The Royals are up 2-0 in the ALDS. Thoughts after Games 1&2, and looking toward Game 3.

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The Royals are one win away from the American League Championship Series.

Just let that settle in. A week ago Friday, the Royals were spraying champagne in the visitors’ dugout at US Cellular field celebrating their first playoff berth in 29 years. It marked the end of an exhausting month duking it out with Detroit, Oakland, Seattle and Cleveland for the last remaining playoff spots. We were like Charlie Bucket entering Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory – others may have felt entitled to their playoff spot, but we’re were kinda just happy to be there.

I alluded to this in my post following Tuesday’s Wild Card win, but I’ll say it more explicitly here: I always thought we would lose the Wild Card game. From the beginning of this season, I thought this was a playoff team, but I didn’t think we were most likely to win the Central. And everything in my experience as a Royals fan speaks to the narrative of disappointment. Losing the Wild Card matchup would have been the ultimate disappointment. I expected it.

But they won.

Then they won again on Thursday thanks to incredible outfield defense from Nori Aoki and Lorenzo Cain and a huge 11th-inning home run from Mike Moustakas. Then they won again on Friday thanks to Yordano Ventura completely shutting down the Los Angeles Angels’ star-studded power lineup and another huge 11th inning home run – this one from Eric Hosmer.

One week. It’s been an exhausting one, hasn’t it?

Not sure about you, but I’ve averaged around 4 hours of sleep over this past week. I was at Tuesday’s game that lasted 4 hours and 45 minutes. Didn’t get home until 1AM, and I was so jacked up there was no way I was getting to bed immediately. Thursday night’s 11-inning affair finished up at 12:13PM. Friday’s ended at 12:26PM. Even then, it’s just not possible for me to sleep well (or at all) after such dramatic ballgames.

It isn’t purely sleep deprivation though, is it? It’s been emotionally draining too. This is the first time in MLB postseason history that a team has won three consecutive extra inning games. This is the only time a team to play three straight 11+ inning games too. Only five other teams have won three total extra inning playoff games before this year: 86 Mets, 91 Twins, 96 Yankees, 03 Marlins, 04 Red Sox.

See anything in common in that list?

Oh, just that all of those teams won the World Series. So there’s that.

The Royals have an opportunity to sweep the “best team in the American League” (although that’s open for debate at this point) tonight. They are 1 win away from playing in the American League Championship Series and 5 wins away from the World Series and 9 wins away from being 2014 World Series Champions. THIS IS REAL PEOPLE. IT’S HAPPENING.

It’s been a crazy, exhausting and thrilling week, yes? I don’t know how I can survive the rest of this month. And if I don’t, it’s probably already been worth it.

Vargas & Yordano

When I heard the news that Jason Vargas would be starting Game 1, I was not thrilled. Vargas had a terrible September: a 9.00 ERA in his last 4 starts of the season. I saw his final start in person in Cleveland actually. He doesn’t throw hard, so he has to rely on his pinpoint control, and he did not have it that night. I wanted Danny Duffy instead, but the Royals know their team better than I do. Apparently.

Because Vargas was great. He gave up just two hits in 6 innings. Only problem is both of those hits were home runs – one to Chris Iannetta and one to David Freese. But overall he was extremely effective and got us to the bullpen after 6. (With a little lot of help from the defense.)

And Yordano. Oh, Yordano. The dude is just insane. I’ve never seen him nastier. He was throwing straight fire. 102 with movement just isn’t fair. Before Friday, the most 100+ MPH pitches he’d thrown in one game was 5. Friday night, he threw 12. TWELVE different pitches at or over 100 MPH. He only threw 95 pitches, so that’s 12.6% of his pitches! I tell you what, it’s nice to have a rookie like that. Get him a contract extension ASAP.

Moose & Hosmer

These two were Dayton Moore’s poster boys. The first round picks in 2007 & 2008 were supposed to come in and change the landscape of Royals baseball for years to come. Unfortunately, they’ve mostly stunk. Especially Moose.

