Royals giving KC fans reason to be excited
Pitching leading the way in fast start for AL Central leaders
When Darryl Motley hauled in Andy Van Slyke's fly ball to deep right-center on that crisp October night in 1985, it never crossed my mind this would be the Kansas City Royals' final moment in baseball's postseason for eons.
Well, maybe not eons, but 27 seasons have passed since a giddy 21-year-old Bret Saberhagen completed the 11-0 shutout over St. Louis in Game 7 to win the 1985 World Series.
The Royals were a perennial postseason player. In the decade leading up to their '85 championship, they won their division six times and lost the 1980 World Series to Philadelphia. Their screeching halt to that success was unexpected.
To say the ensuing years have been difficult is an understatement.
That's why the Royals' fast start out of 2013's gate is so impressive, so exciting for the long-starved Kansas City fans.
They woke up Thursday morning leading the AL Central by a half-game over favored Detroit before getting rained out of their series finale vs. the Rays.
That's obviously significant, but what's even more impressive is how the Royals have reached that plateau.
Take Wednesday night against Tampa Bay.
The Rays, behind young pitcher Jeremy Hellickson, built leads of 5-0 in the third inning and 6-1 in the fourth. The Royals shrugged that off and blasted their way to a 9-8 victory.
The night before, with former Tampa Bay ace James Shields on their mound, they wiped out a 2-0 Rays advantage and roared to an 8-2 decision.
General manager Dayton Moore, who earned his stripes helping John Schuerholz win all those division titles in Atlanta, is following his mentor's philosophy. Moore has integrated a young, talented nucleus with proven veterans, which is giving the Royals the best chance to contend and make the postseason since -- yes, 1985.
"When I came here and we had our first organizational meeting in 2007, our vision was we needed Billy Butler and Alex Gordon to turn into productive Major League players," Moore said over the phone Thursday. "Through the Draft and establishing an international program, we needed to sign and develop players in our Minor League system that would blend in with their talents.
"The point is we wanted to develop a core group of young players that reflected homegrown talent and do everything we can to support this group. We're still very young and have a lot to accomplish. Our players are not a finished product yet."
After winning the controversial '85 Series -- remember when first-base ump Don Denkinger blew the crucial call that helped the Royals extend the series? -- Kansas City has had just seven winning seasons. That was 1987 (83-79), '88 (84-77), '89 (92-70), '91 (82-80) '93 (84-78), '94 (64-51) and 2003, when they went 83-79. During the 18 years since 1994, they're collectively 434 games under .500 (1,230-1,664) and have done no better than third place in their division except for 1995.
They've finished last eight times and fourth six times. During the last three seasons they've lost 90, 91 and 95 games.
So, that euphoric night on Oct. 27, 1985, at Royals Stadium was a long, long time ago -- a cherished, but fading memory.
There were hints the Royals were turning the corner last season, but they faded to third place (72-90) in the second half mostly because their pitching failed. Their starters had the fifth-highest rotation ERA (5.01) in the Major Leagues.
In early December, Moore rolled the dice.
Schuerholz was noted for using the Braves' Minor League pipeline not only to stock Bobby Cox's clubhouse, but also to swing important deals, and that's exactly what the Kansas City GM did.
In December, he gave up outfielder Wil Myers, one of MLB's top prospects, to land Shields, right-hander Wade Davis and infielder Elliot Johnson in a swap with the pitching-rich Rays.
That was a steep price, but the dividends have been obvious.
"When we could acquire a pitcher like James Shields or Wade Davis, we had to do it," Moore said.
Earlier, Moore obtained right-hander Ervin Santana from the Los Angeles Angels in a trade and brought back free-agent starter Jeremy Guthrie.
Guthrie (3-0), Santana (3-1), Shields (2-2) and Davis (2-2) are a combined 10-5, with a 3.21 ERA.
"The biggest difference is pitching," says manager Ned Yost. "I'm not saying we're never going to have a three-game losing streak or a four-game losing streak, but starting pitching stops all that, and it minimizes it.
"With the starting pitching we have, and we've said it all along, we don't anticipate any losing streaks, because we've got somebody good going every single day that's going to step on that mound and put an end to it."
The starting pitching is supporting young hitters such as designated hitter Butler, first baseman Eric Hosmer, left fielder Gordon, third baseman Mike Moustakas and catcher Salvador Perez.
Yost, in his fourth season with the Royals, is satisfied with his team's fast start, but refuses to look ahead.
"I feel good where we're at," he said the other day, adding it's too early to talk about being in contention. "We have to just keep fighting. You can't worry about contending right now. Worry about every day -- just winning every day.
"Your record is what it is. You can't do anything about it. But the game you have before you, you've got to be ready, do everything you can to win that game."
In the past, trailing 5-0 or 6-1 as the Royals were Wednesday night, would have spelled defeat.
Consider: The Royals lead the Majors in batting with two out in an inning with a .296 average, driving in 47 runs in those situations.
They're playing with energy and enthusiasm and have spent the first month proving they're for real against some of the top teams in both leagues.
"It's been a neat thing to see baseball thrive in Kansas City," said Moore. "I grew up a Royals fan and just to see the city and the fans really embrace this team and have a lot of hope for the future is just great."
The future is what it's all about for these Royals. They're eager to make the fans forget about the last decade.