Classic Royals: Royals Clinch First Playoff Spot in 29 Years

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Credit: Jerry Lai, USA TODAY Sports

It feels strange to think this was ONLY three years ago, but back on September 27, 2014 the Kansas City Royals clinched their first playoff spot since 1985. We are all well aware of what happened next: the Royals would beat the A’s in the wildest baseball game I have ever seen and would continue to win all the way to the World Series that year. While the wild card game extracted most of the Kansas City demons, this game and the finality of wrapping up a playoff spot made all the naysayers and doubters clamp up. This was where all the pessimism went to die. Looking back, it’s funny how ingrained into my brain the highlights from 2014 and 2015 are. I can rattle off moments in full detail about those two seasons and games that I remember like they were played yesterday. There is a long road ahead for this franchise and I’m sure they will get back to this spot sooner rather than later. But for now, this is a great starting spot for the ride that was soon to follow. It was a ride that none of us expected but one that we all needed.

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This Dream Is Over

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I still remember where I was for the American League Wild Card game in 2014. I was stuck at work, but also knew that once I got to 8-8:30 or so I would have time to take in the game. When the 4th inning started, the Royals were ahead 3-2 and I went down the hall to knock out some recording (I work at a radio station). When I was done and returned to check up on the game, the Royals were down 7-3 as the A’s had put up a five-spot in the 6th inning. I uttered the words out loud ‘What happened?’ as my hopes and dreams for this game started to drift away. But then…the 8th inning happened, as the Royals stacked up another three runs. Then they tied it in the 9th…and then the 12th inning happened. I was still at work, past midnight, when Christian Colon would come in to score on the Salvador Perez hopper down the third base line and the celebration ensued. My co-worker at the time said it was “the happiest he had ever seen me” as we jumped up and down in excitement. That game was the beginning of this crazy ride that this group of players on the Kansas City Royals would take us on and this weekend it all comes to an end. For many of us, the last four years have been the best of times.

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Most of you know the story, or some semblance of it. Before 2013, the Royals hadn’t had a winning season since 2003 and had only one winning season since the 1995 campaign. The Royals had become the laughingstock of baseball during this time period and for most of that period ownership didn’t appear to be too concerned with putting winning baseball on the field. For those of us around during this time, we often refer to it as ‘The Dark Days’ and try move the topic away from that twenty year stretch. It wasn’t much fun to be a Royals fan and at numerous points I was asked why I still hung around. It was simple: this was my team, the team I had loved since I was a kid. I wasn’t abandoning them and knew they couldn’t be losers forever. There had to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Luckily, we started to see a glint of hope in 2011, as players like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez started to make their way to the big leagues. The Royals had acquired Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar a year before in the Greinke trade and Alex Gordon was the homegrown player who finally broke through that year. The building blocks were being pieced together for what would eventually become a championship team.

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There had been such a long stretch without winning baseball in Kansas City that the amount that remembered what that was like was outnumbered by those who didn’t. That wild card game changed not only the direction of the organization but also changed the fanbase and Kansas City as a whole. No longer was this team an organization in dire need of October baseball. Instead, it was a team of players who were becoming household names. The best part of those Royals teams were how easy it was to root for them. Guys like Hosmer, Salvy and Cain almost always had a smile on their face and it had become very apparent that they were having fun out on the field. These were not only a group of players you could get behind, but a group that actually enjoyed each other and pushed each other to succeed. I sometimes wonder if Kansas City embraces this team the way they did if not for how likable they were. It was easy to cheer them on when you saw them having fun out on the field and playing baseball like a bunch of kids. This being a fun group made baseball fun again and the winning pushed everything over the top.

