To relate the sense of a pennant race to teammates without such experience, Royals outfielder Raul Ibañez doesn’t refer to the standings. He simply points to his arm.
“When I talk about the postseason, the hairs on my arms are standing up,” he said last week. “I go, ‘Look, this is what it’s about. They’re standing up.’”
Most of the Royals are entering the thick of their first postseason run. The team has a one-game lead over the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central Division and opens a three-game series today against the New York Yankees.
With the franchise enduring the longest current playoff-appearance drought of any major pro sports team in North America — 28 straight empty years entering 2014 — few in the clubhouse have any experience dealing with these kinds of stakes.
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Among the regular position players, only one, second baseman Omar Infante, has appeared in postseason games, with the Tigers and the Braves.
Three others on the roster have been to the postseason: pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis with the Rays, and Ibañez with the Mariners, Phillies and Yankees.
Shortstop Alcides Escobar was on the Brewers’ postseason roster in 2008 but was inactive for the games. Manager Ned Yost was part of five World Series teams with the Braves.
Last year, when the Royals chased the second wild-card spot over the final six weeks, was the closest such long-tenured Royals as Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer have come to a postseason chase. The team’s previous winning season had come in 2003 (a team Ibañez was on).
The 2013 team responded well with a 16-10 record in September and wasn’t eliminated from the wild-card race until the final week.
But this is different. These Royals have played the past month as front-runners.
And they’ve acted like it.
“We’ve been able to come back from a bad loss, the kind of game that could really beat you down, and come back and joke around and keep it light,” Davis said. “Sometimes you can come back after a loss, be tense and feel the failure. I don’t see that.”
On the just-completed homestand, the Royals answered two straight losses to the Indians by sweeping the Rangers.
Earlier in the season, the Royals won 10 straight and took over first place. The lead lasted three days, and they eventually dropped to third place, eight games out of first.
But upon regaining first place during a sizzling August, the Royals have maintained.
“It’s a good feeling because we put ourselves in a good position,” Gordon said. “And even though we don’t have a lot of guys who have been through it before, we brought in a lot of veterans. We definitely have experience there.”
But not postseason experience. The veterans acquired over the summer, like many of the Royals who have come up through the organization, are seeking their first postseason action. Reliever Jason Frasor has the most appearances of any pitcher (641 games through Thursday) who has not appeared in a postseason game.
The Royals are reliever Scott Downs’ sixth team and outfielder Josh Willingham’s fifth, and both seek their first postseason.
To that list, Rangers manager Ron Washington rattled off names like Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie, pitchers who haven’t played in the postseason but are solid veterans who have made major contributions down the stretch. Both pitched gems against the Rangers this week.
“The (Royals) have guys who have been through the wars,” Washington said. “And they’ve got these young guys they’ve been grooming, and it’s time for them to step up, too. Not try to do more than they’re capable of doing, just what they can do.
“What they’ve done is set themselves up for an opportunity. They haven’t seized that opportunity. … They can’t get ahead of themselves. If they can do that, with the talent they have, they should be able to pull this off.”