There’s one 30-game hot streak to which the Kansas City Royals owe their presence in the 2014 MLB Postseason. It came in late July, after a brief stumble out of the All-Star break, when the team fell to 48-50 and it looked like the Detroit Tigers might run away with the AL Central. Suddenly, though, the team caught fire, and could do no wrong. From July 22 through August 23, they went 24-6. They had separate five- and eight-game winning streaks, they lost consecutive games just once during the stretch and they took eight out of 10 games against eventual playoff teams. From the end of that month-long tear through the end of the season, they played .500 ball, 17-17, just staying afloat, really. Take away that stretch and the team had a losing record and a negative run differential.

How did that hot streak happen? Well, for one thing, opponents averaged three runs per game against them, even. Pitching-dominated era or not, allowing three runs a game gives you a very good chance to win. As for the offense, though, it hardly went nuts. Check out the stats of these key team contributors during that stretch:

Kansas City Royals, Offensive Output, July 22-August 23, 2014

Player AVG OBP SLG
Nori Aoki .289 .361 .392
Alcides Escobar .270 .308 .310
Lorenzo Cain .317 .360 .402
Mike Moustakas .245 .287 .422
Billy Butler .309 .350 .518
Omar Infante .203 .240 .280
Salvador Perez .211 .221 .358
Eric Hosmer 1-for-12, no XBH
Alex Gordon .321 .380 .550

Only one Royal really posted outstanding numbers during this season-defining month: Alex Gordon. Gordon was so good, in fact, that MVP talk briefly bubbled up around him. (I do mean briefly. He won’t win the award. He isn’t likely to place within the top five vote-getters.)

It would be silly to say Gordon is the lifeblood of the Royals. This offense, by its nature (they’re extremely contact-focused, driven by getting on base and running well, not by power), requires more than just one great or hot hitter. It requires almost the whole lineup, in Kansas City’s case. They finished ninth in the AL in runs scored. Gordon isn’t an elite hitter, and the Royals lineup is not a juggernaut.

That said, the lineup doesn’t have a truly better hitter than Gordon, at least not yet. He’s not elite, but he is very good, and the Royals would struggle without him.

Thankfully, on Friday night, any future without Gordon felt very far off. Gordon, in fact, felt as indelibly marked with Royal Blue as anyone this side of Mike Sweeney. He had such a great night that one could almost squint and see George Brett out there. Fitting, since Gordon was once baseball’s top prospect, and was ticketed for the third-base job that was, for so long, Brett’s. He played there some, but he struggled badly, and at one stage, he began taking his fielding problems to the plated with him. It got so bad that he was demoted to Triple-A and instructed to learn a new position: left field. He was already 25 years old, an MLB veteran of two-plus seasons, but he dutifully took over 350 plate appearances in the minor leagues in 2010. When he came back, he was a changed man, liberated at the plate, but also comfortable afield.

The following year, he began a streak of Gold Glove awards for his work in left field, using great instincts, solid athleticism and perhaps the strongest left-field arm in baseball. That streak stands at three, and a fourth is a mere formality now. He also began killing the ball. Home runs will never be a huge part of Gordon’s game, but doubles certainly are, and walks are now, too. He’s been Kansas City’s best and most beloved played for the last three or four years, so it made sense that he was the first hero in Game Three of the Royals’ Division Series-clinching win over the Angels Sunday night. That blow was a line-drive, bases-clearing double with two outs in the first inning. It gave the Royals a 3-0 lead they would never relinquish.

Things weren’t as clean on Friday night in Baltimore. When Gordon came to bat in the third inning, the bases were loaded again, there were two outs and the Royals led 1-0. The crowd was no longer supporting Gordon, though. Instead of facing C.J. Wilson, he was facing Orioles ace Chris Tillman. It had rained earlier and would rain later, though it wasn’t raining just then. TIllman got ahead, throwing fastballs above the letters that Gordon chased and fouled off.

Before Gordon even came to bat, I had seen something with Tillman. He commands his fastball better lower in the zone, even down below it. It’s not that the pitch flattens out or goes totally wild when he elevates it, or anything; it’s just that he seems unable to locate with the same precision near the top of the zone. That nearly cost him on the fourth pitch of the at-bat, and third fastball. Gordon had chased and fouled off the first two, sandwiching a changeup for a ball, so Tillman thought he might be able to put Gordon away the same way. This one strayed down into a good hitting zone, though, below the letters, far enough out over the plate to permit Gordon to extend his arms. Gordon wasn’t expecting the heat, and was late, but he fouled the ball sharply, and Tillman clearly got nervous. His next pitch was the only curve he would throw to Gordon. The one after it was a changeup on which he didn’t finish his delivery well. Both were balls.

