Down 2–0 in the top of the ninth inning of Game 5 against the New York Mets and their dominant ace, Matt Harvey, it appeared that the Kansas City Royals would have to return to their home ballpark to try to secure their first World Series crown in 30 years.
At least, it would have seemed likely for perhaps any other team besides the Royals, who at that point had achieved a whopping seven of their ten postseason victories in come-from-behind fashion.
Fittingly, the win that clinched it all was no different. A leadoff walk and steal by Lorenzo Cain sent the tying run to the plate in Eric Hosmer, who proceeded to drive in Cain with a double. Hosmer later moved over to third base and scored off a soft grounder to third base, daring Mets first baseman Lucas Duda to gun him down at home after completing the putout.
Duda wasn’t up to the challenge, delivering the throw home late and wide, and allowing the Royals to tie the game. The game remained in a deadlock until the 14th, when Kansas City blew it open with five runs off Addison Reed and sent dominant reliever Wade Davis to close out the Mets.
Davis made short work of his opposition, blowing a 95 mph fastball on the inside corner past shortstop Wilmer Flores to give the Royals their eighth comeback win of the playoffs and, more importantly, the World Series title.
It was a season defined by the most cliché of narratives for the Kansas City Royals: grit, determination and special attention to oft-neglected aspects of baseball like defense and contact hitting were all amongst the most popular talking points about them.
After an improbable run from the Wild Card game to Game Seven of the World Series in 2014, most pundits who favor an analytical approach to their predictions saw in the Royals’ future a fall from grace.
Too much of their success, it seemed, had been based on something called “cluster luck” (the arbitrary happenstance in which a team manages to group an uncharacteristic amount of its hits in close succession, thus helping to make up for statistical offensive deficiencies) as well as a historically dominant bullpen that seemed bound to regress.
Instead, the Royals defied all the odds and kept on winning at a prodigious rate— their 96 wins paced the American League—even while not looking very much at all like a typical contending team.
A team that walked fewer times than any other in the majors, ran the bases at a below-average rate and whose starters compiled a higher ERA than all but those of three other American League teams does not sound like one that would have a achieved a great deal of success.
And yet the Royals fit those descriptors in 2015, offsetting their obvious weaknesses with power-hitting improvements across the board, the continued dominance of their bullpen, impeccable defensive play at every position on the diamond and a historically low strikeout rate relative to league.
Baseball is not a sport that can be thoroughly strategized before taking place; there are too many moving parts and unforeseen factors that can emerge over the course of the game. With that said, the Royals used what they had and stuck to a general formula, which of course succeeded with flying colors: make it through five or six innings by keeping the score close, then employing the bullpen to lock down the opponent’s bats and trusting in the offense’s impeccable contact ability to make things happen simply by virtue of putting balls in play.
Also key in Kansas City’s run to the championship was their uncharacteristic activity at the trade deadline, opting to go all in on a title and acquiring some big names, even those who might be considered “rentals,” likely only spending the remainder of that season with the team before testing the waters of free agency.
Small market teams like the Royals often avoid such blockbuster moves because it requires mortgaging the future of the team, giving up known assets in prospects for a very brief elevated chance of improvement.
Large market free agency destinations like New York or Los Angeles can survive this depletion of the farm system by signing the top free agents, but for teams that play in what aren’t exactly “destination cities,” acquiring a big name on an expiring deal is an all or nothing venture.
It was exactly this that made the midseason trade for former Reds ace Johnny Cueto so daring, and for a while it looked like a miscalculated risk; Cueto was one of the worst and most inconsistent starters in the American League after the trade.
But in the end, the talented Cueto was able to come through and contribute in a big way with a dominant Game 2 victory that maintained the Royals’ home field advantage and—if you believe in such intangibles—set the tone for the rest of the series. Super utility man Ben Zobrist, acquired from the Athletics, was also one of Kansas City’s best players in the stretch run.
It wasn’t too long ago that a mention of the World Series to Royals fans would conjure up nothing but images of Madison Bumgarner cutting through their lineup like a buzz saw. Now they get to see their boys lifting the Commissioner’s Trophy sky-high and letting the champagne flow. The Royals have come a long way in defying the odds and getting right back to the same place (and then some!) from the year before. Give them the glory people. They deserve every bit of it.