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Are The Royals Just Lucky? The Week In Sports

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

How I have missed that theme music. Storefronts and front porches across the country are decked out in orange and black. Is it the Halloween holiday approaching or might those colors be flying for the San Francisco Giants who are going to the World Series - again? They'll be meeting up with the most unlikely of contenders, so some say, the Kansas City Royals. Here to talk more about baseball and whatever else is on his mind is Mike Pesca of Slate.com. Hi.

MIKE PESCA: Hello, Rachel. It's so good to have you back in the Shi'ar of WESUN.

MARTIN: You miss me?

PESCA: Yes.

MARTIN: Oh, good.

PESCA: The hearth, the home.

MARTIN: The hearth and home. So I haven't exactly been following this, I'm not going to lie to you. But I head there's a World Series happening. The Royals, not expected to get there, so why are they there?

PESCA: They're there because they've won eight in a row. They win all these one-run games. Now winning one-run games, I suppose if you don't really look at the math too hard, that maybe speaks to your character and your grit and the ability to eke out a close one.

MARTIN: Yeah.

PESCA: But, you know, why would they suddenly turn on this ability in the postseason? In the regular season, they were only 22 and 25 in one-run games. So not going to say they've gotten lucky, but they've gotten lucky. Actually, they've been - they haven't gotten just lucky, they've been good in aspects of the game that we sort of deemphasize, especially if you're really into stats and, you know, prescribing - here's the things to do right and here's the things to do wrong. So they don't hit home runs, which you definitely should do. They don't take walks, which you definitely should do. But they do do a couple other things, like play defense and have relief pitching. That, you know, they're just kind of off the charts as far as that. And they seem a little bit blessed. And they're on this like eight game - 11 game winning streak if you want to go back to 1985, which doesn't make a lot of sense but it's fun to say.

MARTIN: But, I mean, America loves an underdog, right?

PESCA: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: So are they the favorite in this?

PESCA: I wouldn't say - maybe they are because they seem like they're walking on air and maybe - like who would bet against them? They haven't lost in the postseason. However, every fundamental bit of math and baseball and all that stuff would say they have been getting extremely lucky. They just made the playoffs as a wild-card team. They were down seven to three in the eighth inning. But there is one aspect - there's a couple things that are a little underrated even by the stats guys and defense is one of the things.

And my friends at Baseball Prospectus put together a story that asked the question, it's kind of a compelling case. Do they have the best defensive outfield in the history of baseball? Now when you say the history of baseball, you got to say no, but there haven't been too many other great contenders. It seems like the answer can't be yes, but maybe the answer's yes. The other great thing about the Royals is - and I'm sorry to give the Giants short shrift, but by dint of their excellence, like being there three out of the last five years, maybe we could gloss over them. The Royals are the cool, exciting new kid. But the other really exciting thing about the Royals is even if you don't love baseball, I could put together a highlight reel of the Royals and it will look better than a highlight reel of any team 'cause the things they do well are the things that translate to even the non-fan - sheer acts of athleticism - amazing catches in the outfield, great speed on the bases, and just like winning these two-run games and running around like idiots afterwards.

MARTIN: And it doesn't matter if they haven't been consistent, they just have to win when you need to win, right?

PESCA: I know, right? There've been - there are four more games. They can find consistency after they sweep the Giants or whatever. Exactly.

MARTIN: OK. So do you have a curveball for me?

PESCA: I do. Before this year, the teams that have gained - rushed and passed for under 120 yards on offense are...

MARTIN: We're talking about football now, just to be clear.

PESCA: ...College football.

MARTIN: OK, thank you.

PESCA: ...Were a collective 1 and 94. So if you don't gain 120 yards - 120 yards being the cutoff - you're going to lose. One team won. Yesterday Missouri won a game. They gained 119 yards on offense against Florida. And this wasn't like some eked out victory, they won 42 to 13 after only gaining 119 yards. Want to ask me how they did that?

MARTIN: How'd they do it?

PESCA: They scored in every way conceivable. They had a fumble returned for a touchdown. They had an interception returned for a touchdown, a punt returned for a touchdown. The game starts with the guy returning a kick for a touchdown. At some point they're asking themselves, are there ways to score that football hasn't invented yet?

Now they didn't actually look very good on offense. And Florida's coach might get fired after this year because of things like letting a touchdown be scored against them in every conceivable way. But this was a little bit of a quirk and also a little bit of a shellacking- 42 to 13 without doing anything on offense - one offensive touchdown. But really, an unimpressive day on offense and a shellacking.

MARTIN: Oh, man, a shellacking. I feel like I just had one.

PESCA: Wait.

MARTIN: Mike Pesca from Slate.com. In a good way - kind of.

PESCA: OK.

MARTIN: Thanks so much Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.

MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.