THE CALL went out as soon as the retiring Derek Jeter played his last game for the Yankees.
Wanted: The next Face of Baseball. Marketable asset to represent and sell the game nationally. Youthfulness preferred. Postseason visibility and success a must.
The audition line formed at the door of this postseason. Bryce Harper, 21; Mike Trout, 23; Yasiel Puig, 23; Clayton Kershaw, 26; Andrew McCutchen, 28. All showed up clutching their 8-by-10 glossies—popular figures in their own right, but none of them had played in a World Series. Jeter had already suited up in five World Series by the time he was McCutchen's age. The stage was set and the request made: Bring us upper-case October moments (i.e., the Flip, Mr. November, etc.), and then we'll get back to you.
It took only a dozen games into the postseason for a clear winner to emerge, and it was none of the above but rather baseball itself. In one of the most riveting and head-shaking weeks October has ever known, what sold the sport better than any one alpha star was the day- and nightlong drama of games hanging in the balance. Of those first 12 games, nine were decided by one run or in extra innings. Almost all defied conventional wisdom or conventional sleep patterns, and often both.
Such was the October madness that baseball wound up with the first American League Championship Series in which neither team has been to the World Series in more than a quarter of a century: The Orioles can brag to the Royals that our drought (1983) is worse than yours ('85). It's a matchup between two teams that had the worst records in the league just five years ago and two managers, Buck Showalter of Baltimore and Ned Yost of Kansas City, who never before had won a postseason series.
The first postseason in 21 years without Boston or New York involved has been an off-Broadway smash. The Orioles dispatched the Tigers in their AL Division Series behind three nondescript starters (Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris) who outpitched the past three AL Cy Young Award winners (Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and David Price), even though Baltimore's trio badly trailed the decorated Tigers not only in career Cy Young Award voting points (830--0) but also in 2014 salaries ($49.5 million--$10 million). The Orioles also leveraged one clear advantage, their bullpen, outscoring the Tigers 15--3 after the fifth inning in the series.
The gap between Kansas City's 1985 World Series victory and this year's AL wild-card game was the longest active playoff wait in North American major sports. When the Royals finally returned to October, they did something never before seen in 109 years of postseason baseball: They won three consecutive extra-inning games, starting with a 9--8, 12-inning wild-card thriller over Oakland in which they came from behind three times. The coda to that opening act gave us a visual that could well stand for the official pose of the postseason: Hall of Famer George Brett, the headliner of those '85 Royals, sitting in his Kauffman Stadium suite, holding his head in disbelief as the 2014 Royals pulled off the stunner.
The Royals then swept the Angels in a Division Series upset so shocking, it was the first time in 34 years the team with the best record in baseball was bounced from the postseason without winning a game. The irony of October is that while the marketers worry about the Jeter void, what helped make both the Orioles and the Royals so entertaining was their lack of star power. Neither team fields a former MVP or Cy Young winner, making this the first such ALCS in six years. Baltimore is missing three marquee names: All-Stars Chris Davis (suspended) and Manny Machado and Matt Wieters (injured). Both teams, however, have ferocious bullpens (combined LDS ERA: 1.50 in 24 innings) and an esprit de corps that is decidedly unstarlike. The Royals especially play with a breakneck enthusiasm on the field and in the dugout more typically found in Williamsport than major league cities.
"This is the most fun playing baseball I've ever had," said Kansas City third baseman Mike Moustakas, perhaps stating the obvious as one of the 22 Royals of the 25 on the roster playing in his first postseason. "You dream about getting to this spot as a kid, as a high school player, as a minor league baseball player—you dream about playing in October. It's awesome, and as far as the enthusiasm, I mean, we just believe so much in each other, and we're pulling so hard for each other, that if anybody does anything good, gets on base, gets a walk, any one of those little things can start something, and we know how important that is.
"It's one big family in here. When you see your brother get a hit and you see your brother hit a two-run home run to win a game, excitement just kind of overtakes you, and you really don't know what's going on. You're just out there cheering."
THE NATIONAL League side of the bracket had its own share of loopiness. The Giants won their first two games against the Nationals by World Cup scores, 3--2 and 2--1, the second of which took more time than their cross-country flight to Washington. The game tied a postseason record for innings (18) and set one for time (six hours, 23 minutes). Nationals manager Matt Williams made the marathon possible by becoming the first manager to lift his starter one out away from throwing a postseason shutout. It took San Francisco two batters to tie the game in the ninth once Williams pulled Jordan Zimmermann for closer Drew Storen after only 100 pitches. Zimmermann had so dominated that Giants pitcher Tim Hudson said, "They could've brought in Sandy Koufax, and we probably would have had a smile on our face."
