Royals head into postseason with newfound expectations
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) The Kansas City Royals were just happy to be invited to the party last year, ending a 29-year postseason drought before squeaking through a dramatic wild-card game against the Athletics.
Then they crashed the rest of it by sweeping their way to the World Series.
The Royals ultimately lost in seven games to the San Francisco Giants, but that run changed the landscape of baseball in Kansas City. The sad-sack franchise so accustomed to 100-loss seasons had become the game’s latest darling, a team that suddenly had belief in itself.
One that knew what it took to play winning baseball.
”We’ve been looking forward to this since the end of spring training,” Royals manager Ned Yost said before Tuesday’s first postseason workout. ”That’s the big change from last year. Last year, we hoped we would be in position to make the playoffs. This year, we knew we were going.”
Just who they will play is still to be determined. The Yankees and Astros play the AL wild-card game Tuesday night for the right to play a best-of-five series beginning Thursday in Kansas City.
”Either or, it’s going to be a tough series,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. ”That’s the postseason, you know it’s going to be tough no matter who you play. It’s something that we’ve been waiting for, for a long time, obviously, and it’s finally here.”
Perhaps the best proof of just how much things have changed in Kansas City is in the way Dayton Moore, the general manager responsible for the turnaround, approached the trade deadline.
A year ago, with the Royals clinging to the fringes of postseason contention, Moore decided to stand his ground. He didn’t want to mortgage too much of the future by shipping prized prospects off for the kind of frontline starter or big-time bat that can be so helpful this time of year.
That approach changed dramatically this past season.
With the Royals dominating the AL Central in July, they shipped a trio of talented young left-handers to the Cincinnati Reds for Johnny Cueto, one of the game’s dynamic pitchers. While his own postseason history is checkered at best, the lightning rod with the funky delivery nonetheless gave Kansas City the kind of veteran leadership it had in James Shields last year.
Moore wasn’t done, either. He sent two more pitchers to Oakland two days later for Ben Zobrist, a versatile player who could spell Omar Infante at second base or platoon in the outfield. And when the waiver deadline approached, Moore sent an infielder to Atlanta for Jonny Gomes, filling the need for a hitter who can handle left-handed pitchers.
Each of those three acquisitions is headed for free agency after the season, which means Moore made a calculated gamble that the Royals were ready to compete for a championship.
”There is very little room for error if you’re going to win a World Series or advance in the playoffs,” Moore said Tuesday, before greeting thousands of fans who showed up for a pep rally.
That is not to say the Royals have not gone through adversity this season.
Take the starting rotation, which lost veteran left-hander Jason Vargas to elbow surgery. Or the bullpen, where two-time All-Star closer Greg Holland also underwent Tommy John surgery. Or even the everyday lineup, where All-Star left-fielder Alex Gordon missed a good chunk of the summer with a severe groin strain, one that kept him out until there was a month left in the season.
Those are the kind of injuries that often derail teams. But with expectations of success from last season, the Royals kept plugging along, never slumping until early September.
They climbed out of that, too, winning five straight to cap the regular season.
Now they head into the playoffs for the second straight year, certain the right pieces are in place for another memorable October. They aren’t alone in that confidence, either – the Royals were given 5-to-1 odds to win the World Series, third-best behind the Blue Jays and Dodgers.
”We’re glad that the regular season’s over and we got through it with everyone being healthy,” Hosmer said. ”Now we know it’s a different game and something we obviously got a lot of experience from last year, and something we’ve all been looking forward to for a long, long time.”