By Ashley Dunkak
The 2015 Kansas City Royals are a definite improvement on the 2014 Kansas City Royals, and that alone should scare the New York Mets as they approach this World Series, since the less potent version of the Royals nearly won it all last season.
Improvements aside, the Royals trait that should worry the Mets the most is the same one that Kansas City displayed in its wild-card game for the ages last season: like zombies, the Royals simply refuse to die. You might think you knocked them out, but it is likely just a matter of time before they rise again and hunt you down.
In five of its seven victories this postseason, Kansas City has either come from behind or lost the lead and regained it.
The Houston Astros had a 3-0 lead in Game 2 of the American League Division Series before the Royals rallied and won 5-4. The Astros had a 6-2 advantage in Game 4 before the Royals stacked up five runs in the eighth and two in the ninth and eventually won 9-6. In Game 5, the Astros jumped out to a 2-0 lead before Kansas City got its act together and strolled to a 7-2 victory.
In Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, the Toronto Blue Jays led 3-0 before the Royals scored five runs in the seventh and ultimately won 6-3. In Game 6, the Royals had held a 3-1 lead before a two-run homer in the eighth inning tied the game and shifted all the momentum to Toronto. Undeterred, the Royals scored a run in the bottom of the eighth and won 4-3.
Sometimes a team that struggles to score early gets tight as a game wears on. The Royals do not. Dire situations seem to have the opposite effect on Kansas City. The more pressure-packed the moment, the likelier the Royals deliver. Over the span of 124 at bats in the seventh and later innings this postseason, Kansas City has a collective batting average of .387 and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.013.
In general, the Royals do not often let opportunities pass. Their batting average with runners on base this postseason is .333. Rather notably, that number is not skewed by a few high achievers. In such situations, Eric Hosmer is hitting .360, Ben Zobrist is hitting .292, Lorenzo Cain is hitting .381, Alcides Escobar is hitting .333, Alex Gordon is hitting .357, Kendrys Morales is hitting .462, and Alex Rios is hitting .500.
Also, while Kansas City ranked 24th in home runs during the regular season, the team has not hurt for power in the playoffs. The Royals have raked 15 home runs, more than any other team this postseason except the Chicago Cubs, and eight different players are responsible for the blasts.
As well as the Kansas City lineup has performed, the team’s bullpen and defense often outshine it, and they do so for good reason. The defense includes three perennial Gold Glove winners in left fielder Alex Gordon, catcher Salvador Perez and first baseman Eric Hosmer, but the Royals also have an above-average center fielder in Lorenzo Cain, and the same description could be argued for third baseman Mike Moustakas and shortstop Alcides Escobar.
Any discussion of the dominant Royals bullpen begins with Wade Davis, who worked as the setup man last season but moved into the closer role this fall when the team lost Greg Holland to Tommy John surgery. Davis had a stellar season in 2014, turning in an ERA of 1.00, and this season he has been even harder to hit.
Davis finished the 2015 regular season with a 0.94 ERA and has yet to allow an earned run this postseason. He entered the hearts of Royals fans forever with his performance Friday in Game 6 against the Blue Jays. After fellow reliever Ryan Madson gave up a two-run homer that tied the game in the eighth, Davis not only stopped the bleeding that inning but returned for the ninth after a 45-minute rain delay and tossed a scoreless inning that included escaping a two-on, no-out jam. The Royals, of course, went on to win.
Afterward, one caller to Kansas City’s flagship radio station unleashed the following ode to Davis: “The barbarian … the cerebral assassin … Release the cyborg!”
Those characterizations might be just a tad hyperbolic, but Davis has been fantastic.
Davis is not the only excellent member of the Kansas City bullpen, of course. Kelvin Herrera has allowed just one earned run in 8 2/3 innings this postseason, and he has allowed only two walks and has struck out 16. Luke Hochevar has provided 5 2/3 innings of scoreless relief. Madson has had some rough outings this postseason but has a track record of reliability. He had a 2.13 ERA over 63 1/3 innings during the 2015 regular season.
Another strength of the Royals is speed and gumption on the base paths, as Cain reminded everyone Friday when he flew first to home on a single and scored the winning run. Manager Ned Yost has explained Kansas City’s strategy as a willingness to force the defense to make a play. Sometimes a defense delivers, fielding the ball perfectly, making the perfect throw, and making the perfect catch and tag. Instead of assuming that sequence will go off without a hitch, however, the Royals tend to challenge, which means opposing pitchers always have to be aware that a Kansas City runner is quite possibly either moving or contemplating his next move.
The relative weakness of this Royals team has been its starting pitching. In seven of 11 postseason games this year, the Kansas City starter (or in one case, two regular starting pitchers because the first lasted only two innings) has allowed three or more earned runs. Four times the starting pitchers have allowed four or more runs.
The Royals have seen only one truly remarkable performance by a starting pitcher this postseason, when Johnny Cueto held the Astros to two earned runs in eight innings of Game 5 of the ALDS. Edinson Volquez started the ALCS on an impressive note by pitching six scoreless innings in the series opener, and Yordano Ventura helped close out that series by allowing only one earned run in 5 1/3 innings.
Kansas City’s rotation has not been stellar, but it has been serviceable. Because the Royals are so good in so many other facets of the game, serviceable may be enough.
The organization as a whole is strong, as evidenced by the fact the Royals are back in the Fall Classic for the second straight year. Hosmer wrote earlier this fall that he and his teammates wanted to prove the 2014 season was no fluke.
Consider that mission accomplished. The Mets have their work cut out for them.
Originally from the Kansas City area, Ashley spent the last two years in Detroit covering the Lions, Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons – and some Michigan and Michigan State – as the sports writer for CBS Detroit. She previously spent three years as a correspondent for the Associated Press, covering football and basketball at Kansas State. She grew up watching the Chiefs and the Royals, but her soon-to-be husband is the true Royals devotee. The light-hearted argument over where to put the bobbleheads in the new apartment has already begun.