Undoing the Underdog Narrative: The Royals Eliminate the Astros, Make More Memories, and Cement Their New-Cardinals Status

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So this is how the 1 percent lives.

I would like to tell you that during the 28-year trek through the desert that Royals fans endured from 1986 through 2013, I never dreamed I’d root for a team like the 2014-15 Royals. But that would be a lie. I dreamed of it all the time — I just never actually thought it would happen.

I dreamed of rooting for a team that not only went to the playoffs, but that acted like it had been there before once it got there. I dreamed of rooting for a team that was harder to kill than Rasputin. I dreamed of having a front office that built a championship core from within and then made brilliant free-agent signings and savvy trades to complete the roster.

And then I would wake up and reacquaint myself with the reality that the Royals were not going to make any of my dreams come true.

That was the reality when I was a teenager, and that was the reality when I turned 39 last summer, and at every moment in between. I knew the sun might come out tomorrow, but today always sucked.

Well, call me Annie, because I got whisked to the penthouse last fall, and with the Royals beating the Astros last night to win the ALDS and advance to the ALCS against Toronto, I haven’t been asked to leave yet. And it turns out living the high life doesn’t feel as good as I thought it would in my dreams. It feels better.

The limo pulled up outside our tenement building last September 30, when the Royals turned their first playoff game since 1985 into the greatest wild-card game ever played, overcoming a four-run deficit in the eighth inning with a barrage of hits and stolen bases that led to three separate rallies in the eighth, ninth, and 12th innings.

I would have been content with one such game in my lifetime — after all, no team in baseball history had ever been four runs down in the eighth or later of an elimination game and come back to win, and that win propelled a Royals team that otherwise would have been a footnote to the season all the way to Game 7 of the World Series.

But three days ago, they did it again. Down 6-2 to the Astros to start the eighth inning of Game 4 of the ALDS, six outs away from ending their season on the road in front of a raucous crowd in Houston, the Royals erased the four-run deficit before they had even made an out, brought home the go-ahead run before the inning was over, then tacked on two insurance runs in the ninth. The Royals did something that had never happened in a century of playoff baseball twice in 54 weeks.

You never expect your favorite team to come back from so far down so late, but this year’s comeback might have caught me off-guard even more than last year’s. It’s not that I didn’t think the Royals were capable of it, but that, in the brief time frame in which the Astros had opened up a four-run lead, I reflected on the season and took solace in the fact that, if nothing else, the Royals had vindicated their performance from last year. The 2014 Royals were an amazing Cinderella story, but most observers, myself included, wondered if they might also be a fluke.

By dominating the regular season in 2015 almost as thoroughly as they dominated the AL playoffs in 2014, leading the AL Central almost wire-to-wire and finishing with the best record in the league, they had already proved that they weren’t a one-hit wonder. Eric Hosmer had made that same argument in, of all places, his Players’ Tribune piece that was published the morning before Game 4. It seemed a curious time to drop an article that ends with the words “we’re going to be sticking around for a while” hours before his team’s season could have ended.

But like just about everything with the Royals for the past 14 months or so, it worked out. The Royals stared death in the face and spat at it. Like the 2014 wild-card game, winning Game 4 of the 2015 ALDS gave the Royals just a 50-50 shot at advancing to the ALCS. A loss last night in Game 5 would have rendered their Game 4 comeback moot. But the Royals won. The dream continues.

Already, fans are debating which comeback was more impressive, or more important, or more unlikely. I don’t see how any game can compare to the wild-card game, not just because it ended a historic drought, but because it opened up the possibility of everything that’s happened since. But the arcs of the two comebacks are completely different. In the first, they had to rally from a deficit in three separate innings, and were three outs from elimination twice; in the second, they overcame a four-run deficit in the span of six batters — five singles and a double-play ball that wasn’t — took the lead, and never looked back. The win expectancy chart from the wild-card game looks like a roller coaster; the win expectancy chart from Monday’s game looks like the Schlitterbahn.

