Sacrifice bunts are rarely the correct call in baseball, so of course Ned Yost's Kansas City Royals laid down four of them in Tuesday night's wild card play-in game against the Oakland A's. Despite Jon Lester displaying uncharacteristic shakiness and the Royals' offense performing uncharacteristically well, Yost insisted on attempting to win by grit and grind, sacrifice and steal. He pulled it off—barely.
The winning run appropriately summed up this bonkers game. In the bottom of the 12th inning, Christian Colon's infield single knocked in Eric Hosmer to tie things up. After an Alex Gordon foul out, Yost insisted on sending Colon, even though everybody in the stadium, including A's manager Bob Melvin, knew it was coming. Melvin called the perfectly timed pitch-out, but catcher Derek Norris just flat dropped it. A few pitches later, Salvador Perez, who was 0-for-5 to that point and had spent much of the game waving at sliders a foot off the plate, knocked Colon in with a grounder that just barely got by Josh Donaldson at third.
Ned Yost's head-scratching decisions started early in the nearly five-hour contest. In the bottom of the first inning, the Royals had first and third with two outs, and Lester looked hittable. Instead of letting Alex Gordon—one of only two Royals hitters with an OPS+ above 100 in one of the AL's worst offenses—swing the bat, Yost had Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer attempt an asinine double steal. It predictably failed.
In between innings, TBS asked Yost about his decision. Here's the befuddling explanation:
Q: Creating havoc, you almost took it to another level with Billy Butler. What happened on that play?
Yost: That play broke down on both ends. Billy left too soon. He was supposed to wait until Lester threw the ball home, take to second, break it down and [Hosmer] was going to come to the plate. Billy was too early, [Hosmer] was too late. We had to find other ways to score runs.
The move was always too clever to actually work. Sure, Jon Lester never picks runners off base, but hoping your DH—who hadn't stolen a base all year—could keep a rundown alive long enough for your first baseman to steal home is ludicrous. It is all well and good to be aggressive on the base paths, but you can't give away outs with your best hitter up and a runner in scoring position.
Incredibly, having a DH and a first baseman attempt a double steal wasn't Yost's worst strategery of the night. That dubious honor belongs to his pitching change in the 5th inning. Brandon Moss, who had already hit a two-run homer off of Shields, came to the plate with two on and no outs. Yost decided to pull Shields from the game.
This was a perfectly defensible move, even if the Royals traded the farm for Shields in 2012 for situations exactly like this. After all, the Royals had relief pitcher Wade Davis and his incredible .847 WHIP in the bullpen, or the pretty good Kelvin Herrera. Hell, Yost could've thrown his All-Star closer out there: it is win or go home, after all. Instead he brought in starting pitcher Yordano Ventura, who only had one career relief appearance. (Even more flabbergasting, Ventura started and threw 73 pitches two days ago!) Unsurprisingly, Ventura struggle to find his command, and this was the result:
It's not like A's manager Bob Melvin put together a spectacular game. His use of relief pitchers was curious at times—why not bring Sean Doolittle in instead of Luke Gregerson in the eighth inning?—but overall he mostly stayed out of his own way. In a game that went 12 innings and was decided by a single run, not tripping over his own shoelaces was nearly enough for Melvin to get it done.
Instead, the A's were ultimately done in by their fielding. They somehow didn't record any errors, but almost every single time they had a chance to make a play in the field, they failed. Whether it was failing to get the lead runner on sacrifice bunts, preventing grounders from leaving the infield but not getting any outs, or botching a pitchout, the A's didn't get their nuts and bolts work done, and it cost them.
With the loss, the A's fall to 1–12 in series-clinching games during the Billy Beane era (assuming you count a play-in as a very short series). You know the line—"My shit doesn't work in the playoffs." Make of it what you will.