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…and that is what makes this weekend so sad. We have reached the end of the line with this group, as a number of them are approaching free agency this offseason. Hosmer, Cain and Moustakas are the biggest names in this group, but guys like Escobar and Jason Vargas are all on this list. There is always a chance one or two return to Kansas City, but the percentages say it is more likely the majority leave. We’ve all known this for years and each of us in our own way have dealt with it accordingly. That being said, it doesn’t make it any easier and is why as much as there is celebration in the air this weekend, it is with a bittersweet twinge. The bottom line is that we have seen this core group grow together, learn together and win together. The idea of a Mike Moustakas NOT wearing Royal blue or another fanbase chanting ‘MOOOOOOOOSE’ feels wrong. In some ways we have claimed ownership of these players and the idea of them moving along is hard to really wrap one’s head around. But this is baseball and the economics of the game make it to where a small market team has a difficult time keeping all their players once they reach the free agency market. The attachment to these players have been evident for a while; even when a guy like Jeremy Guthrie left after the 2015 season there was a bit of sadness despite his performance during that season. We as fans get used to watching and cheering for these guys on a daily basis season after season; when you attach the amount of memories this group has given us during this run, that attachment grows even more. This is why Sunday is going to be a difficult time for most Royals fans.

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The honest truth is that even if Kansas City is able to retain a couple of these players, 2018 is going to be a difficult season. The farm system is one of the worst in the game and there is not much help on the horizon in the high minors. We’ve all coped with this in different ways and while I consider myself a fairly realistic person, there is still a part of me that wishes the Royals could bring everyone back. As a fan of this team for over 30 years, I am going to miss the joy and exuberance of this era in Royals baseball. That being said, a part of me is excited at the idea of what the next group of Kansas City players will be like that returns the team to postseason glory. This run has been one which has given all of us so many memories, some that have eclipsed the ones I stored in my mind from when I was a kid. For that, I will forever be grateful of what these guys did. Thank you, Hos, Moose and LoCain; may your future be as bright as your past and present have been…and may you hold Kansas City in your hearts the way you have done for us. Sincerely, every Kansas City Royals fan.

The Wildest of Wild Cards

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On September first, most teams have a decent idea of whether or not they are contenders or pretenders. In the American League, eight teams are currently vying for the two wild card spots and while the New York Yankees are holding down the first of those two spots, they are only ahead by one game over the surging Minnesota Twins. Throw in the Angels, Orioles, Mariners, Rays, Rangers and Royals, and you have a race that could be the funnest one to watch as the season prepares for its final run.

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Above is the current standings before the games on Saturday, with just a slight variance, as the Orioles are now 2.5 games back, Tampa Bay & Texas are now 4 games back and the Royals 4.5 games back. The most interesting aspect of this race is how none of the teams listed are really pulling away from the others. Look at the ‘L10’ category, which is how each team has done in their last ten games. Outside of Minnesota, Baltimore and Tampa Bay, no team has performed better than .500 in those games. So while a team like the Twins or Orioles are performing at a higher level as of late, there is still a good chance that those teams will incur a bit of a losing streak before the season is over. I’ve been saying for well over a month now that none of these teams feel much better than the others and none of them scare me as a Royals fan in this last month. While they are all talented teams, they are all teams with equal amounts of flaws. What happens over the next month will be a determination of which team can lessen their flaws and hone in on their positives.

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So how good are the Kansas City Royals chances? With 28 games to go, they are still in the hunt but they need to catch a hot streak…fast. While many will point to the scoreless streak that was intact earlier in the week, the pitching has really been a detriment over the last month. The Royals have five pitchers currently on the disabled list, including Danny Duffy and Joakim Soria. The rotation has been so battered as of late that last night the team started Onelki Garcia, a journeyman lefthander who had produced a 5.04 ERA, 4.44 FIP and a 9.5% walk rate…in twenty games in AAA this year. If the Royals can’t figure out a better option than Garcia, then they won’t be grabbing one of the final wild card spots this year. This is a streaky Royals team, which is why I’ve never gotten too down on them this year and I still feel they are capable of making a big run in this final month. Do they have the ability to pull off a 21-7 run? Yes. Is it likely, considering how the last month has gone? Probably not. While we’re not seeing one team pull away with a wild card spot, the Royals have not shown they really want it either. If they are going to dig down and make this a race they are involved in, they need to step up now. The pressure is on and if anything, this team has shown they can deal with pressure.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Minnesota Twins

