Like his team, Royals’ Yost was kind of built for October greatness
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Fair question: If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, is doing the same thing over and over again and winning all six of your postseason appearances the definition of genius?
Much has been written about Ned Yost. Even more has been said, and a good chunk of the latter is, frankly, unprintable. Some of that is the fault of the Kansas City Royals’ veteran skipper, because Ned does what he thinks is right and says what he thinks is just, and damn the torpedoes. If it rubs you wrong, so be it. Ned has never been afraid to push buttons.
But isn’t it funny, some two weeks into October, how we’re talking about him seemingly pushing all the right ones?
With a 6-0 playoff record going into tonight’s American League Championship Series Game 3 matchup with Baltimore, Yost has already passed Whitey Herzog and Jim Frey (five wins each) for the No. 2 spot on the list of all-time postseason victories by a Royals manager.
And two more Ws — the two that would send the Royals to the World Series and send a fan base into Looney Tunes delirium — would tie him with the late, great Dick Howser as king of the hill with eight. Not too shabby for a guy who was nearly booed out of the stadium during the Wild Card Game and eviscerated on social media.
Suddenly, that nutty 9-8, extra-inning win over the Oakland Athletics on Sept. 30 in the American League Wild Card Game feels like a managerial aberration and a rallying point for his roster. The double steal that imploded. Bunt after bunt after bunt after bunt. The quick hook on ace James Shields and the decision to replace him with a power righty (Yordano Ventura) against a powerful lefty bat (Oakland DH Brandon Moss). It felt as if every time the Royals climbed out of a hole, their skipper grabbed the shovel and started digging a new one.
But life is a giant learning curve, and those same guys hoisted themselves out of another crater, kept on plugging away, refusing to accept the end even as it kept staring them in the face.
A fortnight later, and the hashtag #Yosted has been replaced by #Destiny. Ned’s Nine are the only team in Major League Baseball history to ever win four playoff games in extra innings. The lesson from the wild-card win set a tone for loopy on deck and insanity in the hole: The longer you let the Royals hang around, the more dangerous they become.
That’s a will, a mindset, a mantra. Belief. Trust. Faith. Yost doesn’t get enough credit for that. Nor for always having his players’ backs, for always stressing the positives to the media — often to the scribes’ frustrations — even if that evening’s particular glass was only a quarter full.
Nor does he get enough love for the lineup change that has reshaped a postseason, when on Sept. 13 against Boston he moved shortstop Alcides Escobar to the leadoff spot, shifted right fielder Nori Aoki from the top down to the two hole and moved center fielder Lorenzo Cain up to three. The rationale was packing three of the lineup’s faster players all at the top, and the short-term jolt was a 7-1 victory over the Red Sox. Long-term, the Royals are 15-6 since.
Bonus: Kansas City has scored at least five runs in a tilt 11 different times in the 21 games since the lineup switch — with four of those occasions in the postseason. Context: In the 21 contests prior to Sept. 13, Yost’s men had scored five runs or more just five times.
The more rope the baseball gods throw at Yost, the more magic he makes. In the AL Division Series, Ned threw his Yoda mind tricks at Angels venerated skipper Mike Scioscia, holding the best closer in baseball, Greg Holland, out of the picture until the Royals actually had a lead to protect, trusting the rest of the pen to hold the fort until the fireworks started on the offensive end.
In Game 2 this past Saturday night in Baltimore, Yost took the bat out of Mike Moustakas’ hands — despite Moustakas’ four postseason home runs — in the top of the ninth, as the slugging third baseman bunted over pinch-runner Terrance Gore to second. Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop was forced to cheat a little behind Gore at the bag, helping to open up a gap along the right side of the defense that the next hitter, Escobar, exploited with a double that brought in the eventual game-winning run.
It’s funny: The knock on Ned was that his tendency to micromanage, his obsession with old-school baseball axioms and hunches, his propensity to trust his gut instead of charts or sabermetrics — traits that helped to doom his spell as manager in Milwaukee — would allegedly sink him here, too. Only it turns out that Yost, like his team, was built for October.
All those chess moves were perfect for the stage of a short series, where traditional baseball strategy, where the little things such as positioning and scouting and attention to detail, are the coin of the realm. Sabermetrics treats a roster like a stock portfolio, portends that any econ major can set a winning lineup that maximizes run-scoring potential over the large sample size that is the 162-game regular season.
But playoff baseball, real playoff baseball, isn’t a game of Strat-O-Matic played out on a laptop. Chemistry and defense and luck and mojo and umpiring calls and all kinds of random variables take on a greater import; one game, one fluke, can blow up even the best-laid plans by the smartest guys in the room.
Few have accused Yost of being the latter, and yet here he is. The hills were steep, the roads were bumpy, but the Royals’ big blue bandwagon rolls on, six victories into the unthinkable and six victories away from the promised land. You may not have agreed with the path uncle Ned took to get you here, but you’re sure as hell loving the ride.