Our Blue Heaven

Steamrolling toward their first division title since 1985, the Royals have their sights set on a return trip to the World Series this month.



   Here's the funny part about the Royals: Not many baseball experts expected this from them again.

     Previewing the American League Central in April, espn.com projected that the Royals would be 81-81 and would have to settle for a third-place finish in 2015. Jonah Keri, Grantland's lead baseball writer whose knowledge of the game is usually unassailable, predicted that the Royals would languish in fourth place. Only a few brave souls dared to pick the Royals to win the division.

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SLUGGerrr

 

    Those few were rewarded. And those who didn't underestimated the Royals at their own peril. As I write this article at press time in late August, not only are the Royals winning the Central — and make no mistake, there's no way they aren't — they are winning in a canter. They're the American Pharaoh of the division, the best horse in a stable full of challengers that simply can't keep up.

     Even in a season that hasn't quite boasted the kind of starting pitching that catapulted them to the World Series last year, and even with a couple more injuries, the Royals are doing almost everything right. They out-work everyone so much that they play as though every game is a must-win — and their uncanny ability to get the key hit is almost frightening. Even when they're not exactly playing their best, they adopt the old Marty Schottenheimer philosophy when his Chiefs teams would play the Raiders: Just wait for them to screw up, and we'll win anyway.

     It was percolating like this in the 2013 season, when manager Ned Yost's team was 86-76. But with the validation of an American League pennant with their first division title since 1985, and in runaway fashion, it's really reaching its apex now. Royals fans can't get enough of this latest Golden Age of baseball in Kansas City, filling Kauffman Stadium to the brim and shattering ratings records on TV. With one of the best home records in baseball, it's usually not a question of if they win, but who gets the Gatorade shower in the post-game interview after they win.

     In the front office, on the field and in the stands, the Royals have put together another exhilarating season before the first pitch of the playoffs is thrown on Oct. 6, in the first Wild Card game.

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NATIONAL ANTHEM AT KAUFFMAN STADIUM

 

A Winning Roster 

      What made so many baseball writers skeptical about the Royals' prospects in 2015 was that they were unimpressed with the offseason signings, and they weren't sure the team could adequately replace James Shields in the starting rotation. For some, the signing of designated hitter Kendrys Morales was a misbegotten attempt to install a power bat into the lineup after trading Billy Butler to Oakland, basing that on Morales' unproductive 2014 with two teams. Lumping fellow signee Alex Rios into the conversation, ESPN's David Schoenfield called it "subtraction by addition."

     But as much as Kansas City loved its “Country Breakfast” (the affectionate nickname for Butler), the upgrade has been monumental. A healthier Morales has been one of the league leaders in doubles and RBI, and he's delivered multiple game-winning hits. Not that Oakland's offense is a juggernaut, but at the same time Morales had 90 RBI, Butler had 48.

     Edinson Volquez was brought in to fill the Shields void, and he's been the most consistent starting pitcher for the Royals this season. He's led the team in wins and strikeouts while having a totally respectable ERA in the 3s. But as a unit, the number of quality starts has been below the league average and they were devoid of an ace. No doubt thinking about the playoffs, general manager Dayton Moore traded for Johnny Cueto, the kind of guy who wants the ball in pivotal games in October.

     With pitchers like Cole Hamels and David Price also on the trading block, the Royals were more interested in Cueto, the former All-Star with the Cincinnati Reds who's known for his repertoire of funky windups. (His latest creation is a pause, shake and shimmy that he calls "The Rocking Chair.") And as a member of the Royals, he confounded hitters right away, pitching a complete game shutout against the Tigers in his second start with the team. In his next start, he held the Angels to one run in eight innings.

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Johnny cueto

     Also at the trade deadline, the Royals acquired Ben Zobrist, baseball's version of the Swiss Army Knife. Can you play some second base? Of course. Can you shift to third base for a bit? Sure. Can you play left field while Alex Gordon's on the disabled list? You bet. Can you hit while you're doing all that? Absolutely. In his first 18 games as a Royal, Zobrist had seven multi-hit games, and on Aug. 1, he hit two home runs: one in the first inning and another to tie the game in the eighth as the Royals beat the Blue Jays 7-6 in Toronto. On Aug. 18, Reds closer/flamethrower Aroldis Chapman blew a save opportunity when Zobrist hit a solo homer against him in the ninth inning that tied the score 1-1. The Royals would win that game too in 13 innings.

     Unlike previous regimes, it seems like Moore has the Midas touch with many of the deals he's made. When the Royals traded Zack Greinke to the Brewers, two players they got in return were Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, who both played in their first All-Star Game in July. At first, it looked like the Royals were mortgaging their future when they traded homegrown prospect Wil Myers to the Tampa Bay Rays for Shields and Wade Davis. And it looked like the Rays won the trade when Myers was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2013. But Shields' 14 wins were crucial to last year's playoff push, while Davis is one of the most feared relievers in the game.

     With quality players all around them, the core group of guys who started out in the Royals' farm system have flourished in 2015. Eric Hosmer has been raking all season. Salvy Perez, resident Gatorade shower instigator, is as imposing as ever behind the plate. Despite a rough July and early August, the Moose was loose as Mike Moustakas batted .301 in the first half of the season and made his first All-Star team.

