KANSAS CITY – The small man with the big smile was standing by himself in a back corner of the Kansas City Royals clubhouse on Sunday night with a can of Pepsi in one hand, a 29-year-old World Series championship ring on the other and something on his mind.
"There’s a lot of resemblance between this team and the 1985 team," said Art Stewart. "You say why? Well, we had a lot of good young pitching then just like now. We had great defense then. We had great speed then. Then there’s the defense on this team. And this is an athletic team … All of this has come together because of the depth of the farm system. We get a [James] Shields in a trade for a prospect, we get a Wade Davis and a Lorenzo Cain."
If the Royals are in fact as good as the 1985 club that won the franchise’s first and still only world title, no one would know it better than the 87-year-old Stewart. He has been with the organization since its inception in 1969, serving as the club's scouting director and head of player development for much of that time, and that was after spending 16 years as a scout for the Yankees.
He has been working in professional baseball longer than Kansas City’s manager, 60-year-old Ned Yost, has been alive.
It was fitting, then, that the Royals wrapped up their first trip to the American League Championship Series since ’85 with an 8-3 blowout of the Angels in Game 3 of the ALDS thanks to all the things Stewart mentioned, and thanks to the type of players – young, talented and either a direct or indirect product of their farm system – that he made his living delivering to Kansas City. They were the same ones he greeted one after another in the clubhouse with a variation on the same theme, "We showed them, didn’t we?"
Alex Gordon, the No. 2 pick of the 2005 draft, had the night’s biggest hit, a three-run double in the bottom of the first that knocked Angels starter C.J. Wilson from the game and gave Kansas City a lead it would not relinquish. Eric Hosmer, the No. 3 pick in 2008, stretched that lead to four with a 418-foot opposite-field blast in the third. And Mike Moustakas, the No. 2 pick in ’07, restored that advantage by answering an Albert Pujols home run in the top of the fourth with one of his own in the bottom half for a 6-2 edge.
At 30, Gordon is practically an old man compared with the 24-year-old Hosmer and 26-year-old Moustakas, but they are only part of the Kansas City core that includes All-Star catcher Salvador Perez (24), shortstop Alcides Escobar (27) and designated hitter Billy Butler (28). Those players are not new to the Royals, but the hype of what they might do individually is finally being surpassed by the reality of what they are doing together. As a result, the team's much-lauded and long-awaited rebuilding plan is finally bearing fruit in October.
"Homegrown players were huge for us," said Yost. "I told the boys with about a week to go, ‘Look, some of you guys haven’t had years that you really wanted to have, but we get to the playoffs, nobody is going to remember that,’ and we’ve gotten to the playoffs now. These kids are all stepping up big time and putting us in the position that we’re in now."
Indeed, Perez had the biggest hit of the wild Wild-Card Game win over the A’s last Tuesday, a 12th-inning walk-off single to left. Moustakas hit the go-ahead homer in the 11th inning of ALDS Game 1 in Anaheim and Hosmer repeated that feat with an 11th inning, tie-breaking blast in Game 2. For the postseason, Hosmer and Moustakas are batting a combined .407 with four home runs and seven RBIs.
Moustakas’ homer on Sunday seemed to put the game out of reach, especially when Kansas City tacked on another run for a 7-2 lead. But the Angels immediately threatened in the fifth, putting two on with one out. It seemed that perhaps the team that had won an MLB-best 98 games was finally going to wake from its series-long offensive slumber.
Until, that is, center fielder Lorenzo Cain, in the postgame words of his manager, "came out of nowhere, like Superman," to pluck balls only inches off the grass and rob Pujols and Howie Kendrick of base hits. On the first, he had moved to his left and dove to snare the ball. On the next, he went to his right and caught the ball while sliding.
Cain may have been the only person in the ballpark who couldn't fully appreciate the beauty of those catches because he had yet to see a replay, even though they had been shown on the center field scoreboard. He did know one thing, "The first one was tougher," he said of the sinking Pujols liner that he snagged with a backhand.
Perhaps the only thing that eluded Cain on this night was his desire to celebrate with the Royals fans back on the field. Someone had told him that the champagne bottles the players were drenching each other with were not allowed out there, so they dutifully went back to their own, private celebration.
Cain, a 17th-round draft pick, had been acquired along with Escobar in a 2010 trade with the Brewers that shipped one-time Cy Young winner Zack Greinke to Milwaukee. That deal was just as significant as the one two years later in which the Royals sent Wil Myers, who became the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year for the Rays, to Tampa Bay for starting pitcher James Shields and reliever Wade Davis.
Now 32, Shields hardly qualified as young (nor, for the record, is he Big Game James. Even after his solid six-inning, two-run outing on Sunday, his postseason ERA is still 4.96), but he certainly qualified as the kind of leader the Royals desperately needed if they were to turn the corner from pretender to contender. He tied for the staff lead in wins (14) while leading in strikeouts and innings pitched, and finishing second in ERA (by 0.01) and WHIP (by 0.069). Against the Angels, he allowed baserunners in all but one of his six innings but struck out six and walked just two.
Shields was followed for the final three innings by the game’s most effective trio of relievers: Kelvin Herrera (an undrafted free agent), Davis (acquired as a spare part in the Shields trade) and Greg Holland (a 10th round pick), who combined to allow one run on two hits while striking out five Angels batters.
The last of those victims was Mike Trout. The best player in baseball on the best team in baseball homered in the first inning for what proved to be his only hit and his team’s only lead of the series. Yet in the ninth inning, with rain falling from the sky and cheers that sounded like thunder accompanying them, even he was no match for Holland’s heat, flailing meekly at the final slider that finished the Angels’ season.
As Trout walked back toward the dugout, he looked back once, then twice, at the celebration on the field. He saw a young team, a talented team, a dangerous team. If Trout was looking for the club now worthy of being called baseball’s best, he may have just found it.