Last Friday I was on a Southwest Airlines flight to Midway with my wife who knows full well that no matter how many times I fly, I will never get tired of looking out the window and down on creation. Knowing this, she takes the middle seat and gives me the window. Every time. Clearly I married up, or, in the very least, married someone significantly less selfish than I am.
Lots of Royals fans are on the flight. Loaded. Both the flight and the fans. I’m sure many of you experienced something similar on Friday night whether you were in a plane or not. It was an exciting weekend celebrating our first division championship in 30 years. <party emoji sequence>
Kansas City was playing a make up game at Wrigley Field versus the Cubs that Monday followed by three games at US Cellular against the White Sox. A woman sits down next to us on the aisle. She’s with a group of Royals fans around us. They all have an abundance of Southwest free drink loyalty coupons.
As we land, we learn the Royals have been blanked by Carlos Carrasco and the Indians, 6-0, while the Blue Jays have beaten the Rays in Toronto, 5-3, behind another home run barrage by the sluggernauts north of the border. The news circulates through the fuselage. The woman in the aisle seat swears loudly and bemoans the fact that we were just giving away home field advantage. She looks toward my wife and I for some backup, “I mean, the Blue Jays are gaining on us and Ned [Yost] just doesn’t care, right?! What do you think?”
Sidebar: Do you guys remember that scene in Groundhog Day when Mrs. Lancaster, the owner of the bed and breakfast, is making awkward small talk with Pittsburgh weatherman, Phil Conners (played by Bill Murray), when she comments, “There’s talk of a blizzard.” In response, Phil kicks into meteorologist mode and waxes eloquently about how “all this moisture coming up out of the south…at high altitude it will chrystalize and give us what we call ‘snow.'” (This is going somewhere, trust me.) Phil drones on about the highs and lows for the day and finally pauses to ask, “Did you want to talk about the weather, or were you just making chit chat?”
“Just…chit chat,” she replies as awkward as ever.
This is the question I want to ask this woman when she asks me what I think. Does she actually want to engage in baseball banter, or is she purely looking for validation as a disgruntled and perhaps tipsy Royals fan? If the former, I’m inclined to discuss how, when up a dozen games, destined to clinch and waiting for the rest of the league to shake out, it’s normal to rest starters, work out the kinks and coast to October healthy and fresh. Because once you’re in, it’s a brand new game – the previous 162 games done matter, and besides, it’s partly just a big crapshoot. If it truly is the latter, then I’m inclined to nod, throw up my hands a bit incredulously and agree with her for the sake of argument, time, and potential frustration’s sakes, that Ned is clueless, the team is toast, and will probably not only lose home field advantage, but will likely somehow end up playing in the Wild Card game despite winning their division. It’s that bad, ma’am.
Since I’m unsure of her level of chat interest, I chooses middle-of-the-road option where I disagree but over-simplify the reasoning with throwaway comments like, “they’ll be fine,” and “we just gotta get to October.” It seems to work. She responds, “Really?! I’m nervous. I hope you’re right.”
I’ve been accused of being too optimistic – ignoring obvious gaffes in the game plan and choosing to blindly hope things turn around when everything suggests things are slowly imploding. Ignore Cueto. Ignore Gordon. Ignore Holland’s inconsistency. Ignore the red hot Blue Jays. Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. It’ll be fine.
But c’mon. Games hadn’t mattered since late-August. The division had been wrapped up for so long, I was posting “who do we want in the postseason?” stuff in early September. The team had moved on. The goals were simple: get healthy and get ready.
And they did that, for the most part. Lorenzo Cain‘s legs are sore and Salvador Perez‘s thumb and finger have taken a beating, but otherwise we are in good shape. And those were both due to freak happenstances – a foul off Lorenzo’s back knee and a couple errant throws catching Sal’s digits behind the plate.
I don’t think I was being flippant and blindly hoping. This team is, without a doubt in my mind, the best team in the American League. They have been since they started the season 7-0. Did they look bored and phone in some games in September? Absolutely. Like the night I landed in Chicago to learn that the Royals’ AAA lineup (plus Ben Zobrist) had been nearly no-hit by Carrasco.
If anything, I believed that when the Royals were forced to play meaningful baseball games again they would rise to the occasion. Games became meaningful when they went to Minneapolis without home field advantage, and, as expected, we rose. And so did the Rays, thankfully.
Anyway. We’re here now. We did it.
And wouldn’t you know it, but over the last week of the season, the team looked just like it did during the first week of the season. Running on all cylinders. Winning their last 5 games and 6 of their last 8. In those 8 games, their starters have given up 8 earned runs. Over 47.1 innings. That’s a 1.52 ERA.
Is that right? That can’t be right. I’ve double checked it, but I still don’t believe it.
Yordano “Ace” Ventura is back and will start Game 1 of the ALDS on Thursday. Johnny Cueto is back – or “fixed” might be a better word – and will start Game 2. Eddy is steady and will start Game 3. Chris Young has been brilliant and Kris Medlen has been too (but only on the road, oddly enough), so the two of them ought to have Game 4 covered. Throw in Danny Duffy, who looks better than ever in the bullpen, and this team is primed for the postseason.
The bullpen doesn’t have questions anymore either. Wade Davis is the closer now that Greg Holland has had season ending Tommy John surgery. What I watched Kelvin Herrera–Ryan Madson–Luke Hochevar do at Wrigley Field in the 8th-9th-10th showed me all I need to know there. We have a bullpen that shortens games and a ballpark that lowers scores. And a defense that doesn’t bend or break.
So here we go, a second consecutive trip to the postseason. Last year as the underdog, but this year as one of the favorites. But know this about the postseason: anything can happen.
The thing is though – and we learned this last year – defense, pitching and the ability to manufacture runs wins championships. Offense is a roller coaster that can ebb and flow by game. The Royals are 7th in all of baseball in runs scored, but TOR, NYY, TEX, and HOU all score more. But the Royals allow fewer runs than everybody but Houston. In the playoffs, scoring runs isn’t always sustainable, but preventing runs is. Hitting can go cold. Defense, speed and pitching really doesn’t.
I’ll look more closely at matchups and predict the postseason – like I so unsuccessfully did in 2014 – in the coming days. For now, I’ll say this: I’m pumped that we’re back playing meaningful baseball. I’m glad the team has a few days to rest Lorenzo’s legs and Sal’s hand, and I’m glad we won’t have to face Dallas Kuechel more than once in the ALDS (if we even see the Astros). And I’m glad the American League goes through Kansas City.
Here’s to another mostly unproductive, sleep deprived and emotionally overwhelming October.
See you at the K on Thursday.
Photo: AP Photo accessed at NBCSports.com here.