After watching the Kansas City Royals take a 2-0 lead in the American League Championship Series, there’s one question that’s gone unanswered: How did this team go 6-13 versus Detroit and lose the American League Central?
“We’re playing our best baseball,’’ Royals manager Ned Yost says.
The Orioles know.
The Royals, who have won six consecutive postseason games, will try to move a win closer to win the American League pennant when they host Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Monday night at Kauffman Stadium, a bigger ballpark that plays more toward gap hits with doubles and triples and not home runs, which is the Orioles’ strength.
The Royals, who started to believe in themselves after a players-only team meeting in late July, beat the Orioles in Camden Yards with a series of bunts, swinging bunts, aggressive baserunning and spectacular defense, led by Lorenzo Cain.
When general manager Dayton Moore took the job of rebuilding the Royals in 2006, he predicted in his first news conference that it would take eight years to get the Royals to the postseason. Eight years after that proclamation, the Royals are playing in October.
Thirteen of the Royals’ 25 players are homegrown, developed with patience. Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon, considered the face of the franchise, took longer to come on than the Royals anticipated.
Moustakas, who hit .212 during the regular season, had a strong spring and a slow start and ended up being platooned with Danny Valencia, a former Oriole. In fact, Moustakas was sent to the minors early in the season, and got back to the majors 10 days later only after Valencia broke his hand.
Yost, who coached 12 seasons for Hall of Famer Bobby Cox in Atlanta, has taken heat for controversial moves, but he’s done things right, as well. In September, the Royals lineup became more productive after Yost made switches.
The manager moved Alcides Escobar from the bottom of the order to top, replacing Nori Aoki, who dropped to second. The former No. 2 hitter, Omar Infante, moved to lower in the order so that Yost could get more RBIs out of him.
The Royals developed pitcher Zack Greinke, who won the AL Cy Young while in Kansas City, and then traded him to Milwaukee in a 2010 deal that changed the franchise.
The Royals and Nationals were involved in talks for Greinke - Jordan Zimmermann would have been one player that would have gone to the Royals - but Greinke didn’t want to play in D.C., even though the Nationals were willing to give him a long-term contract.
In exchange for Greinke, the Royals got Cain, Escobar and pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi, who was traded to Tampa Bay two years ago in a deal that brought starter James Shields.
Odorizzi is a top candidate for AL Rookie of the Year. Shields, 32, may or may not stay with the Royals when he becomes a free agent after the season.
Cain has had a list of injuries to his legs since coming to Kansas City. And, when he got healthy, the Royals had to teach him better running techniques.
The Royals’ rebuilding also took a step in the right direction when they acquired former Orioles pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, their Game 3 starter, from Colorado at midseason in 2012.
Guthrie hasn’t pitched since Sept. 26, but he’s won 33 games in Kansas City.
Even though Guthrie was struggling with the Rockies, Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland recommended that the team pick him up. Eiland, a former Yankees pitching coach, had seen Guthrie a lot and liked what he had seen.
But Guthrie needed changes in his approach.
So Eiland suggested to Guthrie that he add more turn to his windup, giving him more deception and more momentum as he delivered the pitch to the plate.
Shields taught Guthrie a new grip on his changeup and that is an improved pitch, Guthrie says.
Now Guthrie, who pitched five seasons for the Orioles when they never won more than 69 games, pitches against his former team.
He sees the irony in playing for the Orioles, who haven’t been to the World Series since 1983, and then the Royals, who haven’t played in the World Series since 1985.
“I think this is serendipitous that I leave a franchise that had a long drought of being in the playoffs but a storied history and end up with a team with another rich history, but an even longer drought,’’ Guthrie says.