Magic Number ZERO: Kansas City Royals, American League Central Division Champs

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The Kansas City Royals will be flying a new flag at Kauffman Stadium, and it will read, “2015 A.L. Central Divisions Champions.”

For the Kansas City Royals, 2015 has been all about one thing – unfinished business. And, it hasn’t been if the Royals will win the division, but when.

“Everybody, all year long, knew that we were the team to beat,” owner David Glass said.

Last night was the night, joining the Cardinals and Pirates as the only teams to clinch berths in the postseason and the first to be crowned a division champ – ending baseball’s longest active division title drought (30 years). This time, for the Royals, it’s not as a Wild Card, but as a division champion and possibly the No. 1 seed in the American League.

Ironically, it was Johnny Cueto on the hill to win the clincher (10-4 over the Mariners) – allowing three earned runs in seven innings, his second seven-inning quality start in a row after the worst stretch of his career (9.57 ERA in five-start span). It was his first win in nearly six weeks, dating back to August 15 – a span of seven starts – improving to 3-6 as a Royal. The team has won just three of his 11 starts. Despite his recent struggles, I would do the trade EVERY TIME. Remember, prospects come and go, but flags fly forever. Cueto was still far from his best as he allowed the first hitter to reach base in four of the first six innings. But, it’s a step in the right direction for Cueto, who has a 4.99 ERA since coming to Kansas City, and to his credit, he took control just as the Royals offense (powered by Mike Moustakas’ 3-3, 2 walks, team leading-tying 21st HR night). The Royals will have more opportunities for more celebrations at the K this season, but how many times they sport goggles and pop bottles will largely depend on how well Johnny Beisbol performs, as he was brought here for one thing only: WIN POSTSEASON BASEBALL GAMES. He’ll need help from his staff mates, who have posted a 5.35 September ERA. The bullpen is all of a sudden unpredictable after dominating the last two seasons. But, the Royals, maybe now that they have finally clinched, will shake the rut they’ve been in (9-13 record) in September. Maybe, they’ll get hot and carry it into the postseason? They have won two in a row for the first time since Sept 2-3 (also the last time they won a series). History is not on the side of team’s who limp into the postseason. Of the eight teams who have made the playoffs after a losing September (the 2014 A’s are the most recent), their combined record in the postseason is 19-29 with ZERO World Series appearances.

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The first stop of the 2015 Unfinished Business Tour was the American League Central Division and they certainly knocked out a huge milestone off the checklist, by doing something they have not done since 1985 and missed by one game last year – win the division. And, they have done so almost wire to wire, leading by as many 14.5 games, holding a 10 or more games lead since last month.

“I’ve felt all along we would win this division,” manager Ned Yost said. “I’ve got my eyes on a much bigger prize. This is the first step of it. “

We all do, Ned, and maybe that is why, despite winning a division for the first time since I was 4, it doesn’t seem like as big of a deal as it is, based on reaction and feel. Was it the World Series run last year? Was it that this thing was pretty much over more than a month ago? Was it that we have been a “playoff team” all season? All of the above. Also, the expectations are higher, like Ned said. He reiterated that.

“It’s a different kind of feeling. It’s something I’ve expected from the first day of spring training. It’s kind of like, this is what’s supposed to happen.”

“Last year we were going tooth-and-nail every game. I just had a real confidence in this group from Day 1 of spring training on that we were going to win this division and get back to the playoffs.”

Maybe it’s just a sigh of relief because the Royals have not been playing well? Ben Zobrist seconds that sentiment.

“It’s a huge accomplishment,” he said. “It hasn’t been done here for a long time. There’s a lot of guys in this clubhouse I’ve talked to that have toiled for years to get to this point, to win the division. For them to do it, you can see the kind of sigh of relief, the excitement in the organization.”

But, this is a huge deal. The last time the Royals won the division, 25 players on the expanded September roster weren’t even born, yet. The last time the Royals won a division, there were only four divisions in baseball, no Wild Card and the Royals were in the American League West, playing night home games at 7:35. The Royals then turned into the Chicago Cubs of the American League – the lovable losers. The 1985 AL West Champion and World Champions morphed into the franchise that would have the longest playoff drought of any team in major North American sports. From 1995 to 2013, the Kansas City Royals finished 10th or worse in the American League in attendance every year, averaging fewer than 20,000 fans a game. They had more losses than any team in baseball in the 2000-2009 decade. But, the started from the bottom now we’re here Kansas City Royals, are back. Last year, in simply clinching a playoff berth on a Friday night in Chicago, on the 160th game of the season, Kansas City brought the house down as the Royals wiped away 29 years of playoff drought. And, of course, I doused myself in champagne. Then, the Royals went on their run – the miracle comeback off Jon Lester in the Wild Card Game to sweeping its way through the American League playoffs. Nothing, no one, outside of Madison Bumgarner, could stop them. And, as we all know, he did in the most dominating postseason from a pitcher in MLB history. That is what it took to stop the Royals.

What a great time to be a Royals fan. It is, after all, what a friend has labeled – the Golden Age of Kansas City Royals Baseball. An era where we, as fans, packed the stadium in setting a new franchise single-season attendance record. TV ratings have been shattered. Players, such as Alex Rios, come to Kansas City because they want to go to the playoffs.