Both games stand as monuments to a team that refuses to die, and that can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds the same way it has overcome doubts from its fans, cynicism from the media, mockery of its manager and general manager, and every other obstacle in its path save for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in San Francisco. To debate which game matters more ignores the absurdity of arguing between two heretofore unprecedented comebacks in the span of barely a year by a team with its season on the line.

What I dreamed about most during the years in the desert was simply playing games that mattered, games that would lead to indelible moments that could be savored and shared with other Royals fans for years. And yet I am still astounded by just how vivid and pregnant with emotion those moments have been. There were so many from last season, ranging from the pivotal (Jarrod Dyson’s steal of third base in the ninth inning of the wild-card game) to the ridiculous (Nori Aoki’s catch against the wall with his eyes closed in Game 1 of the ALDS) to the hysterical (Billy Butler stealing a base against the Angels in Game 3) — and that’s before the Royals even got to the ALCS.

Having formed so many indelible memories last year, what I wanted from this postseason was a few more of those. I wasn’t optimistic that the Royals would survive the first round of the playoffs. The Astros are exactly what the Royals were last year: a young, hungry team driven to prove wrong the many doubters they’ve had over the years. And after the Royals beat the team with the best record in the AL in last year’s Division Series, it seemed somehow appropriate that the Astros might do the same thing to them this year. The circle of life would be complete.

They were six outs away from exactly that. And then the indelible memories kicked in. Alex Rios singled. Alcides Escobar singled. Ben Zobrist — who, like Rios, wasn’t on the team last year, but caught whatever Indomitable Virus has been circulating in the clubhouse — singled. Lorenzo Cain singled. Eric Hosmer singled. Kendrys Morales hit a ground ball that tipped off pitcher Tony Sipp’s glove, bounced toward a waiting Carlos Correa — and then took a weird hop.

And yet the memory that might persist from that inning the most, for me and for most Royals fans, came after the game was tied, when backup catcher Drew Butera, who in six years in the major leagues has never managed to hit .200 — read that again — battled and battled against Luke Gregerson’s Slider of Death, then finally drew a walk on pitch no. 10, the third-longest plate appearance of his career. Butera’s walk neither drove in a run nor led to him scoring; all it did was keep the line moving so that Alex Gordon could drive home the go-ahead run with a groundout. But nothing in that eighth inning better symbolized the giddy unlikelihood of the rally, the game, or this whole crazy season. Gregerson, who somehow was called on in the fateful eighth inning of Game 4 and for the A’s in last year’s wild-card game, will probably break out in hives for the rest of his life from just hearing a Lorde song.

And then came Game 5 last night, which would determine whether Game 4 would actually matter or just be a fond memory. With the season on the line, the Royals turned to Johnny Cueto, who hadn’t pitched like Johnny Cueto in two months. The Royals had traded three top left-handed pitching prospects for Cueto, who’s a free agent after the season, for precisely a game like this. Which is good, because since the middle of August, he hadn’t pitched well in all the games before this for Kansas City. In his last nine starts of the regular season, Cueto had a 6.49 ERA and allowed 77 hits in 51 innings. In Game 2 of the ALDS, he pitched six innings and allowed four runs, but the Royals came back from 4-1 down to win that one, too.

Last night, Cueto pitched like Johnny Cueto. He went eight innings. He allowed two baserunners: a second-inning infield single that easily could have been scored an error, followed on the next pitch — his only pitch out of the stretch all night! — by a Luis Valbuena home run that had all Royals fans fearing the worst, for both Cueto and the team. Cueto retired the next 19 batters in a row, becoming the first AL pitcher to retire his last 19 batters in a playoff contest since Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956.

If Cueto had pitched brilliantly for two months after the trade but simply had an off-day or two during the ALDS — basically, if the Royals had traded for David Price instead — their season might be over. Instead, Cueto followed the worst two-month stretch of his career with a near-perfect outing in the most important game he’s ever pitched.

