The Astros came in to the game looking for their first playoff series win (non-wildcard single game) in a decade.
The Royals came in looking for their first back to back ALCS berth since 1984-85.
Win? Pop the bubbly. Don the goggles. Cue the Congerbot. Release the Rasmus-animal.
Go home and cry until Valentine's Day.
No pressure, right?
Kaufmann Stadium was absolutely rocking. All credit to Kansas City and their fans, the atmosphere in the stadium was electric. Johnny Cueto came out the gate dealing, retiring the Astros' best hitters in order on just 11 pitches.
But Collin McHugh came out firing, retiring the Royals in order on just 9 pitches despite walking Ben Zobrist, retiring Lorenzo Cain with a double play ball to end the inning.
Then, the Astros bats went to work. Evan Gattis, in a 3-20 postseason ice cold spell, laced a ball down the third base line. Mike Moustakas made a good play to stop the ball from being extra bases but then made a pretty bad throw to first, allowing Gattis to reach base. Then, Luis Valbuena bum rushed the first pitch he saw and provided the one bright spot in an otherwise brutal offensive night for the Astros:
In the bottom of the second, McHugh allowed three loud fly ball outs but still escaped the inning unscathed. He needed only seven pitches in this inning, putting his two inning pitch count at a microscopic sixteen.
Johnny Cueto resumed the mound already down 2-0, and promptly retired the Astros in order.
Salvador Perez singled to center field to lead off the bottom of the third, bringing the ever dangerous Alex Gordon to the plate. Gordon worked the count full before hitting into a double play - the Astros' second of the young game. Alex Rios made incredibly soft contact on a curve ball and it only just squeaked past McHugh to Correa, who held the ball rather than make a throw that likely wouldn't have resulted in an out anyway, and Alex Rios was aboard with an infield single. He'd end up stranded at first, however, as Alcides Escobar popped out to Carlos Gomez in center field.
Leading off the top of the fourth inning, Carlos Correa hit the ball solidly in his second straight at bat...and for the second straight at bat, it was caught fairly easily by an outfielder for an out. Then Colby Rasmus, hitting .500 with four home runs in the postseason coming into this game, struck out swinging on a filthy diving change up away and down below the strike zone. These two at bats would be a harbinger of the kind of night the Astros were destined for Wednesday night in their final game of the season - solid contact without the benefit of BABIP luck, and strikeouts against a dominant Cueto. Carlos Gomez followed with another at bat of huge, massive swings that (this time) came up empty, as Cueto recorded his fifth strikeout in four innings pitched.
Heading back to the mound for the bottom of the fourth in what had become, but for a single pitch to Luis Valbuena, an extreme pitcher's duel through three and a half innings, Collin McHugh had only 29 pitches (twenty of which were strikes) to Cueto's 55 pitches - 36 of which were for strikes.
Ben Zobrist struck out to lead off the bottom half of the fourth - his very first swing that didn't result in contact in the entire series - on a devastating curve ball from McHugh before Lorenzo Cain worked an eight pitch at bat before absolute accident of an excuse-me swing that resulted in a goofy flare dumped into right field for a one out single. Eric Hosmer came to the plate looking for just his fourth hit in 18 ALDS at bats to that point in 2015 and worked the count full before dumping another single into center field on a pitch where Lorenzo Cain was running on the pitch.
Lorenzo Cain never stopped, and Gomez slipped and fell down on his duff catching the ball as Cain scored all the way from first to cut the lead for the Astros in half, 2-1. Hosmer stayed at first base on the play, and up to the plate came Kendrys Morales - he of the two home runs off McHugh in Game 1 of this series - representing the go ahead run.
Kaufmann Stadium was once again back in the game and rocking.
Kendrys Morales popped out to Jose Altuve in foul territory for the second out.
To the plate strode Mike Moustakas, and he worked another long at bat in the inning before flying out on a heart stopping play where Colby Rasmus ran the ball down in shallow left field no-man's land.
Evan Gattis began the top of the fifth inning by watching ball one before watching strike one, fouling off a pitch and then chasing a fastball well up and out of the zone for strike three. Luis Valbuena then popped up to first base and Chris Carter struck out on some filthy, filthy pitches to complete another dominant inning for Cueto - who, outside of the one pitch to Valbuena, looked every bit the ace that Kansas City hoped for when they traded three young left handed arms for him at the trade deadline.
