KANSAS CITY -- On the heels of the Royals' magical 2014 postseason run to Game 7 of the World Series, this year's version of the Royals ran into many speed bumps.
There was a broken hand suffered by outfielder Alex Rios in the season's first week that sidelined him for nearly two months. There was the severe groin strain to outfielder Alex Gordon that tabled him for just as long. There was a bizarre outbreak of chicken pox. Closer Greg Holland, the Mariano Rivera Award winner from 2014, pitched with a torn elbow ligament before being shut down for the season last week. And there were the deaths of Chris Young's father and Mike Moustakas' mother.
But through it all, this year's Royals persevered and captured their first division championship in 30 years. As they get ready for Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Thursday vs. the winner of the AL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser, here are some of the key moments that shaped this team.
1. April 19, The Fightin' Royals
On a sunny Sunday at Kauffman Stadium, the Royals and A's wrapped up a tense three-game series with the Royals prevailing, 4-2, but not before a series of bench warnings, bench clearings and ejections. The fun started on Friday night when Oakland's Brett Lawrie took out Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar with a questionable slide, injuring Escobar to the point he missed the final two games of the series. The Royals retaliated the next day when right-hander Yordano Ventura hit Lawrie with a pitch and was ejected. On Sunday, five more Royals were ejected, highlighted when reliever Kelvin Herrera threw a 100-mph fastball behind Lawrie's back. Herrera, who was ejected, left the field pointing toward his temple and shouting, "Think about it," a not-so-subtle warning. The Royals became known around the country as the "Fightin' Royals," but to them, they were just standing up for their teammates.
2. July 21, The Jason Vargas injury
The left-hander was activated that day to make a start in place of a struggling Ventura, who opened the season as the team's ace, but was demoted to Triple-A Omaha. But Vargas suffered a torn UCL in his elbow early in his start and was declared out for the season. Ventura hadn't even left for Omaha yet and instantly was recalled. Something clicked inside Ventura after that near demotion, and he has been the team's best starter since, going 8-1 with a 3.26 ERA.
3. July 26, The Trade
With rumors swirling that the Royals were in on ace Johnny Cueto near the non-waiver Trade Deadline, Ventura went out and pitched seven innings of one-run ball in a 5-1 win over Houston. Meanwhile, during that game, it was announced that the Royals had acquired Cueto from the Reds for three pitching prospects, including 2014 first-rounder Brandon Finnegan. The crowd at Kauffman Stadium erupted in jubilation to the team's biggest Trade Deadline acquisition. Two days later, the Royals acquired Ben Zobrist. It was all a clear signal to the fans that these small-market Royals could play with the big boys.
4. Aug. 2 at Toronto, The Fightin' Royals are back
The Royals and Blue Jays went at it again in the series finale north of the border and a lot of bad blood emerged when Royals right-hander Edinson Volquez began pitching inside to the Jays' hammer throwers. Toronto's Josh Donaldson took exception after being hit once in the first inning and both benches were warned. Volquez nearly hit Donaldson again with a changeup in the third inning, and Donaldson began complaining to the umpires, the Royals bench and anyone who would listen. Donaldson got buzzed by reliever Ryan Madson later in the game, setting off more howls from the Jays as the benches cleared. Afterward, Volquez said Donaldson "cried like a little baby." Donaldson countered that he didn't want Volquez tossed because he was "good hittin.'" This could set up for a very fun American League Championship Series.
5. Sept. 23, Royals 4, Mariners 3 (10 innings)
The Royals had lost 12 of 17 and their magic number to clinch the Central Division didn't seem to budge for a week. The Royals seemed headed for another lifeless loss as they trailed the Mariners by two runs midway through the game. But the Royals battled back, and Lorenzo Cain punched home the walk-off winner with a single to right for a huge win. A more relaxed group went out the next night and pounded the M's, 10-4, and with a Twins loss, captured the division title.
Jeffrey Flanagan is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FlannyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.