Vahe Gregorian

Royals have been clutch after the All-Star break

Updated: 2013-08-28T20:28:12Z

By VAHE GREGORIAN

The Kansas City Star

They slinked into the All-Star break losers of nine of 15 games, including the final five in a row to put an exclamation point on another apparently aimless season in the making.

So when pitcher Ervin Santana on July 18 tweeted “we will own second half,” it seemed more an irrationally ambitious or amusing thought than an actual forecast.

Naturally, the Royals since then have produced a first-confounding and now-spellbinding turnaround.

On Monday, they beat Miami 6-2 for their 19th win in 24 games to move into second place in the American League Central – 6.5 games behind Detroit -- and lurk in contention for their first playoff appearance since 1985.

Having the 2012 All-Star Game in Kansas City might have been a milestone, but the 2013 All-Star break may loom as more meaningful for the city for the reset button it presented the Royals.

“We needed something at that time,” first base coach Rusty Kuntz said. “It let us stop and catch our breath and refocus … We had that opportunity, we pushed it and, boom, these guys took off.”

But there had to be a specific, pivotal moment that changed it all, right?

A team meeting, maybe. Or someone flipping over the postgame buffet in a rage. Or, say, an exorcism or séance. How about at least a pep talk?

Only there was nothing like that, unless you count what manager Ned Yost said on July 14 in Cleveland when he was dismissing the team for the break.

“ `Skip’ said, `Hey, everybody, get some rest, go see your families, come back refreshed and ready to win some ballgames,’ ” reliever Greg Holland recalled.

That was it.

Not exactly fire and brimstone or words likely to be recorded for posterity if the Royals continue this charge into the postseason.

Yet it basically speaks to what’s happened.

Yost contended for weeks that the right team is here, that despite its painful May and general volatility the solution was to keep grinding away and patient.

His critics were contemptuous of such statements, and, of course, he might have said such things without any of this ever happening to back him up.

But now there is little denying something substantial has turned. And it actually may have started that Sunday in Cleveland in a moment some around the Royals believe had a meaningful impact on the mindset of the team entering the break, a moment the modest Holland wasn’t inclined to mention.

As frustrated players were shedding their uniforms in the clubhouse, Yost finished speaking by breaking the news to Holland and them that he’d been added to the American League All-Star team.

It changed the mood in the room, as players congratulated Holland, who gave the Royals a third All-Star for the first time since 1988, and was the last impression they had in their minds before going their separate ways.

There also were those in the room who’ve experienced the wild ups-and-downs of baseball and seen it come out favorably, perhaps most notably pitcher James Shields, acquired in the offseason from Tampa Bay.

That Sunday in the clubhouse, Shields wasn’t so much discouraged as he was cognizant of the Rays once losing what he recalled as seven straight games going into the break and winning 10 in a row on the other end.

“I know how many games are left … We still have a lot of room to gain ground,’ ” he recalled thinking on July 14. “If you have that kind of peace of mind, you’re going to be able to play to your maximum potential.”

Peace of mind seemed to be the prevailing mood into the All-Star break.

“Took my little girl to the water park and just hung out,” designated hitter Billy Butler said.

It was different for Yost.

“I went home and had a miserable four days,” he said.

But he didn’t let it show to the players, anyway, nearly all of whom were back on Thursday the 18th for a voluntary workout.

“We all came back with new energy,” pitcher Bruce Chen said, recalling that Yost’s continual message had been “we’re right there, we’re right there.”

He added: “The front office and coaching staff didn’t make any drastic changes, they didn’t panic. And that gave us the confidence that these are the people who are going to be with us all season long.”

Their belief in themselves was founded in at least one way: pitching and defense always were going to give this Royals team a chance to win.

And yet …

“You’ve got to remember, pitching keeps you in games,” Kuntz said. “But it’s the hitting that wins the game, and that was the ingredient we didn’t have on a consistent basis.”

While it had gotten more and more so, or at least more timely, no one outside the organization would predict what started with a trickle, winning the first two against Detroit before losing back-to-back games.

Then came a nine-game winning streak, part of 13 wins in 15 games entering last week’s series against American League East-leading Boston.

By then, the confidence was pinned on more than mere faith from a team that at one point this season had lost 19 of 23 and seemed destined to finish below .500 for the 10th straight year.

Once it clicked, Kuntz said, it “snowballs,” sending confidence “through the roof right now.”

How much does that matter? Chen thought it was all the difference against the Red Sox, who took a 6-3 lead in the second game of their series

“In the years past, when we’d face a team like Boston … we would have been like, ‘OK, here it comes,’ ” said Chen, whose work as a starter also has been of numerous factors in the post-break surge. “But now it’s like, `OK, they scored some runs, and then we score some runs. And then they score some runs, and we score some runs.’

“And then we score more than them.”

After that 9-6 win, Santana quoted Miguel de Cervantes when he tweeted, “Thou hast seen nothing yet.”

That may or may not be true. There is plenty of season ahead, including a momentous five-game series at first-place Detroit starting Thursday, and the Royals already have demonstrated they are prone to extreme swings.

But they’ve also shown they seem to be able to handle that -- without so much as a magic moment to ignite it unless you count a pause just at the right moment.

“It was probably a good time,” general manager Dayton Moore said, “for us to take a little break.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868, send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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