KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The stigma of a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the Orioles’ performance against the Kansas City Royals in this year’s American League Championship Series.
The fact that Kansas City has scored in its final at-bat to win two games and prevailed by just one run in Game 3 supports the notion that the Orioles haven’t played poorly. In fact, their play has almost matched the Royals in a variety of ways as the clubs have played a competitive and highly-entertaining series to this point.
But none of that really matters now. There are no moral victories or bonus points for a narrow margin of defeat. And unlike a sport like boxing where a fighter has the chance of a late knockout after repeatedly being edged 10-9 in the early rounds, baseball affords no such structure.
If erasing an 0-2 deficit was a steep task, coming back from an 0-3 hole is conquering Everest, because there’s no way to do it other than to grind out four straight wins against the club that’s grinding better than anyone right now. Yes, the 2004 Boston Red Sox created a glimmer of hope for all teams in this scenario in becoming the first team to come back from an 0-3 deficit, but of the nine teams to take a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven LCS era, all but three completed a four-game sweep.
The Royals have been just a little bit better in each of the three games. And the Orioles have to feel so close, yet so far away from this series being very different.
“We’ve played three really good games, just fell short in each game,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “Now, we have a good idea of what the uphill battle is now. Just got to win.”
In the days leading up to the series, so much time was spent discussing the different offensive styles, but it was also pointed out how similar the Orioles and Royals were in every other phase of the game. And it’s been in some of those areas where the difference in this series have come.
As terrific as the Baltimore bullpen has been, the Royals have been better with Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and closer Greg Holland allowing only one earned run in 11 combined innings. Meanwhile, two of the Orioles’ big three — Darren O’Day and Zach Britton — didn’t get the job done in their opportunities in Games 1 and 2.
Defensively, both clubs were considered among the best in the majors, but it’s been the Royals who’ve made the spectacular plays. Call it luck in saying the Royals have had more opportunities to make those defensive gems, but they have certainly seized those moments when presented.
And the Royals’ offensive style — the ability to foul off tough pitches and the presence of speed on the bases — has put the pressure on Baltimore pitching while scratching across just enough runs to leave them one win shy of their first World Series appearance in 29 years. On Tuesday, it was an run-scoring grounder and a sacrifice fly that plated the Kansas City runs. In contrast, several deep drives from Orioles bats early in the game didn’t carry out of the ballpark on a windy night before the lineup slipped into a coma as Kansas City pitching retired the final 16 batters of the game.
The Royals have just had a little bit more in the tank than the Orioles, who haven’t played bad baseball but haven’t done enough to win, either.
“They’re a good team, they’re a scrappy team,” first baseman Steve Pearce said. “They don’t strike out, they manage to put the ball in play, and [they] get hits. That’s just the way the series has gone so far.”
The Orioles and their fans had held out hope that some of the breaks the Royals had received in terms of broken-bat hits, swinging bunts, and stellar defensive plays would eventually swing in their favor, but it now appears too late for that to make a difference. Players said the right things about focusing solely on winning Game 4, but there appears to be no slowing the momentum train that is the Kansas City Royals, who are the third team in major league history to win the first seven games of a postseason.
If the clubs had played two weeks ago or two weeks from now, the story could be much different as the Orioles were the superior team in the regular season. But that’s both the beauty and the cruelty of October as it isn’t about being the best team, but it’s about being the best team right now.
To expect the Orioles to just roll over in Game 4 would be to overlook everything they’ve accomplished over the last three years, but the resiliency they’ve shown over the last three years just doesn’t look like it’s going to be enough to stop the Royals. Whatever magic that fans have long proclaimed the Orioles to have just doesn’t appear to be as potent as what’s going on in Kansas City right now.
“If we can get one [win] under our belt and get a few things to work our way, we feel like we can get it spinning the other way,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “Otherwise, we shouldn’t show up tomorrow. I know what our guys in our locker room feel like. They know they’re up against some good competition. But [there’s] always one more opportunity, which is tomorrow.”
And tomorrow could also bring the end of the Orioles’ season, even if it doesn’t feel like it should be over yet.