MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Speed a game-changer for surprising Royals

Speed a game-changer for surprising Royals

ANAHEIM -- Maybe someone has seen a bigger collection of fast, ultra-aggressive baserunners. But it has been a long, long time since anyone topped the most recently updated version of the Royals.

On the last weekend of the regular season, White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper was asked to describe the athletes who would soon beat the Athletics.

"Intimidating,'' Cooper said. "Game-changing. Specialized. Havoc-creating. That's what comes to mind.''

This, of course, was before the Royals had stolen seven bases to completely discombobulate the A's in a 9-8 win in the American League Wild Card Game. But Cooper had seen something just as remarkable as the Tuesday-night display that sends Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore on to meet Mike Trout and the top-seeded Angels in the ALDS.

  Date Time Matchup/Result Network
Gm 1 Oct. 2   KC 3, LAA 2 video
Gm 2 Oct. 3   KC 4, LAA 1 video
Gm 3 Oct. 5   KC 8, LAA 3 video

On Sept. 15, the Royals rallied to defeat the White Sox with the tying and winning runs scoring from second base on a passed ball. Dyson was stealing third on the play and just kept coming, on an infield single chopped past the pitcher. Gore wasn't running, but he still came around third base with enough momentum to score standing up.

Cooper called that "a group effort of snatching defeat out of the mouth of victory.'' But, hey, that's how the Royals roll, especially since Sept. 13. Manager Ned Yost, the Bobby Cox disciple, moved his speed guys to the top of the order on that day and since then the team that was last in the Major Leagues in home runs has averaged 4.7 runs in its last 16 games, despite hitting only five home runs.

Yes, the Royals were last in home runs. Led by Alex Gordon with 19, Kansas City hit only 95 this season, becoming the first AL team to reach the postseason while finishing last in the league in homers since the 1959 White Sox, who were energized by Hall of Famers Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox.

Can you win a championship compensating for a lack of power with an abundance of speed?

"We're going to find out,'' Gordon said.

They've certainly gotten the full attention of Angels manager Mike Scioscia and catcher Chris Iannetta.

"Kansas City definitely pressures you on the bases,'' Scioscia said. "There is no doubt about it. We've seen them during the season. They're good at it. They have some difference-makers on the basepaths, not just some team speed. They have difference-makers. You have to pay attention. We'll do what we can do.''

Iannetta, in his third year with the Angels, is much tougher to run on than A's catchers Derek Norris and Geovany Soto, who were victimized by the Royals in the Wild Card Game. Iannetta threw out 30 percent of basestealers this year (21-of-70), the fifth best ratio among AL starters, after nailing only 19 percent a year ago.

While the Nationals look like a strong favorite to win the National League pennant, there's not as much of a consensus in the AL. The Angels were the league's winningest team with 98 victories, but the homer-hitting Orioles outplayed them in September. It wouldn't be a stretch to pick Baltimore in the AL Championship Series, even if the Angels had home-field advantage.

But what about the Royals? They can't come close to matching the star power of the Angels and will be at a disadvantage with ace James Shields only on track to start Game 3 in the best-of-five ALDS. But pick against them at your own risk.

Power hitters are regularly silenced in October. The last three postseasons, the team that had hit the most home runs during the regular season won only 11 of 25 series. The Orioles hope to prove themselves as an exception, but teams that rely on home runs often go home early.

The Angels have had a thin starting rotation since losing Garrett Richards to a torn patellar tendon in his left knee on Aug. 20, and now are rolling the dice by starting rookie Matt Shoemaker in Game 2. He hasn't pitched in a game since Sept. 15, but Scioscia believes he'll be fine to go against Yordano Ventura Friday at Angels Stadium.

Yost's team just keeps finding ways to win, like the game in which it scored back-to-back runners from second base without the ball getting hit out of the infield. The Royals are 42-23 since July 22, the best record in the Major Leagues over that stretch.

Kansas City stole 28 bases in September, including four by Gore, who was promoted from Class A Advanced Wilmington (with a short stop for 17 games in Triple-A) to serve as a pinch-runner. He has unofficially replaced his mentor, Dyson, as the fastest guy on a fast team.

Dyson is consistently clocked from home to first at 3.6 seconds from the left-handed batter's box. That qualifies as 80 speed on the traditional scouting scale, where 80 is as good as it gets. Gore has been clocked at 3.55 from the right-handed box, which is Cool Papa Bell fast (the legend said he was so fast he could flip the light switch and be in bed before it got dark).

Gore was one of seven Royals who stole bases against the A's. The six runs that Kansas City scored between the eighth and 12th innings came when Jon Lester and the relievers who followed him became preoccupied with the threat of stolen bases.

"I see it when a speed guy gets up to the plate or a speed guy's on first,'' Gore said. "You can tell the pitcher, it changes his attitude. There's more attention on you than the hitter. That helps the hitter. In Minor League ball, every time I got on first I'd steal. I'd be on second just messing around, and the pitcher's either going to give up a double or a home run. He misses his spot because he worries about me so much.''

Can the Angels shut down the Royals' running game? Like Gordon said, it's going to be fun to find out.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.