Sure, the World's Series was a week-long voyage on the HMS Bliss, and nothing short of another trip to baseball's biggest stage can match the fortnight euphoria of last year's playoff run. But the seventy-two hours starting on July 25th, 2015, has been some kind of adventure.
Following the late-night rumors of a potential Johnny Cueto trade that was scuttled for reasons unknown (reports say it was issues over a prospect's medicals, but the team denies such reports), the following afternoon the trade was signed, sealed, and delivered to the first place Royals, bringing in the most talented pitcher to twirl for the Blue Man Group since Zack Greinke captured hearts and minds for the summer of 2009.
The two-year joy of James Shields was muted by the terms of his arrival, and the criticism that carried his acquisition through its two-year term consistently marred every bad start or bump in the road. Wade Davis' struggles in the rotation in 2013 accentuated the focus. And though the Royals were able to complete the season on a winning note, making late but ultimately futile rumblings at competing for a Wild Card spot, the season itself still carried with it the undertone of opportunity cost.
2014 was a similar struggle, as the Royals found themselves under .500 as late as July 22nd. Mike Moustakas wasn't hitting. Billy Butler was declining. Eric Hosmer was scuffling. Omar Infante was a big ticket with a small return.
And yet, over the rest of the season, Kansas City went 39-23, capping the late-season surge by capturing the first Wild Card spot and their first playoff appearance in nearly thirty years.
On September 30th, the Royals won one of the best games in baseball history, a comeback win against the favored Oakland Athletics. The rest of October felt like a dream: Sweeping the Angels. Sweeping the Orioles. Taking the Giants to Game 7 in front of the home crowd, ninety feet from carrying the game into extra innings. Free baseball.
And that's what it felt like. Free baseball. Everything from October was unplanned. Unexpected. And absolutely free.
On the other hand, 2015 feels intentional. Though the off-season moves were met with the same skepticism, the projections citing the same relapse, and the pundits (including myself) prognosticating a meager season, there was a determinacy to this year's team.
It began with a seven-game winning streak to open the year. An offensive surge was a portend of things to come, and at the end of the first week, Kansas City was in first place. Since then, they spent the better part of April and May trading turns for the AL Central lead with dance partners the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins.
On June 8th, the Royals carried a one-game deficit into a three-game series with the Sons of St. Paul. They won the first game 3-1 on a six-inning effort by Jason Vargas, his last start before going on the disabled list. In Game 2, Chris Young baffled the twins through 6.1, giving up one hit as the Royals held on for a 2-0 victory to recapture first place. In Game 3, the offense ambushed Kyle Gibson for four runs in the first inning, capped by a three-run home run of the Alex Gordon persuasion en route to a 7-2 win.
The Royals have been in first place ever since.
The next month was spent building a lead that even the most optimistic of Central opponents would struggle to see the silver lining in, culminating in a seven-strong caravan to the All-Star Game with Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Salvador Perez, Kelvin Herrera, and Wade Davis representing a city that had re-embraced a team that lay dormant for two decades.
Coming out of the All-Star Break, the rotation was a mounting concern. Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura had been, in varying parts, injured and ineffective. Jason Vargas was still shelved. Chris Young was starting to show signs of fatigue. Jeremy Guthrie beheld the ravages of age. Despite closing out the first half on an 8-2 stampede, the concerns were real, and the mid-season projections had the Royals playing a flat tune for three months.
Kansas City didn't care. They took three of four from the struggling White Sox. They took two of three off of the Pittsburgh Pirates. They captured two of three from the surging Houston Astros, one of the best teams in the American League. They have since moved on to the swooning Cleveland Indians, outscoring them 11-5 by winning a blowout and a pitcher's duel in equal turns.
Leading into the weekend, the trade deadline speculation was in full effect, linking the Royals to every starting pitcher that wasn't nailed down. The focus narrowed on Cincinnati hurler Johnny Cueto, and the next three days were some of the most ecstatic in Kansas City history:
- July 25th, 6:00pm: The PA at Kauffman Stadium malfunctions. The Royals play the first two-plus innings without it.
- July 25th, 9:25pm: Danny Duffy throws six innings of one-run ball. In the bottom of the tenth inning, Alcides Escobar loops a two-out single into right field, scoring Paulo Orlando from second base for a 2-1 Royals victory.
- July 25th, 10:07pm: Ken Rosenthal tweets that the Kansas City Royals nearly acquired Johnny Cueto in a trade prior to Saturday's game.
- July 26th, 11:00am: Kansas City acquires Johnny Cueto from the Reds for three pitchers.
- July 26th, 3:40pm: Yordano Ventura shuts down the Astros for seven innings, scattering six hits and striking out five without yielding a walk en route to a 5-1 victory.
- July 27th: The Royals are rumored to be in pursuit of, among others, Ben Zobrist and Martin Prado. #CuetoWatch trends on Twitter.
- July 27th, 9:55pm: The Royals jump on Cody Anderson, scoring three in the first on an Eric Hosmer opposite field home run to spark the offense in a 9-4 victory. The Twins and Tigers both lose their second in a row. The Royals move to 22 games above .500, their best record since 1985.
- July 28th: The Kansas City Chiefs report for training camp with newly-minted $100 million man Justin Houston in tow.
- July 28th, 1:35pm: The Royals acquire Ben Zobrist from the Oakland Athletics for two pitchers.
- July 28th, 9:15pm: The Royals defeat Cleveland 2-1 on a ninth inning home run by Eric Hosmer while turning (yet another) one of the best defensive plays of the season.
- July 28th, 9:35pm: Eric Berry, the All-Pro Chiefs safety who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma eight months ago, was cleared to return to practice.
- July 28th, 9:40pm: Bubba Starling, the Royals 2011 first round pick and long-standing prospect punching bag, hits for the cycle at AA Northwest Arkansas, the first player to ever hit one for NWA, capping off a month in which he hit .350/.391/.530 and restored an ounce of faith that he might be turning into a promising player after years of frustration.
For all of the fun that was October 2014, it never felt real. It felt like borrowed time. Free baseball.
2015, though it hasn't been without its serendipitous turns, has felt more genuine, more intentioned, more real than all of October ever has. The city has embraced the Royals, from the All-Star Vote to record-setting TV ratings, three straight sellouts for a weekday series against the Pirates, record attendance at the stadium, and the furor that was Johnny Cueto Day. The illusion of whether or not it was earned or fortuitous has been stripped bare and revealed to be the genuine continuation of what is now the Kansas City Royals, best team in the American League.
And we still haven't reached the trade deadline.