The movie montage portion of this Royals season is now officially over. If they are to finish off a dream season, they will have to do it in reality.
Reasonable folks knew that at least a small slump like this was coming. You can’t win ‘em all, the saying goes, but for around a month the Royals were about as close as baseball allows, a season-changing stretch in which they went from as many as eight games out of first place to as many as three games up.
But baseball has a sort of calibration that puts an expiration date on even the best streaks. Now comes the part where the Royals react.
They lost again Friday night, this time 6-1 to the Indians in front of 31,341 fans and through a rain delay. Their lead in the American League Central (and wild card) is down to a half-game. They have now lost four of their last six after losing just six of their previous 30.
This is a blip in the course of a 162-game season, of course, but it comes around that time that baseball people often talk about hitting a wall. They have genuinely struggled all week, leading at the start of an inning just once. Alex Gordon’s walk-off on Tuesday and the big eighth inning on Wednesday are the lone bright spots. All together, the Royals have been outscored 30-16 this week.
Let’s be clear and reasonable here: Only a fool would panic. After all, Saturday marks the latest the Royals have been in first place since — wait for it — 1985. Even with just 28 games left, it’s a stretch to talk about a season being at a true crossroads.
Panic is not what this about.
This is about the Royals playing their first mediocre week in six, a dream-ride from the brink of irrelevancy all the way into first place dropping them off in a virtual tie and street fight for the franchise’s first postseason in a generation.
If the Royals are a playoff team, we’ll remember August as the month they made it possible and September as the month they confirmed it.
A sorry franchise history filled with collapses at the first sign of trouble have understandably put this fan base a bit on edge. But if these are indeed the new Royals, then the franchise’s best team (on paper) in 20 years is about to prove it.
If nothing else, this particular group has shown itself more than capable of forgetting about yesterday and focusing on today and living out all the other everyday-is-a-grind clichés of a brutally long major league baseball season.
By the end of May, it got so bad they fired the hitting coach. The Royals immediately won 15 of 19 and surged into first place.
By the middle of July, they responded to their manager’s claim of being a second-half team by losing their first four games of the second half. They were eight games out and scored one, zero, and one runs in consecutive losses. Some fans wanted them to sell at the trade deadline. Then the Royals won 24 of 30, enough that they are playing in front of the biggest TV audience in Kansas City many nights and more than 30,000 people on others.
Point is, as nice as it would be if the Royals could avoid those most extreme dips, they have proved themselves capable of responding with strength.
And that’s in the face of real worry, not a four-out-of-six blip. And with much less of a prize in the immediate foreground.
There are fine-tunings needed. Omar Infante is expected to start at second base on Saturday, and he’s been missed. The starting pitching is still very good — Jason Vargas gave up four runs over six innings, just the third time in 11 games the Royals’ starter has given up more than two earned runs — but the bullpen could use some rest. The bats, obviously, have cooled.
The immediate forecast has to be good for the Royals to show this week as the exception. James Shields pitches Saturday, and Danny Duffy on Sunday. Indians ace Corey Kluber, one of the best pitchers in the American League this year, won’t pitch in Kansas City. His next start is Monday, against the second-place Tigers.
In the broadest terms, this wildly inconsistent Royals season has shown one bankable constant — when the team hits, it wins; when it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
Toward that end, it’s worth noting that one rival evaluator said he sees some signs of fatigue in the Royals. Of course, nobody feels fresh at the end of August. A lot of times, the teams that separate over the last month are the ones able to push through to their second winds.
Whatever the details, the Royals find themselves in the exact spot they’ve been talking about for some time. They are a good team that’s in a good position for a playoff spot. How well they do there may be disproportionately determined by how well they keep this week to a blip instead of a trend.
They’ve already proved themselves capable this season, over and over again.