticipated anticlimax,” something that long-losing team sports fans come to expect. You see it in college football a lot. A generally dreary football team will get off to some sort of crazy 5-0 start, often because they played a series of patsies or overrated teams, and then, the team will find itself playing one of the really good teams, and the buildup will be enormous. Gameday will show up, blimps fly overhead, the stadium will be electrified in a way it hasn’t since the ‘40s. What follows will almost always be anticipated anticlimax — the good team will return the opening kickoff for a touchdown or will knock the quarterback out of the game on the second play.
In Tuesday’s Kansas City-Oakland game, Royals starter “Big Game” James Shields — a fine pitcher with the misfortune of having his first name sort of rhyme with “Big Game” — gave up a leadoff single to Coco Crisp, an uncomfortably long fly ball to Sam Fuld and, a batter later, a home run to Brandon Moss. Anticipated anticlimax. The A’s led, 2-0, before anyone had a chance to even breathe in hopeful air, and the homer instantly drained about 29 years of energy and optimism right out of the crowd.
The Royals brought some of that energy back in the bottom of the inning when they got a run-scoring single from Billy Butler, though this was countered with some classic Royals dark comedy. The Royals really are the closest baseball thing to a Coen Brothers movie. With two outs, the Royals tried some sort of double-steal with Billy Butler at first and Eric Hosmer at third. If I got the play right, and can write this without breaking down in convulsions, Butler was supposed to get hung up between first and second, distracting the A’s long enough to allow Hosmer to steal home. This, of course, ended in humiliation, with Hosmer being thrown out at the plate by 800 million steps, but as is often the case the spectacular ineptitude of the play was doubled or trebled by the Ned Yost explanation, where he explained that Butler left early and Hosmer left late and, otherwise, the Royals would have score a run.
Any comedian will tell you that you can’t explain comedy, and every effort to do so will just dig you deeper into anti-comedy, and maybe that’s why the straight-laced Yost always comes across so absurdly in these situations. Eric Hosmer is a generally lumbering first baseman, and Billy Butler might be the slowest player in baseball, and any complicated running play with these two is destined to become a Will Ferrell movie. It would have made me feel so much better if Yost had not given a considered answer on how that madcap scheme might have worked but instead said, “Yeah, that was crazy, right? Woo hop! Brain cramp! Hey, it’s the first postseason for me too!”
We will get back to the adventures of Ned in another moment.
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The Royals took the lead in the third inning on a typically grueling Kansas City rally that included a single, a sacrifice, a groundout, a hard-hit double, and a bloopy pop-fly single. The fans of Kauffman Stadium unleashed three decades of frustration and optimism, and the place sounded like Alabama on a Saturday afternoon.
That Kansas City offense is something to behold. The Royals are the first American League in about two decades not to hit 100 home runs in a season. Watching their effort to score runs is somewhat like watching a documentary of an Oklahoma family trying to survive the Dust Bowl.
Or, to put it another way: You probably know a golfer who has the worst looking swing you’ve ever seen — one with loops and twirls and pauses in weird places and neck twists — but somehow manages to hit the ball straight enough to make reasonable scores. And watching that golfer grind, you might think to yourself: “Is that really worth it? Would I play that kind of exhausting golf in order to lower my score?”
That golfer’s swing — that’s the Royals offense.
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The Royals led, 3-2, going into the sixth inning, and at that point Kauffman Stadium was a giant scream, and it seemed like the Royals had a chance to win the game their way.
Fezzik: Which way’s my way?
Vizzini: Pick up one of those rocks, get behind the boulder. In a few minutes the man in black will come running around the bend and the minute his head is in view you HIT IT WITH THE ROCK.
Fezzik: My way is not very sportsmanlike.
The Royals Way of winning means hustling as many runs as they possibly can (three is a reasonable number), somehow getting a lead to the seventh inning, and then handing it over to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, an almost unhittable trio of relief pitching machines. They are like Bullpen Cerberus, a three-headed mythological monster of late innings. Ned Yost has tended to use his three-headed bullpen monster in the most literal way possible. Yost, I sometimes think, manages a baseball team the way the rest of us build Ikea furniture. He’s looking at the diagram, looking at the parts, looking back at the diagram, looking back at the parts, and then shouting, “It says to use a 3/16 inch screw but I don’t have any left!”
The Royals Way works beautifully if things work out – meaning if the Royals actually get to the seventh inning with a lead – but the Royals Way is fuzzy on sixth innings, and the fascinating and oddball ways Ned Yost has tried to navigate that trouble inning this year could be the subject of a Looney Tunes adventure. This time, he decided to let Shields start the inning, which is no doubt how he would have played it all season. Shields had allowed two runs, he had retired seven Athletics players in a row, his first name sort of rhymes with Big Game.
Trouble is, strange ideas were bubbling in Ned Yost’s mind. Before the inning began, Yost had decided to warm up Yordano Ventura, who had started the Royals’ game on Sunday. Ventura is a rookie pitcher who throws 100 mph, had a fine season, and had one relief outing this year to go with 30 starts.
