KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Royals, that scrappy run-run-run team quickly endearing itself to baseball purists, is proving small ball works on the game's biggest stage.
After a wild win over Oakland in its first playoff game in nearly three decades, the Royals â€” who finished last by a wide margin in home runs this season â€” are just one win away from sweeping the mighty, power-hitting Los Angeles Angels as their best-of-five Divisional Series shifts to Kansas City on Sunday.
Led by a manager who grew up in the National League, where bunting and stolen bases often win the day, the Royals are taking a decidedly old-school approach to the postseason.
“I think that here, especially in the past, everybody got into hitting two- and three-run homers and that kind of abandoned bunting, stealing and playing the game aggressively in that fashion,” said Ned Yost, who learned his craft from longtime Braves manager Bobby Cox.
“Do we have power? Yeah, we have some guys that can hit the ball out,” Yost said. “But we don't have any 25, 30, 35-home run hitters on our team. So we do other things.”
The Royals led the majors with 153 stolen bases this season, and were such a threat on the base paths that Oakland manager Bob Melvin crafted his lineup to deal with their speed.
It didn't do a whole lot of good.
The Royals wound up swiping seven bases in last Tuesday's wild-card game, matching the record for a postseason game shared by the 1907 Cubs and 1975 Reds. And all those stolen bases proved invaluable, too, in what resulted in a 9-8, 12-inning victory.
“That's one of their strengths,” Melvin said. “It affected us, no doubt about it.”
It's not lost on Angels manager Mike Scioscia, either.
“It's the way their team is built,” he said. “One of their best tools is their ability to create on the base paths, and they do it as well as anybody I've seen. It's reminiscent of the Cardinals back in '85 â€” maybe not quite to that extent, but that's how they pressure teams.”
By the way, those '85 Cardinals? They lost to the Royals in the World Series.
All of this makes sense, too. The number of homer runs hits this year fell by nearly 500 to 4,186, according to STATS, and the number of runs scored also dropped by about 500. So many teams have had to get creative scoring runs, and that's resulted in a return to small ball.
The Royals, who hit 95 homers this season, aren't the only playoff that team manufactures runs. St. Louis was next-to-last in the majors with 105 home runs.
The Cardinals have been winning a different way. They eschew the Royals' daring-do on the base paths for stringing together hits, laying down a well-time sacrifice bunt â€” they had 64 sacrifice hits this season, fourth-most in the majors â€” and scratching out runs with basic fundamentals whenever they manage to get someone to third base.
If the Royals and Cardinals fall on one end of the spectrum, the Orioles, Angels and Tigers fall on the other end. They are built like many of the successful teams of the 1990s, hammering away with home runs. Baltimore led the league this season with 211 of them, and Los Angeles and Detroit tied for seventh-most with 155 homers.
So far, small ball appears to be winning out.
The Cardinals won their NL Divisional Series opener against the Dodgers, and the Royals have squeezed out a pair of wins to put the Angels on the brink of elimination.
Along the way, Angels power-hitters Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton are a combined 1 for 25. And the result of that abrupt power-outage? Three runs in two games.
“There are some guys that right now aren't attacking the ball where they can for various reasons,” Scioscia said. “We haven't done a lot of the things we've done during the season, and we put a lot of pressure on our pitching staff.”
Of course, the Royals rarely have to worry about those kinds of struggles.
“They have some things in their game that does not go into a slump,” Scioscia said. “The way you can run the bases does not go into a slump. The way you can put the ball in play, that's usually not going to get into a slump. Our club's really on that batter's box offensive side right now, and we need to start squaring some balls up better.”