(As I prefer to focus on the many positives, I’ll save my thoughts on the Royals’ September and prospects for October until next week.)
I had a bit of a rough weekend. Some stomach issues. A couple late nights and early mornings. Mid-day naps to counter those. Everything felt a bit off. And I guess it all started Thursday night, when the Royals clinched their first division title since 1985.
When your favorite team hasn’t done something in 30 years, you stay up to enjoy every second of it. Even if it’s a school night. And then you celebrate a bit. As I was drinking a small pour of Redbreast late Thursday/early Friday, I realized I had never seen the Royals clinch a division championship before. I remember the nights they clinched in 1980 and 1985. But that was back in the age when home games were rarely on TV. I believe I was listening on the radio when they clinched in 1980. And in 1985, I know we were watching the late local news because they promised to go straight to the stadium once the game was final. I had seen the Royals clinch playoff series wins, but this was the first time I’d watched them celebrate closing the door on their division rivals. It was a good night, even if it knocked my off-kilter for a few days.
For as much angst as September has generated within the Royals fanbase, I’ve preferred to enjoy what has perhaps been the best summer of baseball I’ve lived through. The last two years, the Royals were hot-and-cold. They faded badly late in 2003. 1994 was all about their late hot stretch. As much as I enjoyed the “Magic Kingdom” summer of 1989, I went off to college in late August and tuned out for the last six weeks or so of that season. In 1985, the Royals were pretty mediocre until mid-August. I suppose I can count 1980, but since we moved to Kansas City in mid-July, I wasn’t really fully immersed in the team until then.
Thus, this has been the first time in my 30-plus years as a baseball fan that the team I follow has been good from Opening Day through the entire summer. Well, almost the entire summer. Even with the late swoon, they were so far ahead that there was never any drama about whether they would make the playoffs.
There’s something special about winning your division in baseball. It goes back to the days of two leagues and a direct path to the World Series. In baseball, there has always been a different level of reverence for what was accomplished over 162 games compared to how other sports value their regular seasons. That’s true even in the Wild Card era, and I believe true baseball fans draw a clean line between regular season excellence and the vagaries of the postseason. An early playoff exit will suck, but because of the length of the regular season, I don’t think those accomplishments get completely wiped out. As compared to college basketball, for example, where a 30-plus season is often forgotten if you lose to a team with the wrong seed in the first weekend of the tournament.
Or at least that’s the way I view the baseball season. So I’ve worked hard to enjoy this season without worrying about what happens next.
It’s been so much fun to watch Lorenzo Cain blossom into an absolute star this year. He’s the most complete player the Royals have had since Carlos Beltran’s days in KC. As KC Star beat writer Andy McCullough often says, it’s an absolute joy to watch Cain play.
Eric Hosmer may never be the super-duper star some expected him to be. But this year he put together his most consistent season. When he was hot, he was white-hot and nearly impossible to pitch to. If he can turn those 14–17 day slumps into ones that last just a week, super-duper stardom could still be in his future.
The coolest individual aspect of this season was watching Mike Moustakas reinvent himself. He learned how to use what the pitcher and defense were doing to him to his advantage. He learned patience and humility. He managed to do all that without losing his power. Most importantly, he learned how to adjust when the league adjusted to him. His development made the team so much better.
I enjoyed Kendrys Morales reviving his career and being a positive influence on the rest of the team every day.
Alex Gordon added another set of highlights to his long, career list of them. When he went down with an injury that cost him six weeks in early July, it seemed like a huge moment for the team. They roared through those six weeks. Now if he can just get hot for the playoffs.
Salvador Perez, Alcides Escobar, and Omar Infante each made unforgettable plays in the field.
Yordano Ventura was maddening early, rallied in the middle, and looked awesome late. Perhaps the growing pains of the first half were what he needed to finally put it all together and develop into the #1 guy he’s capable of being.
Edinson Volquez steadied the rotation through so many rough patches over the first five months of the year.
The bullpen wasn’t nearly as dominant as the past two years. Much of that was because Greg Holland pitched with a torn elbow all year. Wade Davis battled an injury in August, but was still awfully damn good most of the year. He provided one of the highlights of the year, his strikeout of Andrew McCutchen in late July, when his follow-through transitioned straight into his walk to the dugout on strike three.
Ryan Madsen, Joe Blanton, Chris Young, and Kris Medlen were all scrap heap players that played huge roles. Madsen is now in the prime, late inning trio of relievers. Young and or Medlen could get postseason starts. And Blanton is gone, but he pitched two wonderful games in May when the division race was still close.
For the first five months of the year, there was never a bad week. There was never a long losing streak. I knew when I watched my 4–5 games each week I would, most likely, see good baseball. When the games were in Kansas City, I’d see full, loud crowds and occasionally friends sitting in great seats. When at the lake for the weekend, I would usually wake to a good result and read back through accounts of the game as I drank my coffee.
The team did that with its Opening Day pitcher starting two near brawls, getting suspended, and being sent to the minors for a day. With it’s #2 starter being wildly inconsistent and eventually sent to the bullpen for the playoffs. The #4 starter spending two stints on the DL and only starting nine games before his elbow finally gave out in July. And the #5 starter battled but finally turned into a pumpkin as the season (and his career?) wound down. Infante never hit. Perez was streaky as ever. Escobar regressed terribly at the plate. Alex Rios made people thankful he signed just a one-year contract.
Through all that they ran away and hid with the division. Sure, Detroit got old fast, Cleveland couldn’t hit or play defense, and Chicago didn’t come close to getting a decent return on its off-season investments. It was left to Minnesota, who are at least a year too young, to be the closest challengers to the Royals. And after early July, they were well back in the rearview mirror. So the Royals got a lot of help in their division. But they took advantage of the opening and played as well as any team in baseball until September began. There’s no need to apologize for their performance.
For so long my only baseball wish was that the Royals be competitive. They gave me a little of that with a hot six-week stretch in late 2013 that kept them in the Wild Card race until the final week of the season. Another hot second half last year resulted in their epic playoff run. And now they gave me the 2015 season. One in which they were never under .500. One in which they were never more than a game out of first place. One in which they were in first place over 140 days. One in which they spent the last three months of the season looking back at the rest of the division. One in which they sent seven players to the All-Star game.
The playoffs will be a crapshoot, no matter how many games the Royals won in the regular season or how hot/cold they are playing when the ALDS kicks off next Thursday. Regardless of what happens against Texas or Houston or the Angels, or Toronto or New York, or an eventual/potential World Series opponent, this has been a fantastic summer of baseball. It would be nice to be a Cardinals fan, where every summer is like this. But that fact that not every summer is like this made it a little more special.
- I have no memory of when the Royals clinched in 1984. And some basic searching makes me think they clinched against the Angels in the next-to-last series of the season, although I’m not certain about that. ↩