Five things that changed the Royals' season

Top of the lineup, late-inning relief and second-half momentum spur KC

Five things that changed the Royals' season

CHICAGO -- Many things contributed to the Royals' first visit to the postseason since 1985. Such as relief stars Greg Holland and Wade Davis being born in that year.

Or there was Alex Gordon being drafted in 2005, or general manager Dayton Moore being hired in 2006, or Ned Yost being named manager in 2010, or James Shields being acquired in 2012. But let's just stick to the things that happened in the past year:

1. Obtaining Nori Aoki and Omar Infante

Without a traditional leadoff batter since David DeJesus in 2010, the Royals traded for Aoki, giving up promising left-handed pitcher Will Smith to the Brewers. Aoki not only filled the spot well but it made possible moving Alex Gordon into a more productive spot in the middle of the order. Late in the year, Aoki prospered in the No. 2 hole.

Second base had been a position of instability, so Infante was signed to a long-term deal. He teamed well with fellow Venezuelan Alcides Escobar in the middle of the infield and had the best RBI bat of his career.

2. Adding Jason Vargas, Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy to the rotation

Not much fanfare accompanied the free-agent signing of left-hander Vargas to a multi-year deal in the offseason. However, he proved to be a steady veteran addition.

Ventura, a rookie, was thrown into the fire after just three starts the previous January and won in double figures. Duffy came up from Omaha, took over from Bruce Chen and had a rock-bottom ERA.

3. The development of an unbendable backend in the bullpen

Everyone figured that Greg Holland was established as a proven closer, but who would get the game to him?

Wade Davis, a starter most of 2013, quickly emerged as the eighth-inning buzzsaw with scoreless innings and strikeouts. After a while, Kelvin Herrera established himself with similar credentials as the seventh-inning guardian. Together they became a terrific trio.

4. The tremendous turnaround after the All-Star break

There was a rush of excitement from a 10-game winning streak and a three-day visit to first place in mid-June. The Royals got to the All-Star break two games over .500, but lost the first four games after the break.

Then, after a team meeting at Chicago on July 22, they stepped on the gas and won 15 of 18 games and took over first place. They stayed at the top until Aug. 12, yielding to Detroit but convinced that they were a serious contender for the postseason.

5. James Shields' pitching leadership in the second half

Big Game James, perhaps sniffing playoff aroma, turned on the heat in the second half. Not that he dawdled in the first half, but his efficiency really picked up with his July 23 victory at Chicago, one of the early stepping stones in the Royals' resurgence.

Over his next 11 starts, Shields posted a tidy 2.19 ERA, held the opponents scoreless three times and the team went 8-3 and he got five of those wins.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.