A 1-0 win for the Royals to stay alive in the AL wild-card race? With Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez all playing starring roles? With Ervin Santana throwing zeroes and Greg Holland getting the save? In the broad strokes you almost couldn’t script it any better than that if you were Dayton Moore and you were willing to risk derision and go back to talking about “the process.”
Look at what the Royals are doing, here and now, and there’s a lot to like. Santana deals into the seventh before handing off a lead to one of the best bullpens in baseball. One run usually won’t get it done, but it did tonight thanks to Gordon.
Take this one play: Gordon fielding Omar Infante’s double in the left-field corner with two outs and the tying run on base in the ninth. Maybe other left fielders make that play as well, and maybe it’s easier to throw out a baserunner when it’s Prince Fielder. But in a situation that admits no mistakes on a team that has to buy meaning for every tomorrow by winning today, Gordon delivered a perfect peg to the cutoff man. It was an instant demonstration for why he earned a Gold Glove last year, whether you use advanced defensive metrics or not, and it was as decisive a bit of execution as Saturday’s games provided us.
No matter how grumpy we all might still be over last winter’s deal to get James Shields, set aside the snark and save it for winter -- it’ll keep. In the meantime, enjoy what this ballclub is. There’s that bullpen. And there’s one of the best defenses in the league, with a .694 Defensive Efficiency, fourth in the league, thanks in part to classic good-glove shortstop Alcides Escobar.
There’s also redemption, at least as far as top prospects are concerned. Hosmer has redeemed his blue-chip rep by hitting .333/.398/.484 since the All-Star break. Perez is the best young all-around catcher in the league, contributing above-average offense -- certainly better than Matt Wieters, since he’s producing almost 50 points more of OPS while also throwing out 35 percent of stolen-base attempts he hasn’t helped intimidate out of existence (second only to Wieters’ Orioles).
It’s also a team of odd and improbable combinations, providing proof that there’s more than one way to win. Because of his power, Gordon might be nobody’s idea of a conventional leadoff man, but his .330 OBP is still above league average at leadoff (.324). And which team is tied with the Red Sox for second in the AL in quality starts? The Royals, even having to resort to a season-saving switch to Bruce Chen -- you read that right, and who’d have guessed it, even among the half-dozen of us who are Bruce Chen fans? -- in the last slot of the rotation.
So the Royals are in this thing, even three back, even with just 14 games left to play, even with their odds running from long to slim day by day. Starting next week against the Indians puts only so much of their own fate in their own hands. Doing so while the Rays and Rangers go head-to-head to see who’s more determined to put the back of the pack back in the AL wild-card race means that every day, every win, no matter how narrow or how happenstance, buys them one more meaningful tomorrow.
As far as Moore is concerned, the future isn’t only now. Embarrassing as it might be if Wil Myers wins the AL Rookie of the Year vote, there’s still one more year to run on Shields’ clock via a $12 million team option for 2014 before Moore’s gamble is truly played out. When it does, Moore will still be able to say that the price paid in blood and treasure to bring Royals fans their most exciting season since 1989 or 1985.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t charmed those fans enough to put fannies in the seats -- this year’s per-game average attendance (21,415) is lower than last year’s, and the Royals haven’t drawn two million fans in a season since 1991. The hope is that they will, if they win something, if they win anything, even if it’s just an invitation to the one-and-done wild card in a few short weeks.
That's because even a near-miss might help attract free agents to a venue that might not seem quite so hopeless anymore. Circumstances certainly seem better now than they were when they threw Gil Meche $55 million dollars in 2007, and while you can argue they overpaid to keep Jeremy Guthrie around, that and Gordon’s extension reflects a willingness to talk eight-figure average annual values on multiyear contracts and be a player on the market. Maybe that’s part of Moore’s process: Don’t hate the player, hate the game he’s playing.
As for the Tigers losing, it would be easy to overreact and say this wasn’t Jim Leyland’s best game. If you’re rooting for the Orioles or Yankees or any of the other teams surviving day-to-day and game-to-game, you can kvetch that it’s a bit laissez faire to have Fielder on the bases in that situation instead of, say, Hernan Perez (28-for-35 on steals in the minors this year).
But in Leyland’s defense, his team isn’t in do-or-die territory; as far as this race is concerned, the Tigers already did, and with a few more wins they’ll be entirely done, at least with the AL Central. Some managers might hook their cleanup hitter for a pinch runner after a leadoff walk, just as some managers would play for the tying run in that situation. But with Holland on the mound, you’re facing the reliever with the best strikeout rate in the league among relievers with 40 or more innings; you can’t really blame Leyland for deciding to let it ride instead of counting on being able to dink his way to a win.
And besides, wouldn’t you rather take your chances and face the Royals in the postseason rather than the Yankees, or the Rays, or the Orioles? Maybe you would. It’ll be up to the Royals to change people’s minds. Wins like Saturday’s might just help do that.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.