Moustakas had a stint in Omaha this summer. The team went on a giant winning stretch while Hosmer was on the disabled list in July/August. I’ve personally lobbied for both of them to be benched at some point this season. Christian Colon has played well in his time in the majors this year, and Danny Valencia did a fine job platooning with Moose before we traded him to Toronto. Billy Butler’s resurgence while Hosmer was out sparked lots of questions whether Hos would get his position back when he returned.

But wouldn’t you know it, the first two games of the ALDS are won off of 11th inning home runs from each of them. They’re the heroes of the ALDS so far.

I’m curious how Friday’s game impacts Moose’s career in the long term. We know he can hit – he does it in Spring Training year after year. He has always put so much pressure on himself to perform that his average slips around .200-.220. But the last few weeks we have seen a different Moose in my opinion. He’s amped up to play. He’s taking the ball to the opposite field regularly to beat the shift. He even pushed a bunt single down the line on Friday. Pure gold.

I have a sense – and we’ll see how this plays out – that Moose is more relaxed than he has ever been in his career after the home run last night. I’m betting that we continue to see a productive Moose throughout the playoffs and into next season. At least, I hope.

Ned & Holland

I’ve already addressed how annoyed I get with the Royals fan base hating Ned Yost. And he’s not flawless, obviously. But I think we just enjoy hating him at this point.

No one seems to be arguing about the lineup since Omar Infante got moved down and Cain moved up. The only situation that seems to get criticized now is the use, or lack thereof, of Greg Holland in the 9th inning in the last three games.

In the Wild Card game, with the Royals losing 7-6, Yost brought in Holland in the 9th at home before the Royals tied the game up in the bottom half. Makes perfect sense because if he doesn’t use him and we don’t score then you’ve neglected your best bullpen arm in the end.

In the last two games, with the game tied, Yost has chosen to go with Jason Frasor and a Tim Collins/Frasor combo. He kept Holland for the 11th inning in both games. Typically, in a tie game on the road, you’d throw your closer in the 9th, get three outs and make sure the game goes to extras. Use your best arms and resort to the lesser arms when/if you have to. No sense in throwing the game away by putting in a lesser pitcher instead.

But here’s the rub with that logic: you’re going to have to throw your worse arm if you want to win anyway. Even if Yost decided to throw Holland in the 9th, then Moose/Hosmer hits their homer in the 11th, he would then turn to Frasor and/or Collins for the bottom of the 11th. You’d rely on the same pitchers, just at different points of the game.

So, hypothetically, if Collins had blown it in the 9th, we’d all be blasting Yost for not bringing in Holland instead. Except, if he does bring in Holland and he’s successful, you’re going to have to trust Collins later anyway. It’s a half foot one way, six inches the other.

It boils down to preference, really. Would you rather save your best guy for when you have a lead or throw him to sustain the tie? The lesser-than-Hollands are going to have to throw at some point anyway.

Personally, I’d much rather see Holland in there in a save situation in the 11th than Tim Collins or Jason Frasor, and I think you would too. Wouldn’t we rather have a shutdown guy ready to go once we took the lead? A lead is a win with Holland out there still. A lead is still somewhat in question when turning to Collins/Frasor.

Note to Yost: keep doing what you’re doing with Holland. Also, proud of you for bringing in Davis in the 7th. And if Herrera is out long term, the answer is either lefty Brandon Finnegan or righty Jason Frasor depending on the matchup.

Looking Forward: Big Game James v. CJ Wilson

I have tickets to the game tonight at Kauffman Stadium (!!!!!!), and who else would you rather have in a potential clinching game than James Shields? Let’s take a look at the career splits vs current rosters…

Shields vs LAA, career: .279/.305/.525

Wilson vs KC, career: .252/.337/.459

The Angels hit Shields very well. Howie Kendrick especially: 14-26 (.538/.556/.855). In fact, it seems like anyone on this team who has faced Shields much has had some success against him.

