Wednesday, March 30, 2011

It Couldn't Have Been a Dream

"I'm going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come. I'm going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come. They got a crazy way of loving there and I'm gonna get me some."

A little over a month ago I decided to make sure that every morning I would wake up to "Kansas City Here I come," after it was the song that my Ipod randomly chose to play on September 28th. Of course by now September 28th has become a day that no Royals fan will soon forget.

It was the last game of the season and the Royals and Twins found themselves tied at the top of the AL Central standings with 87 wins. Coincidentally that night they would meet to determine the true champion. The Royals who had shocked the world thus far in 2011, elected to go with veteran Jeff Francis while the Twins countered with Nick Blackburn. Francis, finally fully recovered from his injury woes had been spectacular for the Royals all season long. He finished the year with a 14-8 record with a 3.71 era.

Francis saved his best for the end and he dazzled throughout the contest. He entered the bottom of the 7th with a 1-1 tie after Alex Gordon drove in Lorenzo Cain in the top half of the inning. Cain set up the play after he beat out a dribbler down the third base line and then stole second with Mike Aviles batting. Aviles grounded out to second allowing Cain to get to third and then Gordon did his job by hitting a deep fly to right to get Cain home.

Francis ran into a bit of trouble in the 7th and when runners reached the corners and just one out had been recorded, the Royals elected to make a call to what had become the best bullpen in the American League. Out from the pen emerged diminutive lefty Tim Collins. Sure Collins boasted an era of 1.93 and had baffled hitters all season long, but I couldn't help but squirm in my seat as former MVP Joe Mauer stepped to the plate.

Collins quickly ran the count to 0-2 with two strategically placed fastballs, but Mauer made Collins work for the knockout blow. It ended up being an excruciating eleven pitch at bat and on the final pitch Mauer hit a line drive toward left. But Escobar made a diving catch to his left and then fired a bullet across the diamond to double off the runner at first. Crisis adverted and the score remained 1-1 entering the final two innings. Escobar would later be awarded for defensive heroics with a Gold Glove at season's end.

The Royals went down in order for three consecutive innings after that and with strong performances by Jeremy Jeffress, Aaron Crow, and Robinson Tejeda the game was still tied entering the top eleventh when Magic happened. Mike Moustakas was at the plate and former Royal Dusty Hughes was on the mound. Moustakas didn't take long. On the first pitch of the at bat Hughes threw an 88 mph fastball belt high and Moustakas turned on it with a rage. The ball left the stadium as quick as the ball came to the plate and Moustakas rounded the bases giving the Royals their first lead of the game.

Soria did what Soria always does and pitched a one-two-three ninth that concluded with a Bugs Bunny curve freezing Delmon Young for strike three. The celebration was on and the Royals popped the Champaign for the first time in over twenty-six years.

The Royals played the Oakland A's in the first round of Major League playoffs and runs were hard to come by for the Royals in the first couple of contests. Kansas City dropped the first two by a combined 8 runs, and the team's fans started to dream about future success. Mike Montgomery got the nod in game three and fans talked about how beneficial the playoff experience would be for his young career.

For the season Montgomery had posted an era of 3.89 and compiled a 7-5 record. He had shown flashes of brilliance, but hadn't been as consistent as Francis and fellow rookie Danny Duffy had been. But on that October night Montgomery was dominate. When all was said and done Monty had pitched 8 innings not allowing a run while striking out 10 Athletics.

The Royals won the contest 3-0 thanks to a bases clearing double from Butler in the sixth and once again the Royals had hope and their fans had hope for 2011. Hochevar got the win in game four and then Danny Duffy battled for six innings in game five and left the game with the Royals tied at 3. The bullpen stifled A's hitters and in the top of the ninth Jarrod Dyson pinch ran for Brayan Pena and stole second. Everyone in the stadium knew it was coming yet the A's were powerless to stop it.

On the very next pitch Alcides Escobar showed off the .290 line drive stroke that Royals fans had grown so fond of. Dyson scored with ease and the Royals were three outs away from heading the the ALCS. Of course Soria did his job and the bottles of champaign flowed freely again.

The Royals got into another hole in the ALCS and found themselves down 3-1, entering game 5. Hochevar found himself on the hill for the most critical game in his career. Many mocked the Royals when they named Hochevar the Opening Day starter but the organization was steadfast in their belief that Hoch had ace stuff. Hochevar pitched okay for the beginning part of the season and on June 21 he sported a 4.12 era.

