Royals continue to confound baseball logic

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — In a general way, there are two ways to perform magic for people. The first way you might call the David Copperfield way; another term for it might be “confident magic.” The magician is always in control. Missing cards appear, minds are read, assistants emerge whole from dangerous predicaments – and the magician acts like he knew it was going to happen all along.

Then there is a second kind of magic show, one where the magician – maybe it’s Penn & Teller or Lance Burton – seems as befuddled as the audience does. Birds keep flying in, bottles of champagne keep popping up, the man’s watch isn’t anywhere to be found, and when it all turns out in the end the magician just kind of shrugs as if to say, “How the heck did that happen?”

These Kansas City Royals are the second kind of magic act.

Thursday night in Anaheim, the Royals beat the Angels, 3-2, in an 11-inning game so implausible that, long after it was over, the Royals still did not seem quite positive they had won. The victory had required eight pitchers, a series of preposterous catches, a momentary blackout of common sense by Angels manager Mike Scioscia and, finally, an extra-inning home run from Kansas City’s No. 9 hitter, who had not hit one since August.

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“Bull Moose!” — awful headline-writers across America

That No. 9 hitter, third baseman Mike Moustakas, once projected be the Royals first 40-home run hitter since … ever. Kansas City’s team home run record of 36, set by ’80s cult slugger Steve Balboni, has long been a bit of an eyesore for the team. For three decades the Royals drafted, picked up and traded for a sequence of men with power in the odd hope of finding a Jim Thome or Ryan Howard or a Chris Davis. But, being the Royals, their efforts usually ended in dark comedy. There’s the story of Mark Quinn, who hit two home runs in his first big league game but then became obsessed with swinging the bat at any form of movement. He once went on a spectacularly long streak of games without a walk, and when he finally did draw a base on balls some smart-aleck set off the Kauffman Stadium fireworks.

Moustakas set a California high school record for home runs, and scouts gushed he had “80 power” which is as high as that scouting scale goes, and he mashed 36 home runs in Class AA and AAA when he was just 21. He showed some of that power when he got to the major leagues too, but other hits and walks proved elusive. This year he was sent to the minors for time with his batting average drowning in the .150s. He came back with a slightly more conservative swing, which brought the average up over the Mendoza line but at the expense of ever hitting a ball over a fence. His last home run was Aug. 25.

So when he came up in the 11th with the score somehow still tied, Moustakas wasn’t thinking about hitting a long ball. Royals legend George Brett had told him again and again that not thinking about home runs is the way to hit ‘em. Moustakas saw a hanging Fernando Salas change-up, turned on it and deposited the ball over the high right-field wall. An Angels crowd, which had been more and more desperately calling upon rally monkeys for support, slumped into its chairs. Beleaguered Royals manager Ned Yost somehow reached this point in the game without using his electrifying closer, Greg Holland — who with a one-run lead dispatched the Angels comfortably to end the game. In the Royals’ clubhouse celebration, players and former players and executives kept looking at each other with expressions that said, “How did we do that?”

“I don’t consider myself the hero,” Moustakas would say. “This clubhouse is filled with heroes.”

In this, he was right because it took a variety of heroes and anti-heroes to keep the Royals and Angels tied going into the 11th inning in the first place. The theme was set early. On the first pitch the Angels saw, Kole Calhoun blasted a 400-foot shot to deep center field, and Kansas City’s superb center fielder Lorenzo Cain raced back to the wall, leaped and somehow pulled it in. Lo Cain is actually a Hebrew contradiction, “lo” meaning no and “cain” meaning yes. That more or less describes Cain’s brilliant defense, where at contact pitchers yell “No,” at completion they shout “Yes.”

“That was about as high as I can go,” Cain would say afterward, and, as it turns out, the Angels would test that. In the sixth inning, with two runners on, the Angels’ Howie Kendrick crushed a ball to deep right-center, and Cain again loped gracefully after it and, at the precise moment he leaped as high as he could … and the ball went about two inches over the top of his glove. Fortunately for the Royals, right fielder Nori Aoki was nearby, and he blindly and awkwardly stabbed his glove in the right general direction. The ball stuck in there.

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“Aoki-Dokie,”– former headline writers across America

It’s worth talking for a second about Aoki, because he so thoroughly symbolizes this team. As a young man, he was a major star in his home country of Japan, a whirlwind of a hitter a sort of a second Ichiro. At 29 he somewhat inexplicably fell off. He then found himself in Milwaukee, and this past offseason, he came to Kansas City. He was thoroughly disappointing until late September when, for no apparent reason, he briefly proved impossible to get out. He hit .458 the last two weeks of the season as the Royals held on to their first playoff spot in a generation.

But it is in the field that Aoki is a particular joy to watch; I have never seen a player look so confused while making so many good plays. It is like Aoki’s mind is a lost GPS voice repeating, “Still calculating,” but he somehow gets to the ball and catches it anyway. In addition to the backhanded stab over Cain’s glove, he also spun helplessly under a ball he’d lost in the lights, and he chased after one warning track fly ball by way of San Bernardino. But the balls all ended up in his glove, as always happens, and in this, he seems as surprised as everyone else. After catching the ball over Cain, he smiled and shrugged and theatrically tossed the ball into the booing crowd.

