Short Season: Single, Caught Stealing

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Throughout the postseason, Robert O'Connell will contribute brief sketches of brief moments from the last few games of 2014.

Before last night’s A’s-Royals AL Wild Card game went wacky—after the first Brandon Moss homer but before the second; before the zillion Yost-mandated sacrifices; before the surprising and disastrous relief turn of Yordano Ventura; before the inauguration, in the eighth and ninth innings, of the Jackson County Teleportation Expo; and before Salvador Perez pulled an ugly, lurching double down the line inches past Josh Donaldson’s glove and set off a joyful noise in Kauffman Stadium—Royals designated hitter Billy Butler came to the plate in the bottom of the first, his team already down two, with men on first and second.

If any one player embodies the frustrations of the last few seasons of Kansas City baseball, it is Butler. He has been, for much of his career, a fine hitter—with a tidy, all-fields swing and vacillating power—miscast as a centerpiece. Where other, better teams used the DH spot for a true masher or as a resting place for key position players, the Royals spent it on Butler most every day. Even on his good days, he smacked of obsolescence, contorting his girth comically into the stance of a smaller man, bouncing on the balls of his feet and circling his hands, and foregoing the mighty hacks of his all-bat brethren for clean singles up the middle. Here is a Royals game from the last half-decade: Butler goes two for four, Kansas City loses 4-3.

It has been a long time since the Royals or their fans have experienced postseason baseball, but they are given to believe that this sort of old-fashionedness, which has long provided easy evidence for detractors, plays in October, that homers dry up but singles can be found, that nightly awareness trumps 162-game pedigree. So in the first, Jon Lester threw Butler a low cutter, and Butler scooped it and sent it hard to left. Sam Fuld made a keen play, cutting the ball off, but one run scored—the first Kansas City postseason run in 29 years—and Eric Hosmer moved from first to third. Butler chugged happily into first and the fans let out their lungs; this kind of precision, if sustained, might mean a win.

The first-time bargoer orders one too many and pukes on his shoes. The glacial Butler tried to read Lester’s move and started toward second as the pitcher stepped off the rubber. It was a patently delusional play, one borne of too many falls spent watching better players pull off similar gambits in big spots. Only Hosmer’s game scurry from home kept the play from going 1-6 (the shift was on for the batting Alex Gordon); it ended up 1-6-3-2.

If any of a thousand things had gone differently in last night’s late innings, the sequence might be looked at as proof of an unprepared team, one trying too hard to compensate for key deficiencies. Instead, it is marked down as charm. The Royals played all night as if they could hear every order shouted from every Kansas City couch; manager Ned Yost likely made for a passable medium. They were conduits for a city’s want, all nerve and superstition.  They were stupid, naïve, bold, and brave, and maybe all of those are the same thing. They won.

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