I don’t understand the impulses that would make a man think it a good idea to give a rookie pitcher a rare relief appearance on one day’s rest in the team’s first playoff game since Microsoft released its first version of Windows. But when Ventura began warming up there was the thing any of us hope when forced to deal with a manager whose instincts we don’t trust – maybe things will work out and he won’t actually follow those instincts.
In other words, the hope was that Shields would just pitch well in the sixth and save Ned Yost from himself. But it didn’t happen. Shields gave up single to Sam Fuld, and he walked Josh Donaldson, and Yost made that unfortunate walk to the mound.
Yes, he might have seen that the A’s had lefties coming up and, perhaps, matched up with a lefty. Yes, he might have broken from the Ikea diagram and put Kelvin Herrera in an inning earlier than normal, since this was not a normal game. But Yost does not tend to stray from previously chosen paths, and in came Ventura.
A radar gun moment: When Ventura came out and threw his first fastball to Brandon Moss at 99 mph, the TBS announcers made a point of pointing out the mileage. The radar gun is such a mesmerizing distraction. “He threw that pitch 99 mph,” one of them said, and the others hummed their admiration. No one seemed too concerned that it was 99 mph and way above the strike zone, as was the second fastball. No one talked about how fast the third fastball was because Moss deposited it over the center-field wall for a three-run homer.
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At this point I could write a long diatribe about the baffling baseball strategies of Ned Yost, but I have to admit that lately I’ve been coming around to a whole different point of view about him and managers in general, one that gets back to the chemical reactions I mentioned earlier. A few weeks ago, I was talking with one of the smartest baseball people I know, and though he was off on some of his views – he thought the Royals would finish seven games back in the division – he offered a view of chemistry that I like quite a bit.
His idea is that sports chemistry is not so much about how people on a team get along but how clearly those people believe that the team will be successful. The word there is “clearly.”
We use the word “believe” in nebulous and unfocused ways – in the “I know that sounds like a cat poster but it’s true,” way they use “believe” in the Lego Movie – but the textbook definition is simply “to have confidence in the truth, the existence or the reliability of something.” So belief in team success is less like belief in God or belief in karma or belief that Jennifer Lawrence is a great actress. It’s more like believing that if you drive safely you won’t get in an accident or believing that if you study for the test you’ll get a good grade.
The Royals, for many years, did not have anything concrete to believe in. They would talk the happy talk of spring training about how they believed they had better players, believed this pitcher would improve and that outfielder would build on last year’s success, and their defense would get better. But this was the misty kind of belief. There was no blueprint for winning that anyone actually could spell out, no clear line to victory like: “We will score more runs than other teams because we will hit more home runs” or “We will keep people from scoring because we have strikeout pitchers” or anything else like that.
The very best part of this year’s Royals team has been the replacement of that old bleary belief with a clarity of vision. It’s not an easy vision. But it’s clear. These Royals know what they’re up against. They can’t hit home runs. They don’t walk. They don’t have a starting pitcher who will get Cy Young votes. They have a manager who will occasionally just leave the planet. They don’t have as much money. They are not very deep.
OK – that’s something to work with. Now, how do you use all that? No power? Well, let’s steal lots of bases. No great starter? Maybe not, but let’s put together five really good ones and build a legendary back of the bullpen. Kooky manager? Maybe, but remember a manager can only hurt so much and, anyway, sometimes the nutty stuff will work. No depth? All right, have Alicedes Escobar play all 162 games at shortstop and Salvy Perez catch more games in a season than any Royals catcher ever.
The point is – if you actually can get people to believe these steps will lead to victories, they will do those things with vigor. And, as Patton believed, a good army is an army in motion. The Royals’ players and management believed the team could run and bunt and slice and dice their way to enough runs. They believed that their bullpen was invincible and a late-inning lead was a guaranteed win. The Royals believed that they could win games even if Ned Yost did stuff that made the head hurt. It all became a part of their chemistry.
And that was what I thought about after Yost left the farm in the sixth inning. The Royals trailed Oakland by four runs, 7-3, and it sure seemed like they would lose. After they fell behind, they did all sorts of unsound things like try to steal a base when down four runs and sacrifice bunt anytime a Royals player reached base and swing at baseballs that were only marginally in the field of play. But they did it all with such enthusiasm, with such force of will, with such optimism that chemical reactions were sparking again and again.
A ground ball single, a stolen base, another single, another stolen base, a walk, another single, a wild pitch – that crazy, loud, emotional inning moved the Royals to within a run. Madness. The tying run came later after a bloop single, a sacrifice hit, a bunt single and a sacrifice fly. Mayhem.
In the 12th inning, the Royals came back one last time – an Eric Hosmer triple, a Christian Colon Baltimore chop, another stolen base, a ground-ball single yanked down the line by catcher Salvador Perez, who for most of the game had looked so helpless, you weren’t sure if he was even holding the bat right side up.
When the game ended, long after midnight on the East Coast, I walked downstairs to find my Kansas wife Margo babbling happily on the phone with her Kansas parents. They were left breathless. Kansas City was left breathless. It’s funny to think about, but the Royals might not have won that game if Ned Yost had done something more conventional and, you know, logical with his bullpen in the sixth inning. They might not have won the game if Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer had not danced their silly baserunning dance. There are so many wonderful things about baseball, and this is one of them: Illogical things happen. And sometimes feeling lucky actually makes you lucky.