It’s time for the next installment of our countdown of the 50 greatest moments in Royals history. If you missed them or just want a recap, you can find numbers 41-50 here and 31-40 here. Something of a spoiler alert: pretty much everything after this point involves the playoffs, or getting to them.
30. September 28, 1984: Back to the postseason
After losing the 1980 World Series and getting swept in the 1981 Division Series fiasco brought on by that summer’s strike, the Royals missed the playoffs for two straight years. And in mid-July 1984, it looked like that streak would continue. The Royals went into the All-Star Break just four games out of first despite a 39-43 record. Then they lost eight of nine to drop eight games back with 71 games left. Luckily, no one else in the AL West was very good, either. Kansas City won 44 of those last 71 games (a 100-win pace) to capture the division title by three games over Minnesota, despite being outscored for the season. The clincher came on September 28 in Oakland. Holding a two-game advantage over the Twins with three games left, the Royals took the field knowing the Twins were beating Cleveland 10-0. Kansas City overcame an early 1-0 deficit to take a 6-2 lead, with Frank White hitting solo home run and two-run triple and George Brett adding a solo home run and sacrifice fly. Meanwhile, the Indians were chipping away at that 10-run deficit, scoring seven runs in the sixth inning to make their score 10-9. Cleveland would score one more run to tie the game, then one more in the ninth for the walk-off win. Back in Oakland, Dan Quisenberry took over for Charlie Leibrandt to start the seventh inning. Quiz allowed a two-run home run to Rickey Henderson and a solo home run to Dwayne Murphy in the eighth. But the veteran closer retired six of the last seven men he faced, working around a one-out single in the ninth. When Henderson flied out to center field, the Royals were Western Division champions.
29. October 5, 1985: Walk-off Win Puts Royals in Playoffs
Royals fans might have felt like 1985 was a bit of déjà vu, given how closely it followed 1984’s script. Again the Royals started slowly, and in mid-July found themselves 7.5 games out of first. A seven-game winning streak in late July got them back in the race, but they didn’t reach first place until September 6. Two weeks later, they were back in second. They entered the final week of the season one game behind California, with the Angels coming to town for a four-game series before the Royals ended the season with three home games against Oakland. Kansas City won three of the four against the Angels, then won the first game against the A’s to clinch at least a tie for the division title. The next night, in the penultimate game of the season, the Royals captured their sixth division flag in exciting fashion. Oakland scored four runs in the first six innings against Bret Saberhagen. This Royals team, with its relatively weak offense, had not overcome a four-run deficit all season. But with one out in the sixth, Willie Wilson singled and George Brett homered, cutting the deficit in half. And then the Royals tied it in the seventh, as Lonnie Smith singled, Brett walked, and Frank White and Steve Balboni each added a run-scoring single. Dan Quisenberry pitched three scoreless innings, including the 10th. In the bottom of the 10th, Pat Sheridan doubled with one out and took third on Greg Pryor’s infield single. After Smith lined out to shortstop, Wilson hit a line drive off pitcher Jay Howell’s glove and into center field for the game- and division-winning run.
28. September 24, 2015: The old-fashioned way to the playoffs
So much had changed in baseball between 1985 and 2015, especially the divisional setups and the introduction of the wild-card spots, which allowed the Royals to reach the postseason in 2014 for the first time since that 1985 season. But one thing that was the same was that being the best team in a division, whether it consisted of five or seven teams, was cause for celebration and a sterling accomplishment. The 2015 Royals, who had come so close to winning the World Series the year before, began the season on a mission. They started out 7-0 and were 28-14 at one point. Still, they were in a battle with a surprisingly frisky Minnesota team, who held the top spot as June began. But a sweep of the Twins in Minneapolis in early June put the Royals in first for good, and they would steadily pull away. Kansas City was 4.5 up at the end of June, eight up at the end of July, and 13 up at the end of August. At that point, winning the division title was simply a matter of time. It might have taken longer than Royals fans were hoping, as the team rested starters and tried to ready its rotation for the playoffs, which led to a less-than-stellar September record of 11-17 (although the Royals did win all four regular-season games they played in October). The division-clinching game played out a lot like the full season. It was close early, but the Royals relentlessly kept adding runs to pull away, winning comfortably by a 10-4 score over Seattle at home. Johnny Cueto pitched seven innings, holding the Mariners to three runs on seven hits and striking out five. The offense pounded out 15 hits, including home runs by Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. Lorenzo Cain broke a 3-3 tie in the sixth with a two-run single. Moustakas drove in two runs in the eighth with a single, then scored on an Alex Rios triple. That made the score 10-3, and all that was left was to countdown the final outs. Wade Davis allowed a home run and a walk to start the ninth, then retired three straight to end the game and give the Royals their first division title in 30 years.