If Game 4 was a demonstration of manager Ned Yost’s aura of calmness, which put his players in the frame of mind for a miracle comeback yet again, then Game 5 was a showcase for basically every player whom GM Dayton Moore has acquired since last season ended. The much-maligned Rios hit a two-run double that gave the Royals the lead. Zobrist made several strong defensive plays and drove in a key insurance run with a sacrifice fly in the fifth. And Morales capped the game and iced the series with a booming three-run homer off Dallas Keuchel in the eighth.

So the Royals move on to the ALCS to face the Blue Jays, who found some magic of their own last night, and at this point it’s simply impossible for Royals fans to pretend that they’re the lovable underdog anymore. What I’m about to say will piss off Royals fans and non-Royals fans alike, but it’s true: What the Royals have done over the last year-plus is almost Cardinals-esque. Like the Cardinals, they aren’t dead until you’ve driven the stake through their heart — before these Royals, the Cardinals were the kings of the unlikely comeback, like Game 5 of the NLDS in 2012 (coming back from 6-0 down to eliminate the Nationals) or even Game 5 of the NLCS in 2005 (the Albert Pujols–off–Brad Lidge game).

Like the Cardinals (who devastated the 2011 Brewers, 2012 Nationals, 2013 Pirates, and 2013 and 2014 Dodgers), the Royals have crushed the dreams of some long-suffering fan bases along the way. Last year the Royals’ wild-card comeback devastated an Oakland A’s team that had gone all in to win now. In the ALCS, they would sweep the Orioles, who had gone longer without a championship than the Royals have and hadn’t played in the ALCS since 1997. And now they’ve eliminated the Astros, who hadn’t been to the playoffs in almost a decade, were the worst team in baseball just two years ago, and will now spend the winter lamenting the game that got away instead of celebrating a season in which they arrived faster than anyone thought they would.

And like the Cardinals, the Royals are rapidly reaching the point where fans of other teams are frankly tired of their success and would like nothing more than for them to exit the playoff scene as expeditiously as possible.

I’m sympathetic to those fans’ position, except for the one key difference between the Royals and Cardinals: This iteration of the Royals hasn’t won a championship yet. Having come so close last year, it almost seems unfair that they’re just one series away from playing for a championship again — which makes the urgency to take advantage of this opportunity even more acute. This team won’t last forever; most of the roster’s core will be eligible for free agency by the end of the 2017 season. This could be their last, best chance.

Looming ahead is the possibility of a Cubs-Royals World Series, which would complete the team’s metamorphosis from Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. In the span of 12 months, the Royals could go from being the best Cinderella baseball story in years to the bullies standing in the way of the greatest story in the history of professional sports. It’s simply not possible to go from loved to hated more quickly.

But if it happens, Royals fans will happily play the part of the troll under the bridge if it means getting past the Blue Jays to move one step away from the championship that eluded us last year, and if it means creating more indelible memories that we weren’t sure we’d ever get to form or experience.

Every fan deserves to feel this way at some point in his or her life. I don’t know why this particular moment was reserved for fans of the Kansas City Royals. I don’t know how long it will last. I just know that I’m going to revel in it, as much as I can, for as long as I can. Because as Royals fans can attest, you never know when a generation-long drought might be on its way.

Filed Under: 2015 MLB Playoffs, MLB, MLB Playoffs, Kansas City Royals, Houston Astros, Oakland Athletics, MLB Wild-Card, ALDS, St. Louis Cardinals, Toronto Blue Jays, ALCS, 2015 World Series, Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales, Johnny Cueto, Ben Zobrist, Alex Rios, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez, MLB Stats, Sports Streaks, Baseball, Rany Jazayerli

Rany Jazayerli runs the Rany on the Royals website. He is one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus, and works as a dermatologist in suburban Chicago.

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