When the Royals came to the ballpark on the morning of September 18th, 1995, to begin a 11-game homestand, here were the wild card standings in the American League:
TEAM W L GB
SEATTLE 69 63 ---
KANSAS CITY 67 63 1.0
TEXAS 68 64 1.0
NEW YORK 68 64 1.0
The 1995 Cleveland Indians, one of the greatest teams of my lifetime, were 91-41 on their way to finishing 100-44. They were so good that they suppressed the rest of the league – aside from the Indians and Red Sox, no team in the league had won even 55% of its games. So the Royals, despite having a worse record than they do today, were absolutely in the wild card race.
Moreover, they had an excellent opportunity to gain ground, as they were starting a five-game series with the Minnesota Twins, the worst team in the league, who had a 48-81 record at the time. The Royals won the first game of a doubleheader that Monday.
These being the Royals, they then lost the next four games to the Twins. The Indians came to town and won the first two games of that series; by Sunday, September 24th, the Royals were 69-69 and 4.5 games behind the Yankees for the wild card spot with six games to go. It was over. (The Mariners had already climbed ahead of the free-falling Angels, and wound up winning the AL West in a tiebreaker game.)
The Royals begin their most important homestand in 18 years tonight, and really, they have no business still being in the race at all. The Royals weren’t able to sweep Cleveland last week, and the Indians took full advantage of their schedule by sweeing four games against the White Sox over the weekend. After this series with the Royals, the Indians feast on nothing but Astros, White Sox, and Twins the rest of the season.
But the Rays are 7-14 since August 25th, and the Rangers have suddenly lost six in a row and 11 of 13. Even though the Indians are a half-game back of both teams, ESPN gives them a better shot at the playoffs (68%) than Texas (59%) and Tampa Bay (53%). The Royals are at 7.6%. Here are your standings:
TEAM W L GB
TEXAS 81 67 ---
TAMPA BAY 81 67 ---
CLEVELAND 81 68 0.5
BALTIMORE 79 70 2.5
NEW YORK 79 71 3.0
KANSAS CITY 78 71 3.5
The Royals are still in ninth place in the AL, they’re 3.5 games back with 13 to play…but they still control their own destiny, because on this homestand they play the Indians and the Rangers.
Even better, while the Royals open a three-game series against Cleveland tonight, the Rangers and Rays are playing…each other. Meanwhile, the Orioles travel to Boston for a three-game series, while the Yankees head to Toronto.
So even though the Royals need to vault four teams and make up 3.5 games to get into the playoffs not only is it feasible in the next 13 days, they could easily do the bulk of the hard work by Friday.
Consider this: if the Royals sweep the Indians, these would be standings on Friday morning in a worst-case scenario:
TEAM W L GB
TEXAS 83 69 ---
TAMPA BAY 83 69 ---
BALTIMORE 82 70 1.0
CLEVELAND 82 71 1.5
NEW YORK 82 71 1.5
KANSAS CITY 81 71 2.0
This assumes that 1) the Rangers and Rays split, and 2) that the Orioles and Yankees both sweep their series; 3) the Indians win their Thursday night game against the Astros.
The Rangers then come to town over the weekend, and while Cleveland starts feeding on the bottom-dwellers of the AL, and the Yankees host the Giants, Tampa Bay hosts the Orioles for four games.
Let’s assume that the Royals take 2 of 3 against the Rangers. Once again, here are the standings next Monday morning in a worst-case scenario:
TEAM W L GB
CLEVELAND 85 71 ---
NEW YORK 85 71 ---
TEXAS 84 71 0.5
TAMPA BAY 84 71 0.5
BALTIMORE 84 71 0.5
KANSAS CITY 83 72 1.5
This assumes that the Yankees and Indians sweep, and that the Orioles take two of the first three games against the Rays.
If the Royals sweep the Indians and take 2 of 3 against Texas, they can not be more than 1.5 games back with seven games to play, and while those seven games are all road games, three are in Seattle and four are against the White Sox.
Let’s flip the scenario and assume the Royals win 2 of 3 against Cleveland but sweep the Rangers. Here’s your absolute worst-case scenario:
TEAM W L GB
TAMPA BAY 86 69 ---
CLEVELAND 86 70 ---
NEW YORK 85 71 1.0
BALTIMORE 84 71 1.5
KANSAS CITY 83 72 2.5
TEXAS 81 74 4.5
In this scenario, all other teams would win out against non-contenders, and the Rays would sweep the Rangers but lose 2 of 3 to the Orioles. This is more problematic, in that the Royals would need to make up 2.5 games in seven days on Cleveland. While the Royals play in Seattle and Chicago, the Indians would host the White Sox on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then finish the year with four games in Minnesota.
But that’s not impossible. The Royals would be only two back in the loss column, meaning they could close the gap to two games by winning next Monday while the Indians are idle. Also, while they’re three back of Tampa Bay and half a game back of the Yankees, the two teams play each other for three games.
And again: this is a worst-case scenario. Not only does it require the Indians and Yankees to sweep the Astros, Giants, and Blue Jays – it requires the Rays to win a precise number of games against the Rangers and Orioles.
So here’s what you need to take home: the Royals need to go 5-1 on this homestand. That’s pretty much non-negotiable; 4-2 will put them in roughly the same position they are now, where they need a lot of things to break just right for them in the final week, only they won’t have the advantage of a lot of contenders playing each other.
But if they go 5-1, they’re guaranteed to be in good position with a week to go. It will help if the Rangers/Rays series doesn’t end up in a sweep for either team. It obviously helps if some of the spoilers can spoil a game or two.
But mostly, the Royals just need to win. They need to treat every game like a playoff game. They need Ned Yost to limit his decisions to just “bad” instead of “egregious and indefensible”. They need their best players to play like stars, and they need their role players to step up and be a hero at an unexpected time.
They still control their own destiny. But if they don’t care of business this week, they won’t control much of anything a week from now. No more excuses, no more mistakes. Just win.
And if 40,000 of you are on hand this week to gently encourage them to do so, so much the better.