So while I want the Royals to make one last run and reach October baseball, there is one more thing I am heavily pushing for this year: chaos. Yes, I am a big proponent of there being a giant cluster at the end of the season and having multiple teams tied for multiple slots in this race. I want it to where the American League has to hold numerous tie-breaker games just to sort out who goes on to the wild card game. The fun aspect of the two team wild card format is that chaos is already involved, as two teams battle it out in ONE GAME just to determine who moves on in the playoffs. But what if there were four teams tied for that second wild card spot? Or two teams tied for the first wild card spot and two more teams tied for the second spot? The possibilities are endless and while the likelihood is small, I have to imagine something like this will happen one of these years. Why not this year? Let’s make October even more fun than it already is. Let’s get really wild. Join #TeamChaos.

Kansas City Royals v Boston Red Sox

For the fans of these eight teams, the next month will be one of anticipation, sorrow, glee and a plethora of other feelings. The Royals have a shot, albeit a very small shot. As of this morning, Fangraphs has their odds at 6.9% of gaining a wild card spot, while the Twins have a 47.7% chance. When baseball went to this format for the playoffs, there were many (myself included) who decried it and figured it would not be a positive for the sport. Instead, it has given teams hope and opened up a whole new window to the possibilities in the game. If you’re a Royals fan, you remember 2014 and how winning that wild card game gave them a whole new lease on not only that season but the seasons to follow. Maybe this is why I want utter chaos at the end of the season and want multiple tie-breaker games before we even get to the wild card game. Maybe I just want more baseball. Or maybe I realize this could be a springboard for some other playoff hopeful and could turn around a franchise the way it did for Kansas City. Whatever the case, keep an eye on the standings. I promise, the next month will not be boring.

Notes of Royalty: The Hunt For (Another) Blue October

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Why, hello there strangers! I know, I know; I’ve been MIA around here the last few weeks. Life got really busy and my writing took the hit. Hopefully you at least gave the podcast a listen (as I covered a lot of ground over the last few weeks) to tide you over. Since it has been awhile since I have written in this space, I figured I would go ahead and cover a number of topics with the Kansas City Royals rather than just one. Let’s not waste time and start with the return of one of the team’s most beloved players…

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Royals catcher Salvador Perez returned from the disabled list earlier this week and the impact was felt almost immediately. While replacements Drew Butera and Cam Gallagher filled in admirably (especially offensively, which none of us probably called), it was obvious the Royals pitching staff missed Perez behind the dish. During his absence, the Royals pitching took a big hit, as notable by most of the numbers for August. The Royals pitching have the 6th highest HR/9 rate, 2nd highest ERA and the starters have thrown the 3rd lowest amount of innings throughout the month of August. We’ve often said that Perez is the one player the Royals could least afford to lose to an injury and that was very apparent during his time away. This also shows you that Perez’s value to this Royals team goes far beyond any numbers we pull up on his Baseball Reference page. The concerning part is the injury that put him on the DL in the first place, a strained intercostal muscle on his right side, has not fully gone away. If you have watched him play since his return, there have been a number of times where Salvy has swung and missed, falling down to a knee with a grimace on his face. It sounds like at this point the Royals are going to let him play this out and worry about letting him completely heal once the offseason hits. Salvy has described the injury as “a little pinch” but one has to wonder just how this strain will affect him while the Royals make a push for October baseball. It would be nice to have a 100% healthy Salvador Perez, but his value might force Kansas City to use a slightly damaged Perez throughout the month of September.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals

Staying on the wounded warriors front, third baseman Mike Moustakas has been dealing with a knee injury as of late, one that has forced him to sit out the last two games. While the injury hasn’t slowed Moose down too much (he still has a 136 wRC+ in the month of August) one has to wonder if it might become a lingering issue. As of this writing Moustakas is one home run shy of tying the single season record held by former Royals first baseman (and moustache aficionado) Steve Balboni, which sits at 36. This is a record that has been in place since 1985 and most Royals fans are ready for the record to fall. The good news is that Cheslor Cuthbert is finally healthy and has seen more time at third base as of late, allowing Moose to be the DH and rest his knee. The Royals need as many of their big stars to be healthy down the stretch if they are to claim one of the wild card spots in the American League. It would also be nice to see Moustakas go on another power tear in September and obliterate Balboni’s record. That won’t happen if he is continuing to nurse an injury on his lower half, which is needed to supply power.

