Vahe Gregorian

Royals’ AL Central title took root in Wild Card Game

The Royals enjoyed their fifth champagne in 12 months following Thursday night’s victory over the Seattle Mariners. The club’s American League Central championship is its first division title since 1985, when the Royals won the American League West.
The Royals enjoyed their fifth champagne in 12 months following Thursday night’s victory over the Seattle Mariners. The club’s American League Central championship is its first division title since 1985, when the Royals won the American League West. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

One fine definition of wild card, as Merriam-Webster.com puts it, is “a person or thing that could affect a situation in a way that cannot be predicted: an unknown or unpredictable factor.”

If you sought to add some graphic design to supplement the words, you might consider any number of images from the 2014 American League Wild Card Game — the precursor that spurred all the Royals’ magic since.

That game against Oakland didn’t simply tilt the immediate situation, the playoffs, but it altered everything for the Royals in a way that never could have been predicted.

Into the foreseeable future, there were the Royals entering that game on Sept. 30, 2014.

And then there have been the Royals ever since, after the Wild Card Game enabled 29 days of October glory that snuffed out 29 years of futility and paved the way ahead.

All at once, a generation-plus of black clouds parted, trap doors stopped springing open every time hope had the temerity to surface, and the franchise was hurtled into an alternate reality.

At least compared to the recent past.

“I think from that point on, it’s just been a different club,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said earlier this season. “It just created a whole new swagger about us … I think it just changed a lot of guys’ mentality and really changed the whole group as a team.”

Maybe that was especially so because of how it unfurled.

Before it triggered an almost tangible chemical reaction in a long-dormant franchise and fan base, the game-within-the-game first lurked as the most Royals moment of them all … in the exasperating context that came to mean during their 28-plus years of futility.

First, manager Ned Yost’s idiosyncratic bullpen maneuver to insert starter Yordano Ventura for James Shields backfired and came off like a vaudeville exploding-cigar routine.

When the Royals went on to trail 7-3 into the eighth inning, the iconic moment of the game stood to be the furious booing of Yost — 29 years’ worth unleashed in an instant as he strode off the field after removing Ventura.

No team in Major League Baseball history had come from farther behind to win a playoff game.

So of course that would be that for the Royals.

But as chronicled by Andy McCullough, the Royals then defied all laws of logic about what could happen in a baseball playoff game with a 9-8 win in 12 innings.

More significantly, that victory proved to be a catalyst, the first of eight straight wins into a World Series against San Francisco that ended 90 feet away from the tying run in Game 7.

Just how and why it played out that way, and proved to be a preamble to the Royals clinching the American League Central division on Thursday night, might make a worthy case study for Psychology Today.

But the amateur theory here is that the game emotionally liberated an organization that long had been straitjacketed in defeatism and enabled talented young players to simply become who they were all along.

Put another way, they finally felt free to just play and, in fact, have fun in a way seldom seen before on a baseball field.

That, in turn, was amplified and stoked by a fan base ravenous for a reason to believe after so many sour years.

You could see and feel this not just in the way the team played, but in how it carried itself — and maybe the greatest embodiment of this actually was in Yost.

For so long as he’d been in development mode with a largely young team, Yost had been mocked for moves often geared toward the long view — moves that might have seemed puzzling in the moment (letting shortstop Alcides Escobar hit when he was outmatched) but that would prove vital moving forward.

Like about any manager, Yost also made his share of pure blunders and hurt himself at times with cranky, defensive comments that he came to be known for even when it was obvious he was joking.

Between those two dynamics and the broader state of affairs of the Royals, Yost absorbed the brunt of warped cynicism that cast him as a moron who was the only thing holding the team back.

Then came the wild-card win, after which Yost let his considerable personality show publicly in ways he never had before.

That was largely because he came to believe that his job developing the team was done, as he put it during a spring training interview, and the team indeed seemed remarkably unfazed by this new frontier.

After the Oakland game, he said, he longer had to consume himself with building up players and instead could concentrate more singularly on game management.

Because now they believed in themselves the way he always had, a force that only gained momentum through the playoffs.

“Belief is not gray; it’s black or white,” said Yost, who has won the most career games as a Royals manager. “You either do or you don’t. And from that point on, it clicked. And they believed, and it was like, ‘OK, boys, go out and play. Have fun and play.’”

And so they still are, sustained all the more by having been there before — albeit because of a wild card phenomenon that never could be duplicated … and couldn’t have been predicted.

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