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Royals raise their World Series flag, then start chasing another one

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Hosmer, Royals looking to keep same energy in 2016 (0:42)

Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer explains his team's desire to carry over the same level of energy from the 2015 season for this year as it looks to defend its World Series title. (0:42)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It was the night they raised their favorite new flag, the one that says "2015 World Series champions." And no one had to explain to the Kansas City Royals that these are the kind of nights you wait a lifetime for.

So as the flag flapped, as the highlight reel rolled, as 40,030 customers basked in the moment Sunday evening, Mike Moustakas turned to his longtime friend and teammate, Eric Hosmer, and tried to grasp the full meaning of the journey that led to this night.

"Could we have pictured this in 2008?" Moustakas asked, letting his mind wander back to the first year that he and Hosmer played together in the minor leagues, two No. 1 picks who were brought to Kansas City to become the future of this then-downtrodden franchise.

"I just gave him kind of a chuckle," Hosmer recalled after a 4-3 Opening Day win over the New York Mets that came right out of 2015's greatest hits. "I mean, you just kind of look around and shake your head. This is definitely what you shoot for."

Yes, these are the nights that dreams are made of, all right. But here's all you really need to know about the meaning of this night for the reigning champions of baseball:

Raising that flag was not what this magical evening was all about. Not for this group. It was about chasing another flag. That's what really got the Royals' hearts to pounding.

"Yeah, it was nice," their manager, Ned Yost, found himself saying about all the pregame hoopla. "But we wanted to play the game."

Right. Exactly. This may be a team that loves to celebrate. But it lives to play. And now it gets to play another season in a quest to do things that almost no one else has done in this era.

What are the Royals chasing here? They are trying to get back to a third straight World Series. They are trying to win a second in a row. And we should all be wishing them luck, because accomplishing those exalted feats has never been harder.

We're now more than two decades into the age of wild cards and four-week treks through the postseason jungle. And in all that time, exactly one team has done those things. That was the 1998-2001 New York Yankees, a team that played in four straight World Series and won three of them in succession.

Think of all the other aspiring mini-dynasties that thought they had a shot to live out those dreams. The Braves. The Cardinals. The Phillies. The Giants. The Red Sox. They all got back to October multiple times. But then they learned the coldest truth that baseball teaches.

No matter how good you think you are, no matter how tough or how strong or how talented, reality has a way of setting in. A ball bounces this way when it needs to bounce that way. A two-strike slider hangs when it's supposed to dive. An Achilles pops or an elbow aches. And everything changes.

So even as you watched the Royals on this night, watched them manufacture four runs without a single extra-base hit, watched them make plays the Mets didn't make, watched their closer punch out two of the Mets' biggest stars in the ninth with the tying and winning runs on, watched them "just doing what they do," as Yost so eloquently put it, you had to wonder:

What lies ahead? What twists? What turns? What injuries? What challenges? Will they be deep enough, healthy enough, lucky enough to survive it all and wind up atop the same mountain they climbed last year?

We don't know those things yet. They don't know those things yet. But they're convinced they're ready. And they're convinced they have that special quality that only the great teams have. Let's hope so. Because whatever it is, they'll need it. All of it.

"I think it's the character of this club, and the group of individuals that are in here, to always be hungry," pitcher Chris Young said. "I mean, this group wants to be the best regardless of the results. So there's a pride there. And I don't think you'll necessarily have a letdown when it's your character, your makeup. I really think that's the best way to put it.

"I really don't think anybody in here is any hungrier, or less hungry, than we were last year," Young said. "We all just want to live up to our potential, whatever that is."

When you watch them, when you're around them, it's hard not to buy into that. There genuinely is a vibe around this team that separates these guys from many of the teams they'll meet along the highway over the next six or seven months.

But we've thought that about other teams that came before them, too. So their challenge, in truth, isn't to do what they did last year. It's to find a whole new way to get to the same place -- because the adventures ahead will test them, and force them to find another way to the top.

"We know there will be something that comes out at some point during the season," Hosmer said. "You learn from the positives and you learn from the negatives throughout the course of the year. I think last year, the way we ended in [a sub-.500] September and heading into that first series against Houston, we got down, 2 [games] to 1, real quick. And that was kind of a message that hey, we've got to come with that same energy we came with last year, because these teams are gunning for us. These teams are coming with twice that energy.

"So there are just little things, throughout the course of a season, that kind of send that message throughout the group, that it's time to pick it up," Hosmer went on, with a wisdom you don't often run across, even in guys who play twice as long as he has played. "And there will definitely be something like that that comes along this year. It's 162 games. It's hard to stay locked in. It's hard to always come in with that same mentality. But the game always finds a way of bringing it out in you, and teaching you in some way."

They have many of the same players back to try to do this again. They have a bullpen that's eminently capable of making them just as untouchable in the late innings this year as they've been the previous two (when they went 145-4 when leading after seven). They think their rotation is actually better than the rotations of 2014 and 2015. And they will keep on catching baseballs that other teams don't catch.

But here's the deal: It will take more than that. And no one knows that better than their manager, a man who was a coach on many of those Braves teams that got back to October year after year after year but only rode the parade floats once.

"You know what?" Yost observed. "Those years [in Atlanta], what always struck me when we started spring training, it was always, 'OK, let's get the season going and let's get it over with so we can start the playoffs.' And it was that confidence that you had as a group, knowing you were a playoff-caliber team. There was no guessing. You knew it. You knew it in your heart.

"And that's the same mentality that we have here. These guys know who they are. They know what they can accomplish. And they have the experience and the talent to do it. Now we just have to get through the season."

Ah, but you can't get through the marathon until you run those first steps. And so, on a perfect April evening, the 2016 Kansas City Royals basked in the memories of what they've already done, then took those first steps toward doing it again. Just six months and 26 grueling miles to go. May the force be with them. They'll need it.