In franchise history, the Royals have had only four winning streaks longer than the nine-gamer that ended last week. Since two of them were in 1977 and one was in 1978, the one that most people reading this probably remember was the 14-game streak in 1994.
The recent winning streak got me thinking about that 1994 one. There are some similarities: same time of year (both started on July 23), a somewhat similar record at the beginning (49-47 in 1994, 46-51 this year), and both brought the Royals into at least the conversation about the playoffs. While this year’s team basically could not gain any ground in the division race, they have at least put themselves in the wild-card hunt (thankfully there are two wild cards now, not just one like in 1994). The 1994 team went from 9.5 games back to make the AL Central race a three-team dogfight with Chicago and Cleveland.
The 1994 Royals entered the season with high hopes, after an 84-78 record in 1993 left them 10 games behind Chicago in the AL West. In the realigned American League, they would be competing with Chicago, Cleveland, Minnesota, and Milwaukee. The Royals had finished 1993 with better records than those last three teams, so why not expect contention?
But the Royals instead hovered around .500 through the first half of the season. While the rotation–anchored by David Cone and Kevin Appier, with Tom Gordon and Mark Gubicza having solid seasons as well—was holding up its end of the bargain, an inconsistent offense kept the Royals from any sustained success. The Royals were a veteran team, with only three regulars under age 30: 29-year-old outfielder Felix Jose, 26-year-old outfielder Brian McRae, and a 26-year-old rookie named Bob Hamelin. But the veteran lineup didn’t draw walks or hit for much power, so they were often dependent on collecting a lot of hits to win. At least they had some speed, with offseason acquisition Vince Coleman and McRae at the top of the order.
And of course, looming over the whole season was the prospect of the players going on strike. The knowledge that a work stoppage could disrupt the season meant that every game had a little extra urgency.
“We don’t play Cleveland again until September. That’s why this road trip is so important. We have a chance to play two teams in front us right now (Minnesota and Chicago). Who knows how much of the schedule is going to be wiped out?”—Brian McRae, quoted by Blair Kerkhoff in the Kansas City Star, June 26, 1994
The Royals entered the All-Star Break at 45-42, 7.5 games behind both Cleveland and Chicago. They alternated wins and losses for the first five games after the break, then won the first of three games in Milwaukee. Then they dropped three in a row, falling to 49-47 and 9.5 games out.
“I think we will get on a streak. We haven’t done so yet. But it’s coming.”—manager Hal McRae, quoted by Jeffrey Flanagan in the Kansas City Star, July 22, 1994
McRae probably couldn’t have imagined it would happen so soon. Cone kicked off the streak the next night with eight dominant innings against Detroit (12 strikeouts, one run, two hits) and Hamelin and Jose both hit solo home runs in a 4-1 win. The Royals won the series the next day, using a Detroit error, three singles and a double to score four runs in the fourth inning on their way to a 6-4 victory.
Up next? A four-game home series against the division-leading White Sox. The first game was a classic, with Appier and Chicago’s Jack McDowell dueling to a draw. After nine innings, the score was tied 3-3. In the 10th, Brian McRae led off with a walk, stole second, and went to third on a groundout. The White Sox intentionally walked Wally Joyner and Hamelin to load the bases. This strategy backfires often, but on this night, it worked. Mike Macfarlane grounded into a double play to end the inning. In the 12th, the White Sox took a 4-3 lead. Three outs away from falling back to 9.5 games out of first, the Royals rallied. With one out, Dave Henderson singled. Joyner singled and Henderson took third. Hamelin stepped to the plate, looking for a fly ball to at least tie the game. He did better than that, much better. Hamelin drilled Roberto Hernandez’s first pitch over the center-field fence for a 6-4 walkoff win.
“When you leave the other team standing out there, that’s a great feeling. You can’t get any better.”—Bob Hamelin, quoted by Dick Kaegel in the Kansas City Star, July 26, 1994
The win streak was at three. Since a five-game streak in early April, the Royals had had five different three-game win streaks, only to lose the fourth game each time. But this time, Gordon hurled a masterful seven innings, and when he got in trouble in the eighth, Billy Brewer and Rusty Meacham retired Robin Ventura and Darrin Jackson, respectively, with the tying run at third and one out. The Royals escaped with a 3-2 win and were 6.5 games out.
The streak reached five with Gubicza shutting down the White Sox for seven innings, followed by a three-run eighth for a 4-1 decision.