Collin McHugh came out to start the bottom of the fifth inning at 60 pitches for the game after more than doubling his previous pitch count with a 31 pitch fourth inning. He promptly hit Salvador Perez with a 3-2 curve ball that sailed inside. And at that point, Mike Fiers began warming up in the Houston bullpen. Alex Gordon came up with no outs and Perez on first and laced a ground rule double to right field and out of play to put runners at second and third with no outs. And with that one swing, the Royals had a huge pressure threat out there and Collin McHugh was done for the night, as Mike Fiers began the trot in from the bullpen to make just his second relief outing of the season for the Astros - the first being his Astros debut after the trade brought him over from Milwaukee.
Mike Fiers entered and immediately surrendered a two run single to Alex Rios, who advanced to second on the throw to the plate, and just like that the Royals had a lead near the end of the fifth inning. The next hitter, Escobar, successfully bunted Rios to third on a sacrifice for the first out. Ben Zobrist then padded the Royals' lead with a sacrifice fly to right field to plate Rios. Lorenzo Cain grounded out to end the nightmare half inning for the Astros.
In between innings, Dallas Keuchel trotted out to the bullpen...presumably to begin stretching out for a possible relief appearance.
Back to the offensive side of the ball, if it could be called that against Cueto - Jason Castro, Jose Altuve, and George Springer each popped out weakly for an absurd five pitch inning for Cueto, who looked like he needed no help from the Cyborgs in the bullpen at all.
The Royals and Astros each went one-two-three in the bottom of the sixth and in both halves of the seventh inning. Evan Gattis led off the top of the eighth inning with a flailing pop out to second base on a slider well down and away out of the zone before Luis Valbuena and Chris Carter each grounded out. Johnny Cueto was flatly overpowering for 90 of his 91 pitches, allowing just two runs on the Valbuena home run with only two hits, no walks, and eight strikeouts. He finished his night by retiring the final 19 hitters he faced.
Then, in the bottom of the eighth inning, Dallas Keuchel entered the game on two day's rest trailing by two runs for reasons unbeknownst to this writer. He immediately gave up a lead off double to Alcides Escobar, retired Ben Zobrist on a hard hit line drive that was luckily right at Jose Altuve, and then the Astros made the obvious choice to intentionally walk Lorenzo Cain (who has had a great deal of success against Keuchel) to face clean up (left-handed) hitter Eric Hosmer with the double play scenario intact. Hosmer would instead pop up in foul territory, with Castro putting it away for the second out. Kendrys Morales would then hit a three run home run off of Cy Young favorite Dallas Keuchel - again, on in relief on two days rest in a game the Astros were already trailing - to make the score 7-2 Royals. Dallas definitely looked tired, his pitches lacked the movement and control they usually have, and his otherwise flawless postseason record this season was marred in a situation it seemed (to this Astros fan, anyway) that he never should have entered.
Back to the play by play, Mike Moustakas grounded out against Keuchel to end the inning.
In the top of the ninth, Wade Davis entered with a five run lead to face Preston Tucker as a pinch hitter in just his second at bat of the Division Series. Tucker promptly struck out against arguably the very best pitcher in all of baseball, which should probably not be a surprise given the lack of consistent plate time Tucker has seen recently. Jose Altuve then grounded out to short quickly, and George Springer flew out all the way to the right field wall to end an otherwise magical 2015 season for your Houston Astros.
There is some "saltiness" in this article, as the kids would say - some decisions that were made, especially in this game, don't make sense to this writer...but at the end of the day, the most important thing is the playoff experience these incredible young players got to take with them in a season where nearly every baseball pundit picked the team in the preseason to finish either fourth or fifth in the American League West. It's been an incredible season for the Houston Astros.
Worth mentioning: The Houston Astros led in 33 of 45 innings in this series, yet weren't able to shut the Royals down late in the three games they lost. Credit must be given to the Royals for battling back and making contact consistently in most situations throughout the series when their backs were against the wall. But it also must be noted that in no way were the Astros outclassed in this series - quite the opposite. But for bullpen falterings, the Astros had the series well in hand throughout.
This loss hurts the fans. Everyone knows it. The Astros weren't supposed to be here, but then they were, and the city began to hope. To begin to hope only to see the team fall just short is going to sting. Absolutely.
But chin up, Astros fans.
The future is incredibly bright in HustleTown.