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Streak to AL pennant defined 2014 for Royals

Shut-down relief, dazzling defense and timely hitting brought World Series back to KC

What can be said about the 2014 Kansas City Royals that can even attempt to put into words what America saw throughout October? Ned Yost's plucky bunch emerged as a tight-knit, rapidly improving baseball team with one common goal and one nasty bullpen arm after another.

They entered the year coming off a promising 2013 that saw them win 86 games. They had their ups and downs throughout 2014 and managed to sneak into the playoffs via the Wild Card after finishing second to the Tigers in the American League Central, putting playoff baseball on the Kauffman Stadium field for the first time since the 1985 team walked off that ballpark's then-artificial surface as World Series champions.

2014 Year in Review and 2015 outlook

And then the real magic happened. The Royals went on a postseason tear like no other. For a few weeks, they became the underdog darlings of baseball, AL pennant winners with nightly highlight reels of defense, baserunning and extraordinary relief pitching. The season ended in Kansas City with the Royals as unfortunate Game 7 victims of the Giants and their incredible pitcher, Madison Bumgarner, but the indelible impression was made.

This is an organization on the rise once again, and 2014 marked its joyous arrival. Here are the top five storylines for the Royals in that AL championship season.

5. The three-headed monster rears back and fires

Just look at the numbers. When the Royals took leads into the late innings of games in 2014, they usually won because of the trio of relievers known as HDH.

Kelvin Herrera broke out in his age-24 season, putting up a 1.41 ERA in 70 games, then a 1.80 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 15 postseason innings. Setup man Wade Davis was otherworldly, going 9-2 with a 1.00 ERA in 71 games, striking out 109 batters in 72 innings and putting up a 0.63 ERA in the postseason, winning two games in the AL Championship Series. And closer Greg Holland had a 1.44 ERA and 46 saves while striking out 90 batters in 62 1/3 innings in the regular season, saving seven of his team's postseason victories and pitching to an ERA of 0.82 in October.

Video: 2014 GIBBYs: Holland picks up Closer of the Year

While starters James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas, Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy were solid and at times spectacular, it was the brilliance of these three relievers that transformed the Kansas City pitching attack ... and season.

4. 29 years in the making

George Brett celebrated from a luxury suite as Royals catcher Salvador Perez caught a foul popup to seal Kansas City's victory over the White Sox on Sept. 26 in Chicago. To the outside observer, it was a regular game in the course of a baseball season. But to Royals fans, it was a lot more.

Video: Must C Clinch: Royals snap 29-year postseason drought

The victory clinched a postseason appearance for the Royals for the first time since the 1985 World Series. It also ended a painful drought for a die-hard baseball city and fan base -- the longest active one in any of the four major sports leagues in North America.

3. The Wildest of Cards

The joy of clinching was only days old when the Royals took on the Oakland A's at home in the win-or-go-home AL Wild Card Game, and it lived up to its moniker as an instantly unforgettable piece of baseball lore.

The Royals fell behind the A's and Oakland pitcher Jon Lester by a score of 7-3 after seven innings. But the Royals rallied, scored three times in the eighth, tied the score at 7-7 in the bottom of the ninth, and when the A's took an 8-7 lead in the 12th, the Royals battled back again, this time scoring twice in the bottom of the inning to win, keyed by Eric Hosmer's triple.

Video: revisits the Royals' AL Wild Card Game win

"We could have been better off falling back four runs in that ballgame because it's hard to explain exactly what happened in that seventh and eighth inning," Yost said.

"When our guys came into that dugout, the determination in their voice was adamant. Guys were coming in and screaming in the dugout: 'We are not losing this game, we are winning this game! Let's go, let's get on base. This is not going to happen, not tonight, this is not happening. Let's go, boys.'"

The team had already come together, but this victory forged an October identity. It was almost as if the team had gained all the postseason experience it needed in those few late innings.

It would serve them well.

2. A historic streak

Some teams wouldn't be able to take advantage of the momentum provided by an unlikely Wild Card Game comeback. Some teams would be exhausted from the effort and go on the road to start the Division Series against the team with the best record in baseball and get swept into relative oblivion.

Not the Royals. They were just getting started.

They played the MLB-best 98-win Angels to extra innings in the first two games in Anaheim, winning both. Then they blew them out back in Kauffman in Game 3 to complete one of the more unlikely first-round sweeps in recent memory.

Video: Must C Clinch: Royals advance to World Series

Everything worked. They got good starting pitching. Mike Moustakas grew up in a hurry and was blasting huge home runs. Hosmer was hitting. Outfielders Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson and Nori Aoki and shortstop Alcides Escobar were turning in highlight-reel plays every night. The bullpen was lights-out.

It led to another astonishing sweep, this time a four-gamer over the AL East-winning Orioles in the ALCS to win the pennant. And when the smoke had cleared and the Royals' train was momentarily stopped in a loss in Game 1 of the World Series against the Giants, Kansas City had set a postseason record with eight straight wins.

1. Ninety feet away

The first six games of the 2014 Fall Classic might have been a bit of a blur, with the Royals and Giants trading blows in an epic prizefight that went right down to the last game and last inning.

We'll all remember the greatness of Bumgarner, one of the most dominant pitchers in Series history, and his masterful relief stint in Game 7. We'll also remember the final moment of the game and season, with Alex Gordon on third base after a single turned into a triple because of outfield blunders by the Giants.

Video: WS2014 Gm7: Royals on holding Gordon at third in 9th

With two out and trailing, 3-2, after Gordon was held at third by third-base coach Mike Jirschele, Perez popped out to San Francisco third baseman Pablo Sandoval and the Giants had their third World Series title in five seasons.

It was crushing for the Royals and their fans, but the magic of the 2014 season was not lost on an up-and-coming team that plans to make October a regular engagement.

Doug Miller is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB.
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