The Royals scored four runs Thursday. They gave up two.
That's a win, a rare win, a thrilling win on the day Royals legend George Brett returned to the dugout to try to help save a once-again sinking team.
That's a win -- except that by baseball rules, it almost wasn't.
And that's a problem.
Remember the damage control MLB had to do a few weeks back after two straight bad umpiring decisions? Imagine the damage control that would have been required if the team that scored more runs had been declared the loser. Imagine trying to explain how the Royals woke up with a nine-game losing streak after a game they where they outscored the Cardinals.
It could have happened. It easily could have happened, because last winter, baseball quietly reverted to one of the worst rules that was ever on the books.
Here's what happened:
The Royals trailed 2-1 after eight innings but scored three times in the ninth to take a 4-2 lead. Then the rain got so heavy that there was no way the game could continue. The rain kept up for five hours, then finally let up in time for the bottom of the ninth to be played a little after 3 a.m. local time. Royals closer Greg Holland pitched a 1-2-3 ninth, and the Royals had their 4-2 win.
However ... if the rain hadn't let up, eventually the game would have had to be called. And in that case, under a rule change implemented last winter, the score would have reverted to what it was at the end of the last full inning (the eighth). The three Royals runs in the ninth wouldn't have counted, and the Cardinals would have won, 2-1.
The new rule was put in place only for the final game between two teams in a season. From a scheduling and logistics standpoint, it makes perfect sense, avoiding the need to potentially fly a team across the country to get three outs. It also encourages umpires to do exactly what crew chief Joe West did Thursday, wait as long as possible in an effort to resume the game.
West gets plenty of criticism, much of it justified. But in this case he was right.
It's the rule that's wrong.
Years ago, the "revert back" rule was in the books for all games. One of the best rules changes baseball has made was to dump it, and replace it with the suspended-game rule. If the visiting team ties the game or goes ahead in the top of an inning and the bottom of the inning can't be played, the game is suspended. Runs that score aren't taken off the board.
Last winter, the rule was changed again. Rule 4.12(b)(4) was added, saying that for the final scheduled game between two teams in a season, the "revert back" rule is back. With unbalanced schedules and interleague play every day of the season, the final scheduled game between two teams could be as early as the third day of the regular season.
The Cardinals and Royals played four times this year. Thursday's game was their last, so the "revert back" rule was in play.
It nearly cost the Royals a memorable win. It nearly gave baseball a needless black eye.
Fortunately Joe West waited. Fortunately the rain stopped before the sun came up.
The next time, baseball may not be so fortunate.