HOUSTON — On the brink of an epic disappointment, the Royals saved their season with a ferocious, five-run rally to top the Astros, 9-6, in Game 4 of the American League Division Series.
The debates will rage in the day-long interval until Game 5 on Wednesday, when Johnny Cueto takes the ball for Kansas City. Which comeback was better: The extra-inning scramble to defeat Oakland in the 2014 Wild Card Game or the eighth-inning ambush to wreck a champagne celebration in Houston?
Both comebacks occurred with four-run deficits in the eighth. Both involved reliever Luke Gregerson; the Astros closer stood on the mound when Alex Gordon hit a grounder to the right side to score the go-ahead run. Both prevented the early onset of winter.
For seven innings, the Royals looked lifeless. In the eighth, they became the undead, refusing to let their season perish. An innocuous single by Alex Rios soon mushroomed into a bases-loaded situation with none out for Lorenzo Cain. He hit a single. Eric Hosmer smacked his second hit in 16 postseason at-bats to cut the deficit to two.
A swing by Kendrys Morales and an error by rookie shortstop Carlos Correa tied the game and silenced Minute Maid Park. Morales punched a grounder up the middle. The ball evaded reliever Tony Sipp, then bounced past Correa. Cain raced home as the tying run.
Sipp struck out Mike Moustakas, and Gregerson came in to face backup catcher Drew Butera, who had entered after Salvador Perez was removed for a pinch runner in the seventh. Butera walked, then Gordon provided the most satisfying ground-out of his career to plate Hosmer.
The top of the inning lasted 40 minutes. The bottom lasted seven pitches. Wade Davis threw all of them. He also handled the ninth for the two-out save. Hosmer added a two-run homer in the ninth to reduce Kansas City's stress level.
Taking the ball on three days' rest, Yordano Ventura struck out eight in five innings, but could not suppress Correa. Correa smashed game-tying homer in the third and a go-ahead double in the fifth. When he hit a two-run shot off Ryan Madson in the seventh, he became the first Astro to hit two homers in a postseason game since former Royal Carlos Beltran in 2004. After Correa went deep for the second time, Colby Rasmus hit another solo shot off Madson.
Heading into the seventh, the Royals appeared set for heartbreak. The offense supplied two hits against a rookie starter making his postseason debut. A seventh-inning rally short-circuited on a controversial call at third base, when Terrance Gore was called out on a replay reversal.
Ned Yost never left the dugout to protest the call. There was little he could do.
Yost looked bright-eyed before the game, despite a night spent tossing and turning. He went to bed around 11 p.m. and awoke at 1 a.m., he said. He never returned to slumber.
"I didn't sleep worth a damn last night," Yost said.
He contributed his insomnia to excitement, to the thrill of October. Both he and other team officials swore his players showed no strain related to potential elimination. One staffer compared the environment in the clubhouse pregame to a regular morning in March, with players sharing laughs as they loosened up.
"They know what's ahead of them," Yost said. "They've got to win."
The Astros did not take batting practice. The Royals did. And so two hours before the first pitch, Gordon shared a seat in the dugout next to Luke Hochevar, his closest friend on the team. Gordon knew Monday might mark his final game as a Royal. On the field, first-base coach Rusty Kuntz played catch with Christian Colon and gabbed with Danny Duffy.
Arms folded and jaw clenched, Dayton Moore stalked the dugout. He assembled the core of this team through the draft, international acquisitions and the shrewd trade of Zack Greinke to Milwaukee. This past July, he behaved as never before during his time as general manager of this club, flipping a collection of prospects for a pair of veterans.
Kansas City acquired Cueto to headline their rotation. Yet he declined to work on short rest for Game 1. So for the series opener and for Monday's elimination game, the Royals leaned on Ventura, the 24-year-old in his second season. Cueto, a 29-year-old looking to cash in as free-agent this winter, watched from the dugout.
Ventura was still the oldest starter on the mound on Monday. Houston countered with rookie Lance McCullers, a 22-year-old with a 95-mph fastball and a hammer curve. McCullers thrashed the Royals for seven innings back in June, but drifted closer to Earth in the second half.
McCullers and Ventura each clipped the opposing shortstop in the first inning. McCullers hit Alcides Escobar in the left hand with a 94-mph fastball. With two outs in the bottom of the frame, a 97-mph fastball from Ventura connected with the left elbow pad of Correa. Umpire Ron Kulpa did not warn either bench.
The Royals claimed the lead in the second inning. Perez looked shaken after lining a foul ball into the stands and striking a small child. An adult scooped up the boy and sprinted to the concourse, where he was treated with first aid, according to an Astros representative.
Perez removed his cap and shook his head. He managed to focus in time for the next pitch. He clobbered an opposite-field shot for a two-run homer.
The Astros tied the game with a pair of solo blasts. Carlos Gomez swatted the first, in the bottom of the second inning. Ventura hung a curveball. Gomez deposited it into the Crawford Boxes in left.
An inning later, Correa pulled his hands inside and hammered a 96-mph fastball. The pitch was a ball, and still Correa powered it out to knot the score.
It was Correa who bested Ventura once more in the fifth. Ventura issued a two-out walk to outfielder George Springer. Ventura came close to striking out Correa with a 2-2 fastball, just a tad low and outside. Ventura stepped off the mound and winced after he made the pitch.
Kulpa did not call a strike. With the count full, Ventura hummed a fastball over the heart of the plate. Correa ripped a rocket into right. The ball evaded Hosmer's glove by inches and rattled off the wall, delaying Alex Rios' route to retrieve it. Springer's helmet fell off his head as he barreled home for the go-ahead run.
Kansas City found an opening in the seventh. McCullers hit Perez with a pitch. Yost fired his fastest bullet and placed Gore at first base. He stole second on the first pitch. There he idled as Gordon struck out. But with Rios at the plate, Gore jetted into third.
Both of his feet arrived before Luis Valbuena dropped a tag. The momentum from Gore spilled Valbuena into foul territory. But in that moment, the Astros replay officials saw enough to take a stab. Hinch challenged the call. The replay showed that Gore's feet did leave the bag for a split second; it was unclear if Valbuena kept his glove on during the interlude.
The replay crew in New York decided Valbuena had. Gore was ruled out, a decision that stunned the Royals and electrified Minute Maid Park.