Greg Holland was a perfect four-for-four in save opportunities as he anxiously made that long journey from the bullpen to the mound in the ninth inning of KC’s 2-1 pitcher’s python-grip win over Baltimore in Game 3 of the American League Championship series.
To Royals fans like my boy Ace who moved to Brooklyn from St.Louis back in ’85—the year the Royals won their last World Series chip—Holland was almost moving in slow motion.
Years of futility were slowly being erased with every step he made closer to the hill to hold a one-run lead that would put the Royals just 27 outs from returning to American League supremacy. It’s surreal. For the fans and the residents of Missouri, it’s like a dream that the Royals will still be playing today at 4:07 pm for the right to claim an October crown. With the Cardinals still alive in the NLCS, they might even get a repeat of the All-Missouri mashout.
You’d have to be pushing 40 to really remember the last time KC was balling with the MLB big dawgs. Obscurity wasn’t a problem for the stars of that ’85 squad. While they were less-than-dope in the batting average department during the regular season, they possessed a combination of speed, timely power and defense that the 101-win and heavily-favored St. Louis Cardinals couldn’t overcome.
The 2014 version of the KC Royals with their modest regular season batting statistics, speed and clutch power surges are a throwback to that old school ’85 squad.
Outfielders Lonnie Smith and Willie Wilson set the table at the top of the Royals order. Each blazer stole 40 bases and wreaked havoc on pitchers nerves and helped generate enough runs to compensate for their lack of power. The 2014 Royals have a crop of base-swiping hooligans in shortstop Alcides Escobar (31 steals and a team-high 165 hits), right fielder Norichika Aoki (17 steals), Jerrod Dyson (36 steals) and Lorenzo Cain (28 swipes).
Wilson led the league with 21 triples that season. He was always Ace’s second-favorite Royals player. Numero Uno was of course “The Kansas City Kid “George Brett, considered a Top 3 All-Time third baseman. That season, he led the team with a typical .335 batting average and he blasted 30 home runs – a career high. He also led the majors with a .585 slugging percentage.
The “Black” Frank White was always there to excite at second base. Manager Dick Howser decided to slide White – who slugged a career-high 22 homers in ’85 - into the cleanup spot in the ’85 Series and he did his job effectively.
Catcher Jim Sundberg had a light stick but he was a defensive wiz in the playoffs and handled the pitching staff with a platinum rapper’s flow.
Right fielder Darryl Motley was immortalized in baseball lore because of his World Series heroics in Game 7, when he switched bats after hitting a would-be-homer foul and then drilled Cardinals ace John Tudor into the left field seats. It remains one of the most thrilling and engaging at-bats in World Series history. Tudor was almost unhittable that season and it was unlikely that anyone –especially not a low-average slugger like Motley—would be able to out maneuver one of baseball’s greatest mound-technicians at such as crucial and now classic time.
How’s this for unconventional? First baseman Steve Balboni whose 36 homers that season is still a Royals single-season record, was batting all the way down in the seven-hole for the ’85 Royals. Similarly, Alex Gordon, the Royals main power server in the regular season (team-leading 19 dingers) has batted as low as sixth in this postseason.
Royals manager Ned Yost knew he was going to need a bit of magic to get to the promise land. The ghosts of Harry Houdini and David Copperfield must have taken over the fate of Royals baseball this season. It’s obvious that the baseball gods are politicking in their favor.
The players on that '85 team were also beneficiaries of a bit of divine intervention, as umpire Don Denkinger, the first-base umpire for Game 6 of the WS missed a crucial call at first base that sparked a ninth-inning comeback for the Royals, who won the championship the next night.
The Royals (7-0 record matches the Colorado Rockies' run to open the 2007 playoffs) haven’t lost a game in these playoffs and four of those wins have come in dramatic, extra-innings fashion. They are breaking all of the rules and winning with a touch of old-school flair and mysticism.
Overall, it’s just great to see baseball back to normal.
No more video game-like homer contests and inflated power numbers. As you can see, the home run is still a deal-breaker for baseball and the most remarkable feat. The difference is other aspects of the game such as bunting and base-swiping, hit-and-running and sacrificing has regained its strategic relevance.
In upcoming years this shift in baseball -- from the end of the steroid era to an era of power pitching and small ball highlighted by less frequent but more dramatic home runs -- will come to define baseball and this Kansas City Royals team should be credited historically with re-establishing that style.
First they broke Oakland’s heart and personally blemished GM Billy Bean’s legacy by dusting off the A's 9-8 in 12 innings. Then they dismantled MLB’s regular season win kings (LA Angels) in four games. They couldn’t have gotten luckier in having to face Baltimore without the services of all-stars Manny Machado and Chris Davis. Manager Buck Showalter is a diamond-mining mastermind but even he can’t seem to overcome the load of lost talent that the O’s have endured—and with no excuses I might add.
It’s been a grueling 29 years for KC. The 1987 season was the last time they won over 90 games (only won 89 in regular season his year). From 1990-Y2K they had a dismal .475 winning percentage and it got worse in the next decade, losing more than 90 games eight times from 2000-2010. Now, they are making that seismic leap. In this moment of clarity, where all of the stars align, all of the pitches kiss the black and everything hit is launched into orbit at just the right time, the St. Louis Cardinals or San Francisco Giants would have to be anointed by God himself to knock KC off this destiny-dripping path.
“Were just playing unbelievable baseball I don’t think anyone expected us to play this good but we did, “said the always confident Dyson. “It's better to be up 3-0 then down three.”
KC’s been down for a minute, now they’re back with the jump off. There wasn’t an informed and rational baseball mind who thought B-More would tie that game up in the ninth on Tuesday and the O’s didn’t waste time prolonging the inevitable.
Holland’s first pitch to Adam Jones was a pop up. Then baseball’s home run king and prolific postseason shell-shocker Nelson Cruz popped up as Cain flexed his speed and snagged a ball in foul territory. The final B-More hitter almost took off Holland’s dome with a line-drive grounder, but it was handled and thrown to first for the final out.
Announcer Joe Buck described it as a "Kansas City masterpiece”
Indeed, that’s what KC’s playoff picture is looking like out here.