Vahe Gregorian

Royals’ ALDS victory validates bold late-season approach

Royals second baseman Ben Zobrist, who was acquired during the season, hit a sacrifice fly in the fifth inning that scored right fielder Alex Rios in Wednesday’s game.
Royals second baseman Ben Zobrist, who was acquired during the season, hit a sacrifice fly in the fifth inning that scored right fielder Alex Rios in Wednesday’s game. jsleezer@kcstar.com

When the Royals acquired pitcher Johnny Cueto on July 26 in exchange for three pitching prospects, they addressed their most glaring issue and made a bold and indisputable proclamation.

The future was now for a small-market franchise whose windows of opportunity can be fleeting — as a generation-plus of Royals fans knows only too well.

But the Cueto gambit was only the start of an all-in philosophical approach to the end of the 2015 season — a season the Royals entered mindful of Game 7 of the 2014 World Series not as something to celebrate but as a springboard to unfinished work.

The aggressiveness was reinforced days later, when they traded two more prospects for utilityman Ben Zobrist.

It was punctuated all the more through the tinkering, tweaking, spackling and even exhaling after they seized a double-digit lead in the American League Central Division in mid-August.

That span, that tack, induced groans and growing pains and anxieties in fans, particularly in the form of Cueto’s baffling disintegration from ace to wild-card and the Royals’ 11-17 September.

But it was all validated on Wednesday night, when the Royals beat Houston 7-2 at Kauffman Stadium in Game 5 of their American League Division Series to advance to the American League Championship Series against Toronto.

The Royals celebrated a 7-2 victory in Game 5 of their AL Division Series against the Astros on Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium that was led by Johnny Cueto's pitching gem, Alex Rios' go-ahead double and Lorenzo Cain's hustle. Hear from the players

“We came up just short last year; I haven’t gotten over Game 7 last year. I’m still struggling with that,” said Royals owner David Glass, sopped in champagne in the Royals clubhouse after the game. “This year, we believed we had a chance to do it, and to do it right and to fix what we didn’t get done last year.

“So we just collectively said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ 

The Royals might have stood pat, as they essentially did last year, and hoped they had what they needed.

But Glass trusted general manager Dayton Moore’s instinct for maneuvers and manager Ned Yost’s gut with how to refine and cobble together the material Moore provided.

If you’re going to veto the general manager, Glass said, “then you probably don’t need the general manager.”

“It’s difficult to give up the prospects, but … you go for it when you have a chance,” Glass said. “I’ve seen a lot of teams in a position to where they believe that they were going to win, they might have been the favorites, (and) they didn’t do anything.

“They missed that opportunity, and (the) next year it didn’t happen the same way.”

You’re always limited as to what you can do, or what’s available, Glass added, and he knows that’s particularly the case here and added to the urgency.

“One of these days, you’ve got some guys on this team we’re not going to be able to afford,” he said. “That’s sad but true. Hopefully, we’ll keep them together for some period of time, the core group, but that’s real life with small markets.”

And in this market, this time, the approach sure has taken.

The victory was enabled by a splendid performance from Cueto, who surrendered two hits in eight innings and arguably threw one bad pitch that was crunched into a two-run homer.

The performance, Glass noted, turned the crowd at Kauffman from one that had been apt to boo Cueto in September to chanting his name.

The Kansas City Royals celebrate winning their AL Division Series over the Houston Astros with a 7-2 victory in Game 5 on Wednesday. (Oct. 14, 2015 Video by Monty Davis | The Kansas City Star)

Then there was Zobrist, who has been a far steadier presence and drove in the fourth run to provide a nice cushion for the Royals’ bullpen before Kendrys Morales’ three-run homer extended the buffer zone.

“Ben Zobrist is somebody we’ve admired for a long time,” Moore said. “And his professionalism, his at-bats, really I think have leaked over to everybody else a little bit, too. Hitting’s contagious, quality at-bats are contagious.”

