There’s never a dull year in the world of sports, and 2014 was certainly no exception. While it definitely had its low points (Donald Sterling, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson), 2014 still produced more than its fair share of memorable games, performances and moments, so let’s take a look back at some of the best things that the world of sports had to offer in 2014.
Kansas City Royals fans had to wait 29 agonizing years to see their team in the postseason again, but Tuesday night’s dramatic win over the Oakland Athletics in the American League wild-card game just may have been worth the wait.
Appearing in the playoffs for the first time since winning the franchise’s lone World Series title in 1985, when Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” topped the charts and “Back to the Future” reigned supreme at the box office, the Royals were aided by a raucous crowd of 40,502 that packed Kauffman Stadium. Behind that sea of blue, Kansas City showed incredible resiliency on its way to winning a game that will surely live forever in MLB postseason lore.
Heading into the game, the stage appeared set for an epic pitchers’ duel. The Royals sent James Shields to the mound in this winner-take-all affair. Though his career postseason numbers weren’t exactly great (he came into the game with a 4.98 ERA), he has earned the nickname “Big Game James” for his reputation to seemingly perform well when the stakes are at their highest, plus he was one of the few Kansas City players that had been to the playoffs before.
Meanwhile, the A’s gave the ball to Jon Lester, who boasts impressive career numbers against the Royals. In 13 career regular-season starts against Kansas City, Lester has gone 9-3 with a 1.84 ERA (his best against any AL team), including a no-hitter back in 2008.
In addition to that, neither offense has been particularly good at producing many runs, as the Royals hit the fewest home runs in the majors and Oakland’s offense struggled mightily during the second half of the season. Despite the game having all the makings of one in which runs would be at a premium, it turned out to be a fairly high-scoring affair.
A’s first baseman Brandon Moss, who hit just .162 over the last two months of the regular season while dealing with a hip injury, was the team’s MVP of the game. Despite hitting just two home runs from July 25 to the end of the regular season, Moss went yard twice in his first three at-bats for five RBIs.
The Royals had battled back from Moss’ two-run blast in the first to take a 3-2 lead, but his home run in the sixth inning looked like it might be a back-breaker for Kansas City. With two men on and nobody out, Royals manager Ned Yost made the most Ned Yost move of all time by pulling Shields, who had thrown just 88 pitches, and replacing him with rookie Yordano Ventura, who made of 30 of his 31 appearances during the regular season as a starter.
Somewhat predictably, Moss promptly drilled a three-run homer, and Oakland added two more runs to take a 7-3 lead. Kansas City’s postseason dreams seemed dashed.
But the Royals refused to go down quietly, scoring three runs in the eighth to pull within one. But even that rally seemed like it wasn’t as good as it could have been, with Salvador Pérez and Omar Infante both striking out to end the inning with the tying run just 90 feet away.
Yet, Kansas City continued to battle. Josh Willingham singled to lead off the ninth and was replaced by pinch runner Jarrod Dyson. Yost moved him to second in his favorite way possible, the sacrifice bunt, and made the gutsy call to have him steal third. The gamble paid off in a big way, as Norichika Aoki bringing him home on a sacrifice fly to force extra innings.
After the Royals failed to bring the winning run home from third in the 10th and 11th, the A’s took the lead in the 12th inning on an Alberto Callaspo RBI single. With its back against the wall again, Kansas City delivered once more.
Eric Hosmer hit a deep, one-out triple and was brought home on a chopper to third by Christian Colón. After Colón advanced to second on a failed pitchout with two outs, the stage was set for Salvador Pérez to earn redemption.
Peréz had struck out wildly in the eighth with a chance to tie the game or even give the Royals the lead, but he now had a chance to deliver a playoff victory to Kansas City for the first time since 1985. This time, he didn’t waste the opportunity, sending a hot shot just centimeters past the outstretched glove of Oakland third baseman Josh Donaldson to end the game.
As Kauffman Stadium erupted in a celebration 29 years in the making, the camera briefly panned to Kansas City legend George Brett, who perfectly summed up the feelings of Royals fans everywhere.
It was a victory that perfectly reflected the identity of this Royals team. Kansas City tied a postseason record by stealing seven bases during the game, which isn’t too shocking considering that they led baseball in stolen bases in 2014 with 153.
The win was also a total team effort, with contributions coming from the most unexpected of places. Brandon Finnegan, a 21-year old pitcher who was the Royals’ No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft and appeared in just seven regular-season games, seemed unfazed by the big stage, allowing just one run in 2.1 innings of relief.
The Royals’ never-say-die attitude was also on full display as they rallied time and time again. They overcame a stellar performance by Brandon Moss, multiple mystifying moves by Ned Yost and several Oakland leads. In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, they became the first team in MLB postseason history to come back from at least four runs down in the eighth inning or later in a winner-take-all game.
The game itself was an instant classic loaded with drama that kept everyone watching on the edge of their seats. It was the kind of game that reminds baseball fans why we love this game to begin with. And above all else, we got to see a franchise that has been a perennial doormat for 29 years finally give its fans a thrilling postseason win.
Of course, this victory did only get the Royals into the ALDS, where they’ll face a Los Angeles Angels team that finished the regular season with an MLB-best 98-64 record. The task may seem daunting for Kansas City, but it’s impossible to count them out after watching what they accomplished at Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday night.
I was wrong, and am happy about it.
