In the ninth inning of the Royals’ 14-2 demolition of the Blue Jays in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, Pennington became the first current full-time position player to pitch in the postseason. Babe Ruth and Rick Ankiel have played and pitched in the postseason before, but neither pitched while playing a regular position full-time.
“I guess that’s pretty cool,” Pennington said when apprised of his connection to Ruth. “Maybe I can hit  homers and join him in that group, too.”
A confluence of events led to Pennington heading out to the bullpen in the ninth inning. The Royals had annihilated starter R.A. Dickey and relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Ryan Tepera. Manager John Gibbons needed to keep his best relievers, Aaron Sanchez and closer Roberto Osuna, in reserve for Wednesday’s Game 5. Lefty reliever Aaron Loup had left the team for a family emergency. He did not want to overtax Mark Lowe, who also pitched in Game 3.
And so Gibbons faced the prospect no manager relishes: Sending a fielder to the mound. Pennington reported to the bullpen at the start of the inning. As Lowe struggled, he started warming up.
“I threw three pitches,” Pennington said. “I’m a position player. That’s all I needed.”
Once Lowe hit Alex Gordon with a pitch, Gibbons decided it would not be fair let Lowe dangle any longer. He strode to the mound.
“It was getting so ugly,” Gibbons said. “You try to have a little pride, anyway. I hate to use position players. Maybe we made history today, I don’t know. A big game like that, a position player pitches.”
As Gibbons trudged, the crowd, or at least what remained of it, rose. They had noticed Pennington throwing in the bullpen, and they yearned for the oddity of watching him pitch.
“They were getting up before I even left the pen,” Pennington said. “It definitely helped me out.”
Catcher Russell Martin met Pennington at the mound. He asked Pennington what pitches he threw. “Fastball, curveball, change-up, cutter,” Pennington replied. The length of the list cracked up both men, even in a dire circumstance.
Pennington, of course, had not been chosen at random. He pitched a little at Texas A&M, when he would relieve games in which he otherwise played shortstop. Back then, he could regularly hit 95-96 miles per hour with his fastball. During his time with the Oakland A’s, he threw bullpen sessions to pitcher Brandon McCarthy for kicks.
“I was impressed,” Martin said. “He actually has good stuff. They were still able to manage a few hits, but I actually was impressed with his stuff. He actually has a good change-up.”
Pennington’s first pitch hummed at 91 mph to Paulo Orlando. Pennington backed it up with a curveball. He broke Orlando’s bat with another fastball, but the ball blooped into center field for a single. Alcides Escobar singled on another 91-mph fastball. Finally, Pennington escaped the inning when Ben Zobrist – who had homered off Dickey – popped up.
“I had no idea he was even in the bullpen,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “I think a lot of people were surprised at the stuff he was featuring out there. He was throwing some good stuff in there. I wanted no part of him, I’ll tell you that. Cliff’s got a good arm. He wasn’t trying to hold anything back today. He was letting it eat.”
Before Gibbons’s tortured decision, Royals Manager Ned Yost made a savvy pitching move that prevented the Blue Jays from making it a game. Yost lifted Young one out away from qualifying for a win, with the Royals up, 5-2, in the fifth. Yost made a necessary choice. Rather than let potential MVP Josh Donaldson see Young a third time, thereby diminishing Young’s deception, Yost called for reliever Luke Hochevar with a man on and two outs. Hochevar induced a pop-up, and then pitched a scoreless sixth.
It had been long forgotten by the time Gibbons called for Pennington. The Royals are frequently forcing difficult choices in the other dugout. Their offense has turned ballistic. In Game 4 of the ALDS, the Royals faced eliminated and trailed the Astros, 6-2, entering the eighth inning. Since that moment, they have scored 47 runs in 44 innings.
“I don’t know how they feel about us, but I know that we’re very confident in the team that we have,” right fielder Alex Rios said. “We have a very well-balanced team from top to bottom. You can’t ask for anything better. It’s all good.”