Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Here We Go Again.

Hey, I said I’d write if the Royals made the playoffs; I didn’t say I’d write a lot.

I did write about the ALDS and ALCS, over at Grantland, which you can read here and here. I also wrote about the wonderful 30 for 30 documentary on Sung Woo Lee here. And today I wrote for Grantland about the 15 biggest plays in major league history, and gave it as much of a Royals flavor as I could.

And now they’re back in the World Series. I have so many thoughts and not nearly enough time to write about them all, but I just want to start by trying to put into words my astonishment that, one year after they got about as close as you can to winning it all – and quite possibly closer than they would ever be again in my lifetime – they’re back to take another shot.

Back-to-back American League pennants. That’s just jaw-dropping. The Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians, both original AL franchises dating back to 1901, have never won back-to-back pennants. The Royals have gone to the World Series as many times in the last two seasons as the White Sox have in the last 95.

If we go back to 1986, the year the Royals’ run of futility began, they have won two pennants in the last 30 years. In a 15-team league, you would expect a team to win an average of exactly two pennants in 30 years. (The actual number is 2.13, as the AL had 14 teams for most of that time, but close enough.) When it comes to pennants, the Royals have wiped out an entire generation of futility in the last 13 months. If they win the World Series, they will have paid off that debt in full as well.

And that’s if we back things up to 1986, which puts the Royals in the worst possible light. They’ve won four AL pennants in their existence, compared to an average expectation of 3.43 pennants for a team that began play in 1969. If they win the World Series they will once again have an above-average amount of hardware in their existence, and once again will be able to stake a claim as one of the most successful expansion teams of all time.

Or try this: over the last 40 seasons (1976 to 2015), the Royals have won four pennants. Do you know how many American League teams have won more in that time? One: the Yankees. ONE.

AL Pennants, 1976 – 2015

New York: 11
Kansas City: 4
Boston: 4
Oakland: 3
Detroit: 3
Cleveland: 2
Toronto: 2
Baltimore: 2
Texas: 2
Minnesota: 2
Milwaukee, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, Chicago: 1
No one: 1

Or consider this: the Royals have won as many playoff games (18) in the last 13 months as they had in their entire 45-year history before 2014 (18). The difference is that they’ve only lost 8 postseason games in the last 13 months, compared to 25 before.

And along the way, they’ve proven themselves almost impossible to kill. They came back from four runs down in the eighth inning of an elimination game in the Wild Card game last year; they did the exact same thing in Game 4 of the ALDS this year. They came back from down 3-0 in the seventh inning against David Price in Game 2 of the ALCS.

They’ve overcome adversity over and over again. Their eighth-inning uprising in Houston in Game 4 came one inning after Terrance Gore, who can not be captured using traditional weaponry, and representing the tying run in a 3-2 game, was called out on replay after stealing third base because he came off the bag for an infinitesimal amount of time, which as we are learning is almost unavoidable for any basestealer who doesn’t either go hands-first or bowl over the fielder at full speed, both of which are unacceptably dangerous as a general basestealing tactic. (Also, the umpires apparently ruled that the back of Luis Valbuena’s wrist, the only part of his arm that was in contact with Gore, constituted a tag.) This was followed by back-to-back home runs from Carlos Correa and Colby Rasmus to give Houston a 6-2 lead…and the Royals came back from that the next inning like it was nothing, tying the game and putting the go-ahead run at third base before an out was even recorded.

They overcame an ill-timed rain delay and Ned Yost’s frustrating reluctance to deploy his best relievers earlier in games to close out the ALCS, because Wade Davis is a cyborg and cyborgs don’t care if their arm has to rest for an hour in the midst of a relief appearance. I’ve seen better baseball teams, and I’ve seen more resilient baseball teams, but I’m not sure I’ve seen a team that was both. They are the team I’ve been waiting to root for my entire adult life.

And I want to say that no matter what happens in the World Series, they’ve won back-to-back American League championships, and that is something we can and should celebrate for a long time to come. But let’s be honest: if they don’t win this series, it will probably hurt a lot more than if they had just succumbed to the Astros two weeks ago yesterday. I said this before the World Series last year: getting that far actually made me more nervous about losing than I was before the ALDS or ALCS, because as much as the 2014 Royals had accomplished already by that point, the difference in the way they would be perceived had they won the World Series versus had they lost dwarfed everything else they had accomplished.

They lost that World Series, as nobly as a team can lose, but still: they lost. They lost Game 7, and with it, their chance at permanent glory. I thought that was the end of it. I thought that it would be a long time before they’d be back in this position. If you had offered me a proposition after Game 7 last year, that the Royals would next play in the World Series 7 years later, I would have taken it. I probably would have taken 10. I know how precious these opportunities can be, and I just didn’t want to live another 29 years without another chance at a championship.

It took 12 months. The Royals made it back to the World Series without even surrendering their title as AL champs. And it means that if they win the World Series this year, it will change the way I perceive last year’s team as well. The 2014 Royals aren’t a self-contained story anymore. They now feel like only the opening chapter of an even greater story, the Preamble to the 2014-2015 Royals, and if this season ends with a championship, the MLB-sanctioned Championship Blu-Ray better not start with Opening Day. Because in my mind, this Championship Season would not have started this April: it would have started when a pop-up settled into Salvador Perez’s glove in Chicago last September, when this crazy ride began.

The 2015 Royals aren’t just playing for themselves; they’re playing for the 2014 Royals too. If they win, they’ll forever alter the way they are perceived, and they’ll forever alter the way last year’s team is perceived too. The 2015 Royals have already proved that, as Eric Hosmer wrote, the 2014 Royals were No Fluke. Now they have a chance to prove that the 2014 Royals were actually champions themselves. They have a chance to turn Unfinished Business into finished business.

First they have to get past the Mets. The Mets weren’t as good as the Royals during the season, but then the Giants won fewer games than the Royals last year. They have ridiculous starting pitching, and Jeurys Familia throws a 94 mph splitter now, and Daniel Murphy had a productive meeting with Mr. Applegate earlier this month. The Mets are, on paper, a better team than the Giants were last year.

But then the Royals are a better team than they were last year too. They have an actual offense now, a lineup that doesn’t quit, that can start or end rallies from any spot in the lineup. They scored 5 runs or more in six straight games from Game 4 of the ALDS through game 4 of the ALCS. The last time the Royals scored 5 runs or more in six straight games: September, 2011.

I’m picking the Royals to win, because I think their fastball-hitting ways counter the Mets’ fastball-throwing ways well, and because the Mets don’t have a dominant lefty reliever in their pen to take advantage of the Royals’ 4-5-6 hitters (something that worked to the Royals against the Astros, as well as against the Blue Jays, whose loss of Brett Cecil was crucial in that series), and because the Royals DO have a dominant lefty reliever in Danny Duffy to throw against the five left-handers in the Mets’ lineup. I had the Royals in five against Houston because they didn’t have to face Dallas Keuchel twice, and I had the Royals in seven against Toronto because they didn’t have to face Cecil. I’m sticking with the Royals to finish this off, this time in six games, because Johnny Cueto having another random dominant outing to finish out the year would just be so in keeping with the theme of this season. (I’m looking forward to Raul Adalberto Mondesi having a big hit off the bench in New York for the same reason.)

But win or lose, I’m going to try to enjoy this series without worrying too much about what the outcome means for the legacy of the 2014-15 Royals. They will always be champions to me. I just hope that at the end, the world sees them the same way.