SAM MELLINGER

An April without a long Royals losing streak? That’s what pitching can do

Updated: 2013-05-03T16:01:13Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

The Royals have become something like an incubator of stink over the years. Grown adults with marriages and mortgages have come to know summers in Kansas City by humidity, highway construction, and another Royals losing streak.

For years, you haven’t known when the next winless week would come, just that it would happen — like a dropped cell phone call in the middle of nowhere. Being a Royals fan means being a connoisseur of losing streaks, able to tell the difference between the tragicomedy of a 19-game fall in 2005 and the frustrating panic of a 12-game skid last April.

Food critics can tell how much thyme is in the pasta. Royals fans can tell how much hopelessness is in the losing streak. Which makes the start of this season so entirely strange.

The Royals’ longest losing streak is two measly games. Two. That’s not a streak as much as it’s a coincidence. By this time last year, they’d already buried the season under a 12-game losing streak. The April before that, they lost six in a row.

Think about this: the Royals have lost at least three games in a row in 16 of their last 17 full months of play. In the one exception (August of last year) they lost four of five. Actually, in those 17 months of play the Royals have had 18 different losing streaks of at least five games. This is a different experience for Kansas City.

This is a new pitching staff for the Royals.

“That’s why,” manager Ned Yost says.

The Royals have lost twice in a row three times this season. As it happens, their starting pitchers for the next game have been Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana and James Shields. In those starts, they pitched a combined 21 innings, giving up 17 hits, four earned runs, five walks and striking out 20.

It’s a quirk that the Royals’ three best pitchers started the game after a second consecutive loss, but it’s absolutely part of the plan that they’ve helped stop the avalanche of failure that’s doomed so many previous seasons.

“They talk about some guys who are stoppers, but everybody’s just trying to pitch well,” says Guthrie, scheduled for Friday. “That’s my focus. I don’t try any harder or focus more if we lost the night before. It’s just a product of having good pitching.”

You’ve probably heard some form of “there’s just a different feel around this team.” It’s a cliché, but this is where it comes from.

Last year — most years — you could expect a two-game skid to turn into five based on nothing more than pitching matchups. Guys would never say it out loud, and they’d argue if you implied it, but everyone knew the deal. The Royals’ top two starters from last year are now long relievers, which is how it should be with a good team.

We sports fans often make too much of intangibles, but this is one that matters. There are few things more invigorating than a baseball season with meaningful games, and few things more defeating than one without them. This is not to say the Royals won’t have a losing streak — the World Series champs lost five in a row last year — just that they have a different confidence now to get out of it.

To paraphrase Jarrod Dyson, that’s-what-pitching-do.

This rotation makeover is hiding a clunky offense. The Royals are 10th in the league in runs, but first in the division in large part by winning six games with three or fewer runs. Last year, they won their sixth such game on June 5. Fourteen of the Royals’ first 25 games have included a so-called quality start (six or more innings, three or fewer runs). Last year, they needed 41 games for 14 quality starts.

This is like going from microwave pasta to Garozzo’s. It’s the difference between forcing a smile and having something to smile about, and you don’t have to spend much time around this team to feel it. Guthrie says he has to catch himself from going to the ballpark too early, which is a nice change from when he was in Colorado last year.

“There wasn’t much positive there waiting for me,” he says.

That’s the change now, and part of why the Royals gave up the best power-hitting prospect in baseball for Shields, $12 million for Santana, and a $25 million contract for Guthrie.

There has been much debate over the wisdom of the Royals investing so much in “now,” when their best teams might still be a year or three off. But at least for the moment, it is why this is shaping into Kansas City’s most interesting baseball summer in a decade.

Royals fans have been trained to know the difference.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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