The Angels had the best record in baseball this year and for them to lose this game to the Royals took plenty of their own blundering. Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton went a combined 0-for-13, with Hamilton looking especially dazed. Scioscia, despite having one of the most powerful lineups in baseball, decided three times to have his hitters sacrifice, leading to zero runs and one particularly silly scene. In the eighth inning, Los Angeles’ Chris Iannetta led off with a walk – bringing up Calhoun, Trout and Pujols. Scioscia bizarrely decided to give up an out by having Calhoun bunt, even though Calhoun is a slugger who only hit into five double plays all year.

This was strange enough, but then even stranger, Calhoun worked to a 3-1 count against Royals super-reliever Wade Davis. This put Calhoun in an ideal hitting position, and it seemed impossible that the bunt was still on. But it was. Calhoun popped up the bunt and, had Moustakas been aware, he could have dropped the ball and gotten a double play because Calhoun was so defeated he did not even run to first base.

Of course it’s only one game, and there is still time for this series and baseball to regain its natural order. But for one more night in this crazy season, the Kansas City Royals’ magic worked. The clubhouse party was a mishmash of thrilled young players, elated club officials, and a few former Royals players like Mike Sweeney and Jeff Suppan and Jeff Montgomery who come from a time when absolutely nothing ever went the Royals’ way. Raul Ibanez, a 42-year-old hitter who played for some of those unfortunate Royals teams and plays for this one, too, says it like this: “It’s baseball. It doesn’t have to make sense.”

And Royals general manager Dayton Moore, who came to this team eight years ago and, like James Taylor, has seen fire and seen rain, puts his arm around you and says: “How did you like that game? For us, that’s a blowout.”

Justin Verlander laughed at after saying Astros were “technologically and analytically advanced”

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Justin Verlander was at the annual Baseball Writers Association of America banquet last night, on hand to accept the 2019 Cy Young Award. Normally such things are pretty routine events, but nothing is routine with the Houston Astros these days.

During his acceptance speech, Verlander made some comments about the Astros’ “technological and analytical advancements.” The comments were greeted by some laughter in the room as well as some groans. At least one person on hand claimed that other players present were visibly angry.

It’s hard to tell the context of it all without a full video — maybe Verlander meant it as a joke, maybe the reactions were more varied than is being described — but here’s how reporters on hand for it last night are describing it:

If it was a joke it was ill-timed, as not many around the game think the sign-stealing stuff is funny at the moment. Especially in light of the fact that, despite having several opportunities to do so, Astros players have failed to show any accountability for their cheating.

And yes, that includes former Astros Dallas Keuchel, who was praised for “apologizing” at a White Sox fan event on Friday, but whose “apology” was couched in a lot of deflection and excuse-making about how it was just something that was done at the time and about how technology was to blame. Keuchel also tried to minimize it, saying that the Astros didn’t do it all the time. Which is rich given that the most prominent video evidence of their trash can-banging scheme came from a blowout Astros win in a meaningless August game against a losing team. If they were doing it in that situation, please, do not tell me they weren’t doing it when games really mattered.

Anyway, I’d like to think Verlander was just trying to take a stab at a joke here, because Verlander is the wrong guy to be sending to be sending any kind of messages diminishing the cheating given that he has a pretty solid track record of holding other players’ feet to the fire when they get busted.

For example, here he was in 2018 after Robinson Canó got busted for PEDs:

Of course, consistency can be a problem for Verlander when his teammates are on the ones who are on the hook. Here was his response to Tigers infielder Jhonny Peralta being suspended in the wake of the Biogenesis scandal:

“Everybody makes mistakes. He’s my brother. We fight and bleed and sweat together on the baseball field. If my brother makes a mistake, especially if he owns up to it and serves his time, I don’t see how you can hold a grudge or anything like that. “It’s one thing to step up and be a man and own up to his mistake.”

Verlander, it should also be noted, was very outspoken about teams engaging in advanced sign-stealing schemes once upon a time. here he was in 2017, while still with the Tigers, talking about such things in a June 2017 interview with MLive.com.

“We don’t have somebody, but I’m sure teams have a person that can break down signals and codes and they’ll have the signs before you even get out there on the mound.  It’s not about gamesmanship anymore. It used to be, ‘Hey, if you can get my signs, good for you.’ In the past, if a guy on second (base) was able to decipher it on a few pitches, I guess that was kind of part of the game. I think it’s a different level now. It’s not good.”

Which makes me wonder how he felt when he landed on the Astros two months later and realized they had a sophisticated cheating operation underway. If the feelings were mixed, he was able to bury the part of them which had a problem with it, because he’s said jack about it since this all blew up in November. And, of course, has happily accepted the accolades and the hardware he he has received since joining Houston, some of which was no doubt acquired by virtue of a little extra, ill-gotten run support.

Anyway, wake me up when someone — anyone — associated with the Astros shows some genuine accountability about this.