At 2:52 p.m. on Sunday, three minutes after the Detroit Tigers captured the American League Central, manager Ned Yost began to prepare for the first Royals playoff game in nearly 29 years.
“We’re excited to start the process,” Yost said. “When a lot of teams are going home, the elite few get to stay back and play in this tournament. For the first time in a long time, we’ve earned the right to play in it.”
The Royals also earned the right to rest their starters.
As the Tigers wrapped up their victory over Minnesota, Yost made wholesale changes in the fifth inning of a 6-4 victory over Chicago. He swapped out his entire lineup for a new one.
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Yordano Ventura exited after four innings of four-run baseball. Returning from the disabled list, Christian Colon had a two-run double and later scored the winning run in the sixth.
In the end, the outcome meant little. Unable to nab the division crown, the Royals, 89-73, will play host to Oakland in Tuesday’s wild-card game at Kauffman Stadium. The winner then flies to Anaheim to face the top-seeded Los Angeles Angels.
James Shields will duel Tuesday with A’s southpaw Jon Lester. The Royals defeated Oakland five times this season. The Athletics beat Kansas City twice, and Lester won both of those games. He also defeated the Royals once as a member of the Boston Red Sox.
“That’s the part of the reason we’re not winning the division,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “I think a lot of guys are ready for him. It’s going to be a nice battle.”
The matchup between Shields and Lester appeared in jeopardy in Sunday morning when Yost revealed that he intended to start Shields in a potential game 163 against the Tigers. Earlier in the month, Shields volunteered to pitch on three days’ rest as the club pushed for the playoffs. Yost planned to take him up on his offer for Monday.
The decision was curious. Shields has never pitched on short rest in this fashion. If the Royals had lost in a game today, Yost would have been forced to start Jason Vargas in Tuesday’s elimination game. Vargas had a 9.00 ERA in his last four starts, and found himself unable to locate the baseball. Without command, Vargas subjects himself to punishment from hitters.
But Yost insisted he valued a division crown above all.
“If I have a chance to win a division, I’m going for the division,” Yost said. “That way, I don’t have to have a one-game elimination game, if we win.”
He added, “You know what? We’ve got to hit. If we hit, it doesn’t matter who we pitch.”
The scenario would not unfold. Detroit would not cooperate. David Price, their mercenary ace acquired at the trading deadline, muffled the Twins on Sunday. The game started an hour before Kansas City’s did, so Yost and his staff kept tabs.
Heading into the day, the Royals required aid. They trailed Detroit by a game and failed to capitalize on an opening the night before. The Royals could not recover from an early hole dug by starter Danny Duffy and deepened by reliever Tim Collins. That left the Tigers in control of their destiny for the season finale.
“When I went into spring training, I felt like 90 wins would have a good chance of winning the division,” Yost said. “We had 89. Of course, Detroit got 90, and I was right.”
Joe Nathan closed out the Tigers’ last regular-season victory at 2:49 p.m. The response from Yost was almost immediate. The players did not hide their dissatisfaction with a second-place finish, but they cherished the chance to extend their year.
“Pretty disappointed,” third baseman Mike Moustakas said. “But at the end of the day, we get to play extra baseball. That’s all that really matters to us. We get another game. There could be a lot worse things. We could be going home.”
When Yost went to his bench in the fifth inning, his club trailed by two runs. They rallied an inning later, led by the return of Colon.
Colon had spent the last few days testing his fractured right middle finger at the team’s complex in Surprise, Ariz. He missed Friday’s clinching celebration. Activated on Sunday, he roped a two-run double in the sixth and scored the go-ahead run on a single by outfielder Carlos Peguero.
“It was nice the way they came in and got the lead back,” Yost said.
The victory padded the total of the best Royals team in a generation. They won more games than any season since 1989. They beat last year’s total by three games.
And, of course, they will be host of at least one playoff game. The team will throw a rally for fans on Monday morning as the players take batting practice. A party of a lifetime is scheduled to start at 7:07 p.m. on Tuesday.
“We knew if we could ever bring postseason baseball to Kansas City, we knew how excited everyone would be about it,” Hosmer said. “I know everyone’s really excited. I know everyone’s getting ready to go for Tuesday. We’re doing the same.”