KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Luke Hochevar was a member of the Kansas City Royals who advanced to the World Series a year ago. He was in the dugout for every playoff game, took part in all the champagne celebrations, got an American League championship ring after the season.
He never threw a single pitch.
That makes this year’s return to the World Series so much sweeter. Now recovered from Tommy John surgery that sidelined him last season, Hochevar has been able to contribute to the success of the club that made the reliever the No. 1 overall pick in 2006.
“It feels great. There’s no other way to explain it,” Hochevar said. “To experience it last year was unbelievable. To have the opportunity to come back and do it again is even better.”
The easy argument is the Royals are back because they’re the same team of a year ago. Their core players that became household names against the San Francisco Giants, such as first baseman Eric Hosmer and outfielder Lorenzo Cain, are still doing their thing in Kansas City.
The reality is the Royals are back largely because of all their new faces.
There were only 12 players on their 25-man roster for the AL Championship Series against the Toronto Blue Jays who were on the roster against the Giants. Just four of those were pitchers, and the only starter was Yordano Ventura, who helped Kansas City to victory in the decisive Game 6.
The Royals used the same roster in the divisional round against the Houston Astros and figure to have a similar makeup when they open the World Series on Tuesday night against the New York Mets.
“This is a different team,” manager Ned Yost acknowledged, “but we play the same.”
By that, he means the Royals still rely on pitching and defense. They still win by making fewer mistakes than the opponent. They still cause havoc on the base paths and rarely strike out.
It’s just that the cast of characters doing it is slightly different.
The Royals walked on an expensive option on designated hitter Billy Butler, signing Kendrys Morales to replace him. The move proved to be brilliant: Morales hit 22 home runs during the regular season and has hit four more during the playoffs.
“He’s been the middle-of-the-order bat from the first day,” Yost said. “He put up tremendous numbers, power numbers, RBI numbers, he’s been great from both sides of the plate.”
In the field, the Royals moved on from right fielder Nori Aoki by signing Alex Rios, who is hitting .333 in the first playoff appearance of his 12-year career. Second baseman Omar Infante has been hurt, so deadline-acquisition Ben Zobrist has taken over, hitting .326 while driving in six runs this postseason — including two home runs against Toronto.
The backup catcher has been Drew Butera rather than Erik Kratz. The utility men have been Paulo Orlando and Christian Colon, rather than Josh Willingham and Jayson Nix.
All of them easily could be considered upgrades, but it’s among the pitchers where the differences are most stark: Along with Ventura, the rotation consists of Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto and Chris Young, whereas last year, it was James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas in the postseason.
Volquez was the Royals’ big offseason signing after Shields left in free agency, but Young was signed at the start of spring training after spending time away from the game and pitched his way into the playoff rotation, dominating the Blue Jays in Game 4 of the ALCS.
“When I started here, I had a conversation with [general manager] Dayton Moore,” Young said. “I said, ‘Look, I want to be a part of a winning club. I believe I can contribute, help your team, and I’ll do whatever you need me to do.’ And, the Royals said, ‘OK, we’d love to have you.’ Now, to have this opportunity, I just can’t thank the organization enough for believing in me.”
Cueto was acquired at the trading deadline, and while he made a historically bad start in Game 3 against Toronto, he also dominated Houston in the decisive Game 5 of the divisional round.
In the bullpen, all-star closer Greg Holland and left-handed specialist Tim Collins are out because of Tommy John surgery. Brandon Finnegan has been traded; Jason Frasor was released. In their place are Hochevar, Kris Medlen, Franklin Morales and Ryan Madson, another reclamation project who was out of the game before Kansas City gave him one last chance.
Although the core group that ended the Royals’ 29-year playoff drought is back, it’s a new batch of players who will try to help them win their first World Series since 1985.
“We feel really confident,” Zobrist said. “We just keep coming, one after the other. It says a lot about how this club thinks about themselves. We believe that each guy is going to get the job done. We’re not looking for one guy to do it. We’re looking for everybody to come with their best game. Somebody always shows up to get the big win for us.”
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