The Kansas City Royals fought their way through three playoff tiers to reach the World Series against the San Francisco Giants, who likewise seemed to be an underdog when the postseason began. Sure feels like a lifetime ago. Travis Ishikawa's ninth-inning homer off Michael Wacha on Thursday night gave the Giants their third pennant in five years, and now we'll find out if they can finish again this time, like they did against the Rangers and the Tigers.
Manager Ned Yost says America has "fallen in love" with the Royals, who are the first team since the 1959 White Sox to reach the postseason after finishing last in the American League in home runs.
"They love our athleticism," Yost said. "They love our energy. They love the way these guys play hard and enjoy each other. And they love the way that they stand up and get clutch hits and make fantastic plays. Everybody is tipping their cap to each other. … [Fans] love speed. I think they just love the way we play the game."
While the Giants aren't such a novelty, they certainly inspire passion. Few players are as adored as ones on winning San Francisco teams, and that's certainly been the case this October.
Maybe we should have seen the Royals and Giants coming.
After all, MLB just can't stop its Wild Card teams, even when it tries really, really hard to stop them. That's OK, too, as at this point in time the Royals and the Giants are the best teams in baseball.
Their path to the World Series suggests that by the time September turned into October, they were better than the winningest teams in the Major Leagues, the Nationals and the Angels. And even though this will be the be the first Fall Classic between two teams with victory totals in the 80s after a season that wasn't shortened, we should probably give the Royals and Giants more credit for surviving to reach the World Series, not less.
Both teams have done something that no MLB team had ever before done: They've survived three rounds of playoffs to win their pennants, as mandated by the latest expansion to the postseason format, which was put in place in 2012. And with the Royals 8-0 this postseason and the Giants 8-2, you'd be hard-pressed to find a World Series that featured two hotter teams.
Kansas City, led by dynamic outfielder Lorenzo Cain, the ALCS MVP, not only steamrolled the Orioles, Angels and A's, but it did so while putting together the longest unbeaten stretch to open a postseason in history. The Royals accomplished this by using their speed, fielding and well-timed power hitting to win four extra-inning games and two other one-run games.
As for San Francisco, the Giants rode the arm of lefty Madison Bumgarner to knock off the Cardinals, Nationals and Pirates to reach the World Series for the third time in the last five seasons.
"You don't necessarily have to have [experience], but it certainly don't hurt when you do have it," said Bumgarner after being named National League Championship Series MVP. "We've got a lot of guys that's been through this, and they know what to expect and they are not afraid of the moment by no means."
Under GM Brian Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy, they seem to have figured out October as well as any team since the powerful Yankees in the early Derek Jeter years. Including the NL Wild Card Game this year, they've won nine consecutive postseason series since 2010, only two fewer than the Yankees won in 1998-2001.
There's an oddness to the Giants' streak. They missed the playoffs in 2011 and '13, after entering both seasons as the defending champ. But Bochy's pitching-rich teams are like oral surgery for opponents in the postseason, whether they win the NL West or not.
The Giants were hardly bothered by having to play an extra game this year, when they finished second to the Dodgers in the West. They just pounded the Pirates, 8-0, to move into the NL Division Series and, like the Royals, they've been winning ever since. That's not exactly how the new format was drawn up.
Commissioner Bud Selig added the Wild Card Game both as a way to grow the game and to reward teams that win division championships. But it took only three years for teams to advance from this one-game elimination round to knock off two higher seeded teams and reach the World Series, continuing the trend of postseason success for second-place teams.
Wild Cards were added to the postseason field in 1995, after a 1994 realignment had split teams into three divisions within the two leagues. Few expected them to make as much of their invitation to play as they did.
In all, 10 of 34 Wild Card teams reached the World Series under the old format, where the only handicap they faced was always having to open series on the road. Five of those clubs -- the 1997 Marlins, '02 Angels, '03 Marlins, '04 Red Sox and '11 Cardinals -- won it all.
Under the new format, there's a bigger reward for winning your division. You aren't subjected to the win-or-go home game that starts the postseason, which in its first season claimed a 94-win Atlanta team and a Texas team that had won 93.
But the Royals and Giants are proof that it's possible to get on a roll once you survive the Wild Card Game. Yost and several of his players cite the confidence they gained by rallying from a 7-3 deficit to beat Oakland in the AL Wild Card Game as a key to their run to the World Series.
Maybe the Wild Card Game isn't so bad, after all. Not when you survive it, anyway.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.