The best team in the American League by virtually any measure is playing like it again. They are laughing and high-fiving and smashing home runs. Guarantees nothing, of course. But it’s nice to see all the same.
The Royals followed up a franchise-changing pennant by going wire to wire in the American League Central this season. They were the league’s best team for most of the summer, too, before a three-week dip coincided with the Blue Jays turning into the 1927 Yankees and worry began to spread around Kansas City.
That all feels like wasted energy now, doesn’t it?
On Sunday, the Royals finished their best regular season since 1980 — Jimmy Carter! Cold War! George Brett hit .390! — by beating the Twins 6-1. When they play the winner of the Astros-Yankees Wild Card Game at Kauffman Stadium on Thursday, the Royals will not have lost a game in nine days.
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History will show they went 95-67, the best record in the American League, their reward being Game 1 of every playoff series at home ... and here is where we get to the remarkable achievement of this season:
None of this is enough.
“We know now it’s a different game,” first baseman Eric Hosmer says. “It’s something we obviously got a lot of experience from last year. It’s something we’ve all been looking forward to for a long, long time.”
Baseball’s playoffs are a virtual pull on the slot machine. Nobody knows how to predict the ride, which is why you hear vagaries like you have to get hot at the right time or it’s whoever best handles the moment. The truth is there are a million tiny factors at play involving human beings and a sport where the difference between a popup and a home run is a fraction of an inch.
Who could ever predict that?
But to whatever extent a team’s self-image going into the playoffs affects its performance in the playoffs, the Royals are close to maxed out.
The swoon of September — overanalyzed at the time, for a lot of reasons — feels like a long time ago now.
Johnny Cueto gave up one run over five innings on Sunday. There is enough to pick apart — he needed 100 pitches, and gave up 10 base runners — but this is four starts in a row with solid results. He will almost certainly start Game 2 of the Division Series, with Yordano Ventura, who is pitching as well as ever, starting Game 1.
This is not a perfect team, mostly because there is no such thing, but it is a better team than the one that ambushed last year’s American League postseason.
The Royals are also playing better now than when they entered last year’s playoffs. Despite all logic, they are 5-0 since Alcides Escobar’s return to the leadoff spot. Salvador Perez crashed a baseball off the front of the middle deck behind the left field wall here on Sunday. Eric Hosmer is slugging .589 over the last two weeks. Alex Gordon says his groin feels fully recovered from this summer’s injury, and he has hits in nine of his last 10 games.
The bullpen, stunningly, may actually be better than last year, even without Greg Holland. It’s certainly deeper, particularly with Danny Duffy. Wade Davis is throwing cartoon cutters and is the best closer in the American League playoffs.
The offense is much better, the biggest difference between this team and last year’s, with way more power and signs in recent weeks of more action on the base paths.
“Our mindset was we were going to make the playoffs from day one in spring training,” manager Ned Yost says. “Then we got the big lead, and guys kind of, a little bit, went into conserve mode. Like, ‘OK, let’s save as much ammo as we can because when we get there we’re going to come out guns blazing.’
“I’m glad we’re done with the first part of our season. I’m glad we’re done with the marathon, and now the fun starts.”
Yost’s words there speak to the biggest impact of the Royals’ best regular season in 35 years. The playoffs are part of the plan now. Success in the postseason is the whole point, instead of a nice surprise.
A year ago, there were calls from some fans and media for Yost and general manager Dayton Moore to be fired as late as July. Some wanted the Royals to sell at the trade deadline.
Hosting the 2014 Wild Card Game, then, was enough for many. Finally, the longest playoff drought in North American sports was someone else’s problem. When the Royals won that game, then sprinted to the World Series, it was quite possibly the most successful season a professional sports team could have without a championship.
But you can only break through once.
There is only one way for the Royals to improve upon last year.
They have attacked this season with the focus of boxers — sometimes, literally. Yost isn’t exaggerating. From the first day of spring training, maybe earlier, the men who gave Kansas City its greatest sports moment in a generation played with a productive desperation.
They made passing references to it in interviews, but amongst themselves, they stewed about a general lack of respect. That is the favorite move of athletes across all levels, of course, but the Royals had a point. They won the pennant with a core of players largely in the beginning or meat of their best years, and almost nobody expected them to even reach the playoffs.
The result was an intense energy, and an almost angry edge that spilled over in bench-clearing moments against three different teams.
They dominated their division from the beginning, and built up enough of a lead that they now openly admit to losing focus and energy for a time in August and September.
That is human nature, of course, and it’s worth mentioning that the consensus around the sport was that no team — not even the bat-flipping, Gatorade bucket-dumping, 12-step-high-fiving Royals — could maintain what was essentially Game 7 energy across 162.
In recent weeks, you have started to see that part of their collective personality return. Ventura is screaming after strikeouts, Cain is singing around the clubhouse and Gordon is grabbing his mojo back.
Maybe that kind of thing doesn’t matter. Maybe it won’t matter. But it beats the alternative, and this is the time of year ballplayers put their arms around any reason for confidence they can find — and squeeze.
Theirs is a new challenge now, one that was unimaginable even a year ago, and one that only comes from the kind of regular-season success the Royals just completed:
Win it all, or feel like the season was a long lead-up to disappointment.