“I wanted to be with the Royals because I wanted to go to the playoffs,” said Rios, the 12-year veteran who has played the most games of any active player without making the playoffs. “I could not have done it with a better group of guys. This has been a great ride and I am so glad to here. It doesn’t get any better than this. We have great fans that have kept us going all season.”

Man, how things have changed in Kansas City. What the Royals have done this season is awesome. And the small blemish of September will not tarnish what they have accomplished. Making it to the World Series is hard. If the Royals don’t make it there, we’ll be disappointed. But, what the Royals have done in winning the division, is arguably one of the hardest things to do in sports. And, the Royals just did it. In baseball, the goal is to win the division. Sure, you want to win the World Series, but the first goal is winning the division. That ensures you a spot in the postseason, and the Royals have done that. It SHOULD NOT be downplayed or shrugged off.

“We definitely set a goal to come out here and win a division this year,” Lorenzo Cain said.

Just days ago, many were freaking out that the Royals will not go far in the playoffs. Why? Because one shaky month of what has been an amazing season? How about we have a little perspective. It’s been a long time since the Royals were this good. The last time the Royals made the playoffs in consecutive years, was 1984-85. The window may be open the widest right now, but the window will still be open after this year. Let’s enjoy this, though, as it doesn’t come around often.

The Royals were supposed to be a fluke last year. Hardly anyone predicted them to make it back to the postseason, let along finish higher than third in the division. I mean, after losing James Shields, how were they gonna do it? The starting pitching was going to be worse (it has). The offense maybe was going to be better (it has). We predicted an 87-75 record, with a chance they could slip in as the second Wild Card.

We’re so glad to be wrong.

Just how did the Royals win their seventh division championship?

The rotation this year, unlike last year, was a complete mess at times. Edinson Volquez (13-8, 3.75 ERA), tonight’s starter (please, whatever you do, do not look at our JV lineup Ned is trotting out there), has been the most consistent. But, as a group they rank 24th in baseball in starters ERA on the season and 27th in September. None of the other teams in the bottom 10 in starters ERA this month have playoff odds greater than 0.4 percent, according to FanGraphs.com. But, the bullpen, amazingly was even better than last year’s. Down the stretch and into the postseason a year ago, the bullpen as nails. The Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Greg trio were historic, posting the best three-pitcher ERA in MLB history, while having a maximum ERA of 1.44 (Holland) and 1.10 WHIP (Herrera). Holland has struggled all year, battling arm issues and control and velocity issues, but despite that, he blew just four saves and the bullpen’s 2.70 ERA is the only bullpen ERA under 3.00, the third-lowest bullpen ERA by an AL team in the last five seasons. As a team the Royals ranked fifth in the American League in bullpen ERA one year ago at 3.30. Without Holland, the Royals will be just fine. Franklin Morales has a sub-3 ERA after sporting a 5.37 ERA in 2014. Luke Hochevar is back and effective. Ryan Madson has been an absolute treasure. After not pitching in the big leagues from 2012-14, the 35-year-old has a 2.28 ERA in 59.1 innings this season. Madson’s ERA has improved in each of his last four seasons played. And then there’s Davis, who is the permanent closer now for the Royals. After allowing a meaningless solo HR in the ninth last night, his ERA shot up to 0.99. Davis’ ERA of 1.00 since the start of 2014 is the best among relievers with a minimum of 100 innings pitched.

Offensively, the Royals are no longer offensive to watch. They’re hitting for average while limiting strikeouts – they have struck out fewer times than any team in baseball, going back to 1950, striking out just 15.5% of the time – as they have for years, but their power numbers are up across the board. After hitting 95 home runs in 2014 (fewest in baseball), the Royals have hit 130 home runs through 151 games this season. Designated hitter Kendrys Morales is the biggest reason for the team’s uptick in the power department. Morales signed with the Royals in December after an awful 2014 season with the Mariners and the Twins. The 32-year-old designated hitter is hitting as he did before his 2010 leg injury, posting a .291/.355/.485 slash and his 105 RBI (with 21 HR) – the most RBI by a DH since Vlad Guerrero’s 106 in 2010. Cuban Breakfast ranks third in the AL in RBI. Moustakas and catcher Salvador Perez have produced career-high in HR (21 and 20 respectively). Eric Hosmer has a new career watermark in RBI (87). Cain has also added more power to his game this season. Through 134 games in 2015, one more game than he played in last season, he has increased his slugging percentage by 70 points (.482), scored 43 more runs (98), hit 11 more home runs (16) and upped his total extra-base hits from 38 to 54 while driving in 18 more runs (71) in the process in setting career high’s across the board (as well as in stolen bases, 28)

Cain let us know that this is just the beginning.

“We understand that we’re not done,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of unfinished business to take care of.”

So, I guess there’s only one thing left to do:

Well, there’s another thing left to do, clinch home field (currently a 2-game lead over Toronto) advantage so the American League really has to go through Kansas City.

“We can’t pack it in, yet. We understand we need to go out here and get home-field advantage,” Cain said. “And get back to where we want to be. And that’s the World Series.”

Yost agreed, “Winning the division was a big goal for us. Winning the All-Star Game to get home field for the World Series was a goal. And now home field throughout is a goal.”

#foreverRoyal

#TheCentralisOurs

#unfinishedbusiness

#TaketheCrown

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