The Kansas City Royals celebrated as if it was 1985 after their nobody-saw-it-coming three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels in the American League Division Series Sunday night.
Where was Al Michaels when you needed him to say, “Do you believe in miracles” as he did after the United States’ monumental hockey victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics? Maybe he is being saved for when the Royals win the World Series. Now that would wake up America.
In this era of high security at ball parks protecting against bringing in contraband such as bottled water, brooms were apparently on the approved list at Kauffman Stadium. Many fans were wielding them as KC closed out the Angels, 8-3, eliminating the team with the most wins in 2014 from the World Series sweepstakes.
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Somehow, the Royals keep winning with speed on the bases and timely hitting from whoever’s up next. Kansas City crawled into the playoffs for the first time in 29 years like a thirsty man making his way across the desert. He was either going to die trying or be rewarded.
So after squeaking into the AL playoffs, the Royals are storming into the American League Championship Series against the Baltimore Orioles, though not starting until Friday. Since Baltimore won the AL East by 12 games and won 96 games this season, it was not a shock that the Orioles advanced. But there was not a lot of smart money betting on them to sweep the Detroit Tigers. Brooms were in fashion in the AL.
Detroit had the best starting rotation in baseball and probably the best hitters. Their Achilles heel was the bullpen, which did cost them some, but the big-dude hitters could not conquer Baltimore’s bullpen, either.
The Orioles have been on a long-term march for three seasons now as manager Buck Showalter has had a divine touch in the dugout while rebuilding a franchise that was a mess. They are the antithesis of Royals small ball, relying on the big bang theory from sluggers like Nelson Cruz, who led the league with 40 homers and whose dying-quail, pop-fly home run that barely cleared the right-field wall at Comerica Park accounted for the 2-1 final score marking the demise of this year’s Tigers. Baltimore hit a big-league high of 211 dingers this year.
Behind starter Bud Norris, middle reliever Andrew Miller and closer Zach Britton, the O’s out-pitched Detroit Sunday. Many thought the Tigers solidified their chances for a Series title when they traded for David Price, who performed admirably in the finale, but they never seemed as powerful winning their fourth straight AL Central Division title and barely held off Kansas City.
That regular-season last-day whiff on the division crown didn’t seem to faze the Royals one bit. They were life-and-death in extra innings before eking out a Wild Card win over the Oakland A’s and they won two more extra-inning games in a row over the Angels before Sunday’s comparative cruise-control victory.
Kansas City has very slowly become a contender in recent years, patiently developing young players with draft picks. From a power standpoint they are the opposite of the Orioles with the least homers (95) in the majors. Instead, the Royals beat out infield hits, (more than 150 of them in the regular season), and steal bases as if Rickey Henderson was playing in disguise in their lineup.
KC has more speed than a gaggle of sprinters. Any time the Royals got someone on first, announcer Ron Darling said, “Let the track meet begin.” More often than not someone did fire the starter’s pistol and soon enough a Royal was sliding into second base ahead of a catcher’s throw. Opposing catchers more resembled quarterbacks throwing wide of receivers than hinting at a real shot of gunning runners down.
Also, the Royals had what Detroit did not – a lights-out bullpen – something in this era of the game that is more important than a 50-home-run man. The closer is Greg Holland, alias Mr. Ninth Inning.
Interestingly, Holland, one of seemingly a myriad of bearded relievers these days, was born the same year Kansas City last made the playoffs in ’85 and pulled off its only World Series triumph in team history.
During the regular season Holland collected 46 saves with a 1.44 earned run average. He was pretty much the Cy Young of relievers. To prove that someone is smiling on the Royals this year, Holland’s wife gave birth to a baby on the opening day of the Royals-Angels series in North Carolina. He jumped on a plane and didn’t arrive at the ball park in California until the fourth inning and before the night was through he saved the win.
You try to compete against karma like that.