Royals Streaking Toward World Series on the Back of Phenomenal Defense

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistOctober 15, 2014

AP Images

In the ninth inning of Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, Kansas City Royals right fielder Lorenzo Cain streaked across the line and ran down a foul ball. As he caught it, he collided gently with the wall and a group of Royals fans raised their arms in triumph.

As he jogged away, Cain shot them a look as if to say, "We've got this."

It wasn't the most spectacular catch of the night, let alone the postseason. Kansas City has made a habit of hauling in SportsCenter-worthy grabs.

That's one reason the Royals hold a commanding 3-0 lead over the Baltimore Orioles and stand one win away from their first trip to the World Series in nearly three decades.

You might say the Royals have caught all of the breaks. Really, though, they've caught all of the baseballs.

Third baseman Mike Moustakas was the star of the show in Game 3. In the fourth inning, he dove to his left to spear a line drive off the bat of the Orioles' Steve Pearce. That was just a warm-up.

Two innings later, Moustakas made an even more crowd-pleasing play—literally—tumbling feet-up over the railing and into the seats and managing to snare an Adam Jones pop-up.

"Did he make that catch?" TBS play-by-play man Ernie Johnson wondered as Moustakas emerged from a sea of supportive spectators. "He did!"

You could play that line over a loop of Royals highlights from the 2014 playoffs—and they're far from done.

In fact, after their 2-1 victory at raucous Kauffman Stadium pushed them to the brink of the Fall Classic, it looks like these Royals are just getting started.

Travis Heying/Associated Press

It's no surprise Kansas City is picking it clean in the postseason. Left fielder Alex Gordon has a trio of Gold Gloves in his trophy case. Add Cain, Nori Aoki and defensive-replacement extraordinaire Jarrod Dyson, and you've got the most well-covered outfield in recent memory.

As manager Ned Yost put it during a postgame interview Oct. 3, per MLB.com: "Those guys catch everything that's hit out there."

It's barely an exaggeration. Royals outfielders led all of baseball in both Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), per FanGraphs.  

Maybe you're not into newfangled defensive stats. All you really need is the eyeball test. These guys are good

"Let’s be clear what we’re talking about here," Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) wrote recently. "We’re not just talking about a good outfield, or a great outfield. We’re talking about what one might decide to argue is the greatest defensive outfield of all time."

High praise, certainly, but not hyperbole.

Their gloves aren't the only reason the Royals have ripped off seven straight wins to open this postseason and look increasingly like an unstoppable force.

Kansas City also boasts a shutdown bullpen that essentially shortens the game to six innings. The Royals run the bases like crazy. And they've gotten the big hits when needed.

KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 05:  Manager Ned Yost #3 the Kansas City Royals celebrates on the field after defeating the Los Angeles Angels 8-3 to sweep the series in Game Three of the American League Division Series at Kauffman Stadium on October 5, 2014 in
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Even their skipper, Yost, who has made some questionable calls, looks more like a savant with each big win.

But if the Royals do wind up wearing rings, they will have proved the well-worn adage more often used in basketball and football: Defense wins championships.

And make no mistake, this Royals club is primed for a championship run. It's been tagged with the "Cinderella" label, mostly due to the long playoff drought and its small-market status.

But if K.C. finishes off the Orioles (a safe bet), it'll be a fearsome matchup for whichever National League squad emerges. The St. Louis Cardinals and especially the San Francisco Giants look like teams of destiny in their own right, blessed with the same combination of skill and luck that have propelled the Royals.

It's possible, though, that no one can catch Kansas City. Or catch like it.

The biggest beneficiary is obviously the pitching staff, which can attack hitters, safe in the knowledge that eight men are ready and able to make a play. 

"These guys put on probably one of the best displays of defense in one series as I’ve seen," rotation anchor James Shields said after K.C.'s American League Division Series sweep of the Los Angeles Angels. "As a pitcher, that’s your best friend."

Ask the fans who cheered Cain's running grab or who hoisted Moustakas back onto the field, and they'd probably tell you the same thing.

Or maybe they'd just say, "We've got this."

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com except where noted.

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