Gordon knew Tillman had to throw a fastball now, and Tillman knew it, too. He had a good game plan, electing to press Gordon inside instead of going back to the high one and risking it running into the path of Gordon’s bat barrel. Unfortunately, the execution didn’t match the plan well. The pitch he threw floated over the inner half of the plate, where Gordon might have most liked it, if he hadn’t been looking back to the outer half. He was, and so he was slightly sawed off, but he still had a good swing. The result was a bizarre hit, a fly ball without much fly to it, directly down the right-field line. Off the bat, it looked like it would hook foul, but it did the opposite. Something about the swing that Gordon had put on the ball, pulling his hands in at the last moment to adjust, breaking his bat halfway up, led the ball to slice instead. It landed perhaps five or 10 feet fair, clearing the bases. Gordon ended up on third base.

Gordon wasn’t done having a significant impact on the game, but that’s what you need to know for now. He’s Mr. Royal right now, and he’s come a long way to earn that.

As for Tillman: sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you get unlucky. Check out his plot of pitches to Eric Hosmer earlier in the inning, with two on and one out:

Pitch No. 6 there is a fastball, not so unlike the one to Gordon. In fact, it has even more of home plate. That was a 3-2 pitch, too. Hosmer could easily have crushed it, but he missed altogether. One could say Tillman changed Hosmer up better, had him more off-balance, but I’m not sure. I think the main difference between the pitch to Hosmer (which fans would call brilliant) and the one to Gordon (which fans would call something else) is that one happened to get hit. It didn’t even get hit that hard.

Between those two at-bats came one by Billy Butler, who hit a ground ball very deep into the hole at shortstop and got an infield hit out of it, when the throw by J.J. Hardy skipped away from first baseman Steve Pearce. The location to which Butler hit the ball would make the infield hit unremarkable—it’s a very tough play from there—but for the fact that Billy Butler hit it. Butler is one of the game’s slowest runners. Bad break that Tillman wasn’t out of the inning then.

The Orioles got a good break, though, not long after that. It was 5-1 when Adam Jones came to bat in the fifth inning, runners on first and second, no outs. James Shields was still on the mound for Kansas City, although this was Baltimore’s third time through the lineup and although Shields had struggled to get that far. Jones chopped a ball almost directly to third base, but after stepping on third for the out, Mike Moustakas could do no more. Two on, one out, instead of one on, two out.

That extra margin for error in the inning was nice, but the break Baltimore really got, was Kansas City manager Ned Yost’s decision to stick with Shields at that point. Shields walked Steve Pearce. Yost did not remove him. He struck out J.J. Hardy, although on a 3-2 (bases-loaded) pitch that—well, you decide:

Pitch No. 6 there is borderline, but okay, he got Hardy on a called third strike.

Yost had rookie lefty and long man Brandon Finnegan up in the bullpen. In fact, Finnegan had been up for a while. Left-hitting infielder Ryan Flaherty was coming to bat. Reaching base in any way would mean an RBI for Flaherty and a very close game for the Royals to muddle through, after all. Check out Flaherty’s splits this season:

Ryan Flaherty, Batting Splits, 2014

Split Batting Average On-Base Percentage Slugging Average
v. LHP .174 .224 .391
v. RHP .230 .300 .349

Flaherty is not a great hitter, no matter how you slice it, but as you can see, he’s perhaps a third more likely to reach base or get a hit against a righty as he is to do so against a lefty. To review, Shields is right-handed. Finnegan is left-handed. The Orioles caught a break, because Yost elected to leave Shields in the game. Flaherty singled to right field, scoring two runs, making the score 5-4. And another good bounce was coming Baltimore’s way.

Finnegan would finally be allowed into the game in the bottom of the sixth, with the Royals still ahead by a run, but because the Orioles third, fourth and fifth hitters are a gauntlet hardly and left-hander can safely run, he was restricted to three batters. The first walked; the second singled. With two men on and no one out, the Orioles were ready to give up an out to get to the meat of their order without letting their rally be spoiled by a double play. Alejandro De Aza squared around to drop down a bunt.

When a batter is trying to bunt over one or more runners, the runners themselves have a job to do. They’re to get as wide a secondary lead—the distance toward the next base traveled as the ball is pitched and/or contacted—as possible, to minimize any chance of the defense throwing out a lead runner instead of settling for the out at first base. It’s something everyone works on, and the best baserunners can get very good secondary leads without ever getting caught too far off the bag.

Jonathan Schoop is not among the best baserunners. He is a six-foot-four, 235-pound second baseman. He posted a .244 on-base percentage this season, staying in the lineup thanks only to his pop (15 homers) and his glove. Salvador Perez, the Royals’ iron-man backstop, is one of the best and strongest-armed catchers in baseball. On a pitch at which De Aza did not offer, but did not pull the bat back quickly, either, Perez leaped from behind the plate, snagged the ball and fired it down to second base. It worked! He had caught Schoop too far toward third base. Shortstop Alcides Escobar caught the ball cleanly, turned and threw toward third, where Schoop was trying in vain to run from his mistake.

