By any account, it has been a glorious summer. The Royals dashed out of the gate, winning their first seven games of the season. They have never been more than a game out of first place at any time. They have been in first for 154 days this season. On June 9, the Royals beat the Twins 2-0, behind six-plus innings from starter Chris Young (signed prior to the season as a free agent) and established permanent residency in first place in the American League Central.
On September 24, the Royals beat the Mariners 10-4, behind seven innings from starter Johnny Cueto (acquired on July 26 from the Cincinnati Reds for John Lamb, Brandon Finnegan and Cody Reed) to finish the journey.
The Royals are the 2015 American League Central Division champions.
It’s been so long. So, so long. The Royals racked up division titles so often, winning six in a span of 10 seasons, but this dry spell lasted 30 years. Who cares? It’s ancient history now.
Throughout this summer, the focus has been on this team winning the division. At the start of the season, it didn’t seem likely. Spare me the PECOTAs and ZiPS, but to just about any clear-eyed observer, it was obvious this division would be tight. Sometimes, the obvious gets turned upside down. That’s why baseball is so beautiful. You think you know, but you never really do. At least not until the final out is recorded.
Last year, it was all about the Wild Card kickstarting a roll through October. The Wild Card was the greatest game I’ve ever witnessed, but winning the division is something special. It’s going in through the front door. With style. It’s about not sweating a one-game playoff, it’s about sitting at home with a cold one, waiting to see who you’re going to match up with in the first round. The Royals have the luxury of setting their starting rotation, balancing their lineup, finding the proper roster, and arming their bullpen.
They get to do this, because they are champions.
(Yes, the Royals don’t have home field wrapped up just yet. With the win, they are now two games ahead of the Blue Jays with 10 games left. Bear with me.)
The game was a bit of a see-saw affair in the early innings. The Royals jumped first, thanks to Ben Zobrist (acquired on July 28 from the Oakland A’s for Sean Manaea and Aaron Brooks). He doubled to get to second and scored when Mariners catcher Jesus Sucre tried to pick him off but has his throw deflect off Zobrist’s hip and into right field. It was kind of a microcosm play where the Royals simply out-hustled their opponents. Zobrist has been electric since coming to the Royals, hitting .303/.392/.479 in 49 games with Kansas City.
There was a bit of scoreboard watching as the Royals opened the game with a magic number of two. They needed not only to take care of business at home, they needed some help in the form of the Cleveland Indians beating the Minnesota Twins in Minneapolis. The games started at the same time, and the Indians did their part by jumping to a 3-0 lead in the first.
Meanwhile, Cueto gave the run back in the second, but Mike Moustakas (1st round draft pick, 2007) pushed his team back in front with his 21st home run of the season, a career high. If there is anyone who embodies what these champion Royals are all about, it’s Moustakas. After seeing his offensive production decline in each of the previous two seasons to levels that were alarming (and that’s putting it kindly), the Royals third baseman spent this winter rededicating himself to refining his offensive approach. It hasn’t always worked, but the overall results have simply been astonishing. OK, maybe you predicted 90+ wins and a division championship for the Royals, but there was no way you could have seen this monster year from Moustakas. A line of .282/.347/.467 with a 124 wRC+? Are you kidding me?
Moustakas has battled some heavy shit this summer, leaving the team twice to be with his mom, she passed away last month. I can’t imagine the intestinal fortitude it takes for a guy who has never really even been major league average with the bat, to turn it on like he has this year with the issues he’s been dealing with. Notice how when he rounds first on his home runs, he looks skyward… Damn. (Incidentally, I was able to hold it together pretty much all evening. Then I watched the highlight montage from Fox Sports Kansas City at the end of the broadcast. The whole thing was great, but when they played the clip of the Moustakas grand slam in Baltimore and then let the shot roll to show him looking up after he hit first, just made me an emotional wreck. I lost it.)
Cueto gave up three consecutive hits to open the fourth and the Mariners jumped back in front. At the same time, the Royals bats, facing reliever Mayckol Guaipe, just looked feeble. Thankfully, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon decided that everyone in his bullpen would get a participation ribbon or something. Deciding to play match-up baseball in the fifth, he summoned lefty Rob Rasmussen to face Eric Hosmer (1st round draft pick, 2008).
Rasmussen delivered a slider that slid over the heart of the plate and Hosmer blasted it to dead center. Hosmer is having a helluva season. His current wRC+ of 126 would be a career-high.
There’s been so much focus on the struggles of the Royals, as it appears they were limping to the finish line, but this team has been scoring runs in September, averaging nearly 5.5 runs per game. The middle of the order has a lot to do with this. On Thursday, the offense put Cueto on their collective back, kicked on the afterburners and let it fly.
In the sixth, after Alex Gordon (1st round draft pick, 2005) walked, Zobrist followed with a double. Two outs, two runners in scoring position and the exact situation where the Royals had scuffled the previous game and a half. On Wednesday, they left 16 runners on base. On Thursday, they had left six on base through the first three innings. It wasn’t that the offense was sputtering. It was they were, for the moment, highly inefficient.
Up stepped the Royals most consistent player of the 2015 season.
