By Andy McCullough
Tribune News Service
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- They had known loneliness and they had felt despair. This lost generation of fans had been left behind and cast aside across 29 seasons without October, the most bittersweet month in baseball. They never knew the exhilaration the playoffs could provide. They never knew the exquisite torture that lurks at the roller coaster's end for every team but one.
The 2014 Kansas City Royals believed they could be the one. They believed they could lift up this city and raise it to the throne they had abdicated after 1985. The players felt it in their bones. Their manager espoused his faith daily to the public. Belief is the most beautiful armor, capable of shielding all the frailties of a baseball club, the qualities that leaked into view in a 3-2 loss to San Francisco on Wednesday night at Kauffman Stadium.
"It's a tough pill to swallow," first baseman Eric Hosmer said afterward, as his teammates choked back tears, stared into their lockers and whispered their goodbyes.
The seventh game of the World Series baptized these fans and this team in all they had missed, all the hairpin turns and harrowing depths inherent in a game with no tomorrow. The season ended at 10:21 p.m. on the left arm of Giants ace Madison Bumgarner, the lone figure standing between the Royals and a title, the Fall Classic's MVP, the man who crushed their dreams.
Miracles do exist in this game. Do not believe otherwise. But one would not occur Wednesday. The prospect was a mere mirage snuffed out by Bumgarner, who has starred for the Giants on all three of their championship clubs these last five seasons.
Left fielder Alex Gordon stood 90 feet away from home plate as the last out descended into the glove of Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval. Gordon had created one last peak in the bottom of the ninth, smacking a single that was misplayed into a two-base error. But he watched, helpless, as catcher Salvador Perez popped up one last 93-mph fastball from Bumgarner. The valley would only feel that much deeper.
"As magical as our run has been, to end up losing the ballgame by 90 feet is tough," manager Ned Yost said. "But the hard part about this is that you work all year to climb to the top of the mountain. And then, boom, you fall back and you've got to start right back at the bottom again next year."
Yost managed without regret on Wednesday. San Francisco opened its bullpen in the second inning, and Kansas City did the same in the fourth. The Giants captured the lead in the fourth inning on a broken bat single off a 99-mph fastball from Kelvin Herrera. There they would remain. The Royals put the leadoff man on in four consecutive innings. They only scored in one of those. The presence of Bumgarner only ratcheted the tension skyward.
He added five more scoreless innings to his stunning series. Bumgarner pitched in 21 innings in these seven games. He yielded just one run, and never yielded to the Royals.
"He came in tonight in a role that he's not accustomed to," said designated hitter Billy Butler, who may have played his final game as a Royal. "And he stepped right in and shut us right down."
When this season began, this franchise carted around like a millstone the longest playoff drought in North American sports. The year will end with the Royals as runners up. Few could argue with the success of the season. Yet they still would finish this season unsatisfied.
As the players took batting practice, David Glass stood in the dugout. He wore a sky-blue blazer and a shirt open at the throat. He assumed control of this franchise in 1993, in the wake of Ewing Kauffman's death, and bought the organization seven years later.
"Baseball and Kansas City belong together," Glass said.
Except neglect marred so many years of their union. Baseball did not torment Kansas City. The sport simply disappeared. The brand played here could not be called baseball, at least not the sport parents share with children, the sport passed down from generations, the sport that inspires pride in a community.
For decades, baseball here meant slapstick. The stories became legend: A throw hitting Ken Harvey in the back, a tryout for fast-pitch softball hurler, a warning from then-manager Buddy Bell: "I never say it can't get worse." The Royals suffered organizational rot, from scouts without cellphones to canceled team pictures to the prospect of a 100-loss season becoming cold comfort rather than cause for concern.
When Glass hired Moore in the summer of 2006, Moore preached the necessity of a farm system. The fans were skeptical. They had already seen a franchise that squandered the youth of players like Carlos Beltran and Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye. Moore understood their frustration. He would require their patience.
Unable to sell the present, Moore peddled both the future and the past. The organization rebuilt their connection with the 1985 team. The club poured money into fortifying their farm system. Moore made his minor-league prospects take classes in Royals history.
Yet the losing continued, year after year, until the early hours of the morning in a hotel suite in Nashville on Dec. 6, 2012. The Royals felt compelled to trade for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis. Moore weathered a hail of criticism for parting ways with prospect Wil Myers, who won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 2013. Moore had to settle for 86 wins and a meaningful summer of baseball for the Royals' youthful core.
The core blossomed this October, and set the stage for Wednesday. The game-six blowout allowed both managers to get their houses in order. Bruce Bochy held Bumgarner, the star of the first and the fifth games, as a wild card. Yost only asked for four solid innings from Jeremy Guthrie.
The teams traded two runs apiece in the second. The Royals knocked out Tim Hudson after just five outs. But Guthrie could only provide 10 outs of work. The duo of Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval vexed him. They both reached in the second. They repeated the act in the fourth. Yost called upon Herrera one batter later to defuse the situation.
Herrera matured into this bullpen's extinguisher during the second half. He confronted jams with heat, with fastballs sizzling into the triple digits. Against Morse, the brawny designated hitter, he met his match. Herrera flung an 0-2 heater at Morse's hands. The pitch splintered the bat, but Morse still muscled a go-ahead single into right.
Up 3-2, the Giants benefited from a stalwart outing by Jeremy Affeldt. He replaced Hudson and lasted longer. His 2.1 innings allowed for the scenario the Royals dreaded most. At 8:54 p.m., as the bottom of the fifth inning began, the bullpen door opened and Bumgarner jogged to the mound.
The crowd showered him with boos. The jeering offered negligible effect on Bumgarner, a 6-5, taciturn southpaw prepared to snap Curt Schilling's record from 2001 for most innings in a postseason. Yost managed to strike a confident note before the game.
"Bumgarner's a great starting pitcher," Yost said. "We'll see what kind of reliever he is."
He would soon learn. Omar Infante stroked a leadoff single in the fifth. Bumgarner responded by retiring the next 14 batters.
Gordon broke the streak with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. His line drive raised the hopes of those in the park. His single skipped in front of outfielder Gregor Blanco, who fumbled the fielding attempt. Gordon raced into third, where he heeded the stop sign of third-base coach Mike Jirschele.
"I was looking at Jirsch the whole time," Gordon said. "I'm not as fast as (Jarrod) Dyson. That's what I've been saying. If I was, I probably would have scored."
Added Moore, "Jirsch made the right call."
But Gordon would advance no further. This magical Royals season, an experience worth waiting a generation for, would advance no further. Not with Bumgarner heaving fastballs up and in, not with Perez swinging in vain.
Inside the Kansas City clubhouse, as music from the San Francisco party throbbed across the hall, the mood matched the result. The eyes of the Royals were either red or hollow. The room was quiet save for the sound bags being packed, noses sniffling and farewells being issued. Yost walked across the hallway to congratulate Giants manager Bruce Bochy.
Moore went from locker to locker. He embraced each of his players, the men he chose to lead this renaissance. He hugged them. He told them he loved them.
Few could forget this team. The lost generation found itself this summer and this October. After 29 years, it was an accomplishment worth celebration. Baseball, with all its joy and all its pain, had returned to Kansas City.
"It hurts a great deal," Moore said. "But at the same time, you have to recognize all that we achieved."