As the 1985 World Series got farther and farther away and before the Royals reached the top of the baseball mountain again in 2015, there was a sense that the Royals hadn’t been remotely relevant between championship runs. And while that’s largely true, it’s not entirely true. They were just two games out of first place in 1987 and won 92 games in 1989. And even though they failed miserably when trying to go for it with the highest payroll in baseball in 1990, they still were above .500 in both 1991 and 1993.
If this was today’s baseball landscape, they’d have won the division in 1989 (that 92-70 was the second best record in the AL and the A’s wouldn’t have been in their division if there was an AL Central). And they’d have been just on the outside looking in a couple times as well.
The 1994 season obviously ended up as one we’d like to forget, but that Royals team was actually pretty darn good. The lineup was okay, led by eventual Rookie of the Year Bob Hamelin with Felix Jose and Wally Joyner providing more than acceptable supporting cast and Mike MacFarlane, Brian McRae and Gary Gaetti playing big roles as well.
There were holes. Greg Gagne and Chico Lind really couldn’t hit, but the defense up the middle was silly good and Vince Coleman/Dave Henderson weren’t really good enough in left field. Plus there was David Howard, which inherently lessens an offense. But still, they could hit enough because the pitching staff was fantastic.
David Cone and Kevin Appier were excellent at the top and Cone, of course, won the Cy Young that year. Tom Gordon and Mark Gubicza did their thing and while the fifth starter spot was kind of a carousel of blah, the bullpen was good enough to help that as well. The team ERA of 4.23 would be the second best in the American League in the shortened season, but the most frustrating thing about that year was that they were just starting to play their best baseball when the strike hit.
Winning streaks that get into the double digits are all, by definition, unlikely, but I think this one was especially so. That Royals team had started the season with three straight losses and then won five in a row starting with their seventh game of the year. From that point forward, they never lost more than three in a row or won more than three in a row. They were one of the least streaky teams around.
On July 22, with the threat of a work stoppage looming, they lost their third straight game. It was a 5-2 defeat at the hands of the Detroit Tigers. Rusty Meacham, a generally reliable bullpen arm gave up three in the eighth and that was that. At 49-47, the Royals were in third place and 9.5 games out of the division lead. At that time, the work stoppage was not a guarantee, so there was still a glimmer of hope at a playoff run, but that game probably ended most of that.
But they won the next two in Detroit. Then they swept four games against the White Sox. All of the sudden, they were just 5.5 games out. They won again against Minnesota, and again, and again. Then they swept four more agains tthe A’s at home. It was 13 games in a row and while they were still in third place, they were just two and a half games off the division lead. Of course, at this point, the strike was pretty much inevitable, so all that hard work was likely going to be for nothing. But still, 13 games in a row. A trip to Seattle loomed, except that it didn’t. The good fortune continued to come for the Royals.
See, the roof at the Kingdome was caving in, so the Mariners were having to play games on the road while the roof was being fixed. If I remember correctly, all tickets (or maybe just most) were general admission. For kids who had never sat behind home plate, they had that opportunity. Heck, for adults who had never had that seat, they could. It was really fun, especially with the team on such an incredible run over the past couple weeks. Eight shutout innings from Tom Gordon and eight runs from the offense later, the Royals had won their 14th game in a row, the second longest streak in franchise history.
Of course, all good things must come to an end and they lost the next day and the next two days after that and then they split what ended up being the final two games of the shortened season. They finished 64-51 that year, in third place and four games off the division lead. If the season had gone the full 162, they likely weren’t going to be good enough to overtake the Indians or the White Sox. But still, that streak was an awful lot of fun.
One of my favorite things from it was when they had won 11 or 12 in a row and there was a whole segment on SportsCenter about them. I have tried (not that hard, but I’ve tried) for years to find that clip, so if anyone can find it, throw it in the comments.
For a long time, I’ve looked back on that winning streak and that season and wondered what the strike ruined for the Royals that year. But as I’ve gotten older and gained a better understanding of baseball and realized just how good those White Sox and Indians teams were and how that Royals team was good, but not great, I realize that maybe the strike allows us to look back that fondly on the 1994 club.
If you were wondering, it’s reasonable to assume that Hamelin locked up his Rookie of the Year during the winning streak, hitting .354/.475/.813 with six home runs. The real craziness, and maybe this is a product of the time, is that only three other players even hit a home run during the winning streak. Felix Jose and Brian McRae hit one each and Gary Gaetti popped two. That’s 10 total home runs in a 14-game winning streak! Of course, they did steal 18 bases and picked up 30 doubles and six triples, so there were plenty of extra bases to be had.
The pitching is what fueled the winning streak. Over the 14 games, 11 pitchers threw at least one inning. The worst ERA in that stretch was from Jose deJesus at 4.24. Don’t forget that the team ERA of 4.23 was second best in the American League that year, so they were on some sort of pitching run. Kevin Appier gave up just eight earned runs in 24.2 innings over three starts. Tom Gordon gave up just six in 20 innings. And Mark Gubicza gave up just one in 15.1 innings over two starts.
Yep, it was just a couple weeks of incredible baseball, but it was a couple weeks I won’t ever forget.