Royals' Bold Arrival on MLB Contender Scene Is Big Wrench in 2014 Races

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Royals' Bold Arrival on MLB Contender Scene Is Big Wrench in 2014 Races
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The Kansas City Royals haven't played October baseball since 1985, when they won the World Series.

The fact that this team pulled into first place all by itself in the American League Central with a dramatic 3-2 win over the Oakland Athletics on Monday night is kind of a big deal. And, frankly, an unexpected one.

So, too, was the club's Monday acquisition of outfielder/designated hitter Josh Willingham from the Minnesota Twins. That seems like a minor move on the surface, but it's one that carries some deeper meaning for a franchise that has floundered for much of the past three decades.

Remember, this is the Royals we're talking about, an organization whose postseason drought dates back nearly 30 years and is the longest active October-less stretch in the majors.

So Monday's victory deserved a little something extra:

Indeed, the win was especially big because the Royals took down the A's, owners of the best record in baseball, as well as breakout right-hander Sonny Gray. But also because Kansas City (64-53) took over first from the Detroit Tigers (63-54) with their eighth straight win and 16th in their last 19.

The change at the top of the Central has happened rapidly, too, as the Tigers lost their third in a row and five of their past six contests to fall out of the top spot for the first time since June 19. Detroit has now gone 10-15 since the All-Star break.

Their slump has a lot to do with injuries (Anibal Sanchez, Joakim Soria), ineffectiveness (Justin Verlander) or both.

There's still much more talent and experience on Detroit's roster than there is on Kansas City's—to claim otherwise is simply admitting to being a Royals fan—but clearly the Tigers need to be on notice now.

They have been the class of the division in recent years, and everyone expected that to continue this season, even more so after the blockbuster trade-deadline deal to land ace left-hander David Price fewer than two weeks ago.

And it's not as if the Tigers are going to curl up into a ball and give up now that they've surrendered first place. Remember, they relinquished that position to the Royals, who won 10 straight in mid-June. But the Royals' "reign" then lasted for all of 72 hours.

What's gone right for the Royals in this latest hot stretch? Well, for one thing they're finally getting some big games from their better bats, like Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Salvador Perez, as well as their role players like Norichika Aoki, Omar Infante and Jarrod Dyson.

The team also features a rotation that sends a capable or better starter to the mound each game in James Shields (3.25 ERA), Danny Duffy (2.57), Yordano Ventura (3.45), Jason Vargas (3.48) and Jeremy Guthrie (4.35).

Jason O. Watson/Getty Images
Closer Greg Holland (right) brings together one of the best bullpens in baseball.

Most of all, the Royals have a dynamic bullpen that ranks among the best in ERA (seventh at 3.18), thanks largely to the late-inning trio of hard-throwing setup men Kelvin Herrera (1.62 ERA) and Wade Davis (0.88 ERA, 13.7 K/9) and shutdown closer Greg Holland (1.74 ERA, 13.3 K/9, AL-best 35 SV).

That was the formula Monday, as Ventura threw six solid innings, allowing just the two runs, before turning things over to Herrera and Davis, both of whom worked perfect frames with two strikeouts apiece. Holland then worked around a leadoff single to close out the statement game.

"They have a great staff, top to bottom," said A's outfielder Josh Reddick, per Jane Lee of MLB.com. "I don't even know if they have a guy that throws under 95 [mph], so that doesn't make it real easy. It's not just their fastballs. Their secondary stuff sets up their fastballs. They've done a great job doing what they've done." 

As unlikely as it looked even 10 days ago, the Royals just might make the Tigers work for a shot at their fourth straight division crown.

That's a good thing. Baseball could use a little underdog, a little oh-no-they-didn't, and the Royals are providing as much. Look no further than Monday's waiver trade for Willingham.

"We felt the time was right to be aggressive and add another bat," general manager Dayton Moore told MLB.com's Dick Kaegel.

Is Willingham the biggest name out there? No. But can a guy who has 12 homers in 68 games and whose .345 OBP is now the second best on the Royals (to Alex Gordon's .356) be a productive piece down the stretch? Why not?

After all, the Royals offense has been one of the team's weaknesses, ranking tied for 16th in runs scored, 21st in OPS and dead last in home runs. Plus, Moore needed to do something in light of the recent hand injury to Eric Hosmer, which could keep him out until September.

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"If we find players that make sense, [Royals owner] Mr. [David] Glass has always been willing to add a piece that we think can help us win," Moore said via Kaegel. "And we think that Josh is the right presence in our clubhouse and in our lineup right now for what our team needs."

If nothing else, the Willingham deal proves that an ownership that has often been criticized and mocked for all the losing is actually involved and invested in the product on the field. Willingham doesn't solve all of the Royals' problems, but he could be a symbol of a hope that hasn't existed in Kansas City since the 1980s—and a symbol of a possibility that has seemed an impossibility since 1985, in particular.

No, the Royals might not win the World Series this year for the first time since that season. Perspective points out that the MLB season isn't even through mid-August yet, so any celebration over being in first place and in a playoff position this early shows just how eager Kansas City, both the town and its fans, are for a return to relevance.

After remaining in the playoff picture until late September last year in what wound up being Kansas City's first non-losing season since 2003, however, the ultimate goal for the Royals isn't relevance. It's October. Monday night's win made that month seem a little more possible.

 

Statistics are accurate through Aug. 11 and come from MLB.comBaseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com, except where otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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