The losing streak was 10 days old, and the frustration had bubbled up, so Royals pitcher Danny Duffy spent a few minutes Monday morning thumbing through a magazine at his home. It was a mundane exercise, but he stumbled upon a quote he liked, he says, the kind of motivational stock that hits you in the moment, so he tapped out the words on his phone and shared the message with his 22,300 followers on Twitter.
“Sometimes its not about how good you are but how bad you want it.”
The quote felt innocuous enough, he says, generic and vanilla and not all that interesting. But moments later, his Twitter followers began tying the words to the Royals’ nine-game losing streak, wondering if Duffy was sending some kind of cryptic message.
“I saw this quote in a magazine,” Duffy said, sitting in front of his locker at Kauffman Stadium on Monday afternoon. “It could not have been portrayed as anything negative, and immediately people were like, ‘Shots fired!’ ‘Is this a challenge?’ ”
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Such is life in the middle of a losing streak, where the negative energy piles up, every moment and loss feels magnified, where it is always darkest before daybreak. On Monday, Duffy told this story with a certain purpose. Sometimes, he says, there’s no perfect way to react to a losing streak. The outside world wants answers. Fans want to hear stories about players-only meetings and “Win One For The Gipper” speeches. Sometimes you just have to ride out the storm.
“You can’t win sometimes when you’re not winning,” Duffy said, before pausing. “Does that makes sense? Gosh, that was a Yogi Berra-ism.”
It was, and maybe it worked. On Monday, relief finally arrived in the form of a 6-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox. The Royals snapped a nine-game losing streak and opened the month of May with their first victory over an AL Central opponent after eight straight losses.
The Royals hope this is the spark, that a run is coming, that a season can still be salvaged after a 7-16 start. They believe that, too. But there was nothing all that interesting about how the streak finally died. There were no team-wide meetings, Royals manager Ned Yost says. There were no post-game spreads flipped over. There was just a daily routine, the same preparation and focus, the process repeating itself day after day.
“We address things every day,” Yost said. “We’re not in the habit of promoting what we address so that people can feel better.”
It was Monday afternoon. Yost was sitting inside his office at Kauffman Stadium. The first game of a three-game series with the White Sox was still more than three hours away.
He had his iPad at his desk. He had a binder full of pregame materials, stats and numbers and vital baseball information. It was the same scene from the last 10 days.
As the losses piled up, Yost said, he sought to be as consistent as possible. It sounds boring enough, maybe even some coach-speak involved.
But Yost aimed for more than words. He eschewed team meetings for a more personal approach, inviting players into his office for one-on-one sessions. By Monday, there had been close to 10 of those, he said.
What’s going on? How are you feeling?
He sought to give his players breathing room. In moments, his concern would spike, his frustration would peak. How could this team, this clubhouse full of world champions, lose nine straight games? But outside of the changing standings, outside of a few terse moments after games, it was hard to see a difference in Yost’s overall demeanor.
“My job is to try to get us through this as quickly as we can,” Yost said. “As soon as you start incorporating that strategy, it lengthens it. It puts more stress on ’em.
“We’ve talked about this. If you’ve got a leader that’s panicking when times are going bad, what kind of leader is he? … Do you want your boss screaming at you when things aren’t going right and you’re busting your (rear)?”
So the Royals waited. They waited through nine straight losses. The waited through miserable series in Texas and Chicago. They suffered through two more losses at home to the Twins, closing out April with a 7-16 record and the worst offense in baseball.
“April is over,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said Monday night. “It was a bad month. It was an awful month, honestly.”
The team meeting, of course, can occupy a tricky place in baseball lore. When a team gets hot, it’s easy to retrofit the streak, to look back at a moment that might have set it off. But sometimes, Duffy says, it’s impossible to know. As former Royals manager Bob Boone once said, “Winners win, losers meet.”
“People think that it’s productive,” Yost said. “It’s not football. It’s not productive.
“What are you going to scream and yell about? ‘Let’s go? Let’s get some hits?’ ”
Baseball does not work like that, Yost says. You can’t fight out of a skid with intensity and anger. In his early days as a manager, Yost said he took a different approach. During his days in Milwaukee, he would yell and scream and rip into a young team. Once he arrived in Kansas City, he began to mellow. But there was a day five years ago, he says, after the Royals lost two of three. He invited his players into an adjacent room in the clubhouse and began to scream. The tirade didn’t have much impact.
“I think good leadership is to stay consistent,” Yost said, “stay positive.”
For now, Yost will stick with the plan. The Royals stopped a losing streak on Monday. They began another month. Hosmer and rookie Jorge Bonifacio clubbed homers, and Jason Vargas twirled a gem, and the Royals did not look like a team that had lost nine straight. And that, well … that was the point.
“The fact of the matter is the talent in this room is no different than when we won the World Series in ’15 and when we went in ’14,” said Vargas who improved to 4-1 with a 1.42 ERA. “It’s just a matter of putting good games together.”
So here they are. They are eight games under .500 now. They face a steep climb back to the top. The last team to make the postseason after losing nine straight during the regular season was the 2012 Oakland A’s. Designated hitter Brandon Moss was on that team. They were 22-30 on June 1, and then they just got hot. There’s no explaining exactly what happened, Moss says.
“Once we got to .500, we were unstoppable,” Moss said. “And it’s just … you never know? My gosh. As an individual, you come in one day and somebody says something that sticks in your mind. It clicks and then that belief in yourself just takes off.”
For now, the Royals are sticking to the same routine, the same plan. The coaching staff will offer the preparation. The players will try to produce. That, Yost says, is the only way forward.
“They have to produce,” Yost said. “That’s their part. You go out and be productive on the field. Our job is to prepare you to be productive on the field. That’s how it works.”