The Royals turned to Cone to continue the streak, and he came through by limiting Chicago to three runs in 7 1/3 innings. Kansas City scored four runs in the fourth, and Jeff Montgomery shut down a scoring threat in the eighth to preserve the win.
The sweep of the White Sox actually helped propel Cleveland into first, but the Royals were 5.5 games behind them and 4.5 behind Chicago. Royals Fever was sweeping Kansas City—a crowd of more than 35,000 fans watched the last game of the Chicago series. David Glass—not the owner yet, just chairman of the board following Ewing Kauffman’s death the previous summer—actually interrupted Hal McRae’s postgame media session to congratulate the manager.
And yet the threat of a strike loomed ever closer. Hours before the last game of the White Sox series, the players association set a date of August 12 for the strike. That made the situation seem much more desperate. As far as anyone knew, August 12 might be the end of the regular season, with the playoffs starting immediately after the strike was resolved.
On the field, the Royals swept the Twins in a weekend series at Kauffman Stadium. Gaetti hit two home runs in game one and Jose de Jesus pitched seven innings, allowing only two runs on seven hits before Hipolito Pichardo worked two innings for the save, moving the team to within 4.5 games of first.
For a while, it looked like the streak would end at seven. The Twins got to Appier for four runs in the sixth inning for a 4-1 lead. The Royals answered with a Hamelin home run in the bottom of the inning to make the score 4-2, but Scott Erickson was perfect in the seventh and eighth innings. With three outs left, the Royals were still down two runs. But a Minnesota error opened the door, and Jose Lind’s single scored Jose with the tying run. Terry Shumpert was thrown out at home on the play, but at that point a win felt inevitable. In the 11th, two hits and a sacrifice bunt set up Brent Mayne’s game-winning single.
“It’s all psychological. It’s base runners, not about ‘We need base runners.’ We’re pumped up. We’re executing, we’re pitching, we’re—Hal McRae, quoted by Jeffrey Flanagan in the Kansas City Star, July 31, 1994
The momentum continued the next day, as the Royals scored seven runs in the first three innings. Gordon was not sharp, but Meacham and Pichardo combined for 4 1/3 scoreless innings in a 9-5 win. The Royals closed out July at 58-47, 4.5 games behind Chicago but only two behind Cleveland.
The Oakland A’s rolled into Kauffman for a four-game series, but the Royals were more than ready. Gubicza’s eight shutout innings set the tone in game one, while Brian McRae homered, singled and drove in three in a 4-2 win. In game two, Cone struggled early but the offense came through for a 6-4 victory. In game three, Hamelin’s two-run blast in the fifth opened up a tight game and the Royals went on to a 9-5 win. That home run was the 23rd of the season for Hamelin, breaking Bo Jackson’s record for a Royals rookie.
Lucky win number 13 finished off a sweep of the A’s, with Appier dominating Oakland into the eighth inning and the offense scoring two runs in the eighth for breathing room in a 5-3 win. At 62-47, the Royals were two games behind Chicago and 1.5 behind Cleveland.
The original schedule had the Royals going to Seattle for three games, but due to ceiling tiles falling in the Kingdome, all of the Mariners’ home games had been changed to road games. So the Royals had a break—three extra home games. Since the series wasn’t originally scheduled for Kansas City, the Royals offered $6 tickets (only $3 for general admission!) on a first-come, first-served basis. More than 25,000 showed up for the first game of the series, an 8-0 romp behind Gordon’s eight shutout innings.
A White Sox loss on that Friday night meant that Chicago and Cleveland were tied atop the AL Central, with the Royals one stinking game behind.
But of course, all winning streaks end eventually. The next day, the Mariners bashed Gubicza, jumping out to a 9-0 lead by the middle of the fourth inning. The final was 11-2. The Mariners delivered the kicker the next day. The Royals held a 4-2 lead after six innings. But Seattle exploded for six runs in the seventh inning, beating up Cone, Brewer, and Meacham in the process. Ken Griffey Jr.’s three-run home run broke a 4-4 tie, and the Mariners took a 10-6 decision.
The Royals would lose the next night in California, win the next one, and drop what turned out to be the final game of the 1994 season. They ended up 64-51 on the season, three games behind Cleveland and four behind Chicago.
Obviously, the difference between the 1994 streak and this most recent one is that there is no strike looming. That story had an ending, I guess, but a lousy one. Let’s hope this one has a happier ending.