The throw was perfectly on target. Schoop was just in the right place at the right time. Just as he began his headfirst slide, the ball caught him in the left shoulder, and it bounded past Moustakas, into foul territory. Moustakas ran it down and Schoop was unable to score, but he was safe at third base, and Markakis had second.

A lazy announcer might then have said, “All De Aza has to do now is get the ball in the air.” That’s a common throwaway line when a runner is at third and there are fewer than two outs, anyway. I don’t remember whether anyone on the TV broadcast I was watching said it.

If they did, though, they surely felt silly for just a moment, when De Aza hit one in the air, about 95 feet from home plate. It was a looping droop of a ball, struck badly, flared over the pitcher’s head but not by all that much. In raced Escobar. In raced second baseman Omar Infante. Escobar dove for the ball, but he never truly had a chance. It bounced about two feet in front of him, and he grabbed the ball on one hop as he fell. De Aza was safe, Markakis held second, and Schoop—the very bonehead whose straying off second base had nearly killed the Oriole rally—got a perfect read on it, and rushed home with the tying run.

The game was now in the hands of the bullpens, and good hands those were. Tommy Hunter of the Orioles allowed an inherited runner to score, the Royals’ fifth tally, in the fifth inning, but from then on, the Baltimore bullpen toughened. They bent, allowing three hits, four walks and a hit batsman through the ninth inning, but they stranded or erased every one of those runners, picking one off, catching one stealing (Jarrod Dyson actually stole second base cleanly, but Jonathan Schoop made his own break, this time, keeping his tag firmly on Dyson’s leg as Dyson slipped off the bag) and turning a double play to close out the ninth.

Kansas City was a bit less permissive. After Finnegan’s trouble, Kelvin Herrera came on and recorded six outs on five batters faced. Wade Davis had no inherited runners with whom to play, so he had to face the full six in his two innings of work, but he struck out four of them and allowed nothing remotely resembling a rally.

All that excellent relief work led to the 10th inning, which some have referred to as an ‘extra’ inning, but which seems to be a routine part of the Royals’ plan for playoff games. It took three pitches of the 10th frame for the score to change. One was a strike to Alex Gordon. One was a ball to Alex Gordon. One was a long home run to right-center field, by Alex Gordon.

Gordon had a single and was hit by a pitch, in addition to his two big blows at either end of the long night. By Win Probability Added, Gordon’s performance Friday night is the 12th-most valuable single-game offensive performance in the history of the American League playoffs. George Brett never had as good a postseason game, by that measure. Gordon was unstoppable, and his homer put the Royals in front to stay. Moustakas added two more runs with a homer of his own later in the inning. Greg Holland, as usual, did his work less neatly than Herrera or Davis, but he finished the Orioles off.

This was a great game. There was no shortage of strangeness, but the game was well-played, not sloppy, not loose, crisp, despite poor conditions. The Cardinals and Giants know each other. They’re budding rivals, the rotating rulers of the National League, and they should mount a fine NLCS. This series, though, with the promise of much more offense, with such contrasting styles of play and with great athletes all over the field, is going to be the aesthetic champion.

One last vignette, to carry you forward into a Saturday that will see two games: The sequence of events leading up to Dyson being caught stealing in the seventh inning.

It was the top of the seventh, and Norichika Aoki led off with a walk against Kevin Gausman. He no sooner reached the base than was called to the dugout, as Dyson took his place. Dyson is one of two pinch-running specialists on the Royals roster, but he’s a far more viable all-around player than Terrance Gore, so he comes in for players whom the team can’t easily replace from elsewhere on the bench. A plus in center field thanks to speed alone, Dyson frequently comes in for Aoki anyway, taking over center and bumping Lorenzo Cain to right field.

The Royals have run so wild this postseason that the Orioles had no choice but to shape a certain game plan around it. There’s only so much one can do, of course: A pitcher is either good at holding runners on, or he isn’t, especially once October comes. A catcher either has a decent arm and quick release, or he doesn’t. Buck Showalter and Co. tried, though. Pearce did a peculiar dance to throw Dyson off throughout Cain’s at-bat. Pearce would set up in the traditional stance of a first baseman awaiting a pickoff throw, but he would do so in front of first base by a step or so, and a few feet in off the foul line.

It’s not a tactic you see often. A fielder is always counseled to let a ball travel in the air if possible, to improve the chances of getting an out on a tag play, and anyway, setting up where he did put Pearce at a tough angle for applying a tag. The whole thing seemed more an effort to stall and confuse Dyson than anything, and it didn’t work. In the course of it not working, though, we went nearly five minutes between pitches with the count 1-1. The cat-and-mouse game between the Royals’ aggressive basestealers and the Oriole defenders will be a big story in some key spots during this series, and the O’s wasted no time in demonstrating their willingness to do some unique things to combat that dimension of the Kansas City offense.

All pitch charts in this post are courtesy of brooksbaseball.net, the very best site for anything involving PitchF/X or pitch information in general. 

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