 

Stellar Stats and Plays of the Day

     Together, these Royals are playing some astonishing baseball statistically. Opposing pitchers would normally exhale when they get the first two outs of an inning. With the Royals, that's when they usually start their best rallies. Collectively, they have the best batting average in baseball with two outs. Furthermore, the Royals own a substantial lead in hitting with runners on base and two outs, and in one of the money categories, they lead the American League in batting average with runners in scoring position and two outs.

     The Aug. 24 game against the Orioles is but one illustration of their situational hitting. Baltimore starter Ubaldo Jiménez was faced with the fairly manageable task of pitching with a runner on second and two outs. Then, Moustakas hit a two-run homer. Then there was an infield single by Perez. A double by Rios. A two-run triple over the outfielders' heads by Omar Infante, who scored on a wild throw to third. Then an Escobar single. A Zobrist single. And a Cain single that drove in tow runs. All told, the Royals scored seven runs with two outs in the sixth inning, turning a 3-1 deficit into an 8-3 rout.

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OMAR INFANTE

     You can pick any number of games where the Royals have brutalized a pitcher this way. How about when Tampa Bay pitcher Chris Archer got rocked on July 8? Archer, one of the great young arms in baseball and an All-Star this season, had a 3-2 lead in the fifth inning but was in a two-on, two-out jam. One good pitch could get him out of the inning. But Cain singled, Hosmer singled, Morales doubled and Perez singled all in a row, and five runs later, the Royals led 7-3. It was Archer's worst outing of the season to date.

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LORENZO CAIN

 

     In fact, the Royals have had great success against the aces of other staffs. Pirates star Gerrit Cole pitched beautifully into the eighth inning on July 21, but he couldn't seal the deal as he surrendered three runs in the eighth. Astros All-Star starter Dallas Keuchel (five runs on 10 hits) and Athletics ace Sonny Gray (11 hits) also ran into a buzzsaw with personal season highs against the Royals.

     Even with a couple of uncharacteristically sketchy outings in the second half of the season, such as the weird blown save on Aug. 13 in a 7-6 loss to the Angels, the Royals' bullpen continues to be a force. Ata presstime they have the second lowest ERA in baseball, and they're near the MLB lead in opponents' batting average. And until that hiccup against the Angels, the Royals had won 111 consecutive games when leading after seven innings, the second-longest such streak in baseball since 1914. Only the 1998 and 1999 World Champions The New York Yankees had a longer streak at 115 games.

     And in the field, the Royals are a source of awe, raising the bar for ESPN's Web Gems. The defensive play of the year — nay, the millennium — should be awarded to the Royals' infield for whatever wizardry they concocted July 28 in Cleveland in the bottom of the ninth. The Indians' Roberto Perez hit a tough ground ball up the middle to Infante, who had enough trust to backhand-flip the ball — in his glove hand, mind you — to Escobar, who bare-handed it and then rifled it to Hosmer at first to record the out.

     There have also been too many great catches in the outfield to count. Gordon can put together another spectacular left-field mixtape, which would definitely consist of robbing Home Run Derby champ Todd Frazier of extra bases while slamming into the fence against the Reds and leaping into the stands and mowing down people in the third row to catch a foul ball hit by Micah Johnson of the White Sox.

     With a growing list of statistical superlatives, no wonder the All-Star ballot box was stuffed with Royals: It all speaks to how thoroughly dominant the Royals have been in 2015 and what a chore it is to beat them.

 

Fan Frenzy

     It's cool to be a Royals fan again, and you see it everywhere in Kansas City. In restaurants, in shopping malls and in grocery stores, folks are decked out in Royal blue. And you're nobody if you don't have your Royals gear on at the K, which has been rocking and rolling for every game. The Royals have drawn 2 million fans to Kauffman Stadium for the first time since 1991, and because that figure was eclipsed in mid-August, it was the fastest they've ever gotten to the two-million mark.

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KAUFFMAN STADIUM

 

     Television ratings are through the roof. In the Royals' 4-3 win over the Angels in extra innings on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, it registered a 19.8 rating, the highest ever for any game of any kind on the Worldwide Leader in the Kansas City market and the highest ratings in any market for a Sunday Night Baseball game since 2009. On Fox Sports Kansas City, ratings in the first half of this season increased by an extraordinary 120 percent compared with the first half of 2014, according to Sports Business Daily. The last team to have a similar local rating to the Royals' 12.06 is the 2007 Boston Red Sox, the team that won the 2007 World Series.

 

The Hunt for Blue October

     Can the Royals make another storybook run to the World Series? The personnel is there, and most of the new faces like Cueto and Zobrist have post-season experience just like their teammates. There is no team that intimidates the Royals, and to win playoff games against them would require a pitching staff that doesn't get easily intimidated either. The Astros have one such rotation that would be a thorny proposition for any team, much less the Royals.

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kansas city royals celebrate another victory

 

     Another potential playoff matchup could be with the Toronto Blue Jays, a team with a terrifying lineup, an improving bullpen, and an ace in David Price. The Jays and Royals had a testy four-game series in Toronto, and a rematch of the 1985 ALCS may only reignite the animosity. Should the Yankees make the playoffs and face the Royals, it would be a series dripping with nostalgia from all their classic battles of the 1970s.

     Whoever they play, the Royals need to rely on two strengths to have more playoff success: their bullpen and their plate discipline. If they keep putting zeroes on the scoreboard and string more of their usual rallies together offensively, they could be the team to beat.

     The stage is set for the Royals to possibly exchange those Gatorade coolers for Champagne bottles.