Years ago, probably sometime in 2009 or 2010, a coworker asked me when the Royals would be good again. I estimated 2014, based on the age of the serviceable young players they had at the time and the age of the prospects they had in their farm system.
By 2014, I estimated that Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer would all be productive major league players, and that would give them a chance. A whole lot of other things would have to go right though, and the window of opportunity would be short, because modern economics wouldn’t permit the Royals to keep all four of them together as long as the Royals of yore kept George Brett, Frank White, Hal McRae and Willie Wilson together.
Objectively, it sounded plausible. But did I believe it? Not really. I’d been denied too many times.
I didn’t believe when I saw them roll through St. Louis this summer. 2014 had arrived, and the only one of the four who was playing the part of a productive major leaguer was Gordon. Moustakas was hitting like a Royals shortstop–a much worse insult than saying someone hits like a pitcher–while Butler hit well below his career marks in all the major statistical categories and while Hosmer had turned into a singles-hitting machine.
But they found ways to scratch out runs and win those two games in St. Louis. They made mistakes along the way, but clawed back. It was a reasonable preview of what the Royals did against the Athletics and Angels to start the postseason.
It wasn’t long after that I realized the Royals had a chance. Detroit wasn’t running away with the division, so if enough things went right, they might be able to sneak into the postseason some way.
I think the difference was something that happened June 30. Desperate for a hitter, the Royals signed the 42-year-old Raul Ibañez. Ibañez was well past his prime, but the Royals had taken a flyer on him back in 2001 and he blossomed. As it turned out, Ibañez didn’t contribute much with his bat, but he told his young teammates, most of whom were still in grade school when he was with the Royals the last time, that the rest of the league thought they were dangerous and they needed to start thinking of themselves the same way.
They went 41-27 after the All-Star break, after racking up a pedestrian 48-46 record before the break. They didn’t catch the Tigers, but they did catch Oakland so they had home-field advantage for the Wild Card game. After 28 years of nothing–they only managed 8 seasons with winning records from 1986 to 2013–that seemed like a nice consolation. As long as they didn’t embarrass themselves in that game, I told myself I’d be happy.
By the 6th inning of that game, they were losing 7-3. So much for not embarrassing themselves. I couldn’t turn the game off though, because it was postseason baseball, sort of. At least it was the closest thing in 29 years, and who knew when I’d ever see that again?
And then in the 8th inning, it turned into the craziest game I’d seen since the Red Sox rallied against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. They came back and won in 12 innings.
In a blink of an eye, the team that went 48-46 before the All-Star break had won eight games in a row in the postseason. That brought their postseason winning streak, which included the distant memory of the last three games of the 1985 World Series, to 11–the longest active postseason winning streak in baseball.
Nobody dared predict that before the postseason started. Never mind some of the players from the 2014 team weren’t born yet in 1985, and some of the 1985 players sadly are no longer alive in 2014.
A year ago, general manager Dayton Moore infamously said the Royals’ winning record made him feel like, in a small way, they’d won the World Series. Royals fans didn’t like that comment very much.
But here they are, a year later, going to the World Series. Their opponent will either be the San Francisco Giants or St. Louis Cardinals. The Royals went 3-0 against the Giants during the regular season, and 4-1 against the Cardinals.
Winning the World Series is anything but automatic–it never is–but it suddenly seems within reach.