Royals' return to regular season formula has World Series in sight
KANSAS CITY — One way you know that a town has fallen in love with a team again: It writes the team's name all over itself. Such is the case, right now, with Kansas City and the Royals. The Royals' logos — their name in cursive, their interlocking, serif-fonted 'K.C.' — are everywhere: on signs at the airport, on restaurant awnings, projected onto office buildings, all over people's clothes. On Tuesday, about 10 hours before Kauffman Stadium was to host its first ALCS game in 29 years, a local morning show even demonstrated devices that allow fans to burn the logos into their food, so that they could digest Royals-branded hamburgers, hot dogs and toast.
Most everyone in Kansas City is infatuated with the Royals — except, perhaps, for the man who stood outside Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday afternoon bearing a sign that read THIS PARTY ENDS IN HELL — and the love has everything to do with the Royals' play, and particularly with their six straight postseason wins heading into Tuesday night. For the most part, though, those victories did not correspond with the regular-season formula that had produced Kansas City's long awaited playoff appearance. In fact, there didn't seem to be any pattern at all to the wins; they were exciting, they were messy, a remarkable four of them came in extra innings. Other than the Royals' athleticism on the base paths and in the field, they didn't share much in common, stylistically.
In Tuesday night's 2-1 win over the Orioles, which gave the Royals a 3-0 lead in the ALCS and put them just one game away from both an improbable World Series appearance and the likely covering of every as yet unmarked surface in the city with their name, the Royals returned to executing their regular-season formula. That formula includes the following elements: solid starting pitching, buoyed by excellent and sometimes sensational fielding; timely hitting, accompanied by speedy baserunning; and lights-out relief pitching. On Tuesday, they followed it with a virtually flawless precision.
"We've played games like tonight's all year long," centerfielder Lorenzo Cain said.
The Royals' defense has been a constant and it was again on Tuesday. This time, the fielding hero was Mike Moustakas, who made a pair of plays that most third basemen could not. The first came in the fourth, when he dove to his left to snag a screaming liner hit off of starter Jeremy Guthrie by the Orioles' Steve Pearce. There seemed to be more baseball out of his glove than inside of it, but he held on.
He made an even better play two innings later. Adam Jones, leading off the sixth, popped the second pitch he saw into foul territory. It seemed destined to land in the stands behind the third base dugout. From his position in center, though, Cain wasn't so sure.
"I knew the wind was blowing out hard to right, and I was talking to myself: ‘Wind, blow it back, blow it back,'" he said.
As Moustakas sprinted to the railing that separates a field-level luxury box from the field, he was hoping the same thing.
"I've been playing at this field, I mean, for my entire career in the big leagues, so I'm pretty familiar with that little dugout suite over there," he said. "The wind was kind of playing with it a little bit. I was trying to get underneath it to gauge where it was at."
Moustakas is very strong — he hit a California record 52 home runs while in high school and had four in the Royals' first six postseason games — but not very tall. He is officially listed at six feet, but that is with a generous rounding up. So with the ball coming down, buffeted by the wind, Moustakas propped his left knee up on the familiar fence, propelled his body parallel to the ground and stretched out every one of his not-quite six feet. He caught the ball as he plummeted into an uncertain landing zone. The crowd screamed, "Moose!" And Moustakas emerged, no worse for the wear.
"I'm worried about catching that ball," he said, when asked if he'd thought about the risks of diving over a railing like that. "Everything else doesn't matter."
With their third baseman taking care of their nightly defensive highlight, the rest of the Royals' favored formula clicked into place. They got a strong start from a laboring but effective Guthrie.
"Overall, I thought it was a grind," Guthrie admitted, but he still made it through five innings, allowing one run on three hits.
The Royals produced their required allotment of runs not with power — this was a team that trailed the majors in regular-season homers — but by stringing together a few hits. Their first run, in the fourth, came after a pair of singles, a walk and then an RBI groundout by Alex Gordon.
Kansas City's second run came in the half-inning following Moustakas' dive. The speedy Nori Aoki singled to left and was immediately replaced at first by the even speedier Jarrod Dyson. After a Cain strikeout, just the third out he had made in his first 13 plate appearances this series, Eric Hosmer lashed a single to right, sending Dyson to third. The Orioles brought in the flamethrowing Kevin Gausman with the idea that he would induce the slow-footed Billy Butler, the next hitter, to roll into a double play, or at least to strike him out. Butler didn't comply. He lofted a fly ball to leftfielder Alejandro De Aza, which sent Dyson home on the sacrifice fly and gave the Royals a 2-1 lead before De Aza's throw had even reached the pitcher's mound.
Then it was left to the final element of the Royals' formula: their seventh-, eight- and ninth-inning relief combination of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, whose usage this postseason has been necessarily erratic due to the nature of their previous games. Now, though, the stage was set: Kansas City had a lead after six, a situation after which they were 65-4 during regular season. It was time to put their killing machine into motion.
The Royals have won seven straight, and an eighth on Wednesday afternoon would send them to the World Series. Before Game 3, someone asked Orioles manager Buck Showalter if the Royals seemed to be the type of team that is built to win in the postseason.
"They're built to win, period," Showalter said.
Dyson was surer than ever of where the Royals' party would end.
"We almost in the promised land," he said.