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Since we are speaking of injuries, the news came today that ace lefthander Danny Duffy would be placed on the 10 day DL:

In case you are wondering, in layman’s term that means Duffy has a sore elbow. I can only speak for myself, but my first thought was not good. Luckily, my freak out might have been for nothing:

Duffy will be eligible to be activated on September 5th, so if all goes according to plan he could be back in a fairly short period of time. For the moment, Eric Skoglund will be taking Duffy’s spot in the rotation and Onelki Garcia will be taking his spot on the roster. If you remember, Duffy missed the month of June and I know I felt that could be a real turning point for this team. Losing Duffy was either going to cause a spiral down the division or it would cause the rest of the team to step up. Luckily, Kansas City got on a hot streak and put themselves in a better spot when Duffy got back. Hopefully the Royals can step up again and show the mettle we all know they are capable of.

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Finally, if anyone has been a boost to the offense this month, it has been Lorenzo Cain. Cain had been languishing in the .260 range late in July but has taken off over the last couple of weeks. So far in August Cain is hitting .360/.400/.461 with seven extra base hits and 11 runs scored, pushing his batting average to .288. Manager Ned Yost has shifted Cain up to the second spot in the order as of late, which has allowed him to focus more on getting on base rather than knocking in runs. It has also given him a higher focus on hitting the ball up the middle and to the opposite field, which he is doing 77% of the time.  He’s also hitting the ball harder, as his hard hit rate is at 37.3%, compared to 33.8% in July. Cain is easily the most complete player on this Royals team and if he continues to get on base it will force other teams to pitch to one of either Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez or Mike Moustakas.  If the Royals can get one of the other batters hot at the same time, it could get the Kansas City offense a jump-start that is sorely needed.

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This season has been a rollercoaster for the Royals, so why should the final month be any different? At the very least Royals fans, you can’t say this team is boring. One note here before we wrap things up for today: Remember back to 2014. Late August in early September, the Royals were not playing good baseball. There was a series against Detroit that felt like the end of their run. Go ahead and click on the link; read how defeated I sound running through the most painful portions of those games. Then remember that Kansas City would claim a wild card spot. Then they would win one of the greatest games I have ever watched in my life to advance to the ALDS. You know what happened after that…the Royals rolled all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. So right now, with the team only 1.5 games out of a wild card spot, I ask you: Why doubt them now? It looks like the fun is just beginning…

 

The Drought Is Over

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On Friday night, the 29 year wait ended. On Friday night, the Kansas City Royals clinched a spot in the 2014 playoffs, assuring themselves of at least a Wild Card spot when the postseason starts next week. As most know, the Royals hadn’t reached the playoffs since the won the World Series back in 1985. During that span, anyone associated with the Royals, whether it be players, coaches, broadcasters, front office personnel, vendors and even fans have felt the weight of this playoff drought. It had almost gotten to the point to where that became the team’s defining talking point, not anything that was actually going on out on the field or within the organization. I’ve had a little over 24 hours to think about this and what this means personally to me. Like a lot of people, a hefty weight has been lifted off of everyone’s shoulders.

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I immediately thought of all the people involved within the organization who had been around forever. People like Denny Matthews, who has been with the team since the beginning and has dealt with all the highs and lows. I made sure Friday night that I was listening to Denny’s call, if for no other reason than it is comfortable listening to him. Art Stewart came to mind, the long time Royals scout and even guys like Mike Swanson, VP of broadcasting, who has had a couple tours of duty with Kansas City, going all the way back to the 1970’s. I thought of how happy guys like George Brett, Mike Sweeney and Jeff Montgomery would be, former players who were still around and working within the organization. If anyone understood how it was for us fans, it would be these folks, who have endured just as much heartache as we have.

