As was the case a year ago, the Royals emerged from the season’s second weekend having played the Oakland A’s and leading the division.
But the team’s conversation topics could not be more different.
A disappointing 3-2 loss in the series finale Sunday, a winning first road trip, solid starting pitching and a need to hit better in the clutch were all relevant issues for the players, some of whom used the off day to participate in a golf tournament for Royals Charities. Manager Ned Yost was scheduled to accept an award from the Kansas City Sports Commission at their annual banquet.
What they weren’t talking about were purpose pitches, hard slides, retaliation and other unwritten codes of conduct and acceptable displays of emotion that made the Royals a target of other teams and shaped a reputation, at least in that moment, as baseball’s bad boys.
Consider this stat: After 12 games the Royals haven’t been hit by a pitch.
After 12 games last year, they had been plunked 14 times, including twice in each of the first two games and three times in another. Then the team had to deal with the hard slide into second base and shortstop Alcides Escobar by the Oakland’s Brett Lawrie.
The Royals would soon have to work out lineups and pitching duties altered by suspensions.
“We definitely had some incidents there were we were tested as a team,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “I think everyone saw how we responded to it and where we went with it.”
Where the Royals went was a World Series championship, and long before the postseason rolled around the team’s troublemaker image had faded away.
It has not returned, but the Royals believe there is some carryover emotionally from last year.
“The biggest thing compared to last year is the energy level,” Hosmer said. “It’s the same. We’re playing with the same passion, the same energy. There was a concern from people are they going to be complacent? Will they have the same energy? I think we’ve matched it.”
So, it’s better baseball that drives the conversation as the Royals prepare for a six-game home stand beginning Tuesday with the Tigers. The Royals started Monday 8-4, tied atop the Central Division with the White Sox, who played the Angels on Monday. The Tigers are 7-4.
The moment’s most pressing issue is offense, specifically hitting with runners in scoring position. The Royals succeeded in their first such situation on Sunday. Hosmer opened the second inning with a double, moved to third on a Kendrys Morales ground out and scored on Alex Gordon’s single to center.
But the Royals had six more plate appearances with runners in scoring position and failed to score each time. Mike Moustakas provided the only other run with his team-leading fourth homer.
“Had chances, just couldn’t capitalize,” Yost said after.
The same with Saturday’s 5-3 loss. The Royals were three for 11 with runners in scoring position. It’s a small sample size, but the Royals entered Monday’s games 23rd in baseball and 11th in the American League with a .213 batting average with runners in scoring position.
Last year, the Royals hit .281 with runners in scoring position, second in baseball, and they led baseball with a .278 average with runners in scoring position and two outs.
The encouraging number over the first two weeks is starting pitching. Royals starters own a 3.07 ERA. A year ago, that number was 4.34 for the season. Again, a small sample size, but only Chris Young has not performed up to or ahead of expectations.
What’s not too early to conclude is a team playing with a focus based in statistics and not ejections or suspensions.