San Francisco finally won the game on a home run by Brandon Belt. "It is something you dream about your entire life," Belt said. "I am very fortunate I was able to experience it. I was relieved at the same time—it was really cold out there at one point."
The Dodgers and the Cardinals were the only Division Series opponents who split the first two games, doing so—of course—by one run each time. St. Louis trailed Kershaw 6--1 in Game 1 but roared back to win 10--9. Los Angeles, after coughing up another lead in Game 2, 2--0, pulled out a 3--2 win on an eighth-inning home run by Matt Kemp.
Kershaw, who led the majors in ERA this season for a record fourth straight year, was just one high-profile Face of the Game applicant to bomb the audition; he yielded eight earned runs, the most of any pitcher in Dodgers postseason history. McCutchen went 0 for 3 as the Giants waffled his Pirates in the NL wild-card game 8--0. Puig struck out with the tying run on third to end Game 1 against St. Louis, then whiffed four times in Game 2. Harper and Trout each hit home runs, but Harper, a career .147 postseason hitter, was just 2 for 11 in Games 1 and 2, while Trout hit .083 for the Angels in his first-ever postseason. All are admittedly small sample sizes, but the confluence of their struggles could not be overlooked.
IN A rare postseason blowout, with the Royals leading 8--3 in Game 3 on Sunday and a light rain falling at Kauffman, Trout found himself at the plate against Kansas City closer Greg Holland as the last man standing between the Royals and the ALCS. It was a fitting end to an upside-down first week. Trout, the likely AL MVP, is the best player in the game. Holland likely never will be cast for the role of national baseball ambassador, and not just because he toils in MLB's second-smallest metropolitan market. Holland grew up in a trailer park in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. He was a 5'7" infielder and occasional pitcher in high school who walked on to the Western Carolina University baseball team, about 90 minutes from his home. Three years later, with Holland having grown to his current 5'10", the Royals selected him with the 306th pick of the 2007 draft. In the past two years he has developed into one of the best closers in baseball, posting a 1.32 ERA and 93 saves.
Holland's first postseason truly became memorable. After the Royals beat Oakland in the wild-card game, he chartered a plane from Kansas City to North Carolina for the birth of his first child, Nash Gregory Holland, the next day. The day after that Holland chartered another plane to make the Division Series opener in Anaheim, landing at 7 p.m. for a game that had begun an hour earlier. Only then did he learn that the game was tied at one in the fourth inning. "I said, O.K., this is Royals baseball, so I'm probably going to pitch at some point in this game," Holland said.
A car whisked him from the airport to Angel Stadium, though neither the driver nor Holland (right) knew the location of the players' entrance. "I made a few security guards nervous running up to them with a pack over my shoulder with my ID in my hand saying, 'I'm a player. I'm a player. Don't tackle me to the ground.'"
Of course, this being Royals baseball, Kansas City took a 3--2 lead when Moustakas hit an 11th-inning home run. Holland pitched the bottom of the inning for the save. He also saved Game 2. And there he was in Game 3 on Sunday, needing one more strike on Trout to allow Kansas City to play for the pennant for the first time in 29 years. Holland threw a 90-mph slider. Trout swung and missed badly. As if on cue for the celebration, the heavens opened up a little more. The whole scene, like the whole week, made you want to just Brett—to hold your head in disbelief at what you just watched.
While the marketers worry about the Jeter void, what made the Orioles and the Royals so entertaining was their lack of star power.
Photograph by John W. McDonough Sports Illustrated
LIFE IS YELL Hosmer, the face of a boisterous young roster, has brought a loud bat to October, hitting two homers in 10 ALDS at bats after only nine in 503 regular-season ABs.
DILIP VISHWANAT FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (HOSMER)
HERE'S THE CATCH Defense, such as that by Cain (right, middle) has been the Royals' hallmark, but Hosmer (top) and Moustakas are showing the pop of (from far right) Hardy, Cruz and Markakis.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MOUSTAKAS)
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TRAVIS HEYING/AP (CAIN)
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AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MARKAKIS)
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ANDREW HANCOCK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CRUZ)
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KEVIN DIETSCH/UPI/LANDOV (HARDY)
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