50 Greatest Kauffman Stadium Moments, #27: Royals Clinch AL Central Title (September 24, 2015)

Note: April 10, 2023 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first game at Royals/Kauffman Stadium. Each week, I will look at one memorable moment in stadium history, with the top moment revealed on April 10, 2023. Missed an entry? You can find past ones here.

When MLB realigned into three divisions before the 1994 season and added a wild-card berth (and then kept adding them), the old fuddy-duddies told us that the new ways would make division titles less special and pennant races less interesting. I have to say, I think they were right, mostly. As evidence, I submit the difference in emotion between the Royals’ 1985 division title, and the next one they earned, in 2015. A team winning their first division title in 30 years ought to be a huge deal, but since the playoff drought had ended the previous season with the wild-card berth, the celebration of a divisional crown felt a bit…muted. 

This is not a complaint, of course, just an observation. It didn’t help that the 2015 title was, by the time Kansas City clinched, almost a formality. The Royals entered their game against Seattle on September 24 with a 10-game lead and 11 games left on the schedule. Although the Minnesota Twins had put up a good fight for most of the season, the Royals pushed their division lead to double digits in early August and led by 13 games at the beginning of September. So that’s why this division title is lower on the list than the others.

As for the game itself, the Royals beat the Mariners, 10-4, in a game that was a bit tighter than the score indicates. Kansas City entered the game knowing a win would clinch a tie for the title, and a win and a Minnesota loss meant the race was over.

The Royals scored one run in the bottom of the first as Ben Zobrist doubled with one out and scored when catcher Jesus Sucre threw a pickoff attempt into center field. But the Mariners answered with a run in the second off Royals starter Johnny Cueto, as Mark Trumbo singled and Brad Miller doubled. Mike Moustakas put the Royals back in front with a home run leading off the bottom of the second.

Seattle grabbed the lead with two runs off Cueto in the fourth, as Robinson Cano led off with a single, Seth Smith doubled, and Trumbo doubled to drive in both runners. But Cueto, who was one of the Royals’ big trade deadline acquisitions, shimmied out of trouble by retiring the next three batters. 

Meanwhile, the news on the out-of-town scoreboard was good, as Cleveland had built a 6-0 lead over the Twins.

Eric Hosmer homered in the bottom of the fifth to tie the game, and then the Royals began the late-inning offensive explosions they were known for. With two outs in the sixth, Alex Gordon drew a walk and Zobrist doubled. Lorenzo Cain singled to left-center, scoring both runners although Cain was thrown out at second. 

The Royals added two runs in the seventh. Hosmer was hit by a pitch to start the inning and Moustakas walked with one out. Alex Rios singled for one run, moving up to second on the throw home. After Salvador Perez was intentionally walked to load the bases, Alcides Escobar grounded into a forceout, scoring Moustakas for a 7-3 lead.

With a solid lead, the Royals now turned the game over to their strength, the bullpen. Ryan Madson pitched a scoreless eighth, then the offense tacked on three runs in the bottom of the inning. Moustakas drove in two with a single and Rios added the exclamation point with an RBI triple. By now the final had come in from Minnesota, with the Twins losing 6-3. The Royals were just three outs away from the title.

Wade Davis gave up a home run to Kansas City native Logan Morrison in the ninth, then walked Miller. But he recovered to strike out the next two batters, then got Kyle Seager to ground out to Hosmer, with Davis covering first, to end the game.

Of course, there were all the usual trappings of a division title celebration: a mob of players, hugs in the dugout and suites where front office members were watching, T-shirts, champagne, and so on. But another factor that had changed since 1985 came into play: back then, home-field advantage rotated between the East and West divisions each year. Now, in 2015, the Royals had 10 games left but still needed to hold off Toronto for home-field advantage throughout the postseason. So there was certainly a sense that the job wasn’t finished. But no matter what happened the rest of the way, the Royals could at last claim another division title.

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