KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In the corner of anotherKansas City Royals celebration, George Brett poured his drink on the team’s owner, David Glass. Brett did not care that Glass was already drenched and could barely open his eyes. Others started dousing Glass, too. Moments later, Manager Ned Yost wrapped Glass in a bear hug and held him close.
“I’m really proud of you,” Glass told Yost. “You hung in there and stayed the course.”
The previous 10 days had been a blur of tight games, close calls and messy celebrations. The Royals had clinched a playoff spot for the first time in 29 years.They had rallied to beat the Oakland Athletics in the American League wild-card game in 12 innings. They had started their A.L. division series against the Los Angeles Angels by winning two more dramatic, extra-inning games. But how powerful could their momentum be?
The Royals’ 8-3 win over the Angels on Sunday provided some clarity: They are legitimate contenders. With the victory, they swept the Angels, who had the most wins in the majors in the regular season, and advanced to face the Baltimore Orioles, another recently woebegone franchise, for the right to go to the World Series.
This was the Royals at their best. James Shields pitched six quality innings. Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer provided the offense. Lorenzo Cain made two spectacular catches in the outfield. And Kansas City’s bullpen ensured there would be no comeback.
Several Royals leaned against the top railing of their dugout as they watched Greg Holland, the closer, record the final out. For the third time in 10 days, champagne awaited them in the clubhouse. They mobbed Holland and danced in the rain as the song “All I Do Is Win” blasted throughout Kauffman Stadium. In the clubhouse, they formed a circle and popped their bottles all at once.
“Listen, we’re not at the end,” Glass said, having sought shelter in the corner. “We’re at the beginning of something that could be really good.”
Earlier Sunday, the Royals were just trying to stay focused.
“Until it’s over, it’s not over,” Yost said before the game.
A reporter noted later that the five previous teams to win three postseason games in extra innings eventually won the World Series.
“If that was true, we could quit today and go get ring sizes,” Yost said, adding: “We’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
In case Yost’s message was not clear, Mike Trout, the Angels’ star center fielder and the favorite to win the A.L.’s Most Valuable Player award, immediately humbled the Royals. He clobbered a Shields fastball to left-center for a solo home run in the first inning, the first postseason homer of his young career.
A hush fell over the crowd as Trout rounded the bases. The Royals, though, were not fazed.
In the bottom half of the inning, they blitzed C. J. Wilson, the Angels’ left-handed starter. Nori Aoki singled, Cain singled, and Billy Butler walked on four pitches. Then Gordon lifted a bases-clearing double over Trout’s head. Butler slid home just under the tag, pumped his fist and high-fived Aoki as if he wanted to dislodge his shoulder.
Wilson, in the third year of a five-year, $77.5 million contract, had struggled for most of the year, finishing the regular season with his highest earned run average (4.51) since 2008 and his lowest strikeout total (151) since 2009. In his second-to-last start of the season, he was pulled after allowing six runs (four earned) and recording only two outs.
This being an elimination game for the Angels, Manager Mike Scioscia was not taking any chances. He pulled Wilson after Gordon’s double. Wilson, again, had recorded only two outs. Los Angeles needed seven relievers to finish the game, and they did not fare much better.
Hosmer, facing Hector Santiago, lifted a two-run homer to left-center in the third inning. Fireworks popped. Some fans hugged one another; others pointed to the sky.
Late in the regular season, Yost reminded his players that it no longer mattered if they had individually had meager seasons. The playoffs were approaching, he said, and no one would remember. Hosmer apparently took the lesson to heart. In the Royals’ four postseason games, he has batted .500, with five runs scored and five batted in.
Other Royals got in on the act Sunday. Mike Moustakas had a solo home run. Aoki had three hits. Seven Royals scored a run. They just needed Shields to hold up.
The Angels pressured him, putting runners in scoring position in three consecutive innings. But Shields bore down each time. In the fourth, he got Josh Hamilton to ground into a forceout and struck out C. J. Cron on a changeup, exhaling as he left the mound. Hamilton, a pricey slugger, finished 0 for 13 in the series. Trout went 1 for 12.
In the fifth, the Angels had Albert Pujols and Howie Kendrick at the plate with two runners on, but Cain made two sparkling plays, the type that the Royals had come to expect. The first was a diving catch, his body fully extended, to rob Pujols. The second was a sliding grab to rob Kendrick. Cain clenched his fists and shouted as got up, and Shields raised his cap.
Shields lasted six innings, throwing 105 pitches and allowing six hits and two runs — the second on a Pujols home run. This was the kind of start the Royals expected when they traded for him two years ago. He lived up to his moniker, Big Game James.
The fans at Kauffman Stadium stood for many of the game’s tightest moments, even in a light rain that started around the fifth inning. They held signs referring to 1985, the last time the Royals had made the playoffs. They laughed when Butler, the stocky designated hitter, stole second base, and then they chanted his name. They took pictures, tried to savor the moment and stuck around for another celebration, the sweetest of them so far.
“Two more to go,” Cain said in the clubhouse, soaked just like everyone else.