27. October 1, 1976: Division Champions At Last
The early history of the Royals franchise is invariably entwined with the Oakland A’s. Of course, the Royals were the replacement for the A’s, who left KC for Oakland after the 1967 season. On the field, the Royals were chasing the A’s, then they were battling them, and finally they conquered them. But there was also the sense, whether it was acknowledged publicly or not, that the Royals didn’t just want to beat the A’s. They wanted to be a better organization, top to bottom, and not just in the usual way that competing organizations want. No, after a decade-plus of the Athletics’ complete ineptitude in Kansas City, topped off by Charlie Finley’s antics, the Royals wanted to be professional. Not only would they not be a glorified farm team for the Yankees, they wouldn’t participate in craziness such as having a mule mascot, or moving the fences in a ridiculous amount to make a point, or super-colorful uniforms. It didn’t help that the A’s finally became winners just after they moved. Oakland won the AL West every year from 1971-1975, with the Royals finishing second in three of those seasons. So 1976 was a sweet summer for the Royals and their fans. KC took over the top spot in the division for good on May 18 and gradually built their lead. By early August, they were 12 games ahead of Oakland. But then they started losing—nine of 10 at one point—and the lead began shrinking. By mid-September, it was down to 3.5 games. A five-game win streak may have calmed some nerves, but more losses followed. The Royals traveled to Oakland to close out September with a three-game series and lost the first two. The lead was down to 2.5 with four games left (the A’s had five left). But Larry Gura shut out the A’s in the final game of the series. Back home for the last three games of the year, the Royals lost to Minnesota on October 1, only to find out later that night that the A’s had lost and Kansas City, at long last, would be in the postseason. The next afternoon, the Royals lost a nationally-televised game against the Twins, but the celebration continued anyway, with shortstop Freddie Patek and second baseman Cookie Rojas fulfilling a promise they had made when Royals Stadium opened: after the game, they jumped in the fountains to celebrate the team’s first division title.
26. September 26, 2014: Three Decades Of Frustration Disappear
The Royals franchise was down for so long that they were essentially starting over when Dayton Moore became general manager in 2006. There was a little talent but they were more or less at the level of an expansion team again. It took almost a decade for the hard work of rebuilding an organization to pay off. But everything eventually pointed to a window of 2013-2017 for contention: high draft picks (Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas), the fruits of an increased Latin America presence in scouting and spending (Salvador Perez, Yordano Ventura), and the returns in a couple of big trades (James Shields, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Wade Davis) were all supposed to gel and, with a little big-league experience, become a championship-caliber team. They came close in 2013, but in 2014 it looked for a long time like another year of that window was going to waste away. A solid start was undone by a 12-17 May. Then the Royals rattled off 10 wins in a row to briefly take over first place. But by July 22 they were eight games out of first and two under .500. That’s when the winning began. First it was five in a row, then a week later, an eight-game streak that lifted them back to first place. They held on to first into September before Detroit overtook them. Still, they had a wild-card spot to fall back on, if they could hold off Cleveland and Seattle. They came through by winning a series in Cleveland, eliminating the Indians, and then headed to Chicago for the last four games of the regular season. A win in the first game dropped their magic number for any playoff spot to one. For such a momentous occasion, the Royals didn’t show any nerves, scoring three runs in the first inning—Escobar led off the game with a single, Nori Aoki followed with a triple, Cain singled and stole second, and Billy Butler drove him in with a single. Jeremy Guthrie made that stand up for seven innings, holding the White Sox to four singles and collecting six strikeouts. Wade Davis gave up one run in the eighth, but struck out the side. Greg Holland retired the Sox in order in the ninth, getting Michael Taylor to foul out to end the game and 29 years of frustration for Royals fans.
