By Andy McCullough
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The lights were dimmed inside the Kansas City Royals clubhouse, and the volume was oddly low. Sheets of plastic covered every surface. For the third time in 10 days, this team planned to spray alcohol to celebrate, this time for an 8-3 victory over the Los Angeles Angels to sweep the American League Division Series, and they formed a circle in the center of the room.
"Now we go!" they shouted, echoing the mantra of their ace, James Shields, as corks flew and champagne followed suit. "Now we go!"
A clubhouse attendant cranked their anthem, "We Ready," and the room shook. But it was still subdued, a melee that broke up quickly. The celebration lacked the 29-year release of clinching a playoff spot in Chicago, and featured none of the exhilaration wrought by Tuesday's comeback AL Wild Card victory over the Oakland Athletics.
Then, the players soaked in their achievement. Now, they felt the best had yet to come.
Sunday's game at Kauffman Stadium was a rout, a nine-inning party for this team and its fans. As the players spilled out of the room to greet the revelers who stuck with them all these years, a few hung back and reflected on how far this team had traveled in less than a fortnight.
"I think we're over the stage of 'happy just being there,' " first baseman Eric Hosmer said. "We know this group is for real. The city knows this group is for real. I think the rest of the world is starting to find out we're for real."
For the first time since 1985, the Royals are four victories away from the World Series. The Baltimore Orioles brushed aside the Detroit Tigers with a sweep of their own on Sunday. The two sides must wait all week to duel. The first game of the American League Championship Series is Friday night at Camden Yards.
Until then, there will be plenty of time to cherish Sunday's result. The crowd appeared willing to indulge. When the skies opened in the seventh inning, the stands stayed full. At one point, a semi barreling down Interstate 70 honked at the stadium. The ballpark erupted in response.
The party started at 6:58 p.m., just as Alex Gordon's three-run double touched down in the outfield and Billy Butler's feet touched the plate. The celebration never stopped, undeterred by the last whimpers of the Angels and the hard rain soaking the diamond.
It was a party three decades in the making, and the behavior was brash and exuberant _ far more so than the display inside the clubhouse. Hosmer and Mike Moustakas homered. Lorenzo Cain dazzled in the outfield. Ned Yost pumped his fists in the dugout.
How wild did it get? Billy Butler stole a base. Then he danced.
"When Billy Butler is stealing bases," Cain said, "you know things are going well."
And the fans, all those who suffered through the 29-year drought? The fans reveled in what this team is, a well-oiled defensive machine fortified by its fielding and stout pitching staff. They dreamed about what this team may become, a sudden juggernaut now equipped with power at the plate, a group steaming into a showdown with Baltimore.
"If we can continue to do what we did tonight," Cain said, "I think we can definitely make this thing last to the World Series _ and hopefully win it."
Just four days ago, the Royals stood six outs away from its winter vacation, with Jon Lester on the mound for Oakland. Hope did not depart from Kauffman Stadium on that night. The players rewarded the fans for their faith, just as they rewarded this team's architect, general manager Dayton Moore, for his.
In eight seasons at the helm, Moore absorbed a hail of invective for his unflinching support of his players. He does not denigrate his Royals to the public, even if their performances dictated reprimands. He stood by Gordon after 2010. He stood by Hosmer after 2012. He stood by Moustakas all through 2014. That trio carried the offense in Sunday's clincher.
The outcome delighted owner David Glass. Inside the clubhouse, he pulled on a commemorative T-shirt and tried to avoid stray streams of sparkling wine.
"I'd love to get used to it," Glass said. "I'd love to keep doing it until I get used to it. But it's fun. And it's exciting. It is really great just to see this thing come together and to see these players achieve."
The hitters knocked out Angels starter C.J. Wilson in the first inning when he allowed three runs before he could procure three outs. Gordon ignited the celebration, and two of his teammates extended it. Hosmer crushed a two-run homer in the third inning. Moustakas followed with a solo shot in the fourth.
The Angels hounded Shields over six innings of hard labor, but he only granted them two runs. His defense backed him up as only they can. Cain, the graceful, ground-covering center fielder, robbed the Angels of a pair of hits in the fifth inning.
Cain dived for the first catch and snatched a sinking liner off the bat of Albert Pujols as he slid head-first across the rain-slicked grass. His backside did the sliding next time, as Cain stole a hit from Howie Kendrick. Cain jumped to his feet, flexed his arms and high-stepped. Shields waved at him in amazement. The party continued.
"I tipped my cap to him after the inning was over strictly because I'm a fan," Shields said. "I'm a fan of watching that. It's pretty special."
The Angels looked unsettled during the first 22 innings of this series. They led all of baseball in scoring this season, plating 122 more runs than the Royals, yet they found themselves bunting and minimizing their own power. The specter of Kansas City's bullpen altered their strategy. And their core of hitters lacked life.
Trout is the probable American League MVP and the game's most explosive asset. He flaunted frightening strength in his last series in this ballpark, when he boomed a solo homer that landed in the center-field fountains. His first swing Sunday was less impressive, but just as effective.
Shields left a 1-0 fastball on the inner half of the plate. Trout walloped the ball into the left-field seats. Anaheim turned a one-run lead over to Wilson, who sat on the bench during the first two tense nights in this series.
"I really couldn't do anything to help the team other than give high-fives the last couple of games," Wilson cracked on Saturday afternoon.
Perhaps the Angels were better off. Wilson delivered the briefest postseason start not interrupted by injury in more than a decade. Like Wilson, Rick Ankiel collected just two outs for the St. Louis Cardinals on Oct. 12, 2000. Ankiel changed careers and became an outfielder. The Angels will have to settle for paying Wilson another $38 million through 2016.
Wilson is a puzzling pitcher, gifted with a dazzling arsenal, yet prone to nibbling the strike zone and flooding the bases with runners. He loaded the bases in the first and granted Gordon an opportunity.
"We got pitches to hit," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "And we didn't miss them."
Hosmer and Moustakas went deep. Butler stole a base, and the show, with his legs. Shields wiggled free from jams in the fifth and the sixth. The rout was on, and the party was just beginning.
"We might be getting used to this," Hosmer said. "Who knows?"