After 29 years, this one was worth the wait.
The Kansas City Royals rallied from four runs down to knock off the Oakland A's 9-8 in Tuesday night's AL Wild Card game, a tense, back-and-forth battle that lasted nearly five hours and went 12 innings. It was also, conveniently enough, a microcosm of both teams' respective seasons.
But first the particulars: Catcher Salvador Perez won it for Kansas City with an RBI single down the third-base line (just under the glove of a diving Josh Donaldson), scoring Christian Colon from second. Fittingly, Colon got there with a steal – the Royals led all of Major League Baseball with 153 swipes, and they made off with 7 bags on the night, 6 of which came in the eighth inning or later. Five of those steals led to runs.
Oakland jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first on Brandon Moss' home run off starter James Shields. The Royals fought back against the A's deadline day dandy, Jon Lester, going ahead 3-2 in the third on Eric Hosmer's single. Lester settled in from there, and the A's scored five runs in the sixth, highlighted by Moss' second homer, a three-run blast off Yordano Ventura, who curiously replaced Shields.
It looked like that move would come to haunt Royals manager Ned Yost, but down 7-3, his team kept battling, scoring three times in the eighth, then tying it with a Nori Aoki sac fly off A's closer Sean Doolittle in the bottom of the ninth. And we played on: Kansas City had chances in the 10th and 11th, but came up empty.
Oakland went ahead 8-7 on an Alberto Callaspo pinch hit in the top of the 12th, but the Royals had one more rally in them. Hosmer scalded a one-out triple off the left-centerfield wall, and scored on a chopper by Colon. Then, with two outs, Perez – who had been 0-for-5 up to that point – laced a grounder past third, and the Royals had their first postseason win since Game 7 of the 1985 World Series. They'll have little time to celebrate, however: Game 1 of the American League Division Series, against the Los Angeles Angels, is Thursday night in Anaheim.
But you suspect they'll be ready. And the reasons were on display in their do-or-die Wild Card win. I'm not necessarily talking about the Royals' reliance on speed – they hit an MLB-low 95 home runs this year – formidable bullpen (Wade Davis, Greg Holland and 21-year-old Brandon Finnegan, who three months ago was pitching for TCU in the College World Series, were all standouts,) or preternatural ability to overcome Yost's occasional meddling. It's the reliance on homegrown talent like Hosmer, Perez, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, the grit of Shields, the team-wide realization that something special is at work here.
In a way, that's how the Royals played all season. When they took over first place in the AL Central on June 17 – beating reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and the Detroit Tigers – most laughed. After all, it had been 11 years since KC had been atop a division that late in the season. They'd peel off a 10-game winning streak, but stumbled after the All-Star Break, eventually ceding the Central to Detroit. But they never wilted (even when most thought they would) holding firm to a Wild Card spot before clinching on the final weekend of the season. Like Tuesday night's game, they never panicked, and they waited until the last possible moment.
As for Oakland, well, it's easy to say that this game followed the same script as their 2014 campaign: they came out of the gates fast, surged to a big lead, then collapsed late. But theirs was a season defined by GM Billy Beane's all-in deadline deal for Lester, which sent slugging outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox and fundamentally changed the A's lineup – they scored a run-and-a-half less per game – and shook up a team that had rolled to an MLB-best 66-42 mark at that point. They'd finish 22-32 the rest of the way.
And while the offense showed up on Tuesday, and Lester pitched well, you could make the argument that the deal also played a hand in losing this game. For starters, if Beane had stood pat, would Oakland even be playing in the Wild Card, or would they have been watching from home, awaiting the winner? And don't forget that Jonny Gomes, sent over with Lester, was playing left field when Hosmer smashed his 12th inning triple. Would Cespedes have had it? Those are questions that probably don't have answers.
And the A's face plenty of those as another season ends in disappointment. Did Beane give away too much for Lester, or pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel (who served up Perez's game-winning hit)? The latter deal cost him prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney, and prospects have been this franchise's building blocks for years. Can Moss, Donaldson and Josh Reddick recover from sub-par seasons? Will Coco Crisp hold up? There's only one way to find out, and sadly, it's a refrain heard once again in Oakland: Wait until next year.