It was a familiar scene on Wednesday: Once more, a team in ugly orange uniforms had come to the K for a series-deciding finale, and put up an early lead. But this time, the game, like Johnny Cueto, was nearly perfect. The Royals grounded the Houston Astros to claim their rightful place as hosts of the American League Championship Series, which starts tonight. The specter of last year’s heartbreak lingers, but its exorcism continues.
Yet most of all, best of all, this is fun again.
Think about it. Monday, about 3 p.m., Central Daylight Time: how’d you feel? First of all, it was a Monday, and the Royals, down four in the bottom of the seventh, were given about a one percent chance of surviving elimination—technically, 1.6, according to the stat site FanGraphs. The requiem had begun on social media, and we fans were assessing our contingency plans. What’re we gonna do now? Watch the Chiefs?
And let’s be honest—the whole series was missing a certain spark. After all, last year’s team shockingly accomplished what this year’s team was now supposed to do. From their hot start, the 2015 Royals more or less controlled their destiny, and when they finally stumbled a bit to their first division title in 30 years, it felt like only a brief relief, the right-field flag-raising a premature formality. The once-in-a-generation moment was still just a first step.
If the goal all year has been to surpass last year’s nearly perfect Cinderella story, then there’s only one way for this to end well. And that small adjustment from anticipation to expectation can really bum you out.
And so K.C. entered the postseason as the A.L.’s reigning champ, best team, and, well, least buzz-worthy. All the trendy storylines centered on the powerful Toronto Blue Jays, or the surprising Texas Rangers, or those scrappy young Astros—this year’s version of the Royals.
Last year, it felt like the Royals could win, or not win, but they couldn't lose. Not so when the playoffs started this weekend; every game felt tense—if not for the players, at least for us fans. Instead of living for the moment, it was just about staying alive.
But then, Monday afternoon, the Royals flat-lined, and something wonderful happened, though we may not have realized it at the time: expectations disappeared. And having already lost, there was, for the first time this year, nothing to lose.
Then beneath the roar of a jubilant Houston crowd, came a faint pulse, a hopeful heartbeat. Single… Single… Single… RBI single… RBI single… RBI error! RBI groundout! Keep the line moving! And with a home run for good measure, we had a comeback more improbable and more impressive than last year’s Wild Card win. As sportswriter Steve Rushin tweeted minutes after, “The Royals…are this year’s Royals.”
And now, here we are, with a shot to get back to the World Series, a pair of aces in our hand. The expectations are still there. The potential for disappointment still looms. But as we—the Royals and their fans—get set to defend our American League title against foreign invaders (you know, from Canada), we do so now with both the confidence befitting the league’s best team, and that familiar rush: Hey, we’ve been to the brink. We made it back.
And the beat goes on.
KCUR contributor Victor Wishna is a regular sports commentator for Up To Date.