Postseason chip on Royals' shoulder is gas in tank
This was a different kind of coronation for the Kansas City Royals.
They didn't have to rally from four down in the eighth inning and one down in the 12th of a must-win, make-or-break ballgame. This club hasn't had a make-or-break ballgame for months. If you had any doubts about the Royals' staying power, any belief that their October run of 2014 was a product of luck and timing -- and plenty of people did -- they spent all summer proving you wrong. And now, following Thursday's 10-4 win over the Mariners, they've got their first American League Central title, their first division title of any sort in 30 years, to show for it.
Yes, we've known this night was coming for quite a while. And no, clinching the Central is far from the end-goal for a ballclub that clinched a much more meaningful pennant at Kauffman Stadium 11 months ago.
But this was the first goal for 2015, and the way the Royals made mincemeat of what was supposed to be one of the deepest and most dynamic divisions in the game is something to applaud.
Now the real fun -- and the real test -- begins.
Baseball's first division-clinchers of 2015 will go into October cast in an entirely different role. This much has been a certainty basically since early June, when they bid adieu to second place and left the Tigers, the Twins and the others in their dust. And it was further confirmed at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, when a Kansas City club once accustomed to standing pat and playing it safe, instead boldly bid from the upper reaches of its farm system to bring back an ace-caliber arm in Johnny Cueto and perhaps the most pliable position player in the sport in Ben Zobrist.
So, a World Series title is no longer the hope, it's the expectation.
"These guys know where they're going," manager Ned Yost said earlier this season, "and they know how to get there."
The Royals got to this point in 2015 with the same basic formula that served them well in 2014. They're efficient on defense, they're bullish on the basepaths, they protect late leads and they rally around each other. Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas built off their October coming-out parties, and the bullpen remained a competitive difference-maker.
But this was not a club that rested on its laurels. You'd be hard-pressed to find an executive who had a better offseason than Dayton Moore, who got it right with Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales, Kris Medlen, Chris Young and Franklin Morales. Not everything went as planned or hoped -- Danny Duffy pitched himself out of the rotation, Yordano Ventura had to learn some hard lessons, and Steve Balboni's indefatigable single-season home-run record still stands -- but plenty did.
And now the Royals, who a year ago made even casual baseball fans with zero Kansas City ties bleed blue for a few weeks, will be the ones hoping to obstruct the upstarts as they try to find their way back to the Fall Classic. They will, most likely, be the AL's top seed, and with a great power ranking comes great responsibility.
This will be the latest of many hats worn by the Royals in the last calendar year.
They were the people's champions of 2014, then they were the defending AL pennant-winner everybody somehow ignored (the PECOTA projections famously pegged them for 74 wins), then they were the brazen bullies picking fights with half the league, then they were the almost boringly methodical pace-setters firmly fixed atop the standings.
And then, in recent weeks, with the Central title a foregone conclusion, a possibly unavoidable malaise set in. Chickenpox invaded the clubhouse, Cueto forgot how to get anybody out, Greg Holland's elbow finally got the best of him and the bottom of the lineup sagged. None of it was ever enough to make the Central situation uncomfortable, but all of it has conspired to inspire a new round of doubters.
Hey, maybe the Royals need that. The whole chip-on-the-shoulder disposition has tended to work well for them. They fed off the external preseason pessimism. They loved when people were up in arms about them briefly leading in eight of nine All-Star voting spots. And I'm sure they'll readily embrace any aspersions cast upon them as a result of their sluggish September.
The bottom line is that not even a sometimes-frustrating final month could undo what Kansas City has done over the course of 2015. The Royals went from a fun, feel-good unit to a force of nature. The Central was simply no match for them, and October -- albeit a different type of October than the one they encountered a year ago -- awaits.