The Kansas City Royals are back in the World Series for the first time in 29 years. If they want to nail down their first title since that 1985 season, though, they’ll have to get past a team in the San Francisco Giants who will be vying for their third World Series championship in five years.
Kansas City kicks off the 110th edition of the Fall Classic against the Giants starting on Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium.
A matchup nobody envisioned at the beginning of the playoffs, let alone the start of the season, the Royals and Giants become the first World Series matchup between wild card teams since the Los Angeles Angels beat San Francisco in 2002.
This also marks the first World Series in a non-shortened season to feature two teams with fewer than 90 wins in the regular season.
Kansas City’s run in October has been nothing short of spectacular, as it has become the first team in major league history to start its postseason with eight consecutive wins.
It didn’t look good for the Royals in their wild card game against the Oakland Athletics, as a curious pitching change by manager Ned Yost triggered a five- run inning for the A’s. Kansas City, though, started to show the resiliency that has been its trademark in these playoffs and rallied for a 9-8 win in 12 innings.
Kansas City had an easier time of it against the Angels, sweeping the American League Division Series in three games, thanks to two extra inning wins in Anaheim.
The Royals’ amazing run continued versus the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series, as they once again won in sweeping fashion, taking all four games to reach the World Series for just the third time in franchise history.
The Royals rely on their speed, defense, timely hitting, and, of course, one of the better bullpens in postseason history.
Kansas City relievers allowed two runs in five innings in Game 1 against the O’s, but pitched 11 2/3 scoreless innings the rest of the way. The three- headed monster of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland pitched to a 0.61 ERA over 14 2/3 frames.
“It’s definitely been the model for us,” Yost said. “It started out, find a way to get the ball to Holly in the ninth inning. With Kelvin’s emergence this year, it turned into, ‘Let’s just find a way to get through six and we’re going to be in great shape.'”
Holland saved all four games in the series for the Royals, while no Kansas City starter recorded an out after the sixth inning.
“You get through the sixth inning and you’re down a run, and, all of a sudden, here comes Herrera, here comes Davis, and here comes Holland,” Yost added. “That’s a little bit deflating.”
No team signified small ball more than Kansas City, which won 89 games this season thanks in large part to its ability to play defense and manufacture runs. The Royals also led the AL with 153 stolen bases, but their 95 home runs were the fewest in baseball.
Kansas City, though, has found its power stroke in the playoffs, swatting eight home runs in its eight games.
If you are looking for a star on this Royals team, good luck.
Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, and Mike Moustakas get most of the attention, considering how highly regarded they were coming up through the organization, but Lorenzo Cain might be the most underrated player in the game.
Cain made a few game-changing plays with his glove in the ALDS, but was the driving force behind the Royals’ offensive attack in the ALCS, as he batted .533 (8-for-15) with two doubles, two walks and a stolen base and was named the MVP of the series.
“A lot of guys stepped up,” said Cain, who matched Willie Wilson’s 1985 franchise record with eight ALCS hits. “Any of those guys, or even the entire bullpen, is definitely deserving. Luckily, I got it.”
There used to be a joke in New York that 75 percent of the world was covered in water and the other 25 percent was covered by Darrelle Revis. Well, people in Kansas City can now apply that joke to their outfield.
“There’s really no weaknesses,” said Gordon, who set the tone in Wednesday’s win with a terrific catch, while running into a chain link fence. “It’s someone new every day, and someone new making the play every day. It’s pretty cool to be a part of eight guys out there that are very talented and very good at defense and good at what they do.”
If there is one perceived weakness within the Royals it could be their starting pitching. James Shields is the ace and will likely go in Game 1 against the Giants. Yost hasn’t announced his rotation, but if he opts to not change anything, Shields will be followed by hard-throwing rookie Yordano Ventura, veteran Jeremy Guthrie and left-hander Jason Vargas.
San Francisco, meanwhile, has made a habit recently of winning titles in even years, as the Giants ended a 56-year drought by beating the Texas Rangers in 2010, then swept the Detroit Tigers 2012.
Like the Royals, San Francisco’s run this year began with a wild card win, but it had a much easier time, as Madison Bumgarner blanked the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Then the Giants took out the NL’s best team, the Washington Nationals, in four games, before beating St. Louis in five games.
The Giants clinched their sixth NL pennant since moving to San Francisco in dramatic fashion on Thursday, as Travis Ishikawa stroked a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning, setting off a wild celebration.
Michael Morse had belted a tying home run an inning earlier for the Giants, who homered three times in the clincher after going their previous six games without a home run.
As is the case with Kansas City, San Francisco can score from a number of different ways. All six of its runs in Game 5 were scored on home runs, but the Giants have hit only five homers this whole postseason.
In fact, before Thursday’s outburst, 12 of their last 22 runs were scored without recording a hit.
“When you put the ball in play, good things happen,” San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy said. “If you’re not hitting long balls, you have to find ways to manufacture runs.”
Pablo Sandoval continues to be a postseason monster for the Giants, as the 2012 World Series MVP has reached base in 23 straight postseason games and his single in the ninth started the winning rally.
If there is one advantage the Giants will have against the Royals, it will be their starting staff, namely Bumgarner.
If there was no Kershaw we may very well be talking about an NL Cy Young Award for Bumgarner, who set career-high marks in wins (18) and strikeouts (219) and pitched to a 2.98 ERA.
That has carried over into the postseason, as the southpaw tossed a four-hit shutout to beat the Pirates, but then absorbed the lone loss in the NLDS for the Giants and only allowed two earned runs in seven innings.
Bumgarner was named the NLCS MVP, as he held the Cardinals to three runs in eight innings in Game 5 after throwing 7 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 1. Bumgarner finished the series with a 1.72 ERA in his two starts.
Between the wild-card game, the NLDS and NLCS, Bumgarner has a 1.42 ERA in four starts and 31 2/3 innings this postseason.
Bumgarner will be on regular rest if Bochy opts to use him in Game 1 against the Royals. And he should, as Bumgarner was also one of the best road pitchers in the league this season, going 11-4 with a 2.22 ERA in 18 starts away from AT&T Park. Both of his postseason wins this season have come on the road.
Bumgarner is followed by a pair of right-handed veterans in Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson, both of whom have been terrific in the playoffs. Ryan Vogelsong will also get a start and is 3-0 all-time in the postseason with a 2.16 ERA in six starts.
The Giants bullpen has been just as dominant as Kansas City’s, but gets nowhere near the recognition. The group, which is spearheaded by closer Santiago Casilla, has pitched to a 1.78 ERA in the playoffs and has struck out 30 batters in 35 1/3 innings.
Kansas City’s ‘pen is 6-0 with six saves, and San Francisco is 5-1 with five.
Lefty Yusmeiro Petit has been particularly effective in a long relief role, as he has two wins with 11 strikeouts over nine scoreless innings.
These teams actually met in the regular season, as the Royals completed a three-game sweep at Kauffman Stadium.