Last season the Pittsburgh Pirates were the 2014 Kansas City Royals; a MLB franchise with a proud, rich history but stuck in an abyss of stingy owners, horrible players and 100-loss seasons.
Last September the baseball world was celebrating the Pittsburgh Pirates 82nd win which clinched a winning season for the club for first time since 1992, when a young Barry Bonds was hitting bombs and swiping bases in the 'Burgh.
Twenty years of futility later (the longest consecutive losing-season streak in major professional North American sports) the Pirates won 94 games and clinched a wild card bid. They turned what had become “The Pitt of Hell” into the “Pulpit of Hope” by keeping the faith in talent that finally developed and the emergence of 2013 MVP Andrew McCutchen.
With all those wins, it still wasn't easy. It took a slugfest with powerhouse St. Louis –who won 97 games in 2013 before losing to the Red Sox in the World Series—just to get a playoff bid. The Cardinals are considered one of MLB’s model franchises. The Royals were once considered an organization of that ilk, but now, when Kansas City fans check out the MLB standings, they will see something akin to hitting the lotto numbers.
Kansas City (64-54) is sitting atop the AL Central after going 8-2 in their last 10 games, which included an eight-game winning streak. The Royals have assumed control of the division at the latest point in a season since 2003.
While Detroit, a perennial World Series contender continues to struggle, losing six of their past seven games, KC seems to be the real deal. And similar to the fan renaissance in PNC Park last season, Royals fans are enjoying a return to baseball’s elite.
For a franchise that was always in the mix during the 70’s and 80’s and featured Hall of Fame players such as George Brett and closer Dan Quisenberry (should be in HOF) and other stars such as Willie Wilson and Frank White, you can’t help but feel good for their fans. The Royals battled the Yankees and Baltimore for AL supremacy for decades before the franchise fell off the face of the earth at the turn of the century.
“I haven’t experienced anything like this, a playoff run,” said Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain, who was born a year after Kansas City last made the playoffs in 1985. “It’s a lot of fun.”
The Royals have been stepped on and second-rate most of the past 30 years. They lost at least 100 games four times in a brutal five-year span, and burned through six managers in a seven-year stretch. Owner David Glass has been the anti-George Steinbrenner and maintained one of the most feeble payrolls in the league.
In 2011, the median payroll in baseball was about $87 million. The Yankees had the highest payroll at $200 million, and a record 12 teams had at least a $100 million payroll. The Royals payroll was $36 million—the lowest by about $5 million. Even with revenue sharing hitting new highs, Royals owner David Glass would rather pocket a wad of cash than invest in high-priced free agents and change his team’s miserable fortunes overnight.
Watching flagship franchises suffer through decades of futility isn’t a good thing for baseball, but while some squads have been able to recapture aspects of its glorious past rather quickly, Royals GM Dayton Moore has spent nearly a decade rebuilding a suspect farm system, making questionable trades and laying the foundation for future success. Since winning 65 games in 2009, the club has surpassed that total each successive season.
It’s surely been a slow grind, but last year’s 86-win campaign represented the team’s best record since 1989. Some media heads were actually picking the Royals to make the playoffs this season. Some attribute it to baseball’s growing parity and increased wild card chances to make the playoffs, which keep teams from packing it in and selling off its good players once they’re out of the playoff chase. Others feel the Royals are just damn good.
“They seem to do this once or twice a year, go on a big run, and a lot of times it’s a matter of when you catch them,” A’s Manager Bob Melvin said. “The last couple years they’ve gone on streaks like this, and when you look at their club you can see why.”
The Royals are winning with one of the youngest teams in baseball. They have a nice mix of talent and an unheralded pitching staff that’s going toe-to-toe with elite staffs like the A’s who boast Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzjia and the AL Central rival Tigers who roll out three former Cy Young winners in their starting rotation.
Ace hurler James “Big Game” Shields has pitched to a 1.63 ERA in his last seven starts, Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas are super solid and Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy have only scraped the surface of their potential. Ventura allowed just two hits in the Royals’ 3-2 victory over Oakland on Monday night, while Duffy is carrying a 2.57 ERA and hasn’t lost in his last five starts.
Their bullpen bulldog is All-Star closer Greg Holland and he’s been a black hole for batters.
If core cats like Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon pump it up offensively, the Royals could be the real deal in October. With a bit over 40 games left in the season, the Royals will have to scrape and scrap their way to the finish line to maintain that 1/2 game lead over Detroit.
They can’t match Detroit’s power. Salvador Perez and Moustakas lead the team with just 14 homers and Gordon (12 homers) is the only other player with more than seven. But the Royals have speed demons in Jarrod Dyson (27 steals) and Alcides Escobar (24 steals). They run the bases better, flash superior leather and have a better pen. Besides, Detroit has all kinds of pressure to finally get over the WS hump. The Royals are playing with house money. The fact that they don’t suck is already proof of expectations exceeded, so they really don’t give a eff’ what anyone thinks.
“We’re out there playing and having fun,” Butler said. “We’ve kept grinding, and we don’t let anything affect us. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we just play our game.”
While the Royals are finally showing some staying power, they can’t count on Detroit’s pitching staff to continue to flounder. Justin Verlander’s shoulder is on the fritz. He's tossed more innings than any pitcher in baseball since 2009. On Sunday (when the Tigers were still in first) they had to place right-handed starting pitchers Anibal Sanchez and reliever Joakim Soria on the 15-day disabled list.
The 11th-hour trade deadline, blockbuster trade for “Black Ace” David Price was supposed to seal the deal for Detroit. Instead, the Tigers have been on a slide since his arrival. At the All-Star break the Tigers were 6.5 games up in the division. Since the break they are 10-16 and own the 6th-worst winning percentage. In the process, they are giving those Kansas City Kids more confidence.
In fact, according to ESPN, Vegas has more confidence in KC too. It’s reported that the odds of Detroit making the playoffs has dropped to 47 percent. While KC’s chances of returning to the playoffs for the first time since The Cosby Show ruled the evening tube is 61 percent.
Maybe George Brett will take that bag off of his head now. For the past two decades he’s been the greatest player from a fallen franchise. At least he can rock his Royals hat in public now, and he’s hoping he’ll see his Royals popping champagne in early November.