A Kansas City Miracle

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If you are a Kansas City Royals fan you have probably uttered the question ‘is this really happening?’ more times than you can remember this past month. There were high hopes coming into the 2014 season, and even dreams of their first playoff appearance in 29 years floated in most fans mind, even if there were still concerns about this team. I freely admit I was a bit skeptical about their chances and whether a team with a wildly inconsistent offense and a tendency to focus on more old school offensive methods could stack up enough wins to lock up a playoff spot. Little did we know that the Royals would far exceed any of our expectations and cement themselves into our minds and hearts for years to come.

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Early on it appeared the Royals were very Jekkyl and Hyde, as at times they looked like an elite team that could contend throughout the summer months and possibly even topple the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central. Other times they looked like the worst parts of the previous season Royals, struggling to score runs and being held back by a stagnant offense. Nori Aoki looked like regression had begun to sink in, Mike Moustakas looked like he had left his swing in Arizona, and Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer were both hitting well below expectations. May saw Pedro Grifol transitioned from hitting coach to catching coach(yes, that still seems to be a made up position) while 3rd base coach Dale Sveum would take over the hitting coach duties. At this point the pitching and the defense were keeping this team in games, but the offense just wasn’t carrying their weight.

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June was another story though, as the Royals would go on a 10 game winning streak, even toppling Detroit and taking over the lead in the American League Central. Everything was falling Kansas City’s way, with hits dropping in when needed, hard hit balls being hit by opponents right at Kansas City defenders and even passed balls bouncing right back to Royals catcher Salvador Perez. Everything seemed to be on course and was the first sign that this wasn’t the Royals of old. Yes, they were a streaky bunch, but did enough things right during their lull’s that they weren’t going to fade away late in the season.

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Maybe the highlight to this point of the season was the development of two young starting pitchers, Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura. Duffy had dealt with a number of setbacks over the years, to the point that some wondered if he would ever really put things together. After a short stint in the bullpen, the rest of baseball took notice in June when Duffy would keep Baltimore in check, pitching perfect baseball for the first 20 batters of the game, pitching into the 8th inning while only allowing 2 hits. Outside of a rough September, Duffy was probably the Royals best starter throughout the summer and made the case to be the team’s #1 starter in 2015. Early on Ventura showed the rest of baseball why there was a buzz around him with a fastball that could reach triple digits and a curve and change that was constantly improving. There was some concern in late May as Ventura would leave a start early due to elbow discomfort but the injury ended up being minor and Yordano would only miss one start. The concern did cause Ventura to pitch a bit smarter, choosing to “throw fire” a bit less and let the Royals top notch defense take care of things for him. Yordano would have his ups and downs during his rookie campaign, but there was more good than bad and it was easy to see why the organization is excited about having him around for years to come.

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August saw another hot streak for the Royals, one that would push the Royals back up to the top of the Central Division. This time Kansas City would rattle off 8 straight wins, some would say partially because of South Korean super-fan Sung Woo Lee making his first ever trip to Kansas City. Lee would be in attendance for the Royals climbing back on top and seemed to re-energize the fanbase, watching one of their own get to experience this team in person for the first time. Alex Gordon stepped up big for Kansas City in August, pulling off a line of .292/.356/.585. As Gordon goes so goes the Royals as the entire team seemed to be picked up by A1’s hot streak. Even when the rest of the team struggled during the month, Gordon picked them up. Eric Hosmer would get hurt during this time which forced designated hitter Billy Butler to 1B where he has long wanted to return(Butler played the position before Hosmer made his way to the big leagues in 2011). The move seemed to energize Butler’s bat and his fielding was nothing to sneeze at. August was also the month that it finally hit some of us; this team had a real shot of making the playoffs. Not only making the postseason but to possibly even win the division. There was still concerns with this team, but they had put themselves into a position to make a serious run and it was close enough to get excited and take this run very seriously.

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September rolled around and for all the excitement that August brought us, this month would make us question whether the Royals playoff drought would actually come to an end. The Boston series in particular sticks out as a series of one team making a push(Kansas City) and one team just playing to finish out the year(Boston). The Royals did not look their best during that weekend, with the Sunday game loss hurting the most, as Aaron Crow would give up a grand slam to Daniel Nava in the 6th inning and propel the Red Sox to a victory. Manager Ned Yost would make comments after the game to question the Royals and what could thwart them from reaching the postseason. If the Red Sox series felt like a left down, the Tigers series felt like a kick to the groin. Kansas City still had a chance of winning the division when the Tigers came to town on September 19th but a frustrating series dashed most of those hopes and questioned whether or not this team could hold up against a team like the Tigers. With a week left in the season, it seemed as if the Royals only hope was either for the Wild Card or for Obi Wan Kenobi…