McClendon must have been reading his binder in a mirror because he allowed his lefty specialist, Beimel, to remain in the game to face Lorenzo Cain (acquired on December 19, 2010 from the Milwaukee Brewers for Zack Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt). Cain kills left-handed pitching, hitting .333/.389/.565 against them this season. Cain worked the count to his favor at 3-1, looked at a strike and then spoiled a couple of pitches before, on the eighth pitch of the at bat he lashed a single to left to break the tie. The MVP of the 2014 ALCS looks to be getting ready for his return to the big stage.
(Yes, he wandered too far off first and TOOTBLANed the Royals out of the inning, but considering the circumstances, there’s just no way to be mad about that. That single nearly lifted Kauffman Stadium off it’s foundation.)
More runs in the seventh. After Hosmer and Moustakas reached, Alex Rios (signed as a free agent prior to the 2015 season) singled up the middle to plate one. Alcides Ecobar (acquired on December 19, 2010 from the Milwaukee Brewers for Zack Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt) hit a slow roller to second that the Mariners were able to convert to just a single out and another run scored.
In Minneapolis, the Indians had opened a 6-0 lead, but the Twins were chipping away. They scored one in the seventh and were in the process of adding two more in the eighth. Although, as Royals fans, perhaps we should thank the Seattle manager McClendon for bringing his Bullpen Carousel to The K. His pitching changes extended the game and allowed the Indians-Twins tilt to move about an inning ahead of the action in Kansas City. If the Royals were to clinch, they would do it with the final out in their game. There would be no waiting for updates.
It was at this point, Ned Yost went to his bullpen. Seven strong innings from Cueto got the Royals to within six outs of the division title. The news earlier in the day that Greg Holland (10th round draft pick, 2007) was to be shut down for the rest of the year and was a candidate for Tommy John surgery, didn’t affect the bullpen so much as it confirmed the fears his injury was indeed serious. Farewell, HDH. It was a glorious run. Yost remains a manager who likes to define most – if not all of the roles – for his bullpen. That means while the first H and D move back to the eighth and ninth respectively, there is a casting call afoot for the seventh inning. Although the game was in the eighth, Kelvin Herrera (signed as an amateur free agent, 2006) pitched the evening before, throwing 22 pitches. He would get the night off. In his stead, Ryan Madson (signed as free agent, 2015), who before this season had last pitched in the majors in 2011. Madson was signed as a surplus guy. Someone the Royals could take a look at in spring training, with perhaps some long odds to make the team. He impressed enough, he earned a spot. It was a long road back for Madson, but here he was, throwing a key inning in a game that could clinch a division championship. He’s been terrific for the Royals, striking out 54 in 59 innings while posting a 2.28 ERA. Just another cog in a deadly bullpen machine.
The Royals added two more in the bottom of the inning. A ten run explosion that made the outcome academic. In Minnesota, the Twins cut the lead in half, but could do no more. In the age of smartphones, a ripple went through the crowd at the stadium. The Indians did their part and the Royals magic number was one. The roar became louder when the result was posted on the board. The fans knew. They were there for one reason. They were going to get what they paid for on Thursday.
They needed to wait for three more outs. Three stinking outs were all that was left to finally wash away the last 30 years. Those outs were in the hands of Wade Davis (acquired December 9, 2012 from the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for Patrick Leonard, Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi, and Wil Myers).
Fitting it was Davis, whose arrival in Kansas City, along with James Shields, heralded these new Royals. It signaled that they were no longer content with being the mediocre team. With their young talent coming through the pipeline in Phase One of The Process, it was time to compliment that talent to get the team to the next level. The Royals have had difficulty developing starting pitching. They dipped into their farm system to grab some by other means. Fans howled. The Royals preached patience and stressed they did, in fact, have a plan.
The plan has been a resounding success. Since the start of the 2013 season, no team in the AL has won more games.
Take a moment and read the above paragraph again. Yes, since the start of 2013, the Royals have been the class of the American League. Yes, they advanced to the World Series as a Wild Card, but this kind of longevity is legit. They are officially the team to beat.
How fitting was it for Davis to close out this game? Shields has moved on, but Davis now occupies the most important role in this bullpen. He struggled mightily when he arrived in KC as a starter. He has been nothing but lights out since moving to the bullpen. For a moment, perhaps, Davis acknowledged his beginnings. His first pitch was launched into the seats in right. He then walked the next batter. Surely, not with this lead…
Hey. Snap out of it. It’s the Wade Davis Experience. No worries here.
He dispatched the next two hitters on strikes. With two outs, he coaxed Kyle Seager into hitting a ground ball to first. Hosmer fielded, Davis raced to the bag to receive the throw…
This team has given us a most amazing summer. Nobody knows what October holds. It will likely be a grind to get back to where they want to go. So for now, forgive me if I just want to enjoy the moment and bask in the first division title since 1985.
I’m sure you noticed in this post, I noted how each player was acquired. That was a tip of the cap to the architect of this team, General Manager Dayton Moore. He and his staff have built this team. It hasn’t always been easy, but the payoff has been sweet. Through good drafts, a solid international scouting department, savvy free agent signings, and some massive trades, the Royals front office has returned Kansas City to relevance in the baseball world. The last 12 months have been a most amazing ride.
All hail the AL Central Division Champs.