The Royals are alive in the AL wild card race, thanks to Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Detroit in one of the most riveting baseball games I’ve witnessed this year. They are 3-1/2 games out of a playoff spot and must pass four teams to get it. The odds are not great. But if Ned Yost’s charges reach the postseason, there’s a high probability that they will ruin your team’s year.
The Royals are built for the playoffs, as much as any other AL team. Name a characteristic shared by recent October darlings. They have it.
* Hot at the right time? Check. At 35-21, they have the AL’s best record after the All-Star break.
* Lockdown bullpen? Check. They have the AL’s lowest bullpen ERA and a closer, Greg Holland, who Tigers manager Jim Leyland said may be the league’s best.
* Formidable rotation? Check. James Shields is a true ace, Ervin Santana leads the Kansas City starters with a 3.23 ERA, Jeremy Guthrie is supplying his customary 200 innings, and Danny Duffy has been a revelation (2-0, 1.85 ERA) in five starts since returning to the majors.
* Airtight defense? Check. The Royals have permitted only 3.8 runs per game, the fewest in the AL.
* Athleticism on the bases? Check. Led by the fleet Jarrod Dyson, they top the majors with 141 stolen bases.
* Charisma? Check. The team’s young everyday players – such as Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Sal Perez – came through the minors together, lost in the majors together, and now are relishing their first chance to play meaningful September baseball.
All of those traits were on display Saturday, when the weather (65 degrees at first pitch) and atmosphere (sellout of 41,841) made it seem as if the postseason had arrived already.
The Tigers are closing in on a third straight AL Central title. After advancing to the World Series last year, they will be looked upon as favorites to win the pennant until another team proves otherwise. Detroit’s roster is filled with players who know how to perform at this time of year. They proved that Saturday, even as their offense sputtered against Santana. Tigers starter Doug Fister was superb (7 2-3 innings, one earned run) while veteran outfielder Torii Hunter vaporized a scoring threat with a textbook throw to cut down Chris Getz at third base.
But the Royals, playing beyond their years, executed just a little bit better. They scored early, on Hosmer’s RBI triple in the first. They were creative, as Hosmer – the No. 3 hitter – dropped a bunt single in front of the hobbling Miguel Cabrera. They were steady in big moments, most notably when Luke Hochevar – former first-round bust, now rejuvenated as a reliever – retired Cabrera with the tying run aboard in the eighth.
And the Royals secured the win on what felt like a season-making play: Omar Infante lofted a double to left with Prince Fielder at first, and the quake of the stands at Comerica Park told you third-base coach Tom Brookens was waving his arm. Fielder is not fast, but, with two out, the Royals needed to be close to perfect. They were. Alex Gordon rifled the ball to shortstop Alcides Escobar, who relayed to Perez, who applied the tag.
“This was a huge win for us,” Yost said. “We had to have this win tonight. We haven’t had a ballgame all year where we had to win. Tonight was it. We had to win this ballgame. And in the manner we won it was pretty exciting.”
Hosmer called it “the coolest ending I’ve seen.” Perez, already an All-Star at 23, said afterward that he couldn’t remember the last time he tagged out a runner at home to end a game. He certainly hadn’t done it in the majors. “That was my first time,” he said.
Like a lot of his teammates, Perez is thriving in circumstances he’s never seen before. Hosmer, who has been with the Royals since 2011, said Saturday’s win was the biggest of his big-league career – “hands down.” The Royals haven’t had a winning season in a decade, while sitting on the longest postseason drought (27 years) in major North American professional sports, according to research through STATS LLC. This is foreign to the Royals, yet they seem at ease.
“I don’t think anyone is satisfied with just a winning record,” said Hosmer, after the Royals improved to 78-70. “Everyone in this locker room believes we can (make the playoffs). To us, that’s all that matters.
“It’s a blast. This is why you put in all the work, to be in this position – late in the season, to play meaningful games, to be in a race. This is why you play.”
In many respects, the Royals have proven their mettle already. Saturday’s win clinched the season series against Detroit (10-8). The Tigers, with arguably the best lineup in the majors, have been shut out 10 times this year; three came against Kansas City.
So, we know the Royals can beat the elite teams in baseball. The question is whether they will have the chance to prove that in October. The process of learning the answer is exhilarating for the Royals’ players and gut-wrenching for their manager. Yost is normally stoic but grew animated when asked to describe his emotions during the final, heart-stopping play of Saturday’s win.
In fact, he channeled Fred Sanford.
“Elizabeth! I’m coming, honey!” Yost said, gesturing toward his chest. “I’m coming! Get ready for me!”
Yost smiled. He can’t say it, but he must know that he’s managing the team no one wants to play.