Sam Mellinger

Royals move within one game of the World Series in an entirely symbolic and overwhelming way

Royals catcher Salvador Perez got a hearty welcome back to the dugout after scoring on one of the club’s sacrifice flies Tuesday.
Royals catcher Salvador Perez got a hearty welcome back to the dugout after scoring on one of the club’s sacrifice flies Tuesday.

They shouted from the dugout to keep the line moving, because at some point that old baseball saw became their slogan. The easiest thing in the world is to adopt a saying and repeat it. The harder accomplishment is putting it into motion, turning it into reality, even pushing another unforgettable season to within one win of the World Series.

These Royals can be an overwhelming machine when the parts are in harmony, and for the last two years — finally — the parts have almost always been in harmony. Each of them has a story, some better known than others, all of them working together for the best baseball Kansas City has seen in a generation.

They beat the Blue Jays 14-2 in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series at the Rogers Centre on Tuesday, a whipping so complete that Blue Jays utilityman Cliff Pennington became the first position player to pitch a postseason game since at least 1914. Even the fans, who threw so much beer on the field in the last series, seemed to get a kick out of that.

The Royals lead the series three games to one, with Game 5 on Wednesday afternoon. They need to win just once in three tries to win another American League pennant. Even in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Royals were always good, they never played in consecutive World Series.

“Ninth inning, two outs, me at third,” Alex Gordon said, the memory of last year rushing back. “Just so close, and coming up short. That’s the motivating factor.”

If you had never seen this group play before, you could do worse for an introduction. They attacked the Blue Jays from the beginning, swinging early and often and hard, chasing starter R.A. Dickey in the second inning. Ben Zobrist hit a knuckleball over the fence. Lorenzo Cain stole a base and later scored on a passed ball.

Four more runs came in the seventh, three in the eighth, two in the ninth. There was no referee to stop the fight, so the Royals just kept coming, and coming, then coming again, scoring runs long after they had squashed any remaining doubt from this game like a cigarette butt under a boot.

“Just a great overall team win,” starting pitcher Chris Young said. “That’s what this group is.”

[ Still mourning father’s death, pitcher Chris Young gives his all for Royals ]

Fittingly, they did the closing damage with no home runs — eight singles, three walks, three run-scoring sacrifice flies, a double and a hit batter. When the Royals are right, they are more buckshot than bombs, winning the fight like a pack of dogs rather than one lion.

They have taken to calling this “frenzy hitting,” another of those identifiers that might not make sense to outsiders but fits this group like an old slipper. Ozzie Guillen, when he managed the White Sox, used to call the Royals piranhas.

“It can come at any time,” reliever Luke Hochevar said. “You just know these guys are going to fight every at-bat. They’re going to battle every pitch.”

Even before they won a pennant or even a postseason game, the Royals had shown themselves to be insatiable, relentless and unpredictable. They tend to pack 15 innings of energy into nine innings of baseball, all of it with flair, much of it with eight-step handshakes and inside jokes they flash back to the dugout after reaching base.

The Blue Jays and Astros tied for the best home record in the American League. The Royals are now 2-2 in those parks this postseason, the wins coming on an epic comeback in Houston and now a savage blowout.

The Blue Jays were the heavy betting favorite to win the World Series when these playoffs began and came into the ALCS on a wild show of force and bat-flipping against the Rangers in the AL Division Series.

But the Royals just won a hinge game — now up 3-1 instead of tied 2-2 — by squishing the Blue Jays’ bats and outslugging the world’s baddest hitters. They scored 14 runs with 15 hits on Tuesday, numbers the Blue Jays matched only three times in 171 games, including this postseason.

[ Podcasts: SportsBeat KC on the Royals postseason ]

The Royals are outscoring (33-16), outhitting (.331-.233) and outslugging (.496-.346) the Blue Jays in this series. Include the Division Series and the Royals hitters are still outperforming the Blue Jays. Starting with the eighth inning of Game 4 of the Division Series, they have scored 47 runs in 44 innings.

Back home, this has created an intoxicating and irresistible new passion. Kansas Citians have never watched or read this much about a baseball team, ever. They have never bought as many tickets, even back in the 1970s and 1980s, when the team always won and the games weren’t on television as much.

Winning is the most important thing, of course. It always is. But there is something more about this team that has grabbed people back home. Some of that is in the stories, about Lorenzo Cain finding baseball only after being cut from the basketball team, or Alex Gordon’s relentlessness, or Salvador Perez’s interminable smile and toughness.

But there was a particularly special moment on Tuesday, one that people who have been around the team for a while surely noticed but others may have missed. It happened in the fifth inning, when Hochevar jogged in from the bullpen into the biggest out of the game to that point.

Even by the standards of successful big leaguers, Hochevar’s professional resiliency has been profound. He came to the Royals as the only No. 1 overall pick in franchise history, technically made by the old leadership group, but in reality very much a part of what general manager Dayton Moore and his lieutenants were trying to build.

They saw in Hochevar a foundational piece, a future top-of-the-rotation starter for a franchise that had an agonizing time developing one in a sport that demanded at least a few. They spent seven years and gave Hochevar 128 big-league starts in chasing that vision. He was occasionally terrific, but the flashes were too short and rare, washed away with continued struggles.

Two years ago, the Royals made him a relief pitcher, and the results were both immediate and spectacular: He struck out 82 batters and walked just 17, posting a 1.92 ERA in 70 1/3 innings. The Royals had a brand new weapon.

The next year his elbow gave out, and at least a few club officials admitted being choked up talking about the empathy they felt for a man who had finally found his place in baseball.

But Hochevar is back now, and statistics and scout opinions agree he has become stronger as the season has progressed. He is now their top reliever outside of the back-end triumvirate of Wade Davis, Ryan Madson and Kelvin Herrera.

He earned the trust shown when manager Ned Yost summoned him to relieve Young, two outs and one on against Josh Donaldson, one of the game’s top sluggers. Hochevar threw a cutter at the letters, which Donaldson popped up, an easy out for Eric Hosmer that killed the Blue Jays’ threat. After Hochevar came back the next inning for three more outs, he had gone through the Blue Jays’ best four hitters in what has often been the Royals’ vague and dangerous space between their rotation and top three relievers.

It was a beautiful sight to those who have been on or around this team for a certain number of years. At one point, Hochevar was seen as the busted No. 1 pick, a sign of a sorry franchise’s failures. Now he is remade into a valuable piece, equal parts talent and determination, a beloved teammate in the middle of the Royals’ sprint toward another World Series.

Related stories from Kansas City Star