25. October 22, 2014: Butler Did It
After winning the epic wild-card game, the Royals raced through the 2014 playoffs, sweeping the Angels in the division series and the Orioles in the championship series. It looked like they might never lose again. But they were brought back to earth when San Francisco thumped them in Game One of the World Series, 7-1. It would have been easy to expect the Royals to “just be happy to be here” and the experienced Giants to roll over them. And yes, the 1985 Royals won the Series after losing the first two games at home, but that’s not really a formula for success. So Game Two took on extra importance for Kansas City. The Royals gave up one in the first, but responded with single runs in the first and second. The Giants tied it up in the fourth, and the score was still 2-2 as the bottom of the sixth began. Lorenzo Cain singled and Eric Hosmer walked. Giants manager Bruce Bochy summoned reliever Jean Machi from the bullpen to face Billy Butler. Machi was a ground-ball pitcher; Butler grounded into double plays often. Obviously Bochy was banking on this result. But Butler, who had driven in the first run of the game, lined a 2-0 pitch over the shortstop to drive in Cain and put the Royals back in front. As he was removed for a pinch-runner, Butler acknowledged the standing ovation the crowd was giving with a tip of his cap. Butler had opened the door, and his teammates kicked it in, scoring four more runs in the inning and cruising to a 7-2 win. That tied the Series and proved the Royals belonged there.
24. October 10, 2014 Gordon and Moustakas Put On Power Display
The 2014 ALCS promised to be a contrast in styles. Both the Royals and Baltimore Orioles emphasized a strong bullpen and good defense, but the Orioles hit lots of home runs and rarely stole bases. The Royals, of course, were daring on the bases but not known for their slugging. When the Royals jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the fifth inning of Game One, things looked good for Kansas City. Just one more inning and they could turn things over to their bullpen. It didn’t work out that way. Baltimore scored three in the fifth against James Shields and tied it in the sixth against Brandon Finnegan. Now it was a matchup of the best parts of those two vaunted bullpens. Not surprisingly, the score remained tied into the ninth inning, where the Royals blew a golden opportunity (bases loaded, no outs) to take the lead. Usually it seems like a team that fails to take advantage of something like that, especially in the postseason, is doomed. But Wade Davis struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth. And then, in the 10th, Alex Gordon led off with a no-doubt home run into the right-center field seats. Perhaps shaken by the long home run, pitcher Darren O’Day walked Salvador Perez on four pitches, but recovered to strike out Omar Infante. New pitcher Brian Matusz was brought in to face Mike Moustakas, a lefty-lefty matchup between a pitcher who had held lefties to a .223/.277/.350 line in 2014 and a batter who had hit .172/.241/.313 against southpaws that year. Moustakas patiently worked the count full, then got a fastball up and launched it over the center-field fence. Just like that, the Royals led 8-5. Although Greg Holland gave up a run with two outs in the bottom of the 10th, he was able to get the last out and give the Royals the win in the first game of the series, on the road, no less.
23. October 17, 1980: Royals Get First Series Win On Aikens Single
At last, the Yankees were vanquished (more on that in a later installment of this list, of course) and the Royals were in the World Series, facing Philadelphia. But the first two games did not go well; the Royals coughed up a 4-0 lead in Game One and a 4-2 lead in Game Two. As the series shifted to Kansas City for three games, the Royals needed a win. They took a 1-0 lead in the first on a George Brett home run; the Phillies immediately tied the score in the second. Willie Aikens tripled in the fourth and Hal McRae drove him in for a 2-1 lead; again the Phillies tied the score in the next inning. Amos Otis homered in the seventh; once again, Philadelphia tied the score in their next at-bat. The first World Series game ever played in Kansas City headed into the 10th inning, where at least the Royals knew that if they scored, the Phillies wouldn’t get a chance to tie it up. Facing relief ace Tug McGraw, the Royals got a leadoff single from U.L. Washington and a walk by Willie Wilson. But Washington was caught stealing when Frank White tried to bunt and missed. White then struck out for the second out. With Brett up, Wilson stole second. So the Phillies responded by walking Brett, bringing Aikens up with a chance to be the hero. Aikens got the count to 2-1, then lined a shot into left-center field. Even an excellent center fielder like Garry Maddox couldn’t catch this one. Wilson scored easily, and Aikens had given the Royals their first ever win in a World Series game.
