For fans, the value added to the MLB playoff structure by the Division Series is in the buildup of drama. The best stories have fairly gradual rising action, not a sudden surge to an unearned peak of excitement. Sometimes September can provide a pitch-perfect buildup to the grand finale that is the World Series, but when September doesn’t cooperate, early October can pick up the slack. In other words, before the hero of the season’s story finishes off its final opponent in the Series, we get to see them overcome a few of their lesser foes–mini-bosses, so to speak. Certain matchups and moments can be not only terrifically exciting and important in their own right, but a priming of the pump so that the discerning fan feels the cumulative drama of the season.
That was the kind of game the Royals and Astros played on Sunday. Carlos Gomez was back in the lineup for the Astros, and Dallas Keuchel was on the mound. Everything pointed toward a Houston win, and they earned one, but it came in a way that reminded everyone watching just how different playoff baseball can be from the regular season.
Keuchel started out dominating the Royals, doing things just the way we’ve gotten used to. Through three innings, he had faced 11 batters, striking out three and inducing seven groundballs. Two of those became hits, but when Keuchel is keeping his opponents from hitting the ball with any authority in the air, he’s on top of his game. It looked like the Royals might never figure him out. It was unfortunate for the Astros, then, that they also couldn’t score on Edinson Volquez. Only 10 batters came up against the Royals’ right-hander through three frames, with four striking out, one drawing a walk, and one actually, for a moment, getting a hit. (It was Chris Carter, on a ball hit too hard to the left-field corner, and Alex Gordon threw him out at second.)
Lorenzo Cain made the first big play of the game, leading off the fourth inning. He worked a full count, fouled off a few, and then launched a solo homer on the 10th pitch of his at-bat. Keuchel bounced back with a strikeout of Eric Hosmer, but it, too, came in a full count. Then he got a groundball from Kendrys Morales, but Luis Valbuena flubbed it. Keuchel worked out of that fourth frame, having given up just the one run, but his air of perfection was punctured for the rest of the day. Those three outs cost Keuchel 33 pitches—only four fewer than he’d needed to cruise through the first three frames.
Here’s the thing about Keuchel’s performance, though: He was brilliant. He would go on to throw 52 more pitches, over three innings, and be tasked with stranding a runner in scoring position each inning. He managed it. A.J. Hinch probably should have brought in Mike Fiers or someone, done something more proactive than sit by and watch Keuchel scrape by against a pretty strong offense. He didn’t, though, and so Keuchel got a chance to really shine. He threw 124 pitches, a season-high. In the top of the fifth, Eric Hosmer was up with two on and two outs, and Keuchel struck him out. In the sixth, it was a runner on third and Gordon at bat, and the result was the same. In the seventh, Cain came up again, with Alex Rios on third. He represented the tying run, and that at-bat seemed like it would turn the game. On a 3-2 count, Keuchel threw a fastball by Cain off the outside corner, and there was just no way Houston was losing the game after that.
There was nothing the Royals could do to stop the Astros’ offense in the fifth inning. It happened too quickly. A three-batter sequence—Luis Valbuena walk, Carter double, Jason Castro single—put Houston in the lead, 2-1. Volquez had been cruising to that point, and it was just the second time through the bottom of the order for him. The hits were blistered; there was no way for the defense to spare their hurler the runs. The Astros simply had a good inning at the plate.
The sixth is another story. Volquez was still at a very low pitch threshold (72 through five) as the sixth inning began, but the inning began with a first-pitch double by George Springer, whom Volquez was facing for the third time. Volquez got Correa to ground out to second, but that brought up Colby Rasmus and his red-hot bat.
Danny Duffy was up in the bullpen, and Ned Yost went out to the mound. This was it! Yost was going to his bullpen. It was the perfect spot, with Rasmus due, needing a strikeout—and then it was moot. Instead of signaling for Duffy, Yost asked Volquez if he could continue, got the answer he wanted, clapped his hands and walked off the mound. The Royals intentionally walked Rasmus, and Volquez was left out there to face first Evan Gattis, then Carlos Gomez. When Yost finally went out to get Volquez, Gomez was on first base and the Astros had stretched their lead to two.
It’s so counterintuitive, so against what managers like Yost know, to take out a pitcher like Volquez in a situation like he was in. He just couldn’t bring himself to do it. Volquez still had a low pitch count. He’d looked good. He was in line for a loss, and managers hate to consign starters who have pitched well to a loss that way. We know all of that, but it remains a mistake that Yost tried to get through the inning without going to his bullpen. It’s October. There are multi-inning weapons in the bullpen, and there are so many off days that preserving the pen really isn’t a consideration. Yost needed to go to Duffy for Rasmus, and when he didn’t, the Astros took advantage.
From there, the Astros salted the game away. The Royals’ last push brought Cain to the plate as the tying run again, but again, Cain struck out, this time to end the game. The Royals hit two home runs but only scored twice, and left 10 men on base. Cain, whose masterpiece plate appearance against Keuchel in the fourth briefly looked like it would be the defining moment of the game, ended up with the two most costly outs of the game, too. For one game, at least, the Kansas City lineup was utterly dysfunctional, and the Astros won, 4-2.
In the big picture, this is how this game was supposed to go: relatively low-scoring, an Astros win. Neither team will look back at this as the pivotal contest in the series. Nonetheless, there were some thrilling moments and some critical missed opportunities, even if they all mostly feel like a prologue to some other story. The Astros are now one step closer to being the protagonist of that story.
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