5 Favorite Games From 2021
It's a week of reflection, so let's look back on the best of the 2021 season for the Royals.
The 2021 season was one of growth in many areas for the Royals. The record improved from both their disastrous 2018 and 2019 seasons and the shortened 2020 season. They saw big prospects make their debuts and other prospects who had debuted get their second go-round in the league. They were in first place at the end of April, lost a lot of games right after, and then somehow rebounded to be right at .500 at the end of May. Of course, they tanked in June and limped into the break before having a pretty solid second half that should provide some reasons for optimism.
Today, I want to look back on some of my favorites from 2021. Bally Sports ran their annual marathon of the best games of the year on Christmas Eve, so I want to put in what I’d have put on that broadcast. I’ll give you the box score and what I wrote about the game right here on Inside the Crown, so that’s kind of fun.
As Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland, begin at the beginning.
Woo boy, this one was ugly to start. Brad Keller was coming off a 2020 where he showed he might be ready to take the next step and instead of doing that, he gave up doubles to the first two batters of the game. Why am I highlighting that? Well, he gave up two doubles in all of 2020. Shortened season or not, it was longer than two batters. After those two, he walked a guy, gave up a single and then another double. Then it was two more singles before he recorded his first out. But the damage was done with the Rangers putting up five before the first out of the season was recorded. Woof.
But the Royals showed off some of that resiliency that they would display all season long, for better or for worse. They answered with five of their own in the first. The game was back and forth for a bit with the Rangers taking a lead in the second and extending that lead in the third. The Royals, though, scored two in the third and Carlos Hernandez held the Rangers scoreless in the fourth while the Royals scored three more to take a lead they’d never give back. Hernandez picked up his first career win, but it wasn’t without some drama at the end.
Greg Holland came into the game in the eighth to get Scott Barlow out of big trouble and did with a strikeout. But then he found trouble of his own in the ninth and needed to be bailed out by a familiar face - Wade Davis. He struck out the final two batters of the game to give the Royals a win and a 1-0 record.
I didn’t even mention Michael A. Taylor throwing out two runners at the plate. That was pretty fun.
Coming into this series against the Rays, the Royals hadn’t lost a series. Then they lost the first two games and now they were not only the second to last team to lose a series, but they were scrambling to avoid a sweep. And much like that Opening Day game, it was ugly to start. Jakob Junis had pitched well to this point, but walked the leadoff man before giving up a double to Joey Wendle and a home run to Brandon Lowe. He’d allow one more run on a popup that Carlos Santana just missed that became a double and it was 4-0 before the Royals even had a chance.
Things looked dark in the bottom of the first when Michael Wacha mowed through the Royals on six pitches, but after Junis righted the ship and got through the second, the Royals broke through with Hunter Dozier’s first home run of the year. They got another run back in the fourth on Jorge Soler’s second, but the Rays took a 5-3 lead in the fifth, which ended up being the last frame for Junis. It was actually a very nice bounceback for him after the horrid first. He ended up giving the team five innings, which was much needed, but the team was still down.
The sixth was uneventful, but the Rays tacked on another in the seventh with a double from Austin Meadows that scored Brett Phillips and the Royals would need late inning magic. Obviously they got it. Not only did you watch this game, but I listed the score at the top. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun. After an error allowed Andrew Benintendi to reach and Taylor walked, Hanser Alberto pinch hit for Kyle Isbel and came through in a big way with a triple to score both of them. Whit Merrifield grounded out and Alberto was thrown out at home, which is a huge deflator, but Santana came through with a bomb to give the Royals a 7-6 lead.
But this game was insane. After Jake Brentz gave up a single to Kevin Kiermaier, Barlow came in to replace him on a weak grounder to third. It was a weird game, I already told you. That tied the game. Then in the top of the eighth, Barlow gave up a single and then a bloop double to give the Rays an 8-7 lead and they were turning the ball over to their very good bullpen. But it wasn’t good in this one. Diego Castillo gave up a single to Taylor and Jarrod Dyson pinch ran and promptly stole second. Alberto bunted him to third. Nicky Lopez executed a perfect squeeze to score Alberto and he reached as well. After a Merrifield groundout and then an intentional walk followed by a wild pitch, Salvador Perez did his thing that he does so well and mimicked the Wild Card game with a ball down the third base line that scored the winning run and it was a 9-8 Royals victory. Crazy game, I’m telling you.
I wrote about Soler and how he was ready to break out. I was…wrong.
Not every great game has to involved a crazy comeback. But so far, they’ve all involved lots of runs scoring in the first inning. This one was truly fun. Brad Keller got the ball in this game too, which looked bad at first. He seemed to be struggling with the zone (a recurring theme this year) and he gave up singles to two of the first three Twins hitters. But he got out of trouble and the Royals got to face Matt Shoemaker in what might be the game that ended his starting career.
It started with a Merrifield single, as these things so often do. Then Santana walked. Benintendi doubles, Perez singled and Dozier walked. It was 3-0 with two men on when Shoemaker got his first out, a strikeout of Kelvin Gutierrez. But it started up again. Soler reached on catcher’s interference, Taylor singled, Lopez singled and Merrifield launched a three-run homer. That was it for Shoemaker. He got one out. Shaun Anderson came in and looked better, but he had trouble shutting the door. He walked Santana, but got Benintendi to fly out before Perez reached on an error and then Dozier struck out to end the inning. In all, it was nine runs on six hits for the Royals.
