While the Giants and Cardinals are about to get their Game 5 underway, we already know which team is representing the American League in the World Series, and it would have been a tough one to predict coming out of spring training. The Royals have been on a remarkable run this postseason. They’re quite different from the Yankees in almost every way, and today Paul White took a look at the unusual American League champions for USA Today. It’s a nice read on a night when the World Series matchup might become complete. Here’s Paul:
They have nearly a week before the reality of a World Series sets in:
The Royals players, running so fast and playing so hot they don’t dare stop to figure out what they’ve just accomplished;
The Kansas City community, euphorically coming out of a three-decades cycle of disappointment to indifference to unfulfilled anticipation.
“I dream it all the time,” says Jarrod Dyson, Royals outfielder, pinch-runner and spokesman for the speed game that has become the trademark of what’s becoming a postseason of historic proportions. “I just didn’t know what year it was going to happen. But it seems like this is the year right here. You never know when you’re going to get back in this position, so you have to take advantage of it.”
Royals fans know how excruciating that wait can be. Wednesday’s 2-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles and American League Championship Series sweep sends the Royals into the franchise’s first World Series since 1985, a series that begins Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium.
Two runs in the first inning, with the only hit an infield single, more spectacular defense and another 11 outs from Kansas City’s infallible bullpen was the familiar formula for a team threatening to redefine destiny.
“There’s no better weapons,” says manager Ned Yost. “Speed and the defense and the bullpen.
“It goes back to playing the game the way the game was built to be played. It’s exciting baseball. I think we’ve made a bunch of new fans throughout the country. They’ve fallen in love with our team, our athleticism, our energy.”
The victory Wednesday was Kansas City’s eighth in a row in these playoffs, the first time any team has won its first eight games in a single postseason.
At 11 postseason wins and counting — going back to the 1985 World Series that could be reprised against the cross-state Cardinals — the Royals are one victory from that all-time record. Two incarnations of the Yankees won 12 in a row: The 1998-99 squads and the 1927, ’28 and ’32 teams from the World Series-only era.
Don’t go through the Royals clubhouse looking for much of that perspective.
“I can’t tell you,” says 24-year-old reliever Kelvin Herrera, who has combined with Wade Davis and Greg Holland for the most impactful part of the Royals’ success — forcing opponents to try to beat K.C. in the first six innings. “I’ve never been there. I’m so excited I can’t tell you.”
Dyson was asked if he comprehends how unbelievable this must be to Royals fans.
“Oh, they know,” he says. “I’m quite sure they know.”
Yes, reality, which is scheduled to kick in again Tuesday. Then again, consider the way this team has played since its unlikely come-from-behind wild-card win over Oakland on the eve of October.
That’s the point for a team and a fan base so used to this sudden and stimulating success that victory has become an assumption.
History gives us the 2007 Colorado Rockies, the last team to win its first seven games of a playoff year. Those Rockies were on a 10-game roll dating back to the end of the regular season and a 163rd game with San Diego just to be, like these Royals, a wild card.
And those Rockies lost 13-1 in Game 1 of the World Series to Boston, which made the eventual sweep quick and merciful.
Yes, Colorado had eight off days after the NLCS to lose its momentum. These Royals will have five. And there’s nothing resembling the ’07 Red Sox waiting at the next stop on this wild ride.
More important is how real the October incarnation of the Royals is.
Remember, this is a team that had a 13-2 stretch in June to go from 6.5 games behind Detroit to the lead in the AL Central — then lost 18 of its next 27.
They went 41-23 after July 22, one win behind Baltimore for the most over that stretch, this a year after the Royals had the best record in the American League after the All-Star break. Maybe these Royals were waiting to break out last season only to have their playoff push fall a few days short.
What’s really different about the playoff Royals? And is it sustainable?
Everything is up from 2013: batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and most notably their home run rate.
They’ve heard incessantly how they don’t hit homers — fewest in the majors this season, fewest in the AL two years running — so much so it’s considered a given.
Part of that is by design, as first base coach Rusty Kuntz explains.
“(General manager) Dayton Moore had this vision: Let’s try the speed deal,” says Kuntz, who’s behind much of the Royals’ basepaths mayhem. “Speed costs a whole lot less than power. If we can get the right guys and the right program and get them to buy into it and apply it and all the fun stuff, maybe it will work.”
These guys do buy in. Not only did they lead the majors in stolen bases, they also had the lowest strikeout rate. Make contact, put the ball in play, but there’s more this postseason. The Royals batters have improved a major league worst walk rate, taking free passes more than 35 percent more frequently, an attribute that’s more discipline and focus than pure skill.
But there’s also a near forgotten “whatever-happened-to” aspect of the power outage.
Third baseman Mike Moustakas, who bats ninth but leads the team with four postseason homers, once hit 36 in a season to lead the minor leagues just four years ago. Power was one of the reasons he and first baseman Eric Hosmer were first-round picks in 2007 and 2008, also one of the reasons Royals fans have been hearing for several years how a core of homegrown players was about to change the franchise.
“We’re in the early stages of a window where this team has a chance to keep winning,” Moore says. “They’re not in the prime years of their careers yet. They’re still getting better.”
That fits for most of these Royals, a group that learned how to win in the minors.
Eight of the Royals active for the ALCS won the 2011 Pacific Coast League championship, five won the Texas League the year before. Moustakas played on a team that won at least a division title every year he played in the minors (2007-11).
“It was important for us to try to win in the minor leagues because we hadn’t won at the major league level,” Moore says. “We had nothing to hold our hat on here at the major league level.”
They only really found it as recently as the wild card game against Oakland, Yost insists and the players agree, about the time the rest of the world began discovering these Royals.
“It’s a world of difference from that point on,” Yost says. “Something clicked and all of a sudden. These guys were immune to any type of pressure, any type of situation and they totally believed.”
Still, Yost admits despite getting to six World Series as a player and coach, his leg was shaking as Holland tried to get the final three outs.
“I tried to hold it in and not give off the appearance of being nervous,” he says. “I didn’t want Holland looking over and seeing me all fidgety.”
It didn’t take long for the 40,000-plus in Kaufmann Stadium to be dancing all over the place, players circling the field and running across the dugout roof, players’ wives wearing their playoff shirts with numbers and names such as Mrs. Moose (Moustakas) and Mrs. Big Dub (Davis).
The Royals have proclaimed themselves for real.
“When you have got a group of players that are young, enthusiastic, and athletic, that have great chemistry, that have won championships together, you know it’s a matter of time,” Yost says. “Now, did some of our fans get a little impatient? Yeah, a little bit. But you can see why — 29 years.”
It’s not over yet.
Associated Press photos