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Royals, not Tigers or Angels, could be biggest threat to A’s in American League playoffs

You have to be a semi-old dude like me to remember the last time the Kansas City Royals were perennially, disgustingly good. After all, they haven’t made the playoffs in 29 years, the longest postseason drought in North American sports. Hence, if you’re under 40, you probably don’t remember any of it.

It just so happened the last time they made the playoffs in 1985, the Royals also won the World Series, and if it wasn’t for umpire Don Denkinger and the lack of a replay system to reverse brutal calls at first base, they probably wouldn’t have that. But those early ’80s Royals teams were so loaded, with George Brett, Amos Otis, Frank White, Willie Wilson, Hal McRae, John Mayberry, Bret Saberhagen, Bud Black, Danny Jackson, Mark Gubicza and Dan Quisenberry.

The 2014 Royals aren’t to be confused with that group, but let this be stated right now: They are a team good enough to end their long playoff drought, and they’re good enough to make trouble for anybody who may have to face them in the playoffs. Right now, they’re giving the Detroit Tigers all they can handle in the American League Central, having taken over first place with their 3-2 win over the A’s and the Tigers’ loss to Pittsburgh. Ask the Giants what they think of K.C., which rolled them three straight over the weekend.

And the Royals seem to not fear the A’s much, either. They’ve now won 3 of 4 in the season series, have beaten Sonny Gray twice, and have demonstrated if they can carve out a lead early on, they are exceedingly tough to come back against, particularly in the late innings.

With that in mind, the Royals just might be a bigger playoff threat to the A’s than the Tigers or Angels. The Tigers have the great starting staff (although issues with Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez could change everything) and the Angels have a few imposing starters, that fabulous middle of the lineup and Huston Street. But neither of those teams have deep bullpens that can match the Royals. Nobody in baseball does, not even Oakland.

Deep, bullet-throwing bullpens can be dangerous in the postseason. Look at the Giants in 2010 and 2012. Look at the Cardinals in 2011. They didn’t hit bunches of home runs, but they could get a lead and hold on for dear life by getting six or seven innings from their starters and then dropping the hammer with their seemingly endless parade of back-end arms. And those guys didn’t throw nearly as hard as these K.C. cannon arms do.

What the Royals threw out in relief after rookie Yordano Ventura went the first six innings was positively frightening. Ventura was scary enough, throwing consistent 97-98 mph with good off-speed mix. With any kind of control, he would have been thoroughly dominant, but when he hit 100 pitches with one out in the sixth, he needed help.

No problem. In comes Kelvin Herrera, throwing 100 mph. Followed by Wade Davis throwing 95-98 with uncanny movement. And finally, Greg Holland to finish, also throwing 97-98.

Nasty Boys, to be sure. Herrera has a 1.65 ERA. Davis is at 0.89. Holland is 1.77 with 35 saves in 37 opportunities. The names may not be so familiar, but wake up. This is no mirage.

As Bob Melvin said afterward, “Those three guys are about as good as you get. They don’t worry about righty-lefty, they all get both out, and when they get to the seventh inning with the lead, they feel pretty good about it.”

“They all throw hard,” added Derek Norris. “They’ve been up-and-coming since I was drafted. They were the prospects in their organization they were talking about and how good they were. So they’re up now and they’re starting to make names for themselves. They’re very good.”

The Royals don’t have a scary lineup. They’re last in the majors in home runs with 71, although they added some juice by making a waiver deal for Josh Willingham on Monday. A’s fans need no background info on him. He’s a killer to them. With Eric Hosmer out and Billy Butler forced to play first base, Willingham will fit neatly into a platoon DH slot with Raul Ibanez until Hosmer returns, and possibly get some starts in left field as well.

The starting staff doesn’t jump out at you like the A’s or Tigers’ staffs do, either. But remember, they only need five or six innings from the likes of James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Danny Duffy and Jason Vargas. Just get a lead, and that bullpen will take care of the rest. Oh, will they.

Count me as a guy who believes to win the World Series, you need a knockout bullpen. The Royals may not have enough else to get them there, but they do have the knockout bullpen, and that trio could prove to knock somebody else out. If I’m Melvin or Billy Beane, I don’t want to go anywhere near those guys in a division series.

Sorry, all you armchair managers out there, I’m with Melvin on the ninth-inning strategy with runners on first and second and nobody out. On the road, you try to win the game, not tie it. Hence, you don’t bunt there. Norris was batting .514 with runners in scoring position and less than two out (18 for 35) and that only added to the logic of what the A’s did.

So it didn’t work out. That’s baseball. There’s no guarantee Norris gets a successful bunt down, either. He has precisely one sacrifice all year. Give Holland credit for making a good pitch on Norris and getting a double play. If he hits a double down the line, nobody’s whining.

Carl Steward