Billy Butler, one of the driving forces behind the Royals’ push to the top of the American League Central Division, sat back in his chair at Target Field and reflected on the team’s path to this point. The 86-win campaign in 2013 fortified their backbone for 2014, when their goals are aimed much higher.
“Last year, for us to do that, what we did in the second half, it was a step for this group,” Butler said. “We still look to that. And that’s the reason why we’re not scared of nothing this time of year. We’re not scared to go out there and play aggressive. We’re figuring out ways to win games in way we didn’t know in the past.”
Butler spoke a couple of hours before Monday’s series finale against the Twins. His team had won 20 of its previous 25 games. He said the goal now is twofold: To maintain the team’s distance from Detroit in the division and to advance on the Orioles, the American League East leaders, to improve its standings for the playoffs. Baltimore entered Monday with a 2 1/2-game lead on the Royals.
“If you’re in first already, you’ve got to play for something,” Butler said. “You have to stretch your lead out. You have to look forward to something. So I think Baltimore is what we’re looking at now. Trying to gain ground on that.”
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Then, of course, Butler conceded the more obvious concern.
“I think, more importantly, we want to separate ourselves from the Tigers if we can. I think that’s the main goal.”
This sort of discussion would have sounded preposterous a month ago. On July 21, the team resided two games under .500 and eight behind Detroit. Butler still credits a team meeting held on July 22 as the catalyst for the club’s revival. A more likely explanation involves the improvement of two players: Nori Aoki and Butler himself.
Aoki punched up an .858 on-base plus slugging percentage as the leadoff man in the first 16 games of August. After Eric Hosmer was diagnosed with a broken hand on July 31, Butler took over first base. Over the next 17 games, his OPS was .896.
Butler recovered from a career cratering. The Royals dangled him at the July 31 trade deadline, and found few interested clubs, according to people familiar with the situation. Before Hosmer was injured, Butler was losing at-bats at designated hitter to players like Raul Ibanez and Danny Valencia.
“Where were we, in the middle of July, and I wasn’t seeing much improvement,” Yost said. “It was getting to where we were going to have to do something here. But, the resurgence hit, and he’s Billy Butler again.”
And he appears confident the team’s hot streak will last. He does not expect a recurrence of June, when the club fell out of first after stringing together a 10-game winning streak.
“Now we’re like ‘This is what we’re expected to do,’” he said. “We’ve shown we can play with the Tigers. We’ve shown we can play with the Anaheim Angels. We’ve shown we can play with the Baltimore Orioles.”
Hosmer waiting for next examination
Eric Hosmer is unsure when he will get his broken right hand will receive an examination again to determine his readiness for a hitting program. He indicated he could undergo an X-ray on Thursday’s off-day, perhaps back in Kansas City.