KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As he peered out from behind a pile of boxes, Chris Getz couldn’t take his eyes off the screen. There was Josh Hamilton, dropping fly balls like the kid in Little League who got stuck playing right field. There were the Oakland Athletics, a party in lemon yellow, hooting and hollering with glee.
The Oakland Athletics, who, at the All-Star break, sat at .500 and nine games back. The Oakland Athletics, with a reported 2012 payroll of $53.96 million — or more than $46 million below the Major-League average. The Oakland Athletics, 2012 American League West Division Champions.
And the Kansas City Royals’ second baseman looked down for a tick and wondered, out loud: Why can’t that be us?
“Yeah, we see that, and it’s a definite motivator,” Getz allowed just before the Royals closed the books on a 72-90 season and a third-place finish in the American League Central. “A definite motivator.”
So is this: The Baltimore Orioles made the postseason — the Birds are slated to meet Texas in the American League’s Wild-Card round tonight — for the first time since 1997, with a reported payroll of $84.89 million, or nearly $16 million below the league average. The Royals wound up falling somewhere between the O’s and A’s, with a reported $64.44 million payroll, roughly $36 million below the average.
“You know, that’s what crazy about this game,” third baseman Mike Moustakas said. “It’s not the best team that’s out there that wins; it’s the team that plays the best that day … this game’s crazy. Crazy things happen. You just sit back and watch, and you go out, and you have the same attitude and approach and let things fall where they fall.”
You need luck. Luck never hurts. But luck is just the fourth part of the equation — right after power, pitching, and persistence. It ain’t quantum physics.
You need mashers. Of the top six clubs in the American League in home runs, four — New York, Baltimore, Texas and Oakland — reached the playoffs. The Royals were tied for last in the circuit with Minnesota (131 dingers).
You need arms. Of the top six squads in the AL in team ERA, four — Oakland, Detroit, New York and Baltimore — got their playoff tickets punched. The Royals were 10th (4.30 ERA) out of 14 clubs.
You need health. USA Today reported in August that the number of players placed on the 60-day disabled list was up 28 percent from 2011 and 55 percent from 2010. The five American League playoff teams saw an average of 2.4 pitchers stuck on the 60-day DL as far back as June 10. The Royals, meanwhile, were saddled with four, two of whom were expected to help buoy the starting rotation.
You need clutch. The Athletics and Orioles were a combined 54-27 in 1-run games, winning an absurd 67 percent of those contests. The Royals were 27-26.
“We have a lot of different guys that can give us a lot of looks in different spots in the lineup,” Baltimore first baseman Chris Davis told FOX Sports Kansas City in May, during a two-game sweep at Kauffman Stadium. “Obviously, our pitching staff has done an outstanding job and kept us in a lot of close games. And you know, those are the things that can make a good team great. When you can pitch and play defense, and get some timely hits, it works out for you.”
You can see many of those same pieces in play here, even through all the maddening stretches — the Royals lost 12 in a row in April and 11 of 15 to open July — of inconsistency. The defensive foundation is air-tight on the left side of the infield with Alcides Escobar at shortstop and Moustakas at third. Catcher Sal Perez, when healthy, is one of the best arms in the American League; the brass still has high hopes for Lorenzo Cain in center. This team spent half a season without the services of Perez and Cain, two of their expected anchors up the middle. It showed.
As for the rotation, you know the drill — those struggles have been well-documented. Only Minnesota got fewer wins (39) and innings (880) from their starting pitching than the Royals (47 and 890, respectively). And you also know the quickest way to solve that problem is twofold:
1. Throw a giant pile of money at it.
2. Toss a lucky penny in the nearest fountain and wish for the best.
Royals management has historically been careful about the first part and been repeatedly burned by the second. Wandering eyes have turned to Milwaukee right-hander Shaun Marcum, a western Missouri kid with electric stuff who totes a 54-32 record over the past five years with with the Brewers and Blue Jays. But even if he wants to come home, he won’t come cheap. Nor, for that matter, will Jeremy Guthrie, who salvaged the Jonathan Sanchez disaster by becoming the Royals’ best pitcher over the final three months of the campaign — posting a 5-3 record and a 3.16 ERA in 14 starts after escaping Colorado.
Marcum’s career record versus the AL Central: 8-5; Guthrie: 15-12. As potential 1-2 combos go, you could do a whole heck of a lot worse. You can hope.
And hey, it isn’t what October’s all about? Hope?
“I think it’s going to be motivator for our front office, for our coaching staff, for the players, all of it,” Getz said. “Just to see these teams that have been battling what we’re battling, and then to kind of (have) been able to turn the corner and have success. I mean, that’s great for us. It’s great for baseball.”
It’s great for dreaming. And dreaming big. You can do more with less. It just has to be the right less.