Associated Press – When the final out was made on another improbable night, and the Kansas City Royals were headed back to the World Series for the first time since 1985 after sweeping the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series.
Their opponent is yet to be determined, but the San Francisco Giants took one step closer to reaching the Fall Classic Wednesday night, beating St. Louis to take a 3-1 lead in the NLCS.
Royals manager Ned Yost just stood in the dugout and watched as a bunch of young players he's nurtured for years celebrated. He watched as veterans and journeymen and baseball vagabonds piled onto the infield. And he watched as a fan base that has so often criticized him relished a moment 29 years in the making.
"These kids, from the minute you saw them, you knew they were going to be special," Yost said. "Their goal was to get here and win a championship, and today they accomplished that."
Led by a dynamic defense, an opportunistic offense and one of the best bullpens in the game, the Royals swept aside the Orioles. With another tight win, 2-1, the Royals captured their first the American League championship since 1985.
That was also the last time they were in the playoffs.
"It's hard to explain," said outfielder Lorenzo Cain, whose clutch hits and dramatic grabs earned him the series MVP award. "We're clicking at the right moment right now."
Now, the Royals will carry an 11-game playoff win streak into the World Series, one shy of the major league record. That includes their first eight this season, something that had never been done in postseason history. Kansas City beat Oakland in a 12-inning wild-card thriller to start things off, then swept the Los Angeles Angels in the Division Series.
The Fall Classic will begin Tuesday in Kansas City between the Royals and the winner of the NLCS between the Giants and Cardinals. Coincidentally, it was St. Louis that fell to the Royals in seven drama-filled games during the '85 World Series.
"I don't think we're done yet," designated hitter Billy Butler said.
After the Royals held the Orioles to three hits in Game 3, Jason Vargas and their bullpen held them to four Wednesday night. Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis got the game to Greg Holland, who matched Dennis Eckersley's record with his fourth save of the best-of-seven series.
Holland got J.J. Hardy to ground out to third base for the final out, and the Royals spilled onto the infield in a wild celebration. Fireworks shot over the crown-shaped scoreboard in center field, and a blue-clad sellout crowd that included Royals greats George Brett and Brett Saberhagen let out a roar while cars on nearby Interstate 70 honked their horns.
"That's what you dream of as a kid," Holland said. "Punch your ticket to the World Series, especially before your home crowd. These fans have been waiting a long time. They deserve it."
The Orioles, meanwhile, will limp into the offseason after a 96-win season having been swept for the first time in franchise history, a stretch of 21 postseason series.
"I think it's not what we didn't do. It's more what they did," said the Orioles' Ryan Flaherty, whose home run represented their lone run. "We played good baseball."
Making his first start in nearly two weeks, Vargas shut down the vaunted Orioles lineup in Game 4. The only damage he allowed came in the third inning, when Flaherty went deep.
By that point, the Royals had already manufactured a pair of runs.
Alcides Escobar singled off Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez to open the game, and Nori Aoki was drilled on the right knee a couple pitches later. Yost then opted to bunt with Cain, one of his hottest hitters, to advance both of the runners.
It was a questionable decision so early in the game. But like almost every unorthodox move that Yost has made, it worked out perfectly — for Cain's first career sacrifice.
Eric Hosmer followed with a chopping grounder, and first baseman Steve Pearce went home with it. Escobar slid safely and the ball bounded away from catcher Caleb Joseph, allowing Aoki to follow his teammate home and giving the scrappy, small-ball Royals a 2-0 lead.
After that, it was up to their defense and bullpen.
Escobar turned a pair of double plays early in the game to help Vargas escape jams, and Gordon made a spectacular catch while crashing into the left-field wall to rob Hardy of extra bases leading off the fifth inning. In the sixth, second baseman Omar Infante was in perfect position to snag Nelson Cruz's line drive and leave runners on the corners.
Herrera breezed through the seventh and Davis handled the eighth, just as they have all season, and Holland slammed the door on his fourth save of the series.
And set off of a raucous celebration that had been 29 years in the making.
In the midst of it all was Yost, the often-criticized Royals manager who has guided a collection of budding young stars to baseball's grandest stage. In doing so, Yost became the first manager in major league history to win his first eight postseason games.
Now, just four more wins stand in the way of an improbable World Series championship.
"These guys are willing to play selfless baseball where all they're concentrating on is winning the game," Yost said. "Nobody is looking to be a hero right now, they're just looking to win a ballgame, and they've done a tremendous job."
In San Francisco, Buster Posey drove in three runs and capped another unusual rally as the Giants took advantage of some clunky defense by Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams in beating the St. Louis 6-4 to move within one victory of the World Series.
"We might find some weird ways to score runs, but we're getting people on base first. That's the main thing," Brandon Belt said.
Chasing their third title in five years, the Giants lead the best-of-seven NL Championship Series 3-1 after poor throws cost the Cardinals yet again.
October ace Madison Bumgarner can pitch San Francisco to another pennant Thursday at home in Game 5. Struggling All-Star Adam Wainwright starts for St. Louis, now facing the same daunting deficit the Giants overcame to beat the Cardinals in the 2012 NLCS.
Minus injured catcher Yadier Molina again, the Cardinals were clinging to a 4-3 lead when San Francisco put runners at second and third in the sixth. Playing in with one out, the lumbering Adams backhanded Gregor Blanco's bouncer and stumbled as he tried to set himself to throw home.
Adams had trouble with the transfer, and his toss short-hopped catcher Tony Cruz as Juan Perez slid across with the tying run.
Joe Panik then hit a grounder right to Adams, who stepped on first base before firing wildly to second in trying for a double play. Brandon Crawford stopped between third and home, yet was able to score easily when Adams threw wide of the bag.
"That's kind of fitting of how our postseason's been," Panik said. "It might not be the prettiest way of scoring runs."
Cardinals shortstop Jhonny Peralta came way off the base to catch the ball, but had no play at the plate.
"The play at home, there's a fast runner at third and I was going in on the ball and threw on the run," Adams said. "Just should've made the throw, though. The second one, I should've just touched first and checked home."
Posey added an RBI single off Seth Maness to make it 6-4. The star catcher also had a sacrifice fly in the first and a run-scoring single in the third.
Yusmeiro Petit pitched three scoreless innings to win in relief of an ineffective Ryan Vogelsong. Petit has been a valuable long man — he delivered six shutout innings in an 18-inning NLDS victory at Washington.
"He's been really good for us for a long time and he's finally getting some recognition. What a weapon to have," Posey said.
Sergio Romo worked the eighth and Santiago Casilla finished for his second save of the series.
A total of six Giants relievers held St. Louis scoreless over the final six innings.
Marco Gonzales took the loss after issuing a leadoff walk to pinch-hitter Perez in the sixth and giving up a single to Crawford.
Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval has reached base in 22 straight postseason games dating to Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS on Oct. 12, 2012. That breaks Barry Bonds' franchise record set from 2002-03. Bonds set down his crutches post hip surgery to throw out the ceremonial first pitch Wednesday.