The San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals for the World Series? Back on 28 March, when this year’s regular baseball season kicked off with a game in distant Sydney, Australia, no self-respecting pundit would even have dreamt it.
But there they were last night, playing Game One of the sport’s great annual showcase event, in a one-time cow town that even before this year’s baseball heroics had re-invented itself as an economic and cultural mecca of the American prairie belt.
This is a World Series of firsts: the first match-up of two wild-card teams since 2002, the first ever between franchises that failed to win 90 games in the regular season. All the hot pre-season tips – the money-no-object, star-laden Dodgers and Angels from LA, the experts’ smart pick the Washington Nationals – all have fallen by the wayside in the perennial lottery of the post-season.
Above all though, this unlikely pair of last men standing is a measure of how baseball has changed in the last decade. In 2000, at the height of the infamous steroid era, major league hitters smashed a record 5,693 home runs. This year they have managed just 4,186, a drop of 10 per cent from last year, and the lowest total since 1995.
Right now in baseball, pitchers rule: not just starters, but batteries of 95 to 100 mph arms from the bull pen, overpowering mighty sluggers and expert hitters alike with sheer speed. The Royals and Giants are proof of the transformation. Kansas City finished the regular season with the fewest home runs of any major league team, and San Francisco were not much better.
Yet in this post-season of low-scoring games, their pitching has excelled, above all in relief. The formula for both has been constant. Get runners on base and eke out a one- or two-run lead; then after six or so innings, hand it over to the bull pen, and lights out.
The neutral’s main hope however is not for a barrage of long balls – rather that the sport’s best-of-seven showcase event goes somewhere near the distance. The 2014 post-season has been thrilling, with a host of one-run games. But in each match-up the same team has won the nail-biters.
In only three of the six division and pennant series did the loser manage to win a single game; the others were sweeps. The last action was on 16 October when the Giants disposed of the St Louis Cardinals 4-1 in the NL Championship Series. Five days may be a blink in the unfolding of history. But for the daily pastime of baseball, it is a gap that feels like an eternity.
Who’ll win? The odds could not be more finely balanced. The Giants probably have the better starting pitching, headed by Madison Bumgarner, the one legitimate ace on either side. The Royals may have an edge in the bull pen, and certainly in speed on the bases. In the end though, mistakes and dumb luck will probably decide matters.
Of the latter commodity, the Royals have had more than their share, in reeling off eight straight post-season wins; a thriller against Oakland, then sweeps of the favoured Angels and Baltimore Orioles. Every Kansas bloop seems to drop in for a hit, rather than being caught. Just when they need it, their opponents seem to make an error. Maybe the lucky streak will continue, and the Royals will win their first championship since 1985. Maybe the injury-depleted but battle-hardened Giants’ experience will prevail, bringing a third World Series to the Bay in five years.
Meanwhile, there is however one small disappointment in the baseball paradise of Kansas City. The home town diva, mezzo soprano and Royals devotee Joyce DiDonato, was not selected by Major League Baseball to perform the traditional rendering of the national anthem before last night’s opener, despite being the pick of local fans.
Right now it would not be feasible anyway: she’s starring in a Handel opera in Paris. But Di Donato will be back in Kansas City in time for a possible Game Six next Tuesday – and maybe for a celebratory aria to celebrate a Royals triumph that seven months seemed as likely as Stoke City winning the Premier League.Reuse content