Royals have bigger goal than a wild-card berth

08/09/2014 10:13 PM

08/09/2014 11:52 PM

They are scoreboard watching in the Royals clubhouse and that’s just the start of the weirdness. This is the season that makes no sense.

This is the team that demoted a key player and fired the hitting coach and sat out the trading deadline and is still within an arm’s reach of a playoff spot. Just as Eric Hosmer was starting to live up to all those scouting reports, he’s out for up to another month and the injury is basically a line of demarcation for his teammates dragging this season out of the garbage.

None of it makes sense. But this bit of scoreboard watching is stranger than all of that. It is early afternoon on Saturday and the clubhouse televisions are turned to the Tigers-Blue Jays game. It is the bottom of the 10th and Toronto’s Nolan Reimold just hit a line drive into the left field gap and all of a sudden there are a lot of Blue Jays fans in this room.

“GO DANNY!” someone screams through a wall. “GO! GO! GO!”

That’s Danny Valencia they’re cheering for. That’s Danny Valencia, who the Royals traded to a fellow wild card contender in no small part for clubhouse chemistry. But at this moment, that’s Danny Valencia running around the bases against the Tigers — so at this moment Danny Valencia is the Royals’ favorite player.

He scores, so the Blue Jays win and more importantly the Tigers lose and now the Royals are smiling. The more you think about it, the more this moment feels as strange as anything that’s happened in this room since the day an outfielder shot a reporter in the eye with a pellet gun.

“Yes sir!” someone screams.

This is what a team does when it is chasing a division championship, and not the second wild card.

The Royals beat the Giants 5-0 in front of 35,114 fans on Saturday night. James Shields dominated. Alex Gordon homered. Billy Butler hit more line drives. Mike Moustakas drove in another run. This was the best version of The Process.

The Royals are now 62-53, at the moment occupants of one wild card spot but also 1 ½ games behind the Tigers in the American League Central. This is the closest they’ve been since June 21. They have won six games and six series in a row. Overall, they’ve won 14 of their last 17. If this season turns out to be a movie, we’re in the middle of the montage.

“We’re all doing a little bit of scoreboard watching,” Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain says. “This is the first time I’ve been part of something like this.”

There are still 47 games left. Royals fans know their hearts can be broken much quicker than that. But all of those feelings Royals fans have grown used to seeing on fans in other cities are spreading around Kansas City. They have not been to the playoffs in 28 (and counting) years, the longest drought in major North American professional sports. Ten players on the active roster were not alive when George Brett hugged Bret Saberhagen back in October 1985.

There is a convincing case to be made that the Royals — the Royals — should be thrilled with a playoff spot, any playoff spot, even if it ends up being one game on a weekday afternoon in Anaheim. It is generally a bad look for a homeless man to turn away a steak because it’s overcooked.

But there is more to focusing on the division than the idea that if you aim for the stars you can land on a cloud.

The Royals absolutely should be thinking about the division first, and second wild card … um, second?

That’s what they’ve been telling anyone who asks, and if it sounded like company line stuff, the scene in the clubhouse tells a strong story and the look of the standings legitimizes the whole thing.

This Royals season has already been as steady as a toddler on a sugar rush, so if we’ve learned anything it’s that what appears to be true today is often a bad joke tomorrow. So let’s all be adults here and understand there are a thousand things that can go wrong still, especially for a manager and team with shaky track records when under pressure.

But the Royals’ aim is where it should be. The Tigers have — get this — as many starting pitchers who’ve won Cy Young Awards as the Royals have starters who’ve won 10 games in a big league season. But they also have a lot of issues.

Saturday is a pretty good example. Joe Nathan blew his sixth save on Saturday, a day after needing 26 pitches and a diving catch with the bases loaded to avoid blowing one. The Tigers picked up Joakim Soria for insurance, but on Saturday he walked off the field holding his back. Joba Chamberlain came in and coughed up the game, wrapping a wonderfully awful day that began with the fire alarm going off in the team hotel.

Look at it like that, and it sounds a lot more doable than chasing the three-time defending division champions with the $174 million payroll. And we didn’t even mention Anibal Sanchez’s injury, or the fact that nobody in the American League has given up more hits or earned runs than Justin Verlander.

This isn’t just a Tigers thing, either. The Royals have one more game against the Giants, then four against the A’s this week. But after that, a nine-game road trip against the Twins, Rockies and Rangers. After that, nine of 10 games against teams currently under .500.

The Royals are new enough at this that they shouldn’t be thinking too big-picture, but there is a real chance to make up some ground here.

This is the point of the season where urgency starts to trump patience, and you can see it in the way the Royals have operated. In June or July, maybe Sal Perez is the designated hitter in Friday’s game instead of backup catcher Erik Kratz. Before last month, Yost seldom used Wade Davis on back-to-back days. Davis has now pitched three consecutive games twice in the last three weeks.

This is what a team looks like when it understands there is no more margin for error. This is what a team looks like when it is chasing (the division) instead of protecting (the second wild card).

We are now at the part of the column where we make it clear this season has at least a dozen more twists. There is enough season left that, depending on the winds, there could be a good case made for Yost to be manager of the year or a good case to be made for him to be fired.

The Royals have not been to the playoffs in a generation, and they’ve been given up on a handful of times by most fans already, with injuries and heartbreakers and all of the other letdowns that come with a long season.

But 115 games in, they’re also the team scoreboard watching in the clubhouse, rooting for their closest competitor in the wild card race because they have bigger goals in mind.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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