As he considered the cosmic meaning of the Tigers salvaging a split in their four-game series against the Royals with a 6-4 victory on Sunday at Kauffman Stadium, Detroit manager Brad Ausmus shrugged and said, “I don’t know that there were any eureka moments.”
But there were a few of to be derived from a compelling series in which the last three games were sellouts. That means that the Royals through 13 home games have been at capacity more times this season (five) than in 81 regular-season games last year (four).
“I knew back in the day when we weren’t getting good crowds that it was still a baseball town,” left fielder Alex Gordon said, “and that once we started playing well, they were going to come out and support us.”
The crowds, of course, are testament to the Royals’ resurgence — not to mention the giveaway Saturday of a Salvador Perez bobblehead commemorating the 2014 American League wild-card win over Oakland that was transformative for the franchise.
This was about something else, too, though: the anticipation of a budding — and notably respectful — rivalry with the Tigers.
“It’s going to be a long season between both these teams: We both never quit, we’ve both got great offense and great pitching,” third baseman Mike Moustakas said. “And we’ve got to go out there and find a way to beat each other.”
That the Royals only managed a split after winning the first two might seem like a stalemate, but it may mean something more valuable: traction.
After all, in the process of winning the last four AL Central titles, the Tigers had won 46 of 74 games with the Royals.
Even last year, when the Royals took the wild-card bypass to the World Series, the Tigers dominated them.
Detroit not only won 13 of 19 games overall but also humbled the Royals at home, seizing eight out of 10 at Kauffman and outscoring them 66-27 in the process
“They had our number last year,” Gordon said. “But we feel pretty good about our team right now.”
Meanwhile, the very word “rivalry” has become a loaded term this season for the Royals, who abruptly went from being America’s team in the postseason to something like America’s Most Wanted after a series of fireworks with chippy opponents in April.
If the Royals were guilty of much of anything in that perception, it was mostly waiting too long to retaliate for some cheap tactics and allowing Yordano Ventura to repeatedly engage in stare-downs and trash-talk.
Just the same, the Bad Boys of Baseball label was being pinned on them as the common denominators in all the hijinks.
So these games with Detroit were a statement about that simplistic perception, too.
Perhaps inadvertently, Detroit pitcher Anibal Sanchez used the words “when we play together” as he nodded his approval of the intensity with which the teams played each other.
Maybe it was best epitomized in the epic showdown Friday night between Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera and Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera. After Herrera struck him out with the 10th pitch of the at-bat, Cabrera smiled in apparent appreciation of the work of Herrera, who is appealing two different suspension rulings by MLB.
“Miggie kind of tipped his hat to him, basically,” Ausmus said.
All of that nonsense seemed so long ago as this series unfolded between two teams trading first-place, and there’s a reason for that.
“I think the guys in this clubhouse respect those guys over there; I think they even like a lot of those guys over there, and I think it probably comes back this way as well …,” Ausmus said. “I think a lot of the guys in both those clubhouses, you could take any one of them from this side and throw him over there and throw a different jersey on, and they’d probably slide right in.”
Or vice versa as in the case of Detroit closer Joakim Soria, who made his Major League debut with the Royals from 2007-2011.
“I was pulling for them (in the World Series), and I know most of the guys over there,” Soria said after saving the win on Sunday. “We enjoyed great times, great memories, especially with (general manager Dayton Moore).
“He’s a really, really nice guy, and I appreciate everything that he did for me. And it was a shame that they couldn’t win.”
Soria seemed moved to be told that injured Royals closer Greg Holland considered him a role model.
“I feel really good that he’d say that,” Soria said. “It feels good to impact people even when you don’t try to, just by a friendship.”
None of which means the Royals and Tigers aren’t competing furiously and that there might not be sparks between them as this goes along.
If familiarity breeds contempt, well, they’ve got 15 more games against each other, and chances are the stakes will be increasing incrementally all along.
Even though the Royals have demonstrated that they don’t need to win the division to have a chance to win it all, they also want to be where Detroit’s been and will stay standing until someone knocks them off.
But the nature of their rivalry is a healthy thing in a lot of ways to have happen now, from the fact that the Royals appear equipped to really compete directly with the Tigers now to what it suggests about the real common denominators in the Royals’ reputation in some circles:
Teams, and individuals, who are resorting to trying to get into the Royals heads — and sometimes succeeding — instead of just playing the game like the Tigers do.
“They have a lot of veterans over there that have done a lot of good things in this game,” Gordon said. “And they play the game the right way, and I think that’s respected. And hopefully they view us the same way.”