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…but then something happened. The Tigers lost on both Friday and Saturday against the Twins by a large margin, depleting Detroit’s bullpen. Kansas City would continue to win against the White Sox, locking up a playoff spot on that Friday night in Chicago and putting themselves in a position to tie Detroit on the final day of the season. If the Tigers lost and the Royals won, there would be a tie for the American League Central and game 163 would have to be played to determine the winner of the division. Unfortunately Detroit took away that opportunity for Kansas City by beating the Twins on Sunday, making them the Central champs and the Royals as the first Wild Card, as they would be at ‘The K’ to take on the A’s in a winner takes all game that would soon go down in history as an all-time great.

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This game turned out to be a major turning point for this young team as it seemed to give them the confidence they needed and show that yes Virginia, the Royals really are major contenders. This game had a little bit of everything: stolen bases, home runs, injured catchers, questionable bullpen decisions, numerous comebacks, outfielder collisions, and a liner down the third base line that will go down in infamy. More than anything the Royals showed a tendency to defy logic. Back in August I had said that I was just going to enjoy the ride the Royals seemed to be making for a postseason appearance. I had waited 29 years to see ‘my team’ be on baseball’s big stage and felt it would be wrong if I didn’t enjoy it even if I didn’t always agree with Kansas City’s management. The Royals clinching a Wild Card spot meant the world to me; winning that game at home was icing on the cake.

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So when the Royals started play in the American League Divisional Series I didn’t have lofty expectations. Sure, I wanted the Royals to win and advance in the playoffs but in some ways it just felt like an extra bonus and was enjoying it as such. What I didn’t expect was how much better they looked in this series against the Angels, the team with the best record in the American League in 2014. The Royals took the first two games in Anaheim, thanks to not the small ball they had prided themselves on but the long ball as both Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas came up with big blasts in Games 1 and 2. Game 3 was another story, as the series would move to Kauffman Stadium. I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at this game and the Royals showed they were for real, piling up runs early and helping them to an 8-3 victory to finish up the sweep of the Angels and advance them to the American League Championship Series. This team was playing their best baseball of the year and it came at just the right time. Seeing them in this position and seeing 40,000+ of my fellow Royals fans brought a tear to my eye and made me appreciate what was happening. I could pinch myself to make sure this was happening but I knew the truth; the Royals were winning and doing it when it mattered the most.

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So now it was on to the American League Championship Series against the Baltimore Orioles. There was a little more concern with this series as Baltimore had many of the same strengths as Kansas City and could also trump them when it came to power. The Royals would win games 1 and 2 in Baltimore in dramatic fashion thanks to late inning heroics and the stellar defense and pitching the team had been touting all year round. Game 3 returned to Kansas City and would be another tight affair, with a solid outing by Jeremy Guthrie and Mike Moustakas doing his best impression of George Brett at third base, catching a ball and falling into one of the dugout suites. This would lead to game 4 and the Royals would score 2 in the bottom of the first and would never look back. The Royals had swept the Orioles and were headed to the World Series! What was amazing about this series was Kansas City’s offense went M.I.A. late in the series but it didn’t matter; they got enough offense while the pitching and defense continued to do their job. The Royals were 8-0 so far in this postseason and it almost seemed like they would never lose, even if we all knew they would eventually. I spent most of this year feeling like this didn’t have the feel of a playoff team but even I knew that if they got there(IF) they were a team made for the playoffs. So far they had shown it, and were now only 4 wins away from a World Championship.

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The Royals were set now and ready to play the San Francisco Giants to be called champion. Honestly, none of us saw this coming. Just the fact they got to this point meant the world to us Royals fans, nevermind the shot at being World Champions. The Royals would battle in this series and even went ahead 2 games to 1 after Game 3 but the Royals just couldn’t solve the Madison Bumgarner rubik cube. It went all the way to Game 7 where they would lose by the thinnest of margins, 3-2. I felt so much pride that night but also sadness because of the loss. I had started to believe during the ALCS and really felt like the Royals were going to get themselves a new trophy to put in the Royals Hall of Fame. Instead they came up just short, as Alex Gordon was literally just 90 feet away as Salvador Perez popped up to end the game. I shut off the television and went to do something else; I couldn’t watch the Giants celebrate. As sports often do to you, the loss was breaking my heart. After 29 years I wanted to win it all. You can’t fault any of us for wanting this magical ride to end with the highest of honors. It just wasn’t meant to be.

