They drafted him for this moment, groomed him for this moment, waited in vain for years, all the way through the 2014 season, for this moment. The Kansas City Royals chose Eric Hosmer in the first round of the 2008 draft as a cornerstone of their franchise for this exact situation, the 11th inning of a playoff game, dreaming of the day he would stand at home plate and watch a game-winning home run disappear from sight.
As the nerves of his fan base frayed back home, Hosmer announced himself on a national stage by crushing a two-run shot off Angels reliever Kevin Jepsen in a 4-1 victory. He flipped his bat as his dugout erupted, the finishing touch of a three-hit night to complement his usual sterling defense.
Like his good friend Mike Moustakas the night before, Hosmer erupted with a late homer, the sort of artillery this club usually lacks, to allow the Royals to depart the West Coast with a commanding two-game lead in the American League Division Series over the team with the best record in baseball during the regular season.
James Shields can shepherd Kansas City to its first American League Championship Series since 1985 in Sunday’s Game 3. The Angels must prove they weren’t demoralized by 22 innings of torture at their own ballpark. After Hosmer’s blast fell, the Royals tacked on a run to make life easier for closer Greg Holland.
The extra innings belong to the Royals this October. They saved their season with a 12-inning barnburner against Oakland in the Wild Card Game. They outlasted the Angels in 11 innings on Thursday and bloodied the nose of the American League’s best team. On Friday they became the first American League team to play three consecutive extra-inning playoff games and the first in all since the Phillies and the Astros went four straight in the 1980 National League Championship Series.
So the circumstances on Friday felt familiar. The scoring was limited and the tension was palpable. And the heroes standing next to Hosmer were numerous. Yordano Ventura tossed seven innings of one-run baseball. The bullpen dusted off their competition. In the eighth inning, Jarrod Dyson flashed the power of his arm to save Wade Davis.
Davis appeared on the verge of a collapse. He yielded a leadoff double to rookie DH C.J. Cron, who was replaced by pinch-runner Collin Cowgill. When catcher Chris Iannetta lined out to center field, Cowgill broke for third. He wanted to test the arm of Jarrod Dyson, who had just entered the game as a defensive replacement. Dyson passed.
Dyson powered a throw that drew Mike Moustakas a step outside the base. He scooped the ball and darted back into the playing time to slam a tag. The energy seeped from this ballpark’s sea of red.
The scariest moment, at least for the future of this franchise, occurred in the bottom of the fifth. Ventura was in the process of disarming the Angels after a pair of singles. With two outs, Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton swung through a changeup and with his backswing cracked catcher Salvador Perez above his right eyebrow.
Perez recoiled from the blow and rolled into the dirt. Trainer Nick Kenney hustled from the dugout to tend to this organization’s cornerstone. Perez passed an on-field concussion test, and underwent further examinations after the inning ended. When the sixth began, he was the first Royal on the field.
Ventura could not carry his team’s one-run lead through that inning. He gave up a two-out single to outfielder Kole Calhoun and walked Mike Trout after opening the at-bat with two strikes. As Albert Pujols strode to the dish, Ventura showed no signs of strain, save for a trickle of sweat tracing the side of his head.
His composure did not alter the encounter’s outcome. Pujols shot a game-tying single into right field to prevent Ventura from securing his first postseason victory. It was Anaheim’s first sign of life all evening.
After the first game of this series, rival evaluators around the game wondered if Kansas City’s style of play altered Anaheim’s tactics. Angels manager Mike Scioscia neglected to pinch-run for catcher Chris Iannetta in Thursday’s eighth inning because he fretted about aiding the Royals’ running game. The Angels attempted 26 sacrifice bunts during the regular season; they tried three on Thursday.
A day later, they attempted to run on Ventura, who possesses a sizzling fastball and a quick delivery to the plate. Standing at first base in the first inning, Mike Trout could not pick up much of a jump. He broke for second anyway, and was thrown out easily by Perez.
Ventura was one of two rookies making his first postseason start. Matt Shoemaker, a 28-year-old right-hander, strained an oblique muscle on Sept. 15. He did not pitch again during the regular season. The injury often requires a month of rest. He returned for Anaheim after less than three weeks.
Members of the Kansas City coaching staff wondered if Shoemaker would experience the standard symptoms after an injury-induced layoff. Due to the extra days off, his fastball velocity might jump from its usual 90-mph perch. Due to the lack of regular work, his sliders and splitter may lack their usual teeth.
The Royals benefited from this in the second inning. Hosmer cracked a hanging slider into right field, where outfielder Kole Calhoun misplayed the single and yielded an extra base. Shoemaker gassed his fastball up to 93 mph against Alex Gordon, only to see Gordon rifle an RBI single back up the middle.
Shoemaker would steady himself as the game continued. He found the command of his splitter. After Hosmer scored Kansas City’s first run, Shoemaker struck out five batters in the next four innings.
Ventura strived to protect the lead. A day before, he sat at a podium in the bowels of Angels Stadium and shrugged off questions about the aftershocks of his postseason debut. Shoved into the sixth inning of Tuesday’s Wild Card Game, Ventura surrendered a three-run homer to blow a lead. He hung his head, and heard messages of supports from friends, family and even his idol from the Dominican Republic, Pedro Martinez.
From his pulpit as a TBS analyst, Martinez bludgeoned Ned Yost for his pitcher usage and offered words of encouragement for his countryman. “It did make me feel pretty special,” Ventura admitted.
On Friday night, he displayed why he is worth the attention. He faced the minimum through four innings. He opened up throwing in the mid-90s. His velocity jumped into triple digits in the second. David Freese saw five pitches in the last at-bat of the frame. Four pitches cracked 100 mph. The fifth was a 99-mph scorcher – Ventura’s version of offspeed.
The Angels held no illusions about Ventura’s approach. Freese illuminated this hours before the game. “He’s going to bring it,” he said. “He’s going to attack you.”
He relies on heat because his changeup and curveball can be fickle. The pitches often bounce in the dirt, like his first curveball to Pujols in the fourth inning. His next curve, a 1-1 bender, nipped the top of the zone. His next crossed the middle of the plate, locking up Pujols and ending the frame.
Royals vs. Angels
All games on TBS
Thursday: KC 3, LA 2, 11 innings
Friday: KC 4, LA 1, 11 innings
Sunday: at Kansas City, 6:30 p.m.
*Monday: at Kansas City, 5 p.m.
*Wednesday: at Anaheim, TBA