The baseball bounded past the pitcher’s mound, eating up grass as it headed for a hole to the right of second base. For a moment, if only a moment, it looked like a sure single to center field.
As he left the batter’s box, Eric Hosmer knew what this meant. Lorenzo Cain would sprint first to third. Hosmer would cruise into first with his first hit of the night. The Royals would be 90 feet away from taking their first lead of game seven of the World Series.
“It was hit hard,” Hosmer would say.
Then Giants second baseman Joe Panik broke into view.
Before Giants ace Madison Bumgarner systematically suffocated the Royals’ World Series hopes on Wednesday night — before hope ended in a 3-2 loss at Kauffman Stadium — the game turned on a pivotal ground ball in the bottom of the third inning.
Cain had opened the inning by spraying a base hit to right field against Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt. And Hosmer followed by cracking a hard-hit bouncer up the middle. But as the ball headed toward center field, Panik dived to his right, stabbing the ball with his glove and flipping the ball to shortstop Brandon Crawford at second base.
Crawford tagged second base, and the relay throw to first would pop Brandon Belt’s glove just as Hosmer slid headfirst into the bag. First-base umpire Eric Cooper signaled safe, but Giants manager Bruce Bochy emerged from the dugout to issue a challenge.
“I knew it was close,” Hosmer said.
The review, officially, dragged on for 2 minutes, 57 seconds. Hosmer stood on first base and watched the replays on the Crown Vision video board. Replays appeared to suggest that Hosmer was out, perhaps by the tiniest of margins — but perhaps not 100 percent conclusive. In the end, it conclusive enough for the umpiring crew and the replay official in New York.
“He made a great play,” Hosmer said. “That’s what you got to do to win championships, make plays like that.”
Would Hosmer have been safe if he didn’t dive headfirst into the bag? What would have happened if Panik had failed to cleanly field the ball? The answer to these questions will likely torment the Royals for the next generation. What might have been? In a one-run game, the last, best chance for a big inning was snuffed out by a timely stab from Panik, who was set to turn 24 years old on Thursday.
“That would have been first and third with no outs and Billy Butler coming up,” Hosmer said. “That was definitely a crucial play.”
In the moments after the game, as the Royals dished out hugs in a somber clubhouse, Hosmer replayed the play in his head. As Panik started the potential double play, Hosmer made up his mind: He was going headfirst into first base.
“I feel that’s quicker for me,” Hosmer said. “I got a long wingspan, so instead of using two more strides, I like to reach for the bag and I stole a couple hits like that this year.”
The next batter, Billy Butler, grounded out to shortstop, and the threat was done. The following inning, the Giants scratched across a run, and the game was soon turned over to Bumgarner.
“We came up short in game seven,” Cain said. “It’s a tough pill to swallow.”
Baseball can be a cruel game, of course, and a game seven can turn on the most infinitesimal bounce or the tiniest trace of luck. On Wednesday night at Kauffman Stadium, Hosmer’s bouncer was headed for center field, a perfect scoring opportunity before Bumgarner arrived.
And then it wasn’t.
“We gave everything we had, we left it all on the field,” Hosmer said. “We battled every day, bounced back after tough losses, and just came up short.”