SAN FRANCISCO -- The 110th World Series is returning to Kauffman Stadium, which means it's time to break out the moist towelettes and settle in for some smoked brisket and a side of beans and slaw. The final leg of the Fall Classic will also mark a return to action by the Kansas City Royals' Billy Butler -- aka "Country Breakfast'' -- who is anxious to be liberated after spending several days in the baseball version of the witness protection program.
With a 5-0 loss to Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants on Sunday, the Royals will leave Steve Perry, Carlos Santana, flocks of seagulls, cable cars and double-switches behind for more familiar surroundings and a chance to win their first world championship in 29 years. They'll have to do it by taking two straight from a Giants team that has to feel blessed by destiny in its quest for a third title since 2010. This is, after all, an even-numbered year.
The Royals have reached the intersection between desperation and opportunity, but you won't find manager Ned Yost setting the wrong example by acting crotchety or uptight. After his team got stomped 11-4 in Game 4, Yost said he had never been more excited after getting "whooped." He's having too much fun to think that way. After the Royals were thoroughly Bumgarnered in Game 5, Yost went all Barnum & Bailey in his postgame news conference.
"We've got to walk the tightrope now without a net, but our guys aren't afraid of walking the tightrope without a net," Yost said. "We fall off and we're dead. But if we win Tuesday, nobody's got a net. It's going to be winner-take-all."
As ESPN.com's Jayson Stark detailed before the series shifted to California, American League teams should probably pack Dramamine while traveling to NL parks during the World Series. The Giants have hosted 10 World Series games since 2002 and won eight of them. On a more macro scale, AL teams have won only eight of 25 games under NL rules since 2006.
Yost, acknowledging the need for crisp defensive play in quirky and sometimes blustery AT&T Park, went with essentially the same lineup in the three games in San Francisco. He replaced Nori Aoki with Lorenzo Cain in right field, inserted Jarrod Dyson for Cain in center and moved both Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas up several spots in the batting order.
All that maneuvering amounted to a whole lot of nothing for Butler, who spent the better part of three days taking swings in an indoor cage and trying to stay ready for appearances that didn't come.
"It's tough when you play every day and you know what your abilities are," Butler said. "You feel like you can make a difference each day when you come to the park. But the manager makes the lineup card, and you have to deal with it and be prepared for whenever you get your number called. Mine didn't get called much, but that's just how it is. The games worked out a different way."
Butler sat out Kansas City's 3-2 win in Game 3 as well as the Game 4 laugher, and when Yost finally summoned him Sunday, it was in a pinch-hit appearance that was thankless by any measure. Butler took a 93 mph fastball from Bumgarner for strike one, fouled off an 86 mph changeup for strike two, then took a 76 mph curveball for strike three. On the Major League Baseball Gameday application, the pitch registered a 100 on the "Nasty Factor."
Butler took the diplomatic route when it was pointed out that plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt's strike zone appeared to be a tad generous on the two called strikes.
"I'm not going to get controversial," Butler said. "The guys behind the plate are trying. They give the best they've got out there, too. It's unfortunate I get one at-bat and it works against you, but that's just how it is."
In the three games in San Francisco, the Royals scored a total of seven runs, hit .218 (22-for-101) as a team and made so little noise in general that they left a mere 16 runners on base. They've stolen one base in two attempts against the Giants, so their perceived speed advantage hasn't materialized in the least. And that wasn't the only disconcerting news for Yost's team at AT&T. In Game 4, the Giants scored eight runs against rookie Brandon Finnegan and Kansas City's middle relief contingent. In Game 5, the Giants put a dent in Wade Davis' cloak of invincibility, with Juan Perez coming a few feet short of hitting the first homer off Davis in 2014.
The Royals responded to their rough weekend with the same sense of quiet resolve and determination they showed after San Francisco rocked James Shields in the Series opener. They praised Bumgarner for his location, deception, competitiveness and ability to change speeds, and Moustakas described him as "phenomenal." The Royals can take solace in knowing that Bumgarner probably won't be available for more than an inning or two out of the bullpen if the Series advances to a seventh game Wednesday.
In the meantime, we'll have a repeat of Game 2 in Kansas City, when Yordano Ventura outpitched Jake Peavy in a 7-2 Royals victory. Ventura brings his 97 mph fastball and flash to the mound against Peavy's savvy and resourcefulness. Relying on a rookie starter in an elimination game might not be the optimal arrangement, but Ventura showed in his most recent appearance that he's unaffected by external forces.
"'Ace' is not your typical rookie," Eric Hosmer said of Ventura. "He's fearless out there. He's confident in himself and his pitches, and when he's firing strikes like he was the other day, he's pretty tough to hit. Every time he takes the mound, we feel pretty good about winning."
The math, obviously, is disadvantageous for the Royals. Of the previous 63 World Series that have stood 3-2, the team with the one-game edge has gone on to win 42 times, or 66.7 percent. The Royals have been here twice in their history under similar circumstances and gone 50-50. In 1980, they dropped Game 6 to the Philadelphia Phillies to lose the Series 4-2. In 1985, they came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in seven.
But from the moment the Royals rallied to beat Jon Lester and Oakland in the wild-card play-in game, they've approached the postseason with a poise and perspective well beyond their October experience level. They'll focus on beating Peavy on Tuesday. Then they'll worry about beating Tim Hudson, Yusmeiro Petit, Bumgarner, Johnny Wholestaff or whomever Bruce Bochy throws at them in Game 7.
Dyson, who made some waves in the American League Championship Series when he predicted Kansas City would send Baltimore home in a hurry, waxed optimistic when asked how he expects the Royals to fare before their home fans, in their home park, with a return to AL rules amid familiar environs.
"I feel good about where we're at," Dyson said. "We don't have to worry about Bumgarner no more. We've got some guys we can handle, and we can look forward to getting the job done."
And if the Royals fail to get the job done, they can take comfort in knowing they're pushing the Giants to the limit. It certainly beats the alternative.