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Steady, dominant bullpen helping Royals prove they belong on big stage

KANSAS CITY, Mo.  — Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera made a conscious effort to change the speeds of his pitches this year, and in Game 2 of the World Series, it paid off. He threw a fastball 101 mph, then dropped down to 100, then went back up to 101. You can see why opposing hitters might be confused, and also why they would want to curl up with a good book and hit themselves over the head with it.

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Herrera got five outs and handed the baton to Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Then Herrera watched video of himself, which he does after every outing to make sure he is not too open in his delivery, which was a problem last year. Maybe a little tiny bit of him watches so he can see the radar-gun readings and think, “Good God am I awesome,” though he wouldn’t admit that.

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Anyway, the video confirmed what anybody watching live already knew: That was the real Herrera. And these were the real Royals.

Kansas City beat the Giants, 7-2, in Game 2 to even the series, and they really had no choice. Lose this one, and the hill would get awfully steep. The Royals didn’t win the Series in Game 2, just as the Giants didn’t win it in Game 1, but they did something important besides win the game. They showed why they belonged here.

There is a risk when you appear on an unfamiliar and large stage. Anybody who watched the 2008 Rays, '06 Tigers, '07 Rockies or a friend nervously stumble through wedding vows understands. The Royals are the feel-good story of baseball, but we’ve all seen this script, and the last few pages are usually in flames. It happened to the NFL's Chiefs in January. After a stunning regular season, they collapsed in the playoffs against the Colts. After their Game 1 loss, the Royals looked like they might do the same.

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Instead, we saw the real Royals. The bullpen dominated. The offense put together a big inning, a five-run sixth. And yes, there were moments when they seemed determined not to score, no matter how many hittable pitches they saw. The Giants’ Jake Peavy found the middle of the plate way too often. A better lineup probably would have chased him by the fourth inning. Instead, the Royals couldn’t pound Peavy’s mistakes and they chased pitches they should have left alone. Well, hey, nobody is perfect … except the Royals’ relievers, obviously.

The World Series is different. It feels different. The Royals had five days to think about how different it is. Herrera said his bullpen warm-up sessions don’t tell him much. “I never know before I throw my first pitch in the game, because it’s way different.” That’s how it is in the World Series, too. Until you go through it, you just don’t know what it will be like.

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The Royals know now, and a potentially epic Series is unfolding. We may have seen the last two blowout games of the Series — the pitching is better than the hitting for both teams and runs should be scarce. Madison Bumgarner looms over everything for the Royals: lose Game 3, and Game 4 becomes a must-win because Bumgarner pitches Game 5.

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But the Royals don’t have to worry about that until Friday. In the meantime, they can enjoy their first World Series victory since they beat the Cardinals in Game 7 of the 1985 Series, and they can enjoy the fact that somebody else embarrassed himself.

That somebody, of course, is Giants reliever Hunter Strickland, who gave up a double to Salvador Perez, a homer to Omar Infante and a little piece of his dignity. After Infante’s homer, Strickland chewed out Perez for reasons that remain unclear, using words that remain a mystery, making this the lamest baseball confrontation in baseball history.

“[Strickland] was doing something like, ‘Get out of here,’ or something,” Perez said, “and he starts to look at me, and look at me, that’s why I was asking him, ‘Hey, why are you looking?’”

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It says something about the media that there was a bigger horde around Perez, who got yelled at for no apparent reason, than around Infante, who actually hit the home run. Yes, Perez also hit a double, but most of the questions were not about the double. I suppose this also says something about us. Let’s just say that unlike Herrera, I will not be watching video of our performance. I fear I spent too much time in the wrong horde.

Strickland has faced 23 batters in the postseason and allowed five home runs. This next sentence will not help Strickland’s mood, but here you go: Herrera has faced 325 batters this season, including 40 in the postseason, and allowed zero home runs. Zero! And he is their seventh-inning guy.

That pretty much sums up why the Royals are here, why this city has fallen in love with its baseball team again and why the Giants had better get to Game 3 starter Jeremy Guthrie early. The video replay of the Kansas City bullpen is always the same. Those were the Royals and that’s how they got here. Your move, San Francisco.