In a season that at once felt so improbable, the inevitable has finally come as the Kansas City Royals clinched the American League Central Thursday night against the Seattle Mariners. It is the Royals first division win since 1985, only the second time they have finished second or better in the past two decades, and is their first division win in the Wild Card era.
Opening the season on a seven-game win streak set the tone for April, as the Royals would crush their opponents 15-7 and outscored them by 45 runs. An opening day dust-up caused by Jeff Samardzija signaled a recurring theme, as later incidents would occur with the Los Angeles Angels and the Oakland Athletics.The Royals were undeterred.
Going into their first Detroit series on April 30th, they were still a half-game behind the Tigers. Kansas City would end up splitting the series, but from there the trajectories of both teams went in opposite directions. The Tigers hung around in May, finishing the month 13-16. The Royals finished 14-12 and now had to deal with the surging Minnesota Twins, who went 20-7.
On June 8th, Kansas City traveled to Minnesota for a three-game series, finding themselves in second place. The Royals and Twins had split the season series 3-3. The early season momentum was waning as Kansas City had lost nine of their previous twelve games.
In game one, Jason Vargas threw six innings of scoreless ball, as Kendrys Morales hit a two-run home run en route to a 3-1 victory.
Game two. Chris Young threw six innings without yielding a hit, finally giving up a single with one out in the seventh. It was the only hit the Royals would yield that day, and they would hold on for a 2-0 victory.
Game three. Kansas City jumps on Kyle Gibson, a player who has been known to give the Royals fits, for four runs in the first inning on an Eric Hosmer single and an Alex Gordon three-run home run. Kansas City cruised to a 7-2 victory behind Edinson Volquez, Luke Hochevar, and Jason Frasor.
The Royals have been in first place ever since.
Through struggle, the team has prevailed. In early July, they lost Alex Gordon, arguably their best player. While he was gone, they went 30-17 and extended their AL Central lead from five games to thirteen games.
The rotation scuffled. Greg Holland dealt with various injuries. The offense slumped. The Royals kept on winning.
On July 26th, Kansas City acquired Johnny Cueto for three left-handed pitching prospects. The following day, they acquired Ben Zobrist from the Athletics, capping off one of the wildest three day periods in Kansas City sports history.
Fitting then that Johnny Cueto started for Kansas City tonight. Though his tenure with the team has been marked by bad luck and poor performance, it is fitting that Cueto, who signifies so much - the front office's commitment to the season, the prestige player the Royals have not acquired mid-season in a long time - took the ball tonight to give the team a chance at clinching their first division title in three decades.
Though the path was uneven, Cueto pitched seven innings and gave up just three runs, as Seattle dinked, dunked, and doinked their way to seven hits.
Equally appropriate that Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas both hit home runs, once to give Kansas City a 2-1 lead and again to tie the game 3-3. Their performances this season have been two of the catalysts behind the Royals success, as both have performed well above expectation. Lorenzo Cain, who has been the steadiest and best performer for the team all year, stroked a single in the sixth to score Alex Gordon and Ben Zobrist, after the top of the order had walked and doubled respectively.
Kansas City never yielded the lead again, extending the margin to 7-3 in the seventh on an Alex Rios single and Alcides Escobar fielder's choice.
Ryan Madson, whose return to baseball this season has been an unexpected, unmitigated success, pitched the eighth and worked around a two-out walk.
In the eighth, as the scoreboard told of the Cleveland Indians defeating Minnesota 6-3, the crowd erupted with chants of "Let's go Royals!", as they have done game after game, thirty thousand strong speaking in one collective voice. Zobrist reached on an infield error and Cain reached on a single. Following outs by Hosmer and Gomes, Moustakas flared a single into center field, putting the Royals ahead 9-3. Alex Rios then tripled to deep center to put Kansas City up 10-3.
Not wanting to leave anything to chance, Ned Yost called for Wade Davis, newly appointed team closer, to secure the game, the division, and the peace of mind that a secure playoff spot can bring.
Wade Davis yielded a leadoff home run to Logan Morrison, Kansas City native, to cut the lead to 10-4. Following a walk, he then struck out O'Malley. Ketel Marte was set down looking, and the crowd swelled. Kyle Seager flailed at an 0-2 fastball and grounded out weakly to Hosmer, punctuating the Royals season.
This Royals season has been everything that is good about baseball, through the early season surge to the late-season swoon, the highs and lows, streaks and slumps, from doing no wrong to doing nothing right, Kansas City tied last season's record (with ten games left to play) and raised a banner on the American League Central, something they've never done before.
Let's go Royals, your 2015 American League Central champions.