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But I’ve had almost a week now to get back to normal and I started to ask myself ‘what am I going to remember about this 2014 Royals team?’. I’m going to remember how good the pitching and defense was all season. I’m going to remember the excitement of finally getting to the playoffs after all these years. I’m going to remember how great this team played when they needed to, in October. More than anything I will remember how the team was energized by the Royals fanbase. This team fed off of us, the fans and they embraced it when they didn’t have to. They never gave up just as we never gave up, no matter how many times this team was down in the playoffs. I am going to remember how I felt watching this all unfold and how it reminded me that as much as I love numbers and how they can tell a big part of the book, they don’t always tell the whole story. More than anything I believed. I think I had forgotten how to somewhere along the way, but I believed this team could win the whole damn thing. They almost did. So thank you, Kansas City. Thanks for being you. You reminded me just why I bleed Royal blue. Now let’s win it in 2015!

 

Thank You Sung Woo, For Showing Us True Magic

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Almost two weeks ago, Royals super-fan Sung Woo Lee finally made his trek to Kansas City and see the team that he had followed from his home in South Korea since the mid-90’s. It might be one of the warmest, fuzziest and doggone best stories ever connected to baseball; to read the whole story, go ahead and click here. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, the skinny is this: Lee decided to watch baseball games to teach himself how to speak English. He saw a Jeff King(yep, just name dropped the former Royals 1st baseman) hit a home run and fell in love with Kauffman Stadium. Ever since that moment he has been a Royals fan, watching Royals games at odd times because of the time difference and he has communicated over the years with other Royals fans online. What initially was supposed to be a trip to see a few games at ‘The K’ turned into a city and a community embracing one of their own and showing him how great Royals fans really are.

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I could go into all the things that Lee got to do on this trip, but I truly can’t do it justice. To REALLY  get a grasp on how great this story is, you should read this synopsis that Michael Engel put together about Lee’s visit. It is a long read, but damn if it didn’t get me pumped again for how great this whole story is. Now, the point of all this isn’t to discuss the trip or to bring up how great it is that Lee probably just had the best vacation he will ever have(and I have to believe it will be hard to top). No, the point I want to make is how Sung Woo is the fan we probably all should strive to be.

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One of the main items I have taken away from this whole Sung Woo thing is that the guy might be one of the most positive sports fans I have ever seen. For most of us, there are times all we can see is the negative. In some ways it is easier to do that, rather than look for the gleam of light. Sure there are appropriate times for honest criticism. But there are other times where finding the nugget of hope is far and away the better route to take. I am just as guilty as anyone else of doing this, but watching Sung Woo be excited about even minor things made me realize how we as fans need to view the game at times in a better light. For Lee to say that the only Royals player he has ever not liked is Neifi Perez(and let’s be honest; Perez deserves this shame), that says a lot and covers quite a bit of ground. Watching him get excited about something like meeting Mitch Maier just has to make you realize it is simpler than we make it(although I would probably be excited about meeting Maier as well; I always felt he was underrated). Sung Woo’s outlook of the game is almost of a child, just excited about his team. I still have my moments like this, like anytime I walk into ‘The K’. The little kid comes out in me and I forget about any complaints I have about the team, focusing on getting to see ‘my team’ for the next few hours. It’s  a simple approach, yet one that could be put forward a bit more.

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The fact that the Royals went on a winning streak during Sung Woo’s time in Kansas City just made things that much better. Here was this huge Royals fan from halfway across the world and after almost 20 years of watching Kansas City, he get’s to see in person the Royals play some of the best baseball they have played during that entire span of time. The Royals community started claiming this was “Sung Woo Magic” and after awhile it really felt like it. What other logical reason was there for the Royals playing out of their mind than Sung Woo bringing them good luck? Sure, it seems implausible but sometimes logic doesn’t factor into baseball. Sometimes guys just get in a groove and don’t know any better. I mean, you have seen the movie “Major League”, right? Even if Sung Woo played a small part in this, you can see why. His love of this team was infectious.

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It’s been about half a week since Sung Woo went back to Korea and I find myself still wanting to check up on him. After his dream vacation, I feel a bit like I am a Royals AND Sung Woo fan now. The fact that the Royals fanbase went out of their way to make Sung Woo a part of everything Kansas City made this story even better. I have never been prouder to be a Royals fan nor prouder of every fan that showed him how great being a Royals fan can be. Even the Royals organization did a fantastic job of showing Sung Woo real Royals pride, showing him around the stadium, giving him gifts and having him throw at the first pitch at last Monday’s game. There are 39 games left in this season and hopefully more in October. For the rest of the season we should all be the fan Sung Woo is. We should enjoy every moment of every game and be thankful we have something to cheer for. Enjoy the now and worry about the rest later. That is the true magic that Sung Woo Lee gave us, and I am thankful for it.

