(Reuters) - The waiting game will soon be over for the Kansas City Royals, who last played for the World Series crown 29 years ago and who host the San Francisco Giants in Tuesday’s opener of Major League Baseball’s championship series.
Besides waiting nearly three decades to return to postseason baseball, the Cinderella crew will have cooled their heels for five days since extending a record unbeaten playoffs streak to 8-0 by sweeping the American League Championship Series.
“This city’s been waiting for this for a long time,” Kansas City’s Game One starter James Shields said on the eve of the best-of-seven series. “It’s definitely a special moment for us.”
The city has gone Royals-mad, with one craze creating big business at barbershops where fans have flocked to get “The Hos” haircut, a modified Mohawk style worn by hard-hitting first baseman Eric Hosmer.
As eager as the young, exuberant Royals are to resume their magical ride in front of an adoring Kauffman Stadium home crowd, that magic will be tested by San Francisco’s left-handed ace Madison Bumgarner in the opener.
The 25-year-old Bumgarner has become a postseason master with five wins and a 2.67 career earned run average going back to the Giants’ charge to World Series wins in 2010 and 2012.
This postseason he has pitched 31-2/3 innings, nearly triple the innings of the next closest Giants starter, and posted a 2-1 record and 1.42 earned run average.
The long grind of another postseason run has not ruffled the unflappable Bumgarner, who has set a record 26-2/3 consecutive scoreless postseason innings on the road.
“Honestly, I feel the best I’ve felt all year for the last probably two months,” said Bumgarner, who was 19-8 this season. “I feel really good.”
Giants manager Bruce Bochy said having Bumgarner on his side was a comfort.
“This guy has a lot of experience pitching on this stage and pitching in big games,” said Bochy, who has steered his team to nine consecutive postseason series wins. “The good ones are the ones that are able to handle themselves and even raise their level of playing in games like this.”
While the wild card Royals and Giants made quick work of their respective league championship series, they both had to battle through tight games.
Kansas City have relied on brilliant defense and blazing speed, while the resourceful Giants have taken advantage of miscues with clutch hitting and sound fundamental baseball.
Both teams liberally utilize bench players and get contributions from unlikely sources.
Leading the Giants in postseason RBIs is not former National League MVP Buster Posey or 2012 World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval but journeyman Travis Ishikawa, who was rescued from the minors late this season.
The bullpens on both teams have been virtually unbeatable, putting a premium on seizing an early lead.
“I can’t think of a team that reminds me of the Royals,” said Bochy, whose team was swept by Kansas City in a three-game series this season. “I think we’re similar in the way both teams keep fighting and play with a lot of heart.
“The way all this has come down, they remind me of us a little bit. A little different style of game, but how they’ve come together at the right time and how much they fight.”
Writing by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue