NEW YORK — The Kansas City Royals have a knack for tormenting opponents, toying with the fan base’s emotions and wringing every bit of drama from each victory as they strive for the franchise’s first title in 30 years.
Regardless of what happens from here, they have already eclipsed the foremost baseball juggernaut in recent memory. After the Royals rallied to beat the New York Mets 5-3 in World Series Game 4 on Saturday, the Elias Sports Bureau checked the archives and bestowed these Royals with a legacy and a niche: With six comeback victories from at least two runs down this postseason, the Royals broke the previous MLB record of five, held by the 1996 New York Yankees.
It remains to be seen if Mike Moustakas will squeeze a popup for the final out of the season, as Charlie Hayes did 19 years ago, or if Lorenzo Cain will celebrate from the back of a mounted police horse, a la Wade Boggs. But if the Royals are destined to be mentioned in the same breath as another club, the 1996 Yankees are one heck of a comparable.
“Sure, they are,” second baseman Ben Zobrist said. “They won, didn’t they?”
On a cool Saturday in Flushing, the Royals’ edge in the Series appeared to be slipping away. Then it happened: As columnists prepared to file their “Michael Conforto, conquering hero” stories and 44,815 would-be celebrants at Citi Field started counting down the outs, the Kansas City hitters began fouling off tough pitches, eyeing borderline fastballs off the corner and putting runners on base — all in the name of advancing hitting coach Dale Sveum’s personal mantra of keeping the line moving.
Just as the Royals did when they batted around against Houston in Game 4 to salvage the Division Series and stole a game against David Price and Toronto in the League Championship Series, they found a way. They sent seven men to the plate in the eighth inning, scored three times against Mets relievers Tyler Clippard and Jeurys Familia, and moved within one victory of the franchise’s first title in 30 years.
The Royals are up 3-1 over New York, even though they’ve hit a mere two home runs in the Series (one of them was a Game 1 inside-the-parker by Alcides Escobar). The Royals just keep grinding away with a single-minded focus that manifests itself one pitch, one plate appearance and one flustered pitcher at a time. It’s no longer a question of whether they’ll demoralize the opposition. It’s simply a matter of how.
“It’s experience. It’s character. It’s a group of really, really talented players,” manager Ned Yost said. “But a lot of it, I think, is a mindset. We’re on the biggest stage that you can play in front of, and these guys are totally confident in their abilities.
“They’re as cool as cucumbers. They never panic because they’ve been through it before, and they know they’re capable of doing it again. It’s just something they believe in their heart that they can accomplish.”
Saturday’s climactic eighth inning began with Zobrist, the most disciplined hitter in the Kansas City lineup, working a five-pitch walk against Clippard. It continued with Lorenzo Cain — the antithesis of patient — doing the same. Cain fell behind 0-2 in the count, fouled off four pitches and faced eight pitches overall before reaching on a changeup off the edge. Given the circumstances and the stakes, it was quite a display of plate awareness for a guy who walked a grand total of 37 times in 604 plate appearances in the regular season.
“It’s part of passing the baton — taking a walk when you need to,” Zobrist said. “This team is an aggressive team, but we’re aggressive in the zone. We’re not just flailing at the ball. That’s the important thing about this ballclub. Guys understand how to hit and approach at-bats with the best hitting philosophy.”
When Mets manager Terry Collins lifted Clippard and summoned Familia for a five-out save, the Royals gave the Mets closer the business the same way they did in the Series opener — when Alex Gordon took him over the center-field fence for the tying homer in the ninth. On this night, they had a little luck mixed in for good measure.
Hosmer hit a grounder to the right side that skipped past second baseman Daniel Murphy for a pivotal error to make it 3-3, and Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez followed with RBI singles against Familia to make it 5-3. Yost, going for the throat just the way Joe Torre did with Mariano Rivera on those great Yankees teams, summoned lockdown closer Wade Davis for six outs to seal the deal.
Through the first four World Series games, the Royals are hitting .247, but they’ve struck out a mere 26 times against Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and the New York bullpen. In recent years, more and more big league hitters have come to regard the strikeout as a garden-variety out and little more than a nuisance. But the Royals thrive on putting the ball in play with the expectation that making contact increases the odds something positive will happen.
It’s no accident the Royals posted the lowest strikeout total in the majors this season, with a mere 973 whiffs. To a man, they’re ingrained with enough of an old-fashioned mindset to feel a sense of remorse when they lug the bat back to the dugout after strike three.
“We’re an athletic team,” Hosmer said. “We’ve got guys in here who can run, and that’s been our approach since day one: Look for something to drive early in the count, and if you get behind, then bear down and change your approach and try to put the ball in play.”
Maybe the Royals’ ultimate legacy will be making contact-hitting fashionable again and advancing the notion that it’s impossible to make something good happen when hitters are swinging at air. But that’s a topic for another day. The Royals are one win from a title, and surpassing the ’96 Yankees at something was just a byproduct in the journey.
As Ben Zobrist observed late Saturday, after another exhausting, exhilarating and entirely too commonplace comeback for the Royals, “This ballclub is writing its own story.”