Wait... We're In The World Series?
The Royals defy explanation. I can think of no modifiers, no superlatives, no description capable of encapsulating the Royals' run to the 2014 World Series. In 2013, the team finished just out of the wild card race. In 2014, the team won a wild card slot, ensuring postseason baseball in Kansas City for the first time in 29 years. Then they forgot to lose.Small Ball
As mentioned in a previous essay, modern baseball is a game of power: power hitting and power pitching. The 2014 Royals don't hit for power. The team hit 95 home runs, last in baseball. No single player hit more than 19. The team also finished last in walks. Kansas City doesn't have a power-pitching staff in the conventional sense. For every Yordano Ventura fastball reaching 95 m.p.h., Jason Vargas will lob an 87 m.p.h. softie toward a hungry hitter.
But for the Royal faults, the team somehow won just enough games through the little thing. They played good defense; they pitched just well enough to stay in the game; they stole bases; they manufactured runs. If they had a lead by the end of the sixth, they usually kept it.Lights Out
Swinging a bat often looked futile against Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Hitters seemed helpless. I can't explain why. But what the Royals lacked in power in the starting rotation, they surpassed in the bullpen. If Kansas City could get a lead by the end of the sixth, the opponent often folded against Herrera, Davis and Holland in the seventh, eighth and ninth. Kelvin Herrera throws with the fire of a thousand suns. Wade Davis, only in relief because of a season-ending injury to Luke Hochevar, had one of the best seasons of any relief pitcher this year. Greg Holland closes games with sliders like waterfalls. If another team has fallen behind after six innings, that team is likely not coming back.Regular Season
At the start of the season, a fair number of baseball writers thought the Royals had enough juice to contend for a wild card spot. Kansas City did its part. The team kept pace with the powerful Detroit Tigers in the American League's central division. The Royals even took over first place for a while in June. As in years past, a good stretch often led to a baffling series of losses. The lowly Houston Astros swept the Royals early. Just after the All-Star break, the surprisingly terrible Boston Red Sox ran circles around Kansas City. The Royals went from two games ahead of the Tigers to four games back in swift fashion. In mid-July, it certainly seemed like the Royals would stagger to the finish.
At the trade deadline, the Royals could have tipped in either direction. Trade to compete now, or trade for prospects. The Royals chose competition, though with limited resources. The already-powerful Tigers added Cy Young-award pitcher David Price to a staff that already had two such award winners. In the same trade, the Mariners added center fielder Austin Jackson. The Athletics traded for ace pitcher Jon Lester. The Royals' moves included the following:
--utility IF Danny Valencia traded to Blue Jays for C Erik Kratz and P Liam Hendriks --Acquired relief pitcher Jason Frasor from Rangers for minor leaguer --Acquired DH Josh Willingham from Twins for minor leaguer --Signed 42-year-old OF Raul Ibanez
Those moves don't scream contenders. The changes also led to Christian Colon becoming the backup infielder, and the release of backup catcher Brett Hayes. During roster expansion, the organization also promoted its first-round draft pick from June, TCU pitcher Brandon Finnegan, all the way to the major league club.
Then we have the curious case of Terrance Gore. Promoted from A-level Wilmington, Gore looked barely old enough to be out of high school. He had no plate awareness, as far as I know. But Gore might be the fastest player in baseball. Coupled with Jarrod Dyson, the Royals suddenly had two pinch runners capable of stealing a base at any moment.Wild Night
The Royals clinched a wild card spot on September 26th after losing hold of the A.L. Central lead. The team finished with 89 wins, a game out of first place. But for the first time in 29 years, postseason baseball greeted Kansas City. The Oakland A's would play the Royals for a spot in the divisional series. Moneyball vs. Anti-Moneyball. This wild card game matched the team built on stats and a budget vs. the team that swung at everything.
K.C. and Oakland started their aces, James Shields and Jon Lester. The Royals had a terrible history against Lester. They managed to get to him, though, getting a few runs. Unfortunately, Oakland scored seven, and led 7-3 in the eighth inning. Then things started to go the Royals' way. Hits fell. They stole seven bases. Amazingly, the team tied the game in the bottom of the ninth. Oakland retook the lead in extra innings, and Kansas City came back again, winning in 12 innings.Playing For Sweeps
The wild card game is like the play-in game for the NCAA basketball tournament. It is postseason play, but it doesn't feel like it. Enter the ALDS. The Royals finally had a series, and their reward for a wild card win was a match with the Angels. Mike Trout. Albert Pujols. Yet somehow it didn't matter. The Royals played loose and free. They looked youthful, much quicker than the Angels. Although not powerful nor disciplined at the plate, above-average pitching and terrific defense kept the Royals in the games. They won the first two in extra innings. A third game at home proved to be a rout, and the party was on that Sunday night. The Royals, out of the postseason since 1985, now had an ALCS date.
Would you believe the Royals swept the Orioles too? Four games. Four wins. After so many years of futility, it felt like an eruption of water had suddenly brought life to the desert. No matter what the pitching yielded, the Royals found just enough offense to cover for it. Players who struggled all season suddenly looked competent. Four games. Four wins. The excitement built in Kansas City. This team could be in the World Series. Royals shirts, often relegated far behind the Chiefs gear, suddenly became a hot-selling item. Four games. Four wins. 8-6, 6-4, 2-1, 2-1... Kansas City had just enough juice each time. The anticipation felt terrifying and joyous. Each pitch dripped with sweat. Nothing bad could happen. Nothing could take it away from us now. We really had a World Series appearance on the horizon. And when the Royals completed that final out, I'm sure men all over Kansas City cried. We were really going to the World Series. I had been in the third grade in 1985. Now I'm nearly 40.Destiny vs. Dynasty
Thanks to the American League's victory in the All-Star Game, the Royals would have home-field advantage in the World Series. The Royals had traditionally played well vs. National League teams and even swept the Giants this regular season. But Madison Bumgarner, though, what a kick in the gut he proved to be. The Royals lost all three games in which he pitched: games one, five and seven. I think we perhaps scored one run off the guy in three games. Although the series went seven games, game four proved to be the decider. To be so close, with the tying run 90 feet away in the bottom of the ninth inning of game seven, it stings. No one remembers the losing team. But man, what a run the Royals had in October 2014. In a town bereft of baseball success for so long, it felt like the best vacation in years.