KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — It had been 29 years since the Kansas City Royals had last been to the postseason — nearly three decades spent mostly in baseball's backwater, a small-market organization on a shoe-string budget trying in vain to compete with the big boys.
On Tuesday night, they returned to the game's grand stage in dramatic fashion.
Salvador Perez singled home the winning run with two outs in the 12th inning, capping two late comebacks that gave Kansas City a thrilling 9-8 victory over the Oakland Athletics and sent the Royals to a best-of-five Division Series against the Los Angeles Angels.
The Royals will meet the AL West champions in the opener on Thursday in Los Angeles.
"We're going to enjoy this one," said Eric Hosmer, drenched in champagne, who sparked the final Royals rally with a one-out triple. "We realize we're playing a team that had the best record in baseball, but it's a five-game series and anything can happen."
After Tuesday night, there is no disputing that.
Making their first postseason appearance since winning the 1985 World Series, the Royals fell behind by four runs, only to race back with their speed on the bases — they led the majors with 153 steals this season. Kansas City swiped seven in this one to tie a postseason record shared by the 1907 Chicago Cubs and 1975 Cincinnati Reds, according to STATS.
The biggest one came in the 12th.
Hosmer scored the tying run on a high chopper to third by rookie Christian Colon, who reached on the infield single and then stole second with two outs.
Perez, who was 0 for 5 after squandering two late chances to drive in key runs, reached out and pulled a hard one-hopper past diving third baseman Josh Donaldson. Colon scored easily, and the Royals rushed out of the dugout for a mad celebration.
Sitting upstairs in a suite, Royals Hall of Famer George Brett put his hands on his head in near disbelief at the frenzied and jubilant scene that was unfolding below.
"It was unbelievable," Perez said.
So unbelievable that the Kansas City Police took to Twitter with a message for folks across the city, and it was hard to believe that anybody disobeyed the request: "We really need everyone to not commit crimes and drive safely right now. We'd like to hear the Royals clinch."
Royals manager Ned Yost has refused to discuss who he might pitch in the opener against the Angels. The two best bets are vastly different options: Danny Duffy is a young, hard-throwing lefty who plays on passion. Jeremy Guthrie is a cerebral right-hander who relies on guile.
For the A's, it was a stunning and heartbreaking finish. They had the best record in baseball before collapsing in the second half, and needed a victory on the final day of the regular season just to squeeze into the playoffs.
Oakland had chances to put all that in the past. Instead, the season ended abruptly for a team that has failed over and over again in the postseason.
"It's a one-game deal. You know coming in that anything can happen," said Brandon Moss, who drove in five runs with two homers for Oakland. "I don't think many of us will go over things in our head very much at all. We may re-watch it but I wouldn't second-guess anything we did or they did. Both teams went out, put some pressure on the other team, played good baseball."
Even Yost, who rarely cracks a smile, had to grin after this one.
"That's the most incredible game I've ever been a part of," he said. "Our guys never quit. We fell behind there in the fifth inning, sixth inning. They kept battling back. They weren't going to be denied. It was just a great game."
A much-anticipated pitching showdown between Oakland ace Jon Lester and Kansas City counterpart James Shields instead turned into a high-scoring game and a battle of attrition between bullpens.
That seemed to be just fine with the two starting pitchers, who watched in rapt attention after they exited the game as the innings ticked by and midnight approached.
"It was awesome to be a part of," Lester said. "Loud, good atmosphere, just a good baseball game. The fans, the teams, the competitiveness, the will to not lose. Obviously, we're on the bad side at the end but you couldn't ask for a better game for a one-game, play-in game."
Or, in the words of Shields, "It was absolutely epic. You don't write a story like that."