Barbecue sauce stings the eyes. Feels a bit like fire on the pupil, like a tomato-based blanket you can’t really blink away.
The only way to get the sting out is patience, but that can be hard when you just won a baseball game with your biggest hit of the season and your teammates have put you in the middle of a mosh pit and someone just pulled your jersey up to your shoulders and now you’re wondering if the season is saved.
“I wish I knew the barbecue sauce was coming,” Eric Hosmer is saying.
Those words come with a smile, of course, because this is the Royals clubhouse after another win. That weird neon deer sign by Bruce Chen’s locker is lit again, the air is foggy again, and everyone in here is smiling again.
They are three games under .500 and 51/2 games within the Tigers after what might be the signature win of the season: 3-2 in 10 innings, a remarkable comeback highlighted by Lorenzo Cain’s two-out homer in the ninth, and finished on Hosmer’s sharp single in the 10th.
A home stand that began with the team tracking what would be the most disappointing season in franchise history — a significant accomplishment — ends with the Royals believing in themselves again, and why not?
Baseball can be funny like this. A week ago, we were deciding who needed to lose their job. And the list was long. The Royals were sputtering, again, one more season’s promise buried under one more soul-numbing stretch of losing — 19 in 23 games, a full month between wins at home. Did anyone outside this room think this feeling would come back?
Momentum in baseball is a moody minx, but this is, finally, a team that feels good about itself again. And ignore what they say publicly about that, by the way. A lot of these guys were overwhelmed during that 4-19 nightmare — too many drifting too close to being defeated.
Management saw that. If not, they wouldn’t have fired the hitting coaches and hired George Brett —the only man in the organization
with the juice to challenge the players’ ability.
Brett is no magic fix. He is the first to admit that, and the Royals are scoring 3.3 runs per game with him after averaging four runs with the old coaches. But the results that matter are changing. The Royals are 9-4 since the switch, and have now won seven of their last eight.
The Royals have hope again. Honest, real, sane, non-delusional hope.
The problems that ruined their Mayaren’t gone
. The strengths that pushed their April aren’t, either.
This is such an important season for the Royals. Jobs and reputations and major decisions are at stake, even more than a typical year in the big leagues. This has created a lot of overreactions, in both directions. We expected the Royals to be around .500 this year, and here they are — three games under.
They survived Justin Verlander, kept in another game because of James Shields’ talent. This is the kind of game the Royals had in mind when they traded for Shields, and they held close enough for long enough to celebrate their most dramatic win of the season.
Cain hitting an 0-2 splitter from Jose Valverde into the left field seats will be on the year’s highlight tape, along with Hosmer wiping barbecue sauce off his face. Ned Yost spent most of the miserable losing stretch talking about “one game at a time,” and that his players weren’t losing confidence, but you can hear a more contextually honest message now.
“There’s a little more meaning to it,” he says, “when you’re down to your last strike, you haven’t had anything going your way all day long offensively and then to strike like that and tie the ballgame up and come back and win it the next inning is always extremely satisfying.”
The Royals are now 30-33, which gives them 99 games of possibilities. Last year, the Tigers started 30-33 and ended in the World Series. The Red Sox started a game better and ended up losing 93.
The Royals have a second chance. The outcome is still theirs to determine. The league’s best pitching staff and a rotten division mean they can dream.
Their season depends on what they do with the opportunity.
“The season is so long,” Billy Butler says. “You feel like a week ago is almost like a month ago. You just play so many games. May feels like so long ago you can’t even really register it right now. We’re just enjoying the good times and we’ll see if we can make them last a lot longer than the losing streak.”