Before the momentum comes the math. The Kansas City Royals were 96.8 percent dead on Monday. That’s the math and, in case you are wondering, that’s also the exact percentage of smartphones around the world that are either iPhones or Android devices. Yes, that’s right: When the eighth inning began, the Royals had about the same chance of taking over the world as Blackberry phones.
The Royals were actually 98.4 percent dead at some point early in the bottom of the seventh inning — that’s when the Houston Astros had a four-run lead PLUS runners on second and third PLUS an apparently snoozing opposing manager. That Royals manager, Ned Yost, for reasons that don’t immediately come to mind, kept reliever Ryan Madson in the game to finish the inning. This was curious because the previous four Astros hitters facing Madson had, in succession, homered, homered, singled and singled.
Madson somehow disentangled himself without setting off any more explosions that inning, but when it ended the Royals were down four runs, which made them 96.8 percent dead, and the Astros’ players and fans were 96.8 percent sure. That’s the math.
But the reality — the palpable, tangible, unmistakable reality of the moment — was starker than the math, and everybody knew it. People of science will tell you that momentum in sports is largely mythical, but the brain cannot let go. Did you see the last inning? Do you hear the crowd? Do you sense the moment? The Royals were down four runs, and the celebration had begun in Houston, and the mourning had begun in Kansas City. Let’s be real: The Royals were 100 percent dead.
“Congrats to the @astros on advancing to the ALCS! Hoping for an all-Texas #ALCS. Looking at you @rangers,” tweeted the office of Texas Governor Greg Abbott (since rescinded — the Tweet, not the governorship).*
* This rather unfortunate tweet led Governor Abbott, on his personal Twitter account, to ask people to unfollow the official twitter account of his own office, probably the first time that has happened. Texas politics are so confusing.
You almost couldn’t blame the poor Twitter shlep in the Texas governor’s office for jumping the gun. There were just two innings left, and the Houston crowd was going out of its mind and the Royals needed to score four runs just to stay alive. What were the realistic chances of that happening? The Royals had scored just four runs in their previous 17 innings.
Only … there are strange things happening around in baseball these days. The Chicago Cubs have mojo. The Cubs! New York has become a Mets town. Rookies are taking over baseball. It’s mind-blowing and wonderful. And the Kansas City Royals, after an eon of incompetence and Charlie Brown luck, continue to believe for whatever reason that they are destined for great things.
This belief has been going on for a year now. You might remember that in 2014, just before the Royals began their magical run to the World Series, they trailed Oakland, 7-3, in the eighth inning of the wild card game. That game was over, over, over. Oakland had Jon Lester on the mound. The Royals were one of the lower-scoring teams in baseball and had hit fewer home runs than any team in more than a decade. After the season, I had a heart-to-heart conversation where I asked Yost: “Seriously, what were you thinking when you were down four runs?”
He said: “I thought we would win.”
And I said: “Yeah, I know, but SERIOUSLY, what were you thinking?”
And he said: “I can’t explain it. I knew we were going to win. I just knew we were going to do whatever it took to win the game. It’s not logical. But I just knew that team would find a way.”
This is the sort of thing managers say all the time, but in listening to Yost talk I have to say: I believed him. He had convinced himself, his players had convinced themselves, the city had convinced itself that the Royals were meant to win that game, meant to go to the World Series, meant to win it (the last destiny wrecked only by a superhuman pitcher named Madison Bumgarner). Maybe such belief is common among players in pro sports. Maybe belief doesn’t really mean much. But if given a choice, you’d probably prefer to root for a team of true believers. The Royals came back with a flurry of stolen bases and sacrifices.
Here again, Monday, the Royals trailed by four runs as the eighth inning began, and the Royals’ Alex Rios lined a single to center. Alcides Escobar grounded a single to center. Ben Zobrist blooped a single to center. The bases were loaded, nobody out, and suddenly in Houston there was something resembling doubt. The math was dwindling — down to 82.2 percent (the percentage of yoga practitioners who are women, according to a recent study). Up came Lorenzo Cain. Each Royals fan will undoubtedly tell you the moment they started to believe. For many of them, belief began when Cain rifled a run-scoring single to left.
And the Astros’ Win Expectancy was down to 70.7 percent.
The Astros called in lefty Tony Sipp to face Royals lefty Eric Hosmer. It was one of those relatively short but glorious at-bats. Sipp threw two overpowering fastballs and Hosmer fouled them both back to make the count 0-2. This put Sipp in position to do what he does best — throw his nasty, dirt-digging slider that looks at first like a strike but then dives out of the zone, where it cannot be hit. The Sipp slider puts hitters like Hosmer in a quandary — if they swing at the slider, they strike out. But if they lay off, and the pitch turns out to be a fastball, they helplessly will watch strike three.
Sipp threw back-to-back sliders, the second one particularly tempting. Hosmer held back. Then Sipp threw the fastball, and Hosmer saw it clearly and unleashed a vicious line-drive single to score a run. It was 6-4. The bases were still loaded. The stadium grew even quieter.
The Astros’ win expectancy was down to 55.4 percent which happens to be Kevin McHale’s lifetime field goal percentage.
Then came the game-altering play — Kendrys Morales hit a bouncer back at Sipp. He was in position to field it, but the ball deflected off his glove and bounced neatly to the Astros’ brilliant young shortstop Carlos Correa. It looked to be a sure double play — Correa merely had to field the high bounce, step on second and throw out the plodding Morales. But the ball skipped over Correa’s glove, rolled to center field, two runs scored, the game was tied, and all of Houston crashed.
After that, Houston’s expectancy plummeted to 24.4 percent — roughly the aggregate of what Donald Trump is polling at in the Republican primaries.
Then the Royals scored the go-ahead run. Then, next inning, Hosmer hit the home run that sealed the 9-6 Royals’ victory. It happened so fast and unexpectedly. “There’s no quit in these guys,” Ned Yost would say of his players, which is again the sort of thing that managers say. It isn’t especially logical. Professional baseball players do not quit. The Houston Astros did not quit. The Royals also did not want it more than the Astros did.
But what you can say is that the Royals, even when things look particularly bleak, really do seem to believe that it is their destiny to go back to the World Series and, this time, to win it. That belief does not guarantee anything. People will want to talk about momentum again … the Royals just won a game for the ages, they are going back home where the city will be jumping, they have the ace they got for just such an occasion in Johnny Cueto. The Astros are the ones who seem mostly dead now.
But momentum won’t win Game 5 just like it didn’t win Game 4, just like it didn’t win any game in the history of baseball. If Carlos Correa and Colby Rasmus continue their astounding play, if the Astros pound Cueto and stifle Royals bats like they have most of this series, they will win no matter how much momentum dances in the Kansas City air. No, the Royals’ almost cult-like belief in themselves and their fate doesn’t mean they are going to win this series. It just means that when you have them down, you better bury them.