KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Crown these Royals the American League champions.
After nearly three decades spent trying to return to the playoffs, Kansas City is taking its perfect postseason ride all the way to the World Series.
With more dominant defense, an opportunistic offense that plated two runs in the first inning, and a bullpen that shut down the Baltimore Orioles once again, Greg Holland and the wild-card Royals wrapped up a sweep of the AL Championship Series with a 2-1 victory on Wednesday.
Next stop: The Royals’ first Fall Classic since 1985. They’ll face the winner of the NLCS between the Giants and Cardinals. San Francisco leads that series 2-1.
“It’s been an amazing run. This is great,” said left fielder Alex Gordon, who made another jarring catch. “We’ve been playing pretty good baseball. It’s nothing better than when you win. Today, same old story: good pitching, good defense and scratch out a win.”
Outfielder Lorenzo Cain was selected MVP of the ALCS, batting .533 and leading an outstanding defense.
After holding the Orioles to three hits in Game 3 on Tuesday night, Jason Vargas and the Royals bullpen nearly turned the trick again. Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis ushered the game to Holland, who matched Dennis Eckersley’s record by saving his fourth game of the best-of-seven series.
After Holland got J.J. Hardy to ground out to third base for the final out, 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 great George Brett let out a roar.
Kansas City will host the first two World Series games beginning Tuesday. Coincidentally, it was the Cardinals who the Royals beat for their only World Series title in a dramatic seven-game series.
Regardless of the opponent, the Royals will carry an 11-game playoff win streak into the World Series, one shy of the major league record. That includes winning their first eight games this season, something that had never been done in postseason history. Kansas City beat Oakland in the wild card and swept the Los Angeles Angels in the Division Series.
“Man, it’s incredible,” said Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, who drove in a run. “These guys every day come to play. If they’re not doing it offensively, they’re doing it defensively with the glove, just playing complete games and we’ve got guys stepping up right now.”
The Orioles, meanwhile, will limp into the offseason after their first sweep in 21 playoff series, dating to the days when the club was called the St. Louis Browns.
Making his first start in nearly two weeks, Vargas shut down the vaunted Orioles lineup. The only damage he allowed came in the third inning, when Ryan Flaherty led off with a home run that just skirted the foul pole in right field.
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. Royals manager Ned 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 this postseason, it worked out perfectly — for the first sacrifice of Cain’s career.
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 wild celebration that had been 29 years in the making.
“It wasn’t pretty. It’s all right, though. We find ways to win,” Gordon said. “Good teams find ways to win, and that’s what we did. So we’re going to keep going and hope we make it even more special here.”
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 stand in the way of an improbable World Series championship.
The Royals’ win was the 14th decided by one run this postseason, topping the record set in 2011 and tied last year.
Royals: The Royals are back in the World Series for the third time in franchise history, and the first since beating the Cardinals in `85. “It’s been incredible to watch,” said three-time All-Star Bret Saberhagen, one of the star pitchers on that 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.