DETROIT — The team that won’t go away is playing a season they won’t let drift. Not yet, anyway, and this is mid-August, which means we’re about two months past the Royals’ normal expiration date.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
There is no telling where this season will go. These Royals have been baseball’s worst and best team this year for stretches long enough to make a difference in the standings and their own minds.
The Royals came out of their most important single day of baseball in at least a decade with two long Eric Hosmer home runs, two shutdown pitching performances against baseball’s best offense, two Greg Holland saves and two wins against the division-leading Tigers here on Friday.
“Huge day for us,” Hosmer says. “Huge.”
The truth is that people inside and around the organization have been thinking about this day for months, ever since a rainout in April turned Friday into a day-night doubleheader.
The Royals remain on the fringe of a playoff race — 61/2 games back of the Tigers in the American League Central Division, and 41/2 back of the A’s for the final wild-card berth entering Oakland’s late game Friday night.
They are good enough for the believers and flawed enough for the skeptics. For now, what matters is that the Royals passed a big test and move their dreams into another day. Danny Duffy took a no-hitter into the sixth in the first win, and James Shields bullied his way through seven shutout innings in the second.
The Tigers haven’t been held to one run over two games since April. Pitching and defense, the way they’re supposed to win.
The best Royals team since before the strike in 1994 (when Hosmer was 4 years old) is extending its relevancy into football season. Fans back home have a legitimate decision to make when the Royals go head-to-head against the Chiefs, and on Friday celebrated in parts of Arrowhead Stadium as Luke Hochevar’s backdoor curveball locked up Prince Fielder to end the eighth inning of game two some 700 miles away.
The Royals have been everything from awful to the hottest team in baseball, so maybe it’s only fitting that their most important weekend so far began with another manipulation of emotion.
Thursday, they lost their third straight game, effectively ending the post-All-Star-break magic carpet ride.
Friday, they beat Justin Verlander (they’re 4-0 against him this year) and then the Royals’ imported ace led them to a sweep of the division leaders in front of two big crowds.
“We’re not quitters,” says James Shields, that imported ace. “We’re not going to quit.”
Shields and Wade Davis, who pitches Saturday and came over from Tampa Bay in a trade, are the only guys in this clubhouse who have been through something like this. And that’s not just a reference to a winning team.
Two years ago, their Rays lost the first six games of the season and were nine games out of a playoff spot in September before a historic comeback (and a matching collapse by the Red Sox) got them into the postseason as the AL wild card.
It was the largest September deficit ever overcome for a playoff team, so not exactly the kind of thing you want to bank on, but, well, why not believe?
At least while there’s still believing to be had?
“There are similarities,” Shields says. “I tell these guys all the time. Like, with the five-game losing streak before the All-Star break. I told them, ‘We lost a bunch of games and then ended up winning ten (of 12) after the break.’
“It’s easier for me to say, just because I’ve been there. But I think these guys are experiencing that now.”
Now, some context. The Royals are, basically, walking this tightrope to the playoffs without a safety net. The pitching was dominant Friday, yes, but it’s also true the hitters managed only five runs in two games. That brings their total to eight runs in the last five games with a lineup that’s sputtering without Miguel Tejada (out for the season), Lorenzo Cain (out for at least a few more weeks) and Mike Moustakas (unlikely to start until Tuesday).
There also must be at least some concern about Alex Gordon, who keeps showing moments that make you think he’s out of his slump but is two for his last 22 with eight strikeouts. At least on paper, the Tigers have the better pitcher going both Saturday (Doug Fister over Davis) and Sunday (Max Scherzer over Bruce Chen).
The Royals have proven themselves unpredictable enough that whatever you hear is just a guess. They probably have another run or another skid in them, and quite possibly both. This is, after all, the same team that came up limp against the Marlins at home but just beat Verlander and swept the division leaders in a doubleheader on the road — in the same week.
When the Royals lost their third straight game, you could feel the doubt setting in. When they won twice in the same day, you couldn’t miss the party.
This is a wild ride, already. Forty-one games remain.
More importantly, so do the dreams.