Let’s Go Streaking!

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Just admit it; you didn’t see this coming. Don’t worry, none of us saw this coming. The Kansas City Royals have reeled off 7 straight wins, have taken over the second Wild Card spot and is only 1/2 a game behind the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central and none of us figured this was in the Royals future. Sure, we knew they were in the Wild Card race, but after the 10 game winning streak in June there was nary a chance we would see another long streak from this bunch. This isn’t to say this isn’t a team that could pull off the task; obviously they’ve shown multiple times now this season what they are capable of. For a team who has not had a consistent offense this year, the chance of climbing this high this fast seemed unlikely. So how did we get to this point?

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Let’s start with the surging offense. The funny thing is that it’s not as if the whole team is taking off, because it isn’t, as David Lesky of PineTarPress.com points out:

Now what they are doing is hitting well with runners in scoring position, which is always a huge plus. But to add to that, you have two players right now in the heart of the batting order that are punishing the baseball in Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. Butler is hitting .435/.458/.913 over the last 7 days with 2 homers, 7 RBI’s, 21 total bases and an OPS of 1. 371. This recent hot streak of Butler’s coincides with his move to first base, as regular first baseman Eric Hosmer went on the DL at the beginning of August and since then Butler has really taken off. FoxSports.com discussed this with Butler recently and he divulged why playing in the field helps him:

“It relaxes me, playing in the field,” Butler says. “I just tend to get more involved because they have to rely on me defensively, too. And the thing is, I tend to let bad at-bats go more easily. I don’t linger on them.”

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The other bat that has taken off during this stretch is Alex Gordon. It seems only fitting as this past weekend’s promotional schedule for the Royals revolved around A1(Saturday was Nebraska day at the K and Sunday was the Alex Gordon Bobblehead giveaway). Over the last 7 days Gordon is hitting a robust .381/458/.810 with 3 homers, 6 RBI’s, and an OPS of 1.268. It does seem when the middle of the order takes off, so does the rest of the team. Mike Moustakas and Nori Aoki are both hitting over .300 this past week and the Royals have 5 players who have driven in at least 5 runs during that stretch. Jarrod Dyson has only received 5 at bats in the past week but has taken advantage of his time on the field, getting 4 hits(including a double)and 4 steals. Just coming through in clutch situations is big, as Lorenzo Cain did Saturday night with his single to right field to keep the Royals inning alive in the 7th. When this team is selective at the plate and gets on base, it tends to string together multiple run innings. This has been more than evident these past few weeks and has helped lead them to a 10-2 record over their last two weeks.

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It has helped as well to have the Royals pitching holding up their end of the deal as well. James Shields and Jeremy Guthrie have led the charge for the starters with ERA’s below 2.00 this month and have been aided by a bullpen that has been practically unhittable. Lately the Royals have made it rough for any team to come back from a deficit once you get past the 6th inning. Jason Frasor, Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland have been spotless as of late with only Holland giving up a run during this span. I’ve been saying for a few years now that if it comes down to the Royals bullpen or the oppositions, the Royals have a great chance of winning. As of late it feels like just that, as they have been locking teams down and doing it in impressive fashion. All have strikeout rates above 11.00 during this streak and Frasor and Herrera have each only given up 2 hits.  The Royals will need this group to keep it up as they plan on playing more meaningful games come September.

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Of course the cherry on top of this winning sundae is the Royals spectacular defense. This is no secret, as the Royals have had one of the best defenses in baseball over the last couple of seasons. This has been on display as of late, helping the pitching out even more. To get a better idea of how good this defense is(especially the outfield), check out this article at FanGraphs.com, which really points out how special this team’s defense really is. Safe to say if the Royals are playing in October it will be partially because of the Royals play with the leather.

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Winning is contagious. There really is nothing quite like seeing a team with potential live up to it and excel on the diamond. Watching the Royals these past couple weeks makes it worth all the bad. If the Royals can continue with their timely hitting to go with the consistency of the pitching and defense, we could be talking playoff baseball. Currently BaseballProspectus.com has the Royals odds of making the playoffs at 47.8% and climbing. It will be a fight to get there, as there are a few other teams wanting a taste of the postseason this year. Normally this time of year the only streaking we see is this kind:

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Instead, this year we are seeing the kind we all prefer. The streaking that pulls the Royals into the playoff picture. Hey, if all else fails, we have some “Sung Woo Magic”:

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Yep, it sure seems as if the baseball God’s are on our side this year. Whether it’s black magic, fate, or just some great baseball, none of that matters as long as we see the playoffs. It’s time, Kansas City.

 

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