Lorenzo Cain and the hidden history of his mad dash in the 2015 ALCS

The flight path of Lorenzo Cain started with a walk.

So many elements combined to create the decisive run in the 2015 American League Championship Series, the ideal alchemy of scouting acumen and instructional trust and bravery on the bases that led to Cain scoring from first base on Eric Hosmer’s single. For Cain to travel those 270 feet, in the bottom of the eighth inning of a tied Game 6 against Toronto, required the sort of organizational cohesion that buoyed the Royals during back-to-back pennant runs.

“He can fly!” Fox announcer Joe Buck cried as Cain slid across the plate, popped skyward and clapped his hands in one continuous motion. Sports Illustrated captured the image and put it on a cover. The memory resonates, all these years later, because it crystallized all the components, speed and style and stones, of those teams. “It worked out perfectly,” Cain told me last year, as part of my quixotic, perpetual effort to convince the publishing industry the world needs to read a book about the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

But to start the play, Cain had to get on base.

He came to the plate after a 45-minute rain delay, a brief burst of inclement weather after the Royals coughed up a two-run lead in the top of the inning. Despite the downpour, despite the bullpen breakdown, Kauffman Stadium still cracked with life. The fans clapped along with Zombie Nation’s “Woah Oh Oh” as Cain sized up Toronto reliever Roberto Osuna.

The Royals stood only one victory away from the World Series. Cain would do what was required to get there. He had evolved from an unpolished batsman, one who struggled to hit the ball out of the cage during batting practice, into the No. 3 hitter on a playoff team. The Kansas City hitters spouted the sort of mantra that only sounds cliche when it doesn’t work: “Keep the line moving.” Cain did not overextend himself. He coaxed an eight-pitch walk, spoiling 97 mph fastballs while letting Osuna miss outside.

At the bag, as always, Cain conferred with his first-base coach Rusty Kuntz. Kuntz told Cain to stay alert on balls hit down the right-field line toward Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista. A couple of months earlier, Royals advance scout Alec Zumwalt had noticed something.


Cain, who was designated for assignment by the Brewers on Saturday afternoon, may be at the end of a marvelous, improbable career. Milwaukee waited to cut him until Cain had increased 10 years of service time. The achievement meant something to Cain, who had flourished in the majors despite never playing organized baseball before he turned 15. He won a Gold Glove and made an All-Star team for the Brewers, who finished one victory shy of the World Series while he roaded center field in 2018.

But he imprinted his most indelible memories in Kansas City. Cain was the dynamo in the heart of the Royals lineup in 2014 and 2015. He was a daring, graceful fielder and an underrated hitter. He finished third in the American League MVP voting in 2015. His finest moment, though, came in the final playoff game against Toronto. He actualized a vision the franchise’s scouting department had diagramd weeks earlier — and in the process delivered one of the most exhilarating plays of this era.


In 1996, Dayton Moore’s first year in Atlanta’s front office, as the Braves advanced to the World Series, general manager John Schuerholz asked him to help study the opposition. The Braves put together teams of scouts. Moore joined up with seasoned lifers like Brian Murphy and Bill Lajoie. Moore soon understood his role. The vets watched the game and made observations. Moore wrote them up.

Moore spent that October scribbling reports on the Yankees, who eventually defeated Atlanta in the Fall Classic. Moore undertook a similar assignment on New York in 1999, when the Yankees again downed the Braves. Moore loved the work. He crackled with adrenaline as he sat in the stands. Every detail mattered.

Moore drew from that experience 19 years later, as the general manager in Kansas City, while the Royals ran away with the American League Central. In August, he convened a summit of his scouts. He wanted his sharpest eyes to study potential playoff opponents. The scouts were told to funnel their reports to a man who was younger than all of them.

Alec Zumwalt was still several months away from his 35th birthday. He had been the organization’s lead advance scout since 2012. Moore had drafted him with Atlanta in 1999. He had supported Zumwalt during a trying professional career. After Zumwalt retired, the Royals plucked him out of nursing school and made him a scout. Now Moore was entrusting him with the assignment of a lifetime.