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I also thought of former Royals no longer with us. Dick Howser came to mind, as he was the last man to take the Royals to the postseason. Howser came down with brain cancer into the 1986 season and passed away in June of 1987. Dan Quisenberry and Paul Splittorff both came to mind as well, longtime Royals who also lost their battles with cancer. Former Royals announcer Fred White passed away in May of 2013 and if ever there was a good trooper for the organization, it was Fred. White was still with the organization when he passed away and no one would have loved seeing the Royals celebrate a playoff berth like Fred White. There are probably others I have forgotten about, all who would have loved this moment.It goes to show how much this team meant to so many different people.

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I then thought of my Grandma Thornton. Craig Brown has a great read about him watching games with his Grandfather and my story is somewhat like that. When I first got interested in baseball around 1984, I would go listen to Royals games at my Grandma’s, as we would listen to Denny and Fred call the play by play on the radio. She would tell me stories about growing up listening to the Yankees as that was the only team in the area that stations would broadcast, since there was no local team yet. Listening on the radio made you picture the action in your head, as Denny and Fred would weave their words to give us an idea of what was happening on the diamond. I fell in love with baseball and shared that with my Grandma for many years. Once the Royals started being on television more we would watch the games and  talk about what was happening. I sometimes wish I could go back to then, when I was more innocent and just watched the game without questioning managerial tactics or analyze statistics like I do today. I think I was one of Grandma’s favorites(easy for me to say!) and part of that reason was we both loved this game. Before she got sick she gave me some of her baseball memoribilia she had purchased over the years, as she wanted me to have them. At the time I felt weird about it, since she wasn’t even sick at that point, but I know now that she wanted me to have these items and was afraid I wouldn’t end up with them if it got into the hands of other family members. I still remember her sternly telling me I was to take them and this wasn’t up for conversation. I took them, even if it was reluctantly, and the baseball signed by all the 1990 Royals still sits on a shelf in my bedroom, along with other signed balls. I’m sure if she was still around she would have loved seeing the Royals in the playoffs, which puts a smile on my face every time I think about it.

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Lastly, I thought of Dayton Moore. Over the last few years I have been very vocal about whenever I felt Moore had madea move I felt was less than great. Most of the time it was earned, and when a General Manager is in charge as long as Dayton has been and not produced a playoff team it is only natural to question whether or not he is suited for the job. I still am not the biggest fan of him, but I will give credit where credit is due; Dayton did it. He assembled a team that got the Royals to the playoffs. I don’t agree with how he built the team and there will still be a few doubts about “the trade”(and I’m sure it will get brought up again in the future) but for now none of that matters. All that matters is that Dayton kept his word and got this team to posteason play. For that I will give him a “thank you, Dayton” and hope that this will just be the first of many appearances. Adding Jason Vargas has helped this team in 2014, but credit also must go to all the players drafted, signed and developed during his tenure. Sure, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are still question marks, but look at guys like Salvador Perez and Danny Duffy as two guys that have been huge for this team. Look at the profits of the Zack Greinke trade, as Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain are regulars in the lineup(and Jake Odorizzi helped bring in James Shields and Wade Davis). Even the bullpen has Moore’s fingerprints on this team, as both Greg Holland and Kelvin Herrera were developed in the Royals organization. Moore has made some questionable moves over the years and probably will again in the future, but for now he backed up what he promised, and that is what matters in the present.

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I have been critical of this organization in the past, and I will again in the future. It’s not out of spite or to complain, it’s out of love. I love this team, and I love all the joy that being a Royals fan has given me over the years and I always want them to succeed. Sure, there have been huge bumps in the road, but it has made this season even more special. On Friday night I sat there and thought about all the things I love about this team and this game and I am so glad I stuck with them. Sure, the Royals might play the wild card game on Tuesday and lose, and just like that it will be over. Or they will keep playing. And keep playing. Either way, the Royals have done what many of us weren’t for sure they could do, and that is break the drought. For that, I am perfectly fine with being wrong about this team.  I bleed Royal blue and will till the day I die; let’s make this a yearly thing now, boys!

 

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