Finally, the go-ahead runs were furnished on an RBI double by Alex Rios, who last week in Houston had been asked by security to furnish ID that he was a player — something Royals fans have been asking more colorfully for months.

Rios in many ways symbolizes the virtues of what the Royals were trying to do down the stretch when critics thought they were meandering.

He had been hitting .321 when he was hit by a pitch and suffered a broken hand at the beginning of the season, and he sputtered for weeks and weeks upon his return as catcalls came for him to be benched.

But as the Royals were taking inventory and rendering systems checks, Yost applied his unique blend of hunch and faith to solving the task and figured this:

Let’s see if he can get it back, because, after all, this all had become about October, not winning day-in, day-out.

Maybe Rios would get more of his form back the further behind him the injury became.

“It just took him a long time to get his tempo and to get his rhythm at the plate,” Yost had said recently. “That’s why we kept running him out there.”

Rios then hit .382 with eight doubles, two triples and two home runs in 24 games from Aug. 19 to Sept. 25 to secure his postseason role.

No, he hasn’t hit particularly well in the postseason (two for 11 entering the game Wednesday), the first of his career.

But let the record show that before the key hit on Wednesday he also delivered the first of five straight hits in the eighth inning of Game 4 to stoke the Royals comeback from a 6-2 deficit to a 9-6 victory.

“I don’t know if it validates or vindicates or whatever it does,” Yost said late Wednesday night. “I just had a really good feeling about Alex Rios this series.

“And for Alex to get that big hit after everything he’s been through this year, as hard as he’s worked and the adversity he’s been through with the broken hand and the chicken pox, to get the biggest hit in this series for us to cap the series I thought was pretty special.”

Determining to keep Rios, though, was just one element of the Royals’ late-season evaluations and makeover.

During their postseason prep time, they moved towards installing Zobrist for Omar Infante at second base instead of right field for Rios, a move that became self-evident when Infante suffered an oblique strain.

During their late “slump,” they kept trying to sort out what was what with fading closer Greg Holland.

That allowed them to gain the evidence to persuade him to get an MRI, which, alas, shut him down for the season but at least clarified a murky situation.

Holland’s downfall meant recasting a bullpen whose performance last postseason was among the most dominant in the history of the game.

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Naturally enough, the Royals shuffled terminator Wade Davis to Holland’s position and were able to get a running jump at preparing different set-up combinations with Ryan Madson and Kelvin Herrera.

Davis, of course, finished out the game Wednesday with his third unblemished appearance of the postseason, including his two-inning save in Game 4.

During all the doubting, the Royals also rejiggered their rotation, determining that Danny Duffy would be better-suited to the bullpen for this run, that Cueto, Ventura and Edinson Volquez would be the prime starters and Chris Young and Kris Medlen would be the X-factor swing-men.

Finally, they found some semblance of solution to the Cueto dilemma, explained publicly, anyway, as a simple adjustment made with the target catcher Sal Perez was providing.

With that, Cueto performed steadily better before his tepid Game 2 performance. While he came to inspire more hope, it certainly wasn’t so much that anyone knew what he’d do on Wednesday.

And had Cueto and the Royals not delivered, of course, this would all look different right now.

Glass says he wouldn’t have questioned all the moves had the Royals not won Wednesday, but he smiled and added, “It would have been a really bad deal if we had lost.”

No doubt the Cueto deal would immediately have been seen as a bust that mortgaged the future without maximizing the present.

And all the fussing and fiddling to gear up the team for postseason would be viewed as “couldn’t flip the switch back on” and “can’t ever take your pedal off the gas.”

Hindsight bias, though, is all we have in the unexplainable game of baseball.

The Royals make their mistakes, like anybody else, Moore said, he acknowledged blockbuster midseason deals “oftentimes don’t go your way.”

But the Royals always were going to be right for reaching for it when they could, and as it happens the day they acquired Cueto foretold an audacious approach that paid ample dividends on Wednesday … and into at least the near future.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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