A lot of times, it gets quiet for teams who score big like that early. But the Royals kept piling on in the second too. The first four hitters reached against Anderson before Merrifield popped out. But Santana hit a two-run single and a Benintendi groundout scored another run and it was 13-0 before the Twins got to bat three times. The game was pretty mundane from there. The Twins scored a couple while the Royals tacked on another late to win a laugher, but boy was that fun.
We’re back to comebacks, I suppose. This game was one day after the Royals blew a close game late because of what I thought was a bad decision by Mike Matheny to leave Mike Minor in the game. A day later, the damage was done early in a matchup of Kris Bubic and Luis Castillo. It’s easy to forget now that the season is done and Castillo turned things around, but he had a brutal start to the year and came into this one with a 5.08 ERA. It was an opportunity for a struggling offense to get right against a struggling pitcher.
Only this was probably the true start of Castillo’s turnaround. I wouldn’t say he was dominant with just four strikeouts in seven innings, but he was excellent, giving up just one run on three hits. The one run was a fifth inning home run by Taylor. And heading into the bottom of the eighth, it was 6-1 Reds. Bubic started off pretty strong with two scoreless innings, but got hit around a bit in the third and then gave up a two-run homer in the fourth. With the way Castillo was pitching, this felt like a pretty easy loss, but the Royals, say it with me, were resilient.
The door cracked open ever-so-slightly in the bottom of the eighth once they got the chance to face the Reds bullpen. Cionel Perez struck Alberto out, but a passed ball allowed him to reach first base anyway. After Lopez popped out and Merrifield struck out, they were just an out away from making it not matter, but Benintendi, in one of his first games back from that rib injury, launched the first pitch he saw to right-center field to score Alberto and make the Reds pay big. Still, it was 6-3 and the Reds bullpen, while bad, should have been able to close this out.
Brad Brach, who was with the Royals for about an hour and a half, came in to clean up the mess in the eighth and he stayed on for the ninth. But it got ugly. He walked Ryan O’Hearn to start the inning and then hit Dozier. If that wasn’t ugly enough, Taylor hit a double play ball to third but Eugenio Suarez threw it away, allowing O’Hearn to score and Dozier and Taylor to end at third and second respectively. Heath Hembree came on to strike out Soler, but Lopez singled to left to score the tying runs and then got all the way to third on another throwing error, this time by left fielder Aristedes Aquino. Merrifield walked and Amir Garrett come in to face Benintendi. There were no heroics this time for Benintendi as he struck out, but that just meant it was up to Perez. And come on, you know the drill. He launched one to left that only counted as single and the winning run crossed the plate. Another comeback win for the comeback kids.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Royals gave up a bunch of runs early and found a way to win. Okay, yes, it’s a pretty common theme from the 2021 season, but this game was fun not just for the comeback, but how they held the Mariners down for so long as well. The Royals actually started this one with a run in the top of the first, so they didn’t trail immediately. But Bubic did give up three in the first and two in the second to put them down 5-1 after two innings. The third was quiet for both teams, but the Slamsas City Royals came to play in the fourth.
O’Hearn started the inning with a single to left that was followed by a Taylor strikeout and a fly ball from Emmanuel Rivera. But then Merrifield singled. And so did Lopez. And the bases were loaded for that man, Salvador Perez. If this is your first time reading about the Royals since early August, you might not know that the Royals had hit a grand slam in the series finale against the Astros the Wednesday before this game on a Friday. The day before this game, Perez hit a grand slam in Seattle to give the Royals a lead. And now he was up with the bases loaded again and the team down by four. You know what happened. Bam, just like that, the game is tied.
So that part was super fun. Bubic got them in the fourth and got the first out of the fifth before he was replaced by Hernandez, who had been pitching well in the rotation, so it was a bit of a surprise that he was even up in the bullpen. But here he came. He trotted out and started one of the best stretches of pitching we’ve seen from a Royals pitcher in awhile. He got the final two out of the fifth pretty easily. Then got the Mariners 1-2-3 in the sixth. And the seventh. And the eighth. And the ninth.
Heading into the 10th with the game still tied at five, the Royals got a sacrifice fly from Edward Olivares, who wasn’t even at the stadium when the game started as he had just been recalled. Hernandez, who had thrown 5.2 perfect innings in relief started the inning with the runner on second and gave up a single on a 1-2 pitch to score the tying run. It was such a bummer that it had to end that way, but an even bigger bummer that it tied the game up. Neither team could capitalize in the 11th and after both Benintendi and Dozier started the 12th with outs that didn’t even move the runner, Olivares was up again. And of course he came through with a big two-run homer. It was near 2 in the morning local time, so I don’t know how many people actually saw it live, but it was really fun. The Mariners did make it interesting in the bottom half, scoring one and keeping the inning alive, but Josh Staumont closed out the 8-7 win.
It wasn’t always fun in 2021 to watch and cover the Royals, but when it was, it really was. Looking forward to more of those games in 2022. Leave a comment with your favorite games from this season! Happy holidays!