DETROIT — The most anticipated Royals series in a decade began with all the thump of a feather, all the excitement of a nap, all the interest of a man making himself a ham sandwich.
By Sam Mellinger
The Kansas City Star
The Royals’ wild card dreams aren’t finished — yet. The possibility of their most interesting September since The Great Fluke Of 2003 isn’t totally squashed — yet.
But if you’re feeling defeated then, well, you come by it honestly.
The Royals started their potentially season-defining five-game series against the division-leading Tigers here with a whimper, a 4-1 loss on Thursday that pushes them to 51/2 games back of a playoff spot. They’ve now scored — hold on, grab a calculator — three runs in their last three games which makes May seem much more recent than it did last week.
“Every game’s important right now,” left fielder Alex Gordon says. “Especially in the Central Division.”
The Royals have four more here this weekend, including two on Friday. There are 43 games left to make up ground. Kansas City doesn’t have much experience with playoff races — even the fringe of playoff races. But it’s worth noting that on this day two years ago, the Rays were nine games out of the American League wild card and the Cardinals were six and both made the playoffs (with help, obviously).
Still, the truth is the Royals are a slightly better than .500 team coming out of a three-week dream sequence.
That’s better than they’ve been in a decade, at least, but the last 25 games put bigger thoughts in everyone’s heads. There is no eject button for that, no happy wake-up call without some deserved disappointment and frustration first.
There is still plenty of time for them to change that narrative, of course. But if the Royals aren’t a team regressing back to the mean after an incredible high, then they sure do strike a close resemblance to one.
After hitting .281 and averaging 4.5 runs per game in the first 24 games after the All-Star break (all but five of them wins), the Royals are hitting .162 in these three consecutive losses.
A small sample, sure, but it coincides with the Royals losing three key players after 41/2 months of remarkable health.
Lorenzo Cain might’ve been the team MVP; now an oblique injury might keep him out another month. Mike Moustakas was slugging better than David Ortiz after the All-Star break; now he hasn’t played since Monday with a calf injury. Miguel Tejada was filling a deep hole at second base; now his season is over and the Royals are hoarding discarded utility infielders in his place.
The Royals that are playing this weekend aren’t the same Royals that hustled back into the playoff picture, in other words.
“It hurts,” manager Ned Yost says. “But you have to find ways to cover it. That’s what good teams do. You find ways to cover it.”
Except the Royals aren’t a good team yet. Or, more accurately, they’re not the kind of team that can march onward through a playoff race without the possible team MVP, a hot bat, and beloved veteran who was already covering for the deficiency of his teammates at second base.
In the big picture, the Royals are improved. A franchise on the come. There are real reasons for optimism. They remain close enough in the standings that another late push is possible, and talented enough at key spots that a better run next year should be expected.
But a record payroll, rare midseason success and a defining trade of baseball’s top prospect for a top pitcher mean this is all being consumed differently — and should be.
The current front office has already stretched the boundaries of legitimate patience, and part of the transition to a winning club should include increased expectations and raised standards.
The last three weeks have captured Kansas City’s imagination in a way baseball doesn’t achieve much anymore back home. Record TV ratings. Bulging lines at the ticket window. The Royals had the industry’s attention with a 17-3 run, but the fans should be forgiven if three losses in a row have brought back awful memories.
Progress is nice, but there are no trophies for remaining in a playoff chase through mid-August.
This is the best the Royals have been since before the strike in 1994, and they still have more than a quarter of the season to write their own story. It’s just that if the first 24 games after the All-Star break showed a glimpse of how good they can be, the last three games leading into an important weekend have been a reminder of how bad they were in May.
The Royals don’t get the benefit of the doubt. Haven’t for a while. Three straight losses have been like a shower of reality after three weeks of a dream. No matter what happens this weekend, the Royals will likely have their best season since before any current player was in the organization.
But the rest of the weekend will largely tell all but the most optimistic fans whether they should keep dreaming. That dreamy part of the season was fun. It felt big.
It’s been far too long since watching the Royals felt big.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.