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Rings and Rally Bugs: Looking Back at the Royals in 2016

A baseball player holding a mantis Come August, the entire Royals nation rallied around this little guy for the remainder of the season. (Photo: Paul Sancta | Associated Press)
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With the Royals season over, it’s time to look back. Sure, the two-time American League champions will not be defending their World Series crown. But that, as Stuart Smalley said, is OK.

The biggest reason is probably simple fatigue – mental and physical. The Royals’ style is predicated on decent pitching, rock solid defense and sheer relentlessness at the plate. In 2016, the pitching was barely decent. The defense was great, if not as spectacular as last year. At the plate, though, save for a few hot streaks, the team simply didn’t show the kind of dish discipline it did in 2015.

Then, of course, there were the injuries – far too many to list. The past two seasons, the Royals were off-the-charts, the-Lord-smiles-upon-you lucky at avoiding injuries. The extra weeks of play at the end of 2014 and 2015, plus simple chance, seemed to catch up with the team in 2016.

That shouldn’t be a shock. Major League Baseball hasn’t had a back-to-back World Series winner since the 1999-2000 Yankees – the longest streak in MLB history. Even making the playoffs would have been unusual. The Royals are now the fourth straight defending champion to miss the playoffs following their World Series win.

Nevertheless, overcoming enormous adversity and an appalling midsummer swoon, the club scrapped and clawed its way into meaningful September games, eventually ending up at a supremely middling 81-81. That alone is an accomplishment, and there was plenty of fun to be had along the way. Let’s look back then, at the defining moments of 2016.

April 3: On Opening Night, the Royals raised their 2015 World Series championship flag at Kauffman Stadium. They also beat their Fall Classic foe, the New York Mets. In that series, by the way, the Royals wore jerseys embossed with gold thread – a uniform that so delighted fans and players that the club decided to incorporate the unis into its regular rotation.

April 10: Facing a woeful Twins team, Terrance “Gore to Score” took two bases on a wild throw to first, then quickly scored on a wild pitch. It was thrilling, vintage Royals baseball, and a perfect example – as the saying goes – of what speed do.

May 22: If the 2016 season can be defined by a single moment, it might be when Melky Cabrera of the White Sox popped a shallow fly ball to foul territory in left field. Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas raced back. Left fielder Alex Gordon charged in. It was raw hustle on display. Unfortunately, the pair they collided. According to this MLB.com story, the crash wasn’t serious. They were wrong. It was. Gordon missed about a month with a bad wrist. Moose was out for the season with a torn ACL. The ball, by the way, dropped harmlessly to the grass.May 24: Lorenzo Cain had a rough year. The charismatic centerfielder was hamstrung by a hamstring injury and, later, a bad wrist. That didn’t stop him, though, from paying tribute to Prince. The tribute came, appropriately enough, in Minnesota. Even more appropriately, it was after a rain delay.

May 28: Without question, the single most exciting Royals moment of the 2016 season was this utterly-shocking, wildly-improbable, seven-run ninth inning rally against the White Sox. According to FanGraphs, the Royals odds of winning the game were, at one point, 1000-1, and it was the biggest ninth-inning comeback in club history. The win, not for nothing, sent the White Sox into a tailspin from which they never recovered.

June 7: As far as starting pitching went in 2016, Edinson Volquez took a step back. He wasn’t as steady as last year. Chris Young, a nice guy and hard worker, was more than a little problematic as a fifth starter. Dillon Gee was hurt a lot. So was Kris Medlen. Yordano Ventura stayed static. Plus, at least early in the season, he still couldn’t keep his temper in check.

The bullpen also looked less than. Kelvin Herrera proved to be almost human. As did Wade Davis, who missed the first half of July and all of August with injuries. Then, of course, there was He Who Shall Not Be Named.

Ian Kennedy, though, was a plus on the bump. After starting slowly, Inky (a nickname I made up) became a solid rotation presence. But the biggest pitching success of the season was unquestionably the emergence of Danny Duffy as a top line starter, including this complete game gem over the White Sox.

June 13: The club’s off-season free agent signings may have been hit-and-miss, but the farm system continued to produce. Other than Brett Eiber, pretty much every Omaha call-up looked ready to compete at the big league level. Cheslor Cuthbert established himself at third base in Moose’s absence. Raul Mondesi ensconced himself at second despite lousy offensive numbers. But the best call-up of the year was probably Whit Merrifield, who quickly became a fan favorite. Here’s “Two-Hit Whit” with his first Major League home run, a shot against Cleveland.

June 21: Winning the World Series means a lot of sweet, sweet perks. Like, say, getting to visit the White House and meet the President of the United States. Sure, the POTUS mispronounced Jarrod Dyson’s first name. Cut the man some slack, though. He’s busy.

July 12: At the 2016 All-Star Game, with Ned Yost managing, Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez hit homers off former Royal, the surly Johnny Cueto, sealing the win. It was the stuff of legend. You will notice, however, we don’t have any other highlights from July on this list, as the club only managed seven wins all month.

August 7: Kendrys Morales was certainly a bright spot. Yes, Steve Balboni’s home run record still stands, but Morales provided some sorely needed pop in the line-up, finishing with 30 home runs. According to MLB, this massive Grand Slam against Toronto was K-Mo’s longest long ball of the year, traveling a majestic 456 feet at the K.

August 25: With Volquez on the mound in Miami, the Marlins’ Christian Yelich crushed a fly ball to deep center. Everyone in the park thought it was a home run. Everyone, that is, except for Jarrod Dyson. Instead, Yelich’s blast became the club’s best catch of the season and maybe the finest grab of Dyson’s career. So far. Take a look.

August 30: Alcides Escobar makes so many gorgeous plays – and makes them look so routine – it was hard to pick just one to highlight. But this amazing scoop and jump throw to get the Blue Jays’ Darwin Barney was a true dazzler. Maybe his best in what should be another Gold Glove season for Esky.

Finally…

We all know who helped Kendrys, Dyson and Alcides – and everyone else on the club – make all those great plays in late summer. It was a bug. Or, actually, two of them.

On August 6, call-up speedster Billy Burns saw a praying mantis in the trash. Royals strength coordinator Ryan Stoneberg rescued the bug and put it on the dugout railing. Then Billy put it on his hat. The team won. The next day, the mantis was still in the dugout – probably because of a broken wing. The club won again, though, and a legend was born.

Then that legend, um, died. But a new mantis was found and kept in a more hospitable habitat before ultimately being released to live out its days at the Lakeside Nature Center. All in all, Rally Mantis and Rally Jr., sparked the club to an 18-4 record. The mantis phenomenon also produced a massive burst of pure joy in fans, an onslaught of only-in-baseball silliness that included mantis-themed shirts, signs, towels, tattoos, masks, mugs, pins, tribute songs, and yes, a Rally Mantis Twitter feed. It was all a delight, and just one more good memory to keep fans warm through the winter. That is, until February 2017, when we hear baseball’s three most magic words “Pitchers and catchers report.”

— Hampton Stevens covers the arts and entertainment for regional and national publications. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri with his beloved pit bull. Follow him @HamptonStevens.

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