Throughout the postseason, Robert O'Connell will contribute brief sketches of small, significant moments from the last few games of 2014. This one is about a not-great pitcher who pitched like someone else.
Last November, the Kansas City Royals signed 30-year-old lefty Jason Vargas to a four-year, $32 million deal. If the previous offseason’s Wil Myers-and-change-for-James Shields-and-change blockbuster had signaled a new boldness for a franchise usually content to accumulate castoffs and hoard bargains, then this signing—the biggest move of the Kansas City winter—suggested a return to form. They were, after all, paying Jason Vargas: slowish stuff, middling ERA, Eeyore’s countenance, and the broader blankness of a video game’s create-a-character function before any alterations had been made. He hardly seemed the type to distinguish playoff hopeful from contender.
Anyway, on Wednesday afternoon in Kansas City, Vargas started for the Royals in the fourth game of the American League Championship Series, against the Baltimore Orioles. The Royals came into the game leading the series three games to none, and a rainout a couple days prior complicated the call for manager Ned Yost. Shields, the team’s ace, could have made the start on regular rest.
But Yost went with Vargas, who pitched as much of a gem as the present Royals require. Over five-and-a-third innings, he put his 89-mile-per-hour fastball at the strike zone’s lower hem and lobbed in the odd curve. His change-up, his best pitch, looked conscious, and it dropped so gently Salvador Perez could’ve caught it with his bare hand. He struck out six, most of these coming when an Oriole mistook a pitch for its opposite and either whacked the air above a change or watched a fastball hold its line.
The Orioles managed just two hits off Vargas, one of those a booming third-inning Ryan Flaherty solo homer that would prove the only Baltimore run; other hard-hit balls only allowed the Kansas City defense to affirm its reputation. Omar Infante started the game off by nabbing a Nick Markakis grounder up the middle and letting go of it in the same instant, beating the runner by a step. Alcides Escobar twice started 6-3 double plays on Delmon Young rollers. Alex Gordon, in the fifth, tracked a J.J. Hardy shot back to the warning track, stretched and snared it, before crashing flattened against the outfield wall.
The Royals won, 2-1, with their two runs having come in the first inning in characteristically slap-and-scramble fashion. By the time their trio of hard-throwing and temporarily/eminently unhittable relievers had secured the final eleven outs, the thin-margin guile of Vargas was a distant memory. It was also, though, a fitting ingredient in the win that gave them the American League Pennant.
Four of the Royals’ eight straight wins this postseason have come in extra innings, and two more—these last two—have been decided by one run. Most every strike Vargas threw seemed decided by the pitching equivalent of this minescule margin, and placed just out of the way of serious trouble. That this just-enough bunch has made it to the World Series is as strange as it is invigorating; it is as if we’ve all just watched them hitchhike into heaven.