Nearly a month ago I inked a ranking of a dozen Major League Baseball managers whose jobs I considered to be on thin ice. As of now, the axe has not fallen anywhere, though things remain bleak for Walt Weiss in Colorado and Kirk Gibson in Arizona (and I’m not going to cry too hard when Gibson gets his pink slip).
At the top of the list I had Kansas City Royals skipper Ned Yost being gone. The handwriting appeared to be on the wall. The Royals had slipped below .500 and a team meeting was called in the middle of a road trip. One radio announcer for a rival American League Central team suggested that something “may be in the offing” in Kansas City as owner Dayton Moore was with the team in Chicago, giving Yost the dreaded vote of confidence.
The Royals targeted 2014 as their year. There would no longer be satisfaction with being a .500 team on the edge of a playoff race. Yost had been there before, managing the Milwaukee Brewers into contention in both 2007 and 2008 before being let go with a mere 12 games remaining in the 2008 season.
On July 21 Baseball Prospectus had the Royals’ chances of making the playoffs down to a mere seven percent. I had Yost being let go before the team opened a home stand with a four-game series against the Cleveland Indians. Myself and others wound up being wrong. Right now it’s the best non-move a baseball front office has made all year.
Since the ink dried with my ranking of Yost as No. 1 in my managerial dead pool, his team has gone a cool 22-5 and its playoff chances are now computed at 75 percent as of Tuesday morning, with a 52 percent chance of winning the American League Central. The Royals and the Detroit Tigers have suddenly become two ships crossing in the night, tacking on vastly different courses. Royals fans have picked up on the excitement with many making the long trek west on I-70 for a two-game midweek set in Colorado. Tuesday night’s contest sounded more like a Royals home game, as the team went 15 games above .500 for the first time since 1994.
Suddenly, the Royals have earned attention from the national media. USA Today did a piece on Yost on his 60th birthday, the Royals were featured in Sports Illustrated this week, and ESPN has actually picked this week’s Indians-Royals matchup as its Sunday night game on Aug. 31.
There are differences between the 2014 Royals and 2008 Brewers. The 2008 Milwaukee team was built on offense and power. It started with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, then continued with J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks and even Bill Hall. But the pitching became a disaster towards the end of the season. The rotation consisted of CC Sabathia, Ben Sheets and praying for three days of rain with the Miller Park roof stuck in the open position. The bullpen was even worse, eventually depending on veteran journeyman Solomon Torres to close games.
A desperate Yost panicked, which only seemed to accelerate his team’s tailspin. Owner Mark Attanasio made the unprecedented move of changing managers with two weeks left in the regular season. Dale Sveum (now one of Yost’s coaches in Kansas City) piloted the team to a 7-5 record with Sabathia seemingly pitching every other day. Thanks to a late New York Mets collapse, the Brewers secured the National League Wild Card spot on the regular season’s final day.
The Royals are built in an entirely different fashion. The team is last in all of baseball in home runs, but makes up for it on the basepaths, not unlike how the franchise succeeded back in the days of disco and 150-degree AstroTurf on a summer Sunday afternoon. One time elite prospects Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have bombed thus far at the big-league level, but Salvador Perez became the American League’s starting catcher (after the fans somehow voted in the injured Matt Weiters) for this year’s All-Star Game and Alex Gordon deserves MVP consideration with his 5.2 WAR, which is tied for fourth in the American League.
Gordon is also a player no one can possibly root against, who has made significant donations for exceptional baseball facilities at the University of Nebraska.
And then there is the pitching. The rotation boasts four front-line starters in Danny Duffy, James Shields, Jason Vargas and Yordano Ventura, all with ERA’s south of 3.50. The relief corps is even better with eighth inning man Wade Davis and closer Greg Holland arguably the best in the game.
Hopefully writing this doesn’t jinx the Royals and send the pendulum back in the other direction, but the latest forecast is trending towards a Blue October, and Yost is suddenly in the running for American League Manager of the Year.
And just maybe, the Royals will get through the American League playoffs and advance to the World Series. Perhaps they will hook up against another team in blue like the Dodgers, or even Yost’s old Milwaukee Brewers.
One can probably still make a good parlay bet on that in Vegas. I would be among those definitely rooting for it, Yost deserves the opportunity to finish the job.
In the last few of months the landscape of Major League Baseball’s managerial dead pool has changed. As recently as a few months ago people were wondering if Mike Scioscia was done, as his high-priced Los Angeles Angels languished around .500.
Then like the other Los Angeles team did last year, the Angels have caught fire and are on the verge of catching the Oakland A’s in the competitive American League West.
Even with Scioscia seemingly safe, there are still a lot of skippers in varying degrees of danger as baseball fast approaches its stretch run. Here is my ranking of 12 managers who may feel the seat starting to get warm, and one who may be the first casualty of 2014 as soon as this week.
At the end of the 2008 season, Ned Yost and the Milwaukee Brewers were at opposite ends of the success totem pole.
The Crew had just made the playoffs for the first time in 26 years, but not without having a September slump that cost Yost his job.
Now, just two years later, the table has been turned.
Yost recently took over as manager of the lowly, often pathetic Kansas City Royals. Sounds like Ned’s out the door again after this season, being stuck with the Royals and all, right?
Well not so fast, my friend.
If things continue the way they’ve started in the Yost Era in Kansas City, then he just might be a permanent fixture there.