Albert Pujols is 3-6 vs Shields. Mike Trout is 2-6…with a 3B and a HR. That’s a .333/.333/1.167 split.

Except Josh Hamilton. He stinks versus BGJ. I would not be shocked to see Hamilton get benched today. He is hitless so far in the series, got booed loudly during Game 2 in Los Angeles, and lifetime against Shields he is 3-25 with 11 strikeouts. Collin Cowgill is 0-3 lifetime against Shields, but played 44 games out in LF this season, mostly while Hamilton was out during September. If I were Mike Scioscia, I’d bench Hamilton for Cowgill.

The biggest difference is that Shields (3.21 ERA) hardly walks anyone while Wilson (4.51) walks a lot. Except the Royals this year finished dead last in the majors in walks taken. Patience at the plate (looking at you, Salvy and Lorenzo) will reap it’s benefits against Wilson. Wilson also pitches significantly worse on the road (4-8, 5.31 ERA) than at home (9-2, 3.82 ERA). So that works in our favor as well.

Shields is obviously the better pitcher, especially with Wilson pitching on the road, but I’m more nervous than usual with Shields against the Angels.

*****

Okay that’s enough for now. We’ll pick it back up after they sweep the best team in the American League tonight. But let’s be honest, are they still the best team?

I’m predicting a 6-3 Royals win.

Until then, I’ll be listening to Tech N9ne and J-Lo’s “Waiting for Tonight” on loop. See you at Kauffman. Let’s get weird.

-apc.

Game 14: Angel Stadium, Anaheim

I know what you’re thinking. “Adam, where’s Game 13? Did you make a counting mistake? Or did you skip it because yesterday was Friday the Thirteenth and it’s unlucky?” Neither, actually. Coors Field happened back on June 3. I took the high school youth group I lead. I’m just not quite ready to report on it yet. Stay tuned.

SNL’s The Californians skits take on a new level of hilarity when you have to drive from UCLA to Angel Stadium in rush hour traffic.

Over 2 hours to travel 50 miles.

But let me tell you this: I was born for driving in the big city. LA traffic requires the perfect balance of aggression and patience, and – I don’t mean to brag – but I have been gifted with that perfect balance. Is it a superhero trait? No one can be sure. But, yes. It is.

The Angels first came to Anaheim in 1966 after spending 5 years as a team stadium hopping around LA. Since 1966, they’ve called Anaheim home, but their team name has still bounced around quite a bit. Are they the “Anaheim Angels” or the “Los Angeles Angels” or the “California Angels” or the “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim” or all of the above? It’s confusing stuff for a team that hasn’t moved in nearly 50 years.

During those years, the Angels have earned only one World Series championship: 2002. Led by David Eckstein, Darin Erstad and Garrett Anderson, the Halos bested the Giants in 7 games. But there are other big moments at the Big A.

My personal favorite: the 1989 All Star Game when Bo Jackson and Wade Boggs led off with back to back solo shots in the bottom of the first inning. Former president Ronald Reagan was being interviewed in the broadcast booth when Bo’s jack happened. They were hardly paying attention when Reagan Bo interrupted the interview. A flabbergasted Reagan commented, “OH!” while Vin Scully exclaimed, “And Bo Jackson says hello!”

Jackson won the All Star MVP that year and former Angel Nolan Ryan, then with the Rangers, got the win in relief – the oldest pitcher to ever get a ASG win at the age of 42.

Ryan’s number is retired in three different ballparks: Texas, Houston and Anaheim. So Wednesday night completed the Nolan Ryan retired number circuit. I’ll complete the team circuit in two weeks when I see the Mets in NYC.

Today’s Angels team is packed with star power: Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and Mike Trout make up one of the scariest 2-3-4 lineups in the league.

Albert cleared 500 career HRs a few weeks ago. His contract coming over from St. Louis was massive, and until this year, it hasn’t looked like it was a smart move on LAA’s part. Hamilton is a similar story, coming from the Rangers.

