The Royals did Royals things and at least for now that means beating the best team in baseball and staying in first place. This is, pretty much, the way the front office designed this team to be on its best days.
We are in the middle of the best three weeks to be a Royals fan in at least a decade, Kansas City’s best team (on paper) in maybe 20 years finally playing like it and there can’t be too many better microcosms of that than a 3-0 win over the A’s on Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium.
At the end of it, Jason Vargas stood on the mound, an announced crowd of 21,099 screaming like a group much bigger, the chants of “Let’s go Royals” banging around the stadium as Vargas’ deceptively cruel 88 mph fastball rolled Sam Fuld over into a weak grounder for the last out.
Vargas clapped a few times, and hugged his catcher. Shutting out the best team in baseball is a heck of a way to show your teammates that whatever problems an appendectomy last month left behind will now be referred to in the past tense.
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“He got back to being who he was,” manager Ned Yost says.
Vargas is here on a four-year, $32 million contract because the front office made some calculations and determined that his fly-ball tendencies and let-the-hitter-get-himself-out style would play particularly well in a big ballpark and in front of the sport’s best defense.
On this night, he got all the offense he needed from Omar Infante, who hit a fastball from Scott Kazmir into the left-field bullpen for a two-run homer. Infante is here on a four-year, $30.25 million contract because the front office was desperate for a second baseman and thought his steady ways and 13 years of experience would be a good complement for a group still learning how to win.
There are more than six combined seasons and more than $40 million left on those contracts, so anything definitive is very premature, but those contracts were offered with the hope of many nights exactly like this.
For a franchise eight years into a rebuild, and a team coming off a nice-but-ultimately-empty 86 wins last year, it was especially critical for the front office to ace the offseason.
Some of this is covering its own previous mistakes, of course, most notably what felt like a permanent hole at second base and the lack of homegrown starting pitching before this year’s emergence of Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura.
The Royals will play 43 more games, so what happened on Wednesday is certainly more important today than what we’ll remember in a week. But if this season continues in a happy direction, the free agent signings keyed one of those wins that will stick out more than most.
Specifically, the Royals won the night after being blown out, pushing back any natural questions about whether the end of an eight-game win streak would bring the beginning of a buzzkill losing streak. That’s what happened the last time they surged into first place with 10 straight wins in June — losses in four straight and six out of seven, dropping from first place to four games out with remarkable quickness.
The Royals have a long history that predates every current player of doing enough good to lift the spirits of fans, and then enough bad to make them wonder why they believed in the first place.
Today, they remain one of the hottest teams in baseball, and the two new Royals helped build the case that these are the new Royals.
“This is a total different feeling,” Yost said when asked about the June streak. “It’s hard to explain why.”
That there were questions about how the team would react to the end of its win streak both amused and perplexed some players, but it’s the natural reaction from a fan base used to sniffing out disappointment.
This embedded skepticism has long been a private point of frustration among some players and others around the franchise — even those who empathize with the sentiment — but it’s quite possible that the team hasn’t made an assault on it like this in the last 20 years.
The Royals have now won four out of six this month against the best team in baseball. They swept a playoff team over the weekend, and no matter what happens on Thursday they will go to Minnesota having not lost a series since leaving Boston on July 20.
What’s even more important is they appear in strong position for the season’s final push. Yost and the starting pitchers have conspired to make sure a lockdown bullpen is among the freshest in baseball. The trade for Josh Willingham was a $1.836 million commitment from ownership to back the front office’s plan to cover a hole in the lineup.
And it’s a small sample, obviously, but the Royals have now hit 11 home runs in 12 games this month after hitting just 61 in the first 107. They are averaging 4.7 runs and have hit that all-important four-run threshold in eight of their last 13.
On Wednesday, the Royals continued their case against all of that natural skepticism. They did it mostly with their usual defense and pitching, with game-defining contributions from each of the big investments from last offseason.
This is basically how they were supposed to win all along, the Royals doing Royals things and at long last that means people walking out of this stadium with smiles on their faces.