KANSAS CITY -- For the first time in nearly three decades, the Royals are returning to the World Series. This unlikely, undaunted, unstoppable club from Kansas City finished off the Baltimore Orioles in four straight games, sweeping the American League Championship Series with a 2-1 victory on Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium.
With a blue-hued throng of 40,468 fans roaring on a sunny, 65-degree afternoon, the Royals struck for two runs in the first inning with an infield single, a hit by pitch, a sacrifice bunt and a fielder's choice, capped by Alcides Escobar kicking the ball out of the catcher's glove on a play at the plate, clearing the way for a second run to score. It was all they would need.
Defense again played a leading role with left fielder Alex Gordon pounding into the left-field wall as he made one of several fine catches. Winning pitcher Jason Vargas worked the first 5 2/3 innings with the tight-fisted bullpen finishing up with scoreless work. Lorenzo Cain, who hit .533 (8-for-15), scored five runs and made several outstanding catches, was named Most Valuable Player of the ALCS.
There was no doubt how owner David Glass felt as he stood upon the temporary victory stage on the infield and accepted the American League trophy in front of a roaring throng of fans.
"We dedicate this trophy to all these fans," he said, holding it aloft.
Around him, the Royals celebrated their record-tying eighth-straight postseason victory -- every game they've played -- to join the 1980 and 1985 teams as World Series contestants. They'll meet the National League champions, either St. Louis or San Francisco, beginning Tuesday night in KC.
Kauffman Stadium's infield became a festive knot of players, coaches, front-office personnel and other Royals folks pulling on caps that read "League Champions" and T-shirts emblazoned with "We Own The Pennant."
"We were the best team in baseball through the second half of last year, and we basically were this year, too," said Billy Butler in the midst of the celebration. "We got on a roll at the right time, we're basically playing our best baseball. I think we're showing everybody in the world what kind of talent we have in here."
And now fans across the country and the world are learning about the little-known, underrated Midwest team called the Royals.
"This is a wonderful time for America to watch our team," said manager Ned Yost. "And I think what they've done is they've fallen in love with our team."
HOW THE ROYALS WON THE GAME
Escobar limped painfully after taking a foul off his left foot in the first inning. But when he bounced a ball over pitcher Miguel Gonzalez, he streaked to an infield hit at full gait. What hurt foot?
Nori Aoki was hit by a pitch and Cain, bunting on his own, moved the runners over. Eric Hosmer's grounder was fielded by first baseman Steve Pearce who threw home only to have the ball kicked out of catcher Caleb Joseph's glove by the sliding Escobar. The ball shot toward the backstop, allowing Aoki to also score, and it was 2-0.
"Esky did a nice job of sliding into the plate hard and kicked the ball out of the glove," Yost said. "And Nori tailing him, heads-up, was able to score on the play."
After Vargas got through his five-plus innings, the Backend Boys of the bullpen took over, all working for the second straight day. Kelvin Herrera got five outs, working in both the sixth and seventh innings. Empty tank? No chance.
"I pulled up the reserve and pushed it even farther," Herrera said.
Wade Davis added a scoreless eighth and Greg Holland notched the ninth for his sixth save of the postseason and fourth of the series, something only Dennis Eckersley (1988 A's) and John Wetteland (1996 Yankees) have done in seven-game series.
"That's the same thing they've been doing all year," said pitching coach Dave Eiland. "That's the reason why we're here."
THE MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Gordon flashes leather: There's a lot of video evidence supporting Alex Gordon's three Gold Gloves, and he added to the treasure trove in the fifth inning. Chasing J.J. Hardy's missile, Gordon reached up to spear the ball and then slammed into the left-field wall and fell on the warning track in a heap, but not without gamely holding up his glove with confirmation of the catch. But was he hurt?
"No. I felt pretty good," Gordon said. "We're going to make the plays, no matter what. You can rest in the offseason. That's what it's for. You do whatever you can to make the catch."
Earlier, Gordon twice rushed toward the line for catches of Pearce drives and ranged deep for a Joseph smash.
"It was one of those games where I felt defense was going to play a large role, and I was just going to do everything I could to make the catches," Gordon said. "And everyone else was having their fun the last couple games, so I figured I'd join the party and try to make a play."
Herrera gets lucky: After Herrera came on in the sixth with Jonathan Schoop on first and one out, he got Pearce to pop out before allowing a bloop single to Adam Jones on which Schoop advanced to third. With men on the corners, Nelson Cruz hit a line drive that looked like it would tie the game, but the ball was hit right at second baseman Omar Infante , who snagged the liner to end the inning.
UNSUNG HERO: JASON VARGAS
There was some question why the Royals didn't start staff leader James Shields to go for the kill, but Vargas certainly held his own. He worked 5 1/3 innings, giving up one run and two hits. Ryan Flaherty led off the Orioles' third inning with a home run down the right-field line. But that was it.
"When you're a kid, that's what you dream about doing. Getting a chance to go, getting the ball," Vargas said. "The only thing that could be better is to have the ball that decides the Big Dance. It's unbelievable. It's everything I imagined it would be and more."
Except for Flaherty's homer, no other Orioles runner got past first base while Vargas was in the game.
ONE FOR THE HISTORY BOOKS
The Royals became the first team in history to start a single postseason by winning eight straight games. The previous mark of seven straight was held by the 1976 Reds and the 2007 Rockies. The only other teams to win eight straight at any point in the postseason were the 2004 Red Sox, who rallied from down 0-3 to beat the Yankees in the ALCS, then swept the Cardinals in the World Series, and the 2005 White Sox, who lost the first ALCS game to the Angels before winning four straight and then swept the Astros in the World Series.
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
• In the history of baseball, how many teams have swept a best-of-seven series? Answer: the Royals were the 28th.
• Two other Royals besides Cain have won the ALCS MVP award -- Frank White in 1980 and George Brett in 1985.
• Hosmer's 13 hits are the fifth most all-time by a Royals player. Willie Wilson had 20 in 1985, followed by Brett's 18 in '85, Lonnie Smith's 16 in '85, and Amos Otis' 15 in 1980.
The Royals will play Game 1 of the 110th World Series on Tuesday night against either the Giants or the Cardinals, at Kauffman Stadium.