Mike Trout, however, is something totally different. He’s one of the best in the game right now – a 5-tool player: power, average, speed, arm and defense – and he’s only 22 years old. Even better, he’s a hard worker and is always striving to get better. He seems above the distractions that come with game and success, which is rare for a player who experiences so much success at his age.

Speaking of distractions, I don’t remember a game where I struggled to focus on the action so much. Maybe it was a product of the LA traffic, or because I couldn’t take my eyes off the wide array of stadium snacks that kept passing under my nose.

I was sitting in the front row of section 515. Highest level, but it still felt remarkably close to the game for the cheap seats. Sitting in the front row meant there was a walkway right in front of me, so I got a crash course in stadium eats as the game progressed. The best item in the park in my opinion: the “Big Daddy Nachos.” Chips, beef, beans, red fresnos, pico de gallo, guacamole and sour cream all in an Angels helmet. Way good.

But the distractions kept mounting. I couldn’t focus in on the action for some reason.

The game started strong. In the first two innings both teams robbed a homerun – Trout took one away in the 1st, and Coco Crisp did the same in the 2nd. It was a 1-1 game for a long time, and about the time the bullpens came out the game really slowed to a halt.

Now, I love the slow pace of baseball. It allows space for conversation between pitches and innings. The lack of action actually promotes relationships in the stands. But this game was sort of a drag.

So I went for the distractions.

I missed the entire 5th inning in line for a nacho helmet. I spent the bulk of the 6th trying to catch up on the plays I missed in the 5th. The 8th was lost trying to figure out how to get back to the hotel. And then when the A’s started piling up insurance runs late, I did something I hadn’t done yet on my ballpark tour…

I left early.

Just typing that feels wrong. But considering the morale of the game combined with the long drive back to our hotel, it was the right thing to do. The Rally Monkey was fun and tempting – and I still wonder if I had cheered louder if he would have come – but it was a sad situation in Anaheim.

I was also a little disappointed I hadn’t gone to the Tuesday night game instead where the Halos won on a Cowgill walkoff HR in the 14th inning.

As I was driving home in the carpool lane on the 405, I started thinking about how distracted I was. I came and went and I hadn’t been looking for anything spiritual. God was there, but I missed him.

The distractions got in the way.

As I exited off the 405 on to Sunset Blvd, I realized how common that is for me. How often am I so caught up in the day to day events of life that I forget to look for God’s action around me? When does my to-do list function like blinders to the places of wonder, beauty or injustice in the world?

God is active. Am I tuned into his action enough to take notice?

There’s a difference between seeing and noticing. I watched the game. I saw it with my own eyes. I was there. But did I really notice what was happening in the game? I think it was Cespedes who got robbed by Trout, but I’m not certain without looking at my scorecard. I was pretty sure it was Moss who hit the 3-run homer, but I had to look that up too.* I saw, but did I really take notice of the details of the game?

* – It wasn’t Moss. It was Vogt.

Is God doing something cool in our midst? Do we notice it? Or do we merely see it and move on?

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Game Notes:

The high point in the game was the first two innings when Crisp and Trout robbed the homers.

Tommy Milone got the W for Oakland. Both Milone and Jered Weaver had solid starts, both giving up 1 through the first 5 innings. But Weaver faced Cespedes/Moss/Lowrie/Vogt to start the 6th and went 2B/1B/Sac 8/HR which ended his night at 5.1 IP, 6 H, 4 R, all earned.

The Rally Monkey came out for the Angels in the late innings, but it only helped the visitors who added to their lead in the 9th and sparking my early exit.

The A’s won it 7-1. There’s a reason they’re running away with the AL West: it’s because they’re really good. Not sure why I decided to overlook them when I made my preseason predictions back in March. The Angels are still a contender, but not for the division.

One disappointing note: Pujols got thrown out at third trying to leg out a triple. It was the second game in a row that Cespedes recorded a put out from LF. Pujols looked like he was running in Jello.

Fourteen games down. Sixteen to go.

Up Next: New York Mets.

-apc.