It was the best of games, it was the worst of games, it was the age of statistical analysis, it was the age of undocumented gut feelings, it was the epoch of The Process, it was the epoch of rebuilding, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring training of hope, it was the autumn of failed goals, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to the Postseason, we were all going direct to the cellar of the MLB.
My central thesis for today is that the Royals are the Rays in a funhouse mirror, a low-achieving team in reverse that has accomplished (through sabermetics, strong pitching, and stellar defense) what the Tampa Bay Rays could not: winning a World Series. A team that feels like a small market team, despite carrying a payroll north of $100 million, that scraps and grits and claws and fights and forces their way to wins. That is what the Rays were five years ago. That was their DNA. Today, not so much. But today...
At this point in the game, the Rays were basically flailing. They had not collected a hit yet, and Ian Kennedy was cruising. The Royals seemed poised to strike at any time, and they did, collecting two runs on one Alex Gordon swing. Gordon, not necessarily a power hitter, nevertheless demolished a ball from Drew Smyly, who has been prone to allowing the long ball this year. With the way Ian Kennedy had been pitching up to this point, the game seemed lost.
But at least the Rays were not getting no-hit. The next half-inning, Evan Longoria doubled just inside the third base line to gather the Rays’ first hit of the game. Longoria, the quiet superstar who is on pace for a 6 fWAR season, tried to get something started, and yet could not, as both Steven Souza Jr. and Corey Dickerson put up the final two outs. Brad Miller, the converted SS to 1B, managed to draw his second walk of the game to that point, and yet was left on the base paths like so many Rays runners this year.
The Royals are the Rays in reverse. As the Rays fall, the Royals rise up. It is fitting, perhaps, that the turning point, the axis upon which this game turned, came in the eighth inning, twice as far from the start as the fourth inning. 4, interestingly, being the jersey number of Alex Gordon, hero of the fourth.
Brad Boxberger, recently activated from the DL, entered for the eighth. Drew Smyly, despite his fourth inning blemish, pitched admirably, going seven innings and collecting ten strikeouts against five hits. Boxberger seemed to be ready to make more of a mess of things, however. Two straight singles and a groundout put runners on third and second with only one out for the Royals. The bases were loaded when Boxy intentionally walked Kendrys Morales. Boxberger, seemingly in response to his injury-plagued season, dug deep and struck out Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon, Hero of the Fourth, to retire the side. The Rays, down two runs, had six outs to make a difference.
If baseball is truly cyclical, and it is, you all know what happens next. After failing to cash in on a golden opportunity in the eighth (just as the Rays did in the fourth), the Rays cashed in on a golden opportunity in the eighth (just as the Royals did in the fourth). Logan Forsythe singled and Kevin Kiermaier walked to put two men on with no outs (just as the Royals had in the eighth). Evan Longoria, collector of the Rays’ first hit, felt the turn of the screw and struck out, calling to the plate Brad Miller. Brad Miller, the converted SS to 1B, the man whose jersey number is 13 (1 + 3 = 4: Alex Gordon’s jersey number) did what Alex Gordon did in the fourth: crushing a ball to right field to score three runs, one more than Alex Gordon drove in (8 is a large number than 4, after all).
The Rays would take the game 3-2, with two home runs by two players whose jersey numbers add up to “4” the only scoring plays, in two innings that are divisible by 4, between two blue-clad small-market underdog teams (whose names start with “R”) that nevertheless have had very different fortunes in recent years. Baseball is a game built into the seasons, which foregrounds the cyclical nature of the sport. Spring Training and the October Postseason (the true Autumn Classic in my book) bookend the baseball “season.” Games like these mean nothing, especially for teams going nowhere like the Rays.
But they can be comforting, because they can remind you that even in an off-year, success and glory are still there. They’re just on the other side of a wheel of fate that’s constantly in motion, never staying still.