Vahe Gregorian

Entering second straight championship series, Royals’ resilience stoked by clubhouse chemistry

The Royals’ clubhouse is a diverse environment on numerous fronts, but is also one that celebrates such differences and benefits from them.
The Royals’ clubhouse is a diverse environment on numerous fronts, but is also one that celebrates such differences and benefits from them. deulitt@kcstar.com

Enter the Royals’ clubhouse, and you step into an eclectic, electric and at-times eccentric realm of otherwise disconnected personalities and histories.

It’s a room in which in which 10 states and 10 foreign-born players from five countries were represented on the 25-man American League Division Series roster that may look the same when the AL Championship Series gets underway against Toronto on Friday at Kauffman Stadium.

The Star's Andy McCullough and Blair Kerkhoff preview Game 1 of the American League Championship Series between the Royals and Toronto Blue Jays, which is 7 Friday night at Kauffman Stadium and will air on Fox.

It’s a roster shared by a Princeton graduate (Chris Young) and a high school dropout (Yordano Ventura); by a rookie (Paulo Orlando) who’ll turn 30 on Nov. 1 and veterans resuscitating careers that appeared over (Ryan Madson and Kris Medlen); by the only overall No. 1 pick in franchise history (Luke Hochevar) and a player plucked in a 50th round that no longer exists (Jarrod Dyson).

It’s made up of guys like Drew Butera, whose father was on a World Series-winning team for Minnesota (and now coaches for Toronto) and Lorenzo Cain, who didn’t play baseball until he was a sophomore in high school.

It features Mike Moustakas, who had a batting cage built in his front yard when he was a kid in baseball-rich California, and players like Ventura and Orlando and Sal Perez and Edinson Volquez and Alcides Escobar and Kelvin Herrera who grew up around antiquated facilities and were fortunate ever to be discovered … or lucky just to get here, like Kendrys Morales, who escaped Cuba on his 13th try.

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But this isn’t about the disparities.

It’s about the common language they’ve somehow all come to speak and what that has meant to a captivating Royals team known for its resolve.

After winning 40 games they trailed in during the regular season, that trait was reinforced with three come-from-behind wins in the ALDS against Houston — including the spectacular comeback from four runs down in the eighth inning of Game 4.

A key part of that resilience is the cohesive collective identity of a room that has been painstakingly cultivated by general manager Dayton Moore, his staff and scouts and manager Ned Yost and his coaches.

“Without a doubt,” Yost said as he sat in the dugout at Kauffman Stadium on Thursday afternoon. “You’ve got to have talent first, above everything else. But if you have talent and chemistry, then you have something special.

“When the chemistry is right, nobody cares who gets the credit, you know?”

Chemistry, of course, is an ambiguous notion, and there are any number of teams who have succeeded without it and plenty who haven’t with it.

No doubt Houston had its own distinct sense of that, and surely Toronto does, too.

Just the same, to watch the animated Royals on the field or be around their interaction in the clubhouse is to understand a certain sense of connection that bench coach Don Wakamatsu puts like this:

“I don’t know if anybody can physically describe it,” he said. “It’s more of a feeling of walking in a room and knowing guys have your back; it’s a special thing.”

And it helps explain a mind-set that Wakamatsu says is particularly crucial this time of year:

“Are you willing to let the ego go by the wayside and say, ‘Whatever it takes?’ ” he said. “Some people say, ‘They’re hot.’ Some people say, ‘It’s timing.’ But the teams that (embrace the idea of) 25-is-1, tend to” emerge.

The mentality maybe was best illustrated in the five-run eighth when the Royals were facing imminent elimination on Monday in Houston.

It wasn’t just that they found it within themselves to amass five straight singles to start the inning before Morales’ sharp ball up the middle that was ruled an error brought home two runs to tie it 6-6.

Alex Gordon later drove home the go-ahead run on a ground-out enabled by Butera’s 10-pitch walk.

It was the patience and trust in those around them to “keep the line moving,” as the Royals put it, and not over-swing or lunge but stay conscious of themselves as cogs.

“You see some magical things happen” with that in mind, Wakamatsu said. “You can’t do it alone.”

Every organization certainly would prefer to have a team committed to an all-for-one mentality, and certainly the Royals experience exceptions to the rule.

Still, this is a major point of emphasis here.

“The chemistry in our clubhouse is very, very important to us,” Yost said. “It’s a very close group of guys now, and that was the plan. That’s not by accident.”

Moore said he has “oftentimes” decided against bringing in a player because of the sense of poor fit for one reason or another.

And the significance of that is something Yost says he learned the hard way through a regrettable experience with an undisclosed player when he was managing Milwaukee.

Yost had heard the player was not a good guy and wasn’t right for the clubhouse, but he fit a need enough that he ignored the warnings.

“And I’ll never do it again,” he said. “The cool thing for me now is that Dayton and I have the exact same perspective on this.”

It starts at the start with how the Royals vet players they consider drafting or obtaining since, as Moore put it, a player’s personal habits “will always catch up with them.”

So they get to know coaches, families and friends of prospects as they try to determine such things as if a potential draftee is a good teammate and if he’s someone who battles more or pouts when things go wrong.

“If you don’t have that ability to continue to battle when things aren’t going right,” Yost said, “that’s hard to teach.”

Once they established a nucleus built around the likes of Cain, Perez, Escobar, Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon and Danny Duffy, etc., the Royals worked to add meaningful veteran leadership around them.

That’s a major part of why they made the controversial trade for James Shields and Wade Davis after the 2012 season and why they particularly worked to acquire Ben Zobrist this season.

“As a scouting staff, as a coaching staff, in (Moore’s) office, we do more homework on their makeup than we do anything else,” Yost said. “Are they going to fit in our environment and be productive members of this team that we have?

“ ‘Are they going to be energy givers or are they going to be energy takers?’ And that’s how you do it.”

That’s why they brought in Raul Ibañez last year even though it was evident at 42 years old that his skills had receded.

Ibañez became regarded as a sort of mystical guru who not only orchestrated a team meeting many deemed pivotal but also was a steady source or encouragement and energy.

“We felt it was a necessary ingredient to add to the clubhouse,” Moore said. “Obviously, his presence added greatly to the character of our team.”

That’s what Wakamatsu means when he says, “Give me one guy who makes five guys better.”

This year’s version of Ibañez is Jonny Gomes, 34, whose best playing days seem to be behind him but like Ibañez is known for his charisma and impact on those around him.

So even though he wasn’t on the roster for the ALDS, Gomes said on Thursday: “I’ve got to go home to the mirror every night, try to look in that mirror and say I flipped over every leaf and every rock to help the ballclub win. … (And) there’s guys who need a kick in the butt, and there’s guys who need a pat on the butt.”

There’s something for everybody, of course, in the Royals’ clubhouse, where a multi-cultural lot is engaged in a singular cause that didn’t just happen.

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