The number was nothing to be ashamed of, but Hochevar wasn't happy with the results. Time and time again he would have a quality start, but would fall to another team's ace. But on June 21st Hochevar's mentality finally shifted to intense.

The bases were loaded in the top of the fourth with no outs and it looked as if the wheels might fall off once again for Hoch. Luke had progressed so much all season long but he had yet to turn the corner in situations such as this. Hochevar threw three straight pitches that could have been called balls or strikes. The Umpire called them balls. Hochevar was clearly frazzled, but instead of unraveling as he had so many times in his young career. Hochevar threw three straight strikes and forced the next hitter to ground into a double play. From that point on he would never look back. Hochevar's era dropped all the way to 3.44 by the end of the season and he finished with 15 wins.

Hochevar's opponent for game 5 would be Jon Lester in what could have been the last game at the K for the season. Hochevar who had started the season on the hill at the K, refused to be the reason for the end. Hochevar carved up Boston's hitters all night long. Some high heat to K Dustin Pedroia. A backdoor slider to get Adrian Gonzalez looking. A heavy sinker to make the fleet footed Carl Crawford ground into a double play. By the end of the night the scoreboard showed 6-1 in favor of the Boys in Blue.

Three nights later the voice of Denny Matthews rang out across the Midwest from handhelds, car radios, and stereos:

"Crow leans in for the sign and the pitch. Flyball to right center. Dyson circles under it! And for the first time in twenty-six years the Royals will return to the World Series! I can't believe it! The Kansas City Royals are the champions of the American League!"

I couldn't believe it either. I was ecstatic and I was optimistic for the Royals chances against the Phillies in the World Series. All season long the Phillies starting staff had broke records for a rotation. They had rolled through the National League playoffs and their starting staff had yielded just 98 runs in 63 innings in the NLDS and NLCS. But the Royals? They were a team of destiny.

The Royals took game 1. But then the Phillies rolled KC in games 2 and 3. Here we go again I thought, digging ourselves a hole. No way we get out of it against the hottest staff in postseason history. But then the incredible happened.

Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas caught fire. Both of them. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was unlike anything the baseball world had ever seen before. It was so symbolic to the Royals entire season. Dayton Moore's Process called for the Royals to contend in 2013, but here we were in 2011 and we were on the verge of winning the whole damn thing.

It was as if the past and future had fused into one. Gordon who once had been labeled as the Messiah for baseball in Kansas City. Moustakas regarded as the first of the new wave of prospects that would bring Kansas City a winner. Both dominating. Both with one common goal. It was beautiful. It was indescribable.

In game four Gordon went 3-5 with a home run and 4 rbi, while Moustakas pitched in a pair of doubles and 2 rbi. In game five Moustakas belted a pair into the upper deck, while Gordon went 2 for 2 with 3 walks. Finally in game six it got really crazy.

Gordon started things off in the top of the first when he hit a solo shot to give the Royals a 1-0 lead. Not to be outdone, Moustakas homered in the second to push the Royals advantage to 2-0. In the fifth Gordon doubled and then Butler singled followed by a Ka'aihue walk. Moustakas stepped in with the bases loaded and hit a double off the opposite field wall scoring three.

When the bottom of the 9th rolled around the Royals led the game 9-4 while Gordon and Moustakas had accounted for 8 of the RBIs. The Royals, not wanting to mess around, brought in Soria one more time. Of course Soria did what he always did. He pitched a one-two-three ninth. Just like that, the Royals were the Champions of baseball.

I rubbed the sand out of my eyes. I wasn't dreaming. I looked around my room; on one wall I had a poster commemorating the 2011 Royals. The poster was filled of facing that didn't even need a razor yet. I thought about all the success that this team could have. The greatness it could achieve. The future was limitless.

I got up from my bed and walked over to another wall. I stared at a photo taken from a Plaza balcony during the World Series parade. Blue and white confetti filled the air. On a royal blue convertible sat 2011 Executive of the Year Dayton Moore alongside 2011 Manager of the Year Ned Yost. The organization had come so far, yet it was just the beginning and the process would never be complete.

In the car ahead of them sat the 2011 Comeback Player of the Year and the 2011 Rookie of the Year. The Messiah from the past and the Shephard of the future. Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas. It was so fitting. The two men that Kansas Citians had counted on finally brought a Championship back to Kansas City. They couldn't have done it alone.

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