The duty of an advance scout is different from other forms of scouting. Zumwalt lived a week ahead of the big-league club, analyzing future opponents, diagnosing weaknesses, supplying advice. He had existed inside a whirlwind in the late summer of 2015, flying across the country on a moment’s notice, guzzling coffee past midnight as his eyes blurred in front of an iPad screen, searching for any insight that might help the Royals reach the summit.

When he took the advance job in 2012, Zumwalt spent time with one of his mentors, fellow Royals scout Mike Pazik. Pazik offered advice on several fronts. The job could be rewarding but frustrating, Pazik explained. Sometimes the players wouldn’t follow your advice. “Don’t get upset if you turn a report in and you watch the game and they don’t do anything that you say,” Pazik told him. Zumwalt didn’t always suffer that fate: He had helped diagnose Jon Lester’s inability to make pickoff throws, which aided a ferocious Royals comeback in the 2014 American League wild-card game.

The next August, while scouting the Blue Jays and Yankees in Toronto, Zumwalt noted a pattern. On balls hit down the right-field line, Bautista often airmailed the cutoff man and threw directly to second base. Zumwalt saw Bautista do it during a game. He looked up video from other games. The pattern held. Bautista, a six-time All-Star and fearsome hitter, used his arm to prevent extra-base hits.

That created an opening, though, if there was someone on base.

Zumwalt pocketed the intel. In a meeting before the ALCS with the coaches, Zumwalt explained there might be an opportunity to steal a run if someone fast was on first.

Someone like, say, Lorenzo Cain.

Kuntz absorbed that nugget. So did Mike Jirschele, the third-base coach. He kept an eye on Bautista all series. In Game 2, Mike Moustakas smacked a hit into the corner. Bautista overthrew the cutoff man and bounced the ball into second to hold Moustakas to a single. Jirschele was ready — but designated hitter Kendrys Morales was the runner at first. He wasn’t fleet enough to send. “We’re going to get him, sooner or later,” Jirschele told Moore. Jirschel reminded Cain about it, too. “Jirsch did his homework,” Cain said. “He was really good at that.”

At first base, after his leadoff walk in Game 6, Cain received one last note from Kuntz: On a ball down the line, he needed to give Jirschele a chance. The information stuck with Cain as Eric Hosmer engaged with Osuna. Hosmer was struggling to catch up with Osuna’s fastball. But with two strikes, Osuna tried a changeup. Hosmer smashed it down the right-field line.

At third base, watching the hit land in the grass, Jirschele perked up. “Every third-base coach,” he said, “looks for plays like that.” On contact, Cain took off, digging hard for third. “I give Lorenzo all the credit in the world, because he never slowed up,” Jirschele said. Hosmer sprinted toward first. Kuntz signaled for Hosmer to push for a double. Bautista gloved the ball. He spun and read to throw. As he did, Hosmer pounded through the bag and made a hard turn toward second. “That’s why he bit,” Royals executive JJ Picollo said. “If Hoz just checks up into first base, the play doesn’t happen.”

Bautista looped a throw to second. Hosmer hit the brakes and settled for a single. He did not mind.

Because Cain never stopped running.

“I just wanted to do my part and hustle all the way to third,” Cain said. “They teach us to keep running, keep running hard. You never know what’s going to happen.”

When Jirschele saw Bautista release the ball, he waved Cain home. The throw bounced to shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. He had no luck. The rest of the Royals engulfed Cain after he crossed the plate. The team held on to win the game and the series. A couple of weeks later, the franchise won its first championship since 1985.

Cain could, indeed, fly. But the wind beneath those wings required an entire organization.

The deciding sequence against Toronto needed a remarkable confluence of scouting, coaching, athleticism and execution. Hosmer credited Cain for not slowing down. Cain credited Jirschele for giving him the sign. Jirschele and Kuntz credited Zumwalt for providing the tip. Zumwalt, who now directs the team’s big-league hitting program, credited the men in uniform. It took all of them. The scouts found the tell and shared it with the coaches. The coaches informed the players. The players made it happen, under tremendous pressure, with a series on the line.

“It’s the perfect baseball play,” Picollo said. “Everything was executed exactly the way you want it to be executed.”

(Picture: Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

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