Vahe Gregorian

September 11, 2013

Meaningful baseball in September is new experience for Royals

Normally about this time of year, Royals left fielder Alex Gordon would have been able to plan his October. “I’ve never been in this situation: Playing for something in September and really not planning for the offseason yet,” Gordon, 29, said. “It’s awesome.”

Normally about this time of year, Royals left fielder Alex Gordon would have been able to plan his October.

“I’ve never been in this situation: Playing for something in September and really not planning for the offseason yet,” said Gordon, 29. “It’s awesome.”

That new sensation, perhaps a version of pennant fever, evidently was enough to render Gordon delirious before the Wednesday afternoon game with the Indians at Progressive Field. How else to explain the goofy prediction he made about his at-bat to open the game?

“‘I’m going to go up there and ambush the first pitch and hit it out,’” manager Ned Yost recalled Gordon saying.

But sure enough, Gordon smashed the instant first blow in what became a 6-2 Royals romp over the Indians.

The victory hoisted them to just 2 games back in the race for the American League’s second wild-card spot and a first playoff appearance since 1985.

Now, depending on your willingness to suspend disbelief in anything to do with the Royals after the futility of the last generation, and depending on what set of statistical analyses or odds-making you are entranced by, you can make a case that this is nice and all but won’t quite work out.

And it might not.

But it also just might.

And even if it doesn’t, the thrill of the rare chase after so much darkness for so long is a campaign that can’t just be shrugged off.

That’s why the season-ticket holders who got postseason ticket information the other day, probably the first such notice in close to 30 years, can’t quite afford to purge them.

That’s why you wanted to know what the Red Sox and Rays were up to on Wednesday night, maybe even checked on it regularly.

And that’s why Yost woke up at 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday after going to bed at midnight: Meaningful games in September.

“I was wide awake,” he said. “Ready to go, but had to wait for the Starbucks to open at 6.”

And Yost wasn’t just over-caffeinated when he spoke before the game and elaborated on a decision to skip youngster Danny Duffy’s next turn in the rotation.

Yes, Yost is trying to protect Duffy’s recent return from Tommy John surgery last season and doesn’t want to over-expose him against the Tigers this weekend, but also …

“You’re always planning, right?” he said, matter-of-factly. “(So) it moves everybody up now. But it moves everybody up at the end, too.

“Which allows us to have James Shields available for a playoff game (as) another reason you do it, too.”

Shields, of course, was the linchpin of the controversial blockbuster offseason trade with Tampa Bay and has had the most meaningful postseason experience on a team largely made up of players who can’t act like they’ve been there — or even here — before, because they haven’t.

Not that a certain obliviousness doesn’t help.

Pressing too hard is no factor for this team, Gordon said, at least not at this distance.

“There’s such a good jell and chemistry that we’re not worried about what happens,” Gordon said. “We just play hard and have fun. That’s just how our team is, so I think that maybe really takes away from the stress, which is great for a team that’s never been there.”

Meanwhile, this season in itself has had a way of illuminating and bringing out character, said Shields, who was absolutely in control most of the game Wednesday (eight innings, four hits, two runs, seven strikeouts) after his nightmarish start last Friday against Detroit.

After all, this is a team that lost 19 of 23 at one point in May, lost five in a row headed into the All-Star break and seven in a row less than a month ago.

“These guys have developed a lot of experience this year,” Shields said. “We’ve gone through so many ups and downs. … We’ve been through every situation you can think of, almost …

“These guys know what it takes, and they know how to win.”

Or as third baseman Mike Moustakas put it: “Every game we’ve played for the past month or so has been a playoff feel.”

And from that has come this: A 13-5 streak that has included series wins over Detroit last weekend after a 16-2 loss to open it and two of three against the Indians after a tough 4-3 loss on Monday became the sixth straight defeat in Cleveland.

This latest reincarnation was punctuated by a win Wednesday that was the Royals’ 77th of the season, another incremental, psychological advance on the wild-card race: At least momentarily, it matched the number in the W column of the three teams immediately ahead of them (Baltimore, Cleveland and New York).

Add it all up, and it’s “meaningful games in September” … and maybe, at last, beyond.

“I believe in this team, I believe in this group of players, and I think we’re going to go right down to the end,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “And I’m going to believe that … we’re going to be in the playoffs.”

You can’t count them in, of course, but can you really count them out?

Like Gordon, not enough that you can plan for it yet.

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