KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Don't dare tell the Kansas City Royals that it's been a noble effort and the 2014 season has been a raging success regardless of what happens from here. They've spent too much time re-establishing a baseball tradition in their city and turning October upside down to settle for anything less than a world championship.
They'll have several days to sit around and watch San Francisco and St. Louis slug it out while waiting for Game 1 of the World Series at Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday, and history says the lag time isn't necessarily a good thing. The sense of continuity and flow the Royals have developed -- call it karma, "momentum" or whatever you prefer -- will have to endure while they spend time with their families, or receive treatment in the trainer's room, or pick up bar tabs as a goodwill gesture to grateful fans at local taverns.
But the Kansas City players have pledged to give it their best, and the grand bargain they've struck with the franchise faithful is enough to give anyone with a royal blue hoodie or an Eric Hosmer replica jersey a nice, warm feeling all over.
After the Royals beat the Baltimore Orioles 2-1 Wednesday to complete a four-game sweep in the American League Championship Series, general manager Dayton Moore stood in the first-base dugout and tried to put the achievement in perspective. But every time Moore began a sentence, someone dropped by to offer congratulations and interrupt his train of thought. First Moore shared a hug and an emotional exchange with Art Stewart, the legendary and beloved Royals scout. Then Hosmer's father came down the stairs and hugged him, as part of a veritable assembly line of well-wishers.
Moore is fine with the idea of his team taking a couple of days to relax and unwind. He's also comfortable with the burden of expectations the Royals will carry over the next two weeks, and the notion that a fairy-tale season is incomplete without a happy ending.
"We all have a very small window of opportunity," Moore said, "and you want take advantage of it. It's an unbelievable accomplishment to get where we are, and we want to enjoy this. But our guys will be ready to compete."
In this most unpredictable of seasons, it's hard to lay out a World Series road map with anything approaching certainty. The Oakland A's, those midseason darlings, barely made it to the postseason before getting bounced. And the Washington Nationals, Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers, big payroll teams with oppressive expectations, all failed to advance beyond the division series.
The Royals, meanwhile, have emerged as October's broom-wielding juggernaut. With eight straight playoff victories over the A's, the Los Angeles Angels and the Orioles, they've surpassed the previous mark of seven straight wins to begin a postseason that they shared with the 1976 "Big Red Machine" Cincinnati Reds and the 2007 Colorado Rockies.
The Royals are just trying to win a World Series -- not revolutionize the game -- but they've cut a swath through October with the same formula that Moore implemented when he took over for Allard Baird as Kansas City GM in 2006. It revolves around starting pitchers with fastball command, power arms in the bullpen, athletic defenders and an opportunistic offense. Throw in a long-term bond forged by a largely homegrown roster, and you have a recipe for something special.
The advantage is particularly acute at Kauffman Stadium, where the Royals have a knack for sapping an opposing team's will by stealing one hit after another. Mike Moustakas toppled over a dugout railing and made the mother of all highlight film plays in Game 3 of the ALCS, and Alex Gordon chased down a fly ball at the track and struck the wall with such force that it might have to be checked for structural damage. Lorenzo Cain's sojourns into the outfield gap are so effortless and graceful, the Royals simply take them for granted now. And second baseman Omar Infante, who's had his good days and bad days at age 32, suddenly is playing with a greater spring in his step.
The Royals routinely speak of the pride they take in their defense, but that's understating their commitment. They take it as a personal affront when a ball finds an empty patch of grass.
"We knew we had a good defensive team going into the year, but in the last two weeks they've raised it to another level," Kansas City assistant GM J.J. Picollo said. "They say hitting is contagious, but in this case I think the defense became contagious. It was just one guy outdoing the other. We have plus range at every position. And we have guys with young legs, and we thought that would make a difference late in the year. We've seen that even more in the playoffs than we did in September."
The glovework is even more lethal when combined with pitchers who can execute game plans. Kansas City's relievers are putting a mark on this postseason that brings to mind the performance of Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton -- Cincinnati's Nasty Boys -- in the fall of 1990. With Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland anchoring the back end, Kansas City's pen allowed two earned runs in 16 innings in the ALCS for an ERA of 1.13. As the Elias Sports Bureau points out, this year's ALCS was the first postseason series in history in which no starting pitcher for either team threw at least six complete innings. So the bullpens ruled.
Beyond the pitching and defense, the Royals have played with incredible poise for a team with so little postseason experience. Manager Ned Yost traces the demarcation line to the eighth inning of the wild-card play-in game, when the Royals rallied from a 7-3 deficit against Jon Lester to eliminate the A's 9-8 in 11 innings. From that magical evening, the demeanor and the body language of Moustakas and Hosmer, Cain and the other Kansas City players seemed to change.
"It's been a world of difference from that point on," Yost said. "Something clicked, and from that moment on, these guys were immune from any type of pressure or any situation. In the middle of the wild-card game -- bam -- they totally believed in each other and their ability to win a championship. That's a real ingredient you have to have. You have to walk through that door knowing you're gonna win that game that day, and these guys have it. They're not young anymore."
Yost's contribution to the cause can't be overlooked. He's an Internet piñata for his infatuation with bunting, his rigid approach to bullpen roles during the season, his lack of natural schmoozability with the media and his loyalty to certain players amid pressure to bail on them. But the Buck Showalter-Yost managerial mismatch that lots of people envisioned in the ALCS never materialized. And in the end it was Yost seizing the initiative, signaling for Herrera in the sixth inning of the series finale.
As the climactic top of the ninth inning unfolded, Yost felt his leg trembling in the dugout, but he made a major effort to conceal his nerves. When Holland retired J.J. Hardy on the game-ending groundout, Yost jumped in the air in celebration. Then he hugged hitting coach Dale Sveum, and they felt the love from the stands wash over them.
Yost continued to bask in the celebration during a postgame media scrum, except when a reporter asked if he felt a sense of personal "validation" in taking the Royals to their first World Series since 1985. The man that Kansas City pitcher Yordano Ventura refers to as "Nedyo" simply doesn't think that way.
"I don't need validation, man," Yost said. "People ask me about that. I don't need it. I'm real comfortable with myself. I get criticized all the time. 'I'm the dumbest manager in baseball.' But I've got really smart coaches. I don't need validation, because I know who I am and I know what I'm about. I just wanted this for our fans, and I wanted it for our players."
After the love-fest in the infield, the Royals' team celebration shifted to the clubhouse, with the inevitable mix of plastic and goggles and carbonated beverages galore. Outfielder Jarrod Dyson, never short on words, held a bottle of Ace of Spades champagne in his right hand and reveled in the exhilaration of the moment.
The conversation inevitably shifted to the scenario that awaits. Now that the Royals have won their first pennant in 29 years, Dyson was asked, does this season still have an aura of unfinished business to it?
Is there any doubt?
"We're here," Dyson said. "We might as well bring it back home."