22. October 14, 2015: Morales Puts Exclamation Point On ALDS Win
Even though the Royals cruised to the 2015 division title, their first postseason series was an epic tussle with the Houston Astros. The 2014 team ran off eight straight postseason wins to reach the World Series, but in the 2015 Division Series, the Royals’ playoff lives were flashing before their eyes as they faced a 6-2 deficit in Game Four, six outs from elimination. Of course, they came back to win that game (and of course, there will probably be a little more about that later on in this list), but Houston wasn’t going away that easily. In the deciding Game Five, the Astros scored two runs off Johnny Cueto in the second inning. No one knew at the time that single and home run would be the only hits Cueto would allow; given that the Astros had scored 19 runs in the first four games, it was reasonable to assume they weren’t done. The Royals got one run back in the fourth, and an Alex Rios double in the fifth put them ahead 3-2. When Rios scored on a Ben Zobrist sacrifice fly, the lead was pushed out to 4-2. Cueto finished off the eighth inning, marking 19 straight batters retired since the home run. The Astros turned to starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel to pitch the eighth. This was something of a desperation move, since everyone knew Wade Davis was going to pitch the ninth for the Royals. Houston was just trying to give themselves a chance to stay in the game. But the move also had some historical overtones; just one year earlier, the Royals had been denied a World Series title by a very good left-handed starter pitching in relief in a winner-take-all game. Not this time. Alcides Escobar led off with a double, a ground ball that just stayed fair on its way up the right-field line. But Ben Zobrist lined out to second. Houston intentionally walked Lorenzo Cain, and then Keuchel got Eric Hosmer to foul out to the catcher. It looked like Houston might have a flicker of hope after all. Up stepped designated hitter Kendrys Morales, who had given the Royals’ lineup a nice jolt of power as a free agent signing. Morales drove a 2-2 pitch into the water spectacular in deepest left-center, extending Kansas City’s lead to 7-2 and removing all doubt from the game.
21. October 6, 1978: Brett Blasts Three Homers In Playoff Game
This one gets lost in the shuffle sometimes, I think. Because the 1978 ALCS was the only one of the Royals-Yankees trilogy that didn’t go five games or have a memorable ending, it gets remembered less. And the Royals lost this particular game. But still, three home runs in a postseason game is impressive. It is a major league record, a feat which has only been accomplished 11 times. And when Brett did it, he became just the fourth person to do it—Babe Ruth did it twice (1926 and 1928), Pirates first baseman Bob Robertson did it in the 1971 NLCS, and the Yankees’ Reggie Jackson did it in the 1977 World Series. By 1978, Brett’s reputation as a clutch hitter was already established, but he really wasn’t much of a power hitter. He had 22 home runs in 1977 but only nine in 1978. But in this game, he wasted little time before flexing his muscles. Brett hit Catfish Hunter’s third pitch into the upper deck of Yankee Stadium. In the third inning, with one out and the score tied at 1-1, Brett belted a 1-0 Hunter offering over the center-field fence. And in the fifth, he got Hunter again, this time a line drive into the right-field bleachers to tie the game at 3-3. Brett had two more chances to do something no one had ever done—four homers in a postseason game—but he flied out to the warning track in center field in the seventh and flied out to left in the ninth, both coming against Goose Gossage. The Yankees won, 6-5, and would finish off the series the next day. But you couldn’t blame Brett for this loss.