I’m forty-one years old, and if you’re close to my age, it doesn’t matter how bad the Kansas City Royals get because the Royals in your head will always be those from the late 70s and early 80s, a lineup that comes to mind as easily as any team in your memory — Dennis Leonard, Paul Splittorff, or Lary Gura on the mound throwing to Darrell Porter; Willie Mays Aikens, Frank White, U.L. Washington and his toothpick, and George Brett in the infield; Hal McRae, Willie Wilson, and Amos Otis patrolling the outfield; and Dan Quisenberry waiting out in the bullpen.
More than just pine tar, the Yankees-Royals rivalry has seen historic moments. Chris Chambliss hit a walk-off home run in Game 5 of the 1976 ALCS, sending the Yanks to their first World Series in twelve years, and in the following year’s Game 5 Graig Nettles and George Brett would slug it out at third base in a game the Yankees would eventually win with three runs in the 9th inning. In fact, the Yankees and Royals squared off in the ALCS four out of five years, and when Kansas City finally beat them in 1980 after losing three straight series in ’76, ’77, and ’78, Brett said, “In 1980, finally winning, for us it was like winning the World Series.”
Recently, though, things have been different. The Yankees have been the best team in baseball over the past fifteen years while the Royals have been circling the drain as the poster children for small market ineptitude. All of that is about to change, at least according the good folks at Baseball Prospectus, who list ten Royals in their top 101 prospects of 2011, including five in the top twenty-one.
Number 12 on that list, Eric Hosmer, had a game to remember on Wednesday night. Still enjoying his first week in the major leagues, Hosmer came to the plate in the fourth inning with his team trailing, his family watching, and A.J. Burnett straight dealing. Hosmer quickly found himself sitting pretty at 3-0, took the obligatory fastball down the middle, swung and missed to bring the count full, then deposited the next pitch into the second deck for Kansas City’s first hit and run of the game. If not for the fact that it sliced the Yankee lead in half, it would’ve been a nice moment. Kim Jones had already interviewed the Hosmer clan up in the stands a few innings earlier, and now the cameras recorded their response to their boy’s blast: mom out of her seat immediately, eyes wide; dad doing his best to hold on to his video camera while pumping his fist in the air; brother shaking his head in absolute disbelief. A nice family moment.
And for a while it seemed like that’s all it would be. Burnett recovered nicely to fashion something of a masterpiece. Sure, he walked five batters and hit another, but there was only that one hit over seven innings along with six strikeouts, and when he left the game he seemed ticketed for a win.
But David Robertson (not Joba Chamberlain) opened the eighth by walking our old friend Melky Cabrera and, two batters later, Billy Butler. He made quick work of Jeff Francoeur, striking him out on three pitches, and when he worked Wilson Betemit into a 1 and 2 hole, it looked like Houdini would wriggle free of yet another jam. But Betemit lined a single to right, plating Melky and snatching a win from Burnett.
Aside from an RBI single from Jorge Posada in the second inning and a Curtis Granderson home run in the third, the Yankee offense was fairly inept, missing opportunities all night long. Posada and Russell Martin led off the sixth with consecutive singles but were stranded. The bases were left loaded in the seventh. In the eighth, minutes after losing the lead in the top half, Brett Gardner led off with a single, and things looked good. Even though Gardner had been caught stealing earlier in the game, I found myself yelling at him to go on the first pitch. Instead, Jeter popped up a bunt attempt for the first out and Granderson followed by rapping into a double play. Inning over.
Mariano Rivera needed fourteen pitches to blitz through three Kansas City hitters in the ninth, the Yankees left two more runners on base in the bottom half, and Buddy Carlyle (not Joba Chamberlain) came in for the top of the tenth. What happened next came as no surprise. Well, except for this part: the fearsome Melky Cabrera opened the inning by drawing his second of three walks in the game. If you’re thinking of scouring the internet to find the last time Melky walked three times in a game, let me save you the trouble — it’s never happened. (In fact, check this out. Back in July, August, and September of 2008, Melky walked a TOTAL of two times in 131 at bats.)
But back to Buddy Carlyle. Hosmer was due next and erased Melky on a fielder’s choice, but Hosmer quickly reached second base on a wild pitch, the first of two Carlyle would throw in the inning. He’d come home a few pitches later on a Francoeur double, giving the Royals their first lead of the night.
With Joakim “The Mexicutioner” Soria coming in, it seemed the Yankees were dead, but they were able to scratch out a run after Martin walked, Gardner bunted him to second, Jeter pushed him to third with a ground out, and Granderson drove him in with a single to right. Sure, the game would’ve been over if they had only been able to execute like that once or twice during the first nine innings, but better late than never, right?
(A quick word about Granderson. It never makes sense to project May 11th numbers over a full season, but let’s do it anyway just so we can appreciate how good he’s been through 34 games. Grandy, who just happens to be leading baseball in home runs, is on pace to hit 57 homers and drive in 119. Not bad.)
This game ended the way it had to, though. Not satisfied with the mess he made of the tenth, Carlyle (not Joba Chamberlain) started the eleventh by walking Chris Getz on four pitches, which was finally enough for Joe Girardi to hook him. There was a bunt, an infield single, a stolen base, an intentional walk (Melky!), and the kid (or The Hos, as he’s called) cashed it in with a sacrifice fly. The Yanks went down like lambs, and it was over. Royals 4, Yankees 3.
And somewhere Freddie Patek is smiling.