The 2014 Royals are a strange team — a team that seems to be from another time. They don’t hit home runs. They don’t walk. They do other things: they put the ball in play, they steal bases, they play good defense; still, though, sometimes you watch this team and you wonder how they win games.
They may be a hard team to figure out, but the 2014 Royals are also officially now the best Royals team in a generation. On Friday night in Chicago, Kansas City beat the White Sox 3-1. The Royals, last in the majors in home runs and last in walks, did not homer, and they walked just twice. But NoriAoki, Lorenzo Cain, and Billy Butler had big first inning hits, Jeremy Guthrie tossed seven brilliant innings, the defense made plays behind him. Wade Davis, who came to K.C. two years ago as part of The Tradeand has become one of the best setup men in the game, pitched the eighth, and All-Star closer Greg Holland, who was born a month after the Royals’ last playoff appearance in 1985, took things over with a scoreless the ninth.
And now it’s official: the longest playoff drought in North American professional sports is over. After 28 years of futility, after 14 different managers, after 20 losing seasons, after one of the bravest trades in recent years, the Royals are back in the postseason for the first time since 1985. It has been a crazy ride. On June 1, the Royals lost to the Blue Jays 4-0 and were in last place in the division, 6.5 games behind the Tigers. Just three months ago, this was looking like potentially the most disappointing season in Royals history, given the preseason expectations, given all that was at stake for the embattled organization. Six days later, they beat the Yankees at home 8-4 and went on a 10-game winning streak that would propel them to first place in the division.
The Royals will be a fascinating team this October. They will try to win with small ball against teams with more powerful lineups and more dominating aces. But they will also have one of the best big game pitchers in James Shields, and they will have a stellar bullpen — with Davis and Holland at the back end of the bullpen, Kansas City is 71-1 this season when leading after the seventh inning.
Of course, the Royals’ work this weekend is not done. The Tigers lost to the Twins 11-4 after Rick Porcello, roughed up for six runs, couldn’t make it through the fourth. Kansas City is now just one game behind the Tigers in the AL Central with two left to play, and there is no Chris Sale or Jose Quintana waiting in the final two games against the White Sox. The Tigers, though, will face Ricky Nolasco and Kyle Gibson in Detroit, so odds are they won’t drop both of their remaining games — but if the Twins and Tigers are tied after the weekend, they’ll play a one-game playoff, with Justin Verlander likely to face Jason Vargas. In the AL wild card race, meanwhile, the Royals remain one game ahead of the A’s — who beat the Rangers 6-2 on Friday to stop the bleeding — in the race to host Tuesday’s wild card game.
Tonight, though, they’ll party in Kansas City, and after three decades of losing, they should. On Thursday, after beating the White Sox 6-3, the Royals secured their most victories since going 92-70 in 1989. And with Friday’s win, the franchise’s biggest win in 29 years, this Royals team officially became the best Royals team in a generation. Of course, the story of the 2014 Royals — a team that has defied the odds, a team that in some ways doesn’t make any sense, a team that feels like it belongs to a different time — isn’t over. In fact, we may just be getting to the best part.