KANSAS CITY, Mo. — James Shields led thousands of fans in a celebratory chant. Lorenzo Cain pranced along the warning track, cradling his newborn son. Ned Yost finally allowed himself to smile.
After nearly three decades spent as one of the game’s biggest laughingstocks, the Kansas City Royals are once again baseball royalty. They are headed to their first World Series since 1985, finishing a four-game sweep in the AL Championship Series with a 2-1 victory Wednesday over the Baltimore Orioles.
In a perfect postseason, the Royals are intent to relish every moment.
“It’s hard to explain,” said Cain, whose clutch hits and dramatic catches earned him the series MVP award. “We’re clicking at the right moment right now.”
There’s no doubt about that.
Now, the Royals will carry an 11-game playoff win streak into the World Series, one shy of the major league record. That includes their first eight this season, something that had never been done in postseason history. Kansas City beat Oakland in a 12-inning wild-card thriller to start things off, then swept the Los Angeles Angels in the Divisional Series.
Kansas City will open its first World Series since 1985 on Tuesday against the winner of the NLCS between the Giants and Cardinals. San Francisco leads that series 2-1.
Coincidentally, it was the Cardinals who the Royals beat for their only World Series title.
“It’s been an amazing run,” Royals outfielder Alex Gordon said. “It’s nothing better than when you win. Today, same old story: good pitching, good defense and scratch out a win.”
Same old story for the Orioles, too: Solid pitching, good defense — and just not enough offense. They managed seven hits over the last two games against Kansas City, resulting in the first sweep for the franchise in 21 postseason series.
“You saw how close the games were,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s more a testament to what they did. They were playing great defensively.”
After holding the Orioles to three hits in Game 3, former LSU pitcher Jason Vargas and the Royals bullpen held them to four hits Wednesday night. Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis got the game to Greg Holland, who matched Dennis Eckersley’s record with his fourth save of the best-of-seven series.
Holland got J.J. Hardy to ground out to third base for the final out, and the Royals spilled onto the infield in a wild celebration. Fireworks shot over the crown-shaped scoreboard in center field, and a blue-clad sellout crowd that included Royals greats George Brett and Brett Saberhagen let out a roar while cars on nearby Interstate 70 honked their horns.
“That’s what you dream of as a kid,” Holland said. “Punch your ticket to the World Series, especially before your home crowd. These fans have been waiting a long time. They deserve it.”
The Orioles, meanwhile, will limp into the offseason after a 96-win season in which they overcame injuries and suspensions to several key players along the way.
“I think it’s not what we didn’t do. It’s more what they did,” said the Orioles’ Ryan Flaherty, whose home run represented their lone run. “We played good baseball.”
Making his first start in nearly two weeks, Vargas shut down the vaunted Orioles lineup in Game 4. The only damage he allowed came in the third inning, when Flaherty went deep.
By that point, the Royals had already manufactured a pair of runs.
Alcides Escobar singled off Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez to open the game, and Nori Aoki was drilled on the right knee a couple pitches later. Yost then opted to bunt with Cain, one of his hottest hitters, to advance both of the runners.
It was a questionable decision so early in the game. But like almost every unorthodox move that Yost has made, it worked out perfectly — for the first sacrifice of Cain’s career.
Eric Hosmer followed with a chopping groundball, and first baseman Steve Pearce went home with it. Escobar slid safely and the ball bounded away from catcher Caleb Joseph, allowing Aoki to follow his teammate home and giving the scrappy, small-ball Royals a 2-0 lead.
After that, it was up to their defense and bullpen.
Escobar turned a pair of double plays early in the game to help Vargas escape jams, and Gordon made a spectacular catch while crashing into the left-field wall to rob Hardy of extra bases leading off the fifth inning. In the sixth, second baseman Omar Infante was in perfect position to snag Nelson Cruz’s line drive and leave runners on the corners.
Herrera breezed through the seventh and Davis handled the eighth, just as they have all season, and Holland slammed the door on his fourth save of the series.
And set off of a raucous celebration that had been 29 years in the making.
In the midst of it all was Yost, the often-criticized Royals manager who has guided a collection of budding young stars to baseball’s grandest stage. In doing so, Yost became the first manager in major league history to win his first eight postseason games.
Now, just four more wins stand in the way of an improbable World Series championship.
“These guys are willing to play selfless baseball where all they’re concentrating on is winning the game,” Yost said. “Nobody is looking to be a hero right now, they’re just looking to win a ballgame, and they’ve done a tremendous job.”
The Royals’ win was the 14th decided by one run this postseason, topping the record set in 2011 and tied last year. That includes the last two games of the ALCS.
Kansas City did well this season against both potential World Series opponents.
The Royals swept a three-game series from the visiting Giants in August, beating Madison Bumgarner, Tim Hudson and Tim Lincecum. KC hasn’t played at San Francisco since 2005.
The Royals went 3-1 against St. Louis, sweeping two games at Busch Stadium and splitting back at Kauffman Stadium.
Royals: The Royals are in the World Series for the third time in franchise history. “It’s been incredible to watch,” said Saberhagen, one of the star pitchers on the ‘85 title team.
Orioles: It’s on to the offseason for a team that overcame a series of injuries (Matt Wieters, Manny Machado) and suspensions (Chris Davis) to reach the ALCS. Baltimore still has not made it back to the World Series since 1983.