Sam Mellinger

Royals are division champs again after a wait of — wait for it — 30 long years

The Royals celebrated their clinching of the American League Central Division title after a 10-4 win over the Seattle Mariners on Thursday at Kauffman Stadium.
The Royals celebrated their clinching of the American League Central Division title after a 10-4 win over the Seattle Mariners on Thursday at Kauffman Stadium. deulitt@kcstar.com

Plastic covers on the lockers and carts of Budweiser in the clubhouse are by now a familiar sight. The way cases of popped champagne create an odor that tingles the nostrils is now a familiar feeling.

They are getting good at this now, these Royals. They know how to walk on the soaked plastic without slipping, they know how to read when a coach needs a good drenching, and Sal Perez and Jarrod Dyson know how to get into the stands to hug and high-five fans.

Danny Duffy has special goggles for these parties. Mike Moustakas has mastered the ability to splash teammates with the bottle in one hand, drink from the bottle in the other, and keep a third in his back pocket, you know, just in case.

“It burns!” Lorenzo Cain screams. “It burns my eyes! It got through my goggles, but it feels great!”

Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain and manager Ned Yost shared their emotions of winning the AL Central Division during a postgame celebration following a 10-4 win over Seattle on Thursday, Sept. 24 at Kauffman Stadium (video by Chris Fickett, cficket

The Royals clinched their first division championship in 30 years at Kauffman Stadium on Thursday night. That set off their fifth champagne party in 12 months. Last year, they went so hard in Chicago after clinching a playoff spot that the White Sox had to replace the carpet in the visitors clubhouse.

Then came the Wild Card party after beating the A's, the Division Series party after sweeping the Angels, and the ALCS party after sweeping the Orioles. They changed a franchise's sorry history and ignited a city's love for baseball with that run.

This party was euphoric, but not wild. That's fitting, because this one was put on by a team that expected this party since the end of last year's World Series.

A year ago, they ended the longest playoff drought in American sports and never knew when they'd get this chance again. Now, they have won more games than any other team in the league since the start of last season and they expect more parties.

No matter how long their playoff run lasts, it will be fundamentally different. The American League Central did not even exist the last time the Royals won a division, but the title is more symbolic than anything. At the very least, the new flag atop the Hall of Fame building in left field will say “AL Central Champions.”

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Many of the faces of this playoff encore are the same as a year ago, but really, the differences are many. That team put pedal to the floor all year, desperate to end what had begun to feel like a curse. Getting into the playoffs was enough for some, and winning that Wild Card was plenty for most.

The breakthrough has been done now, a new high needed, which is fine because this team is good enough that it will be remembered for what happens next month.

It's not just the larger context that's changed. Wade Davis is the closer now, and Ben Zobrist the second baseman. Johnny Cueto will start game one in the playoffs, and Alex Gordon will bat leadoff. There was a sense that the Royals caught the league off guard last October, but this time they will be well known.

“It's different,” Perez says. “But the same celebration.”

The Royals are no longer the upstart. That old ineptitude is now context, background music to the current success. You might not need the reminder that during one three-year stretch, the Royals finished 34 games out, then 43 games, and then 34 again.

That last season was 2006, when owner David Glass finally got tired of the losing and the jokes and committed to rebuilding a once-proud franchise. He hired Dayton Moore in June that year, giving the new man unprecedented resources and uncommon patience.

When Moore took over, the Royals were so bad they skipped a team picture one year because, as he was told, “who would want to remember that team?” Today, the Royals are the defending American League champions. Pictures of them – this year, last year, whenever – are all over Kauffman Stadium and living rooms across the Midwest.

The Royals have gone from hearing pity to hearing questions about which champagne party was the most fun. It's a silly question, of course, because champagne parties never get old. Parents say they can't pick a favorite child, right? Most of them, anyway. Ballplayers are the same way.

“I'm just as excited as I was for the first one,” Moustakas says.

“Every champagne party we do last year I remember like yesterday,” Perez says. “All of them. Amazing. All of them.”

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Last year's wild ride can't be duplicated. You never forget your first. The way the ground shook beneath James Shields' feet as he prepared to throw the first pitch of the Wild Card game, or the bar tab at McFadden's, or Lorenzo Cain jumping up with a primal scream after making another diving catch.

Getting into the playoffs last year was about a breakthrough. Winning the division this year is more about a milemarker, something to check off the list – end the Tigers' stranglehold on the division first, secure homefield advantage second, and then do the only thing possible to improve upon making it to game seven of the World Series.

In almost every conceivable way, the Royals' encore has been nothing like their breakthrough. That one played out like a thriller, the ending out of nowhere and leaving a city forever changed. That one had depressing dips, with some fans calling for the general manager's job as late as June, and the manager's job as late as July.

Those Royals did virtually nothing at the trade deadline, got smoking hot in August, and won enough in September to host a Wild Card game none will ever forget.

The encore has been more of a summer blockbuster – a wild success at the box office with zany plot twists even as the ultimate result has been obvious since about midway through.

These Royals made two of the biggest trades in franchise history before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, lapping a surprisingly mediocre division and winning enough games through the first five months that they've played their worst three-week stretch of the season and still have the league's best record.

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About that skid, too. It has turned Johnny Cueto from a mercenary to a rehab project, and Greg Holland from the closer to requiring season-ending elbow injury.

These Royals have always been particularly close, especially by professional sports standards, to the point that manager Ned Yost sometimes jokes his players even get hot and cold at the same time.

There is a feeling within the organization that Holland's deteriorating health eroded the bullpen's mojo, and Cueto's five-start slump wore down the rotation's swagger, all of it eventually infecting the rest of the team. They have had a string of baserunning errors that go against how this group sees itself.

Some of the skid has been logistical, too. The cushion in the division has allowed Yost to give his relievers extra days, and to bring Alex Gordon back from injury with caution, and to rest Cain and Perez, among others. In ways that are both literal and figurative, the team that sputtered into the division title is not the one they expect when the playoffs begin in two weeks.

There remains an honest, well-earned skepticism among Royals fans. Nobody wants to hear that baseball history shows little or no connection between how a team finishes the regular season and how it performs in the playoffs. Even years after being rescued, the family dog might snarl at strangers.

After the Royals clinched the AL Central Division on Thursday night, The Star's Sam Mellinger and Andy McCullough assessed the team entering the playoffs (video by Chris Fickett, cfickett@kcstar.com)

This is a strange season in many ways, so maybe the final 10 games will represent just one more. If clinching the division is a marker of anything beyond their official entry to the playoffs, it's that the time is quickly approaching for them to regain their form.

“I think so,” Moustakas says. “I think right now is where we start bringing it back to Kansas City Royals baseball. Where we start amping it up a little bit, kind of like the beginning of the year when we came out hot. Start getting that fire and drive and showing a little more emotion like we can.”

The Royals have been doing some of that in recent days. Their defensive substitutions, bullpen usage, and pinch running patters have closer resembled the way they'll play the postseason.

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After this “laid-back day” on Friday, the Royals will go back to that. They still have homefield advantage to pursue. They will be doing that as official division champions. It's the second straight year they've been in the playoffs, of course.

But the first in 30 that just getting there isn't enough.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @mellinger.

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