The Royals’ slump is officially A Thing. We can all agree on that. They are scoring runs at a snail’s pace, scoring three or fewer in all but four of their last 18 games, but the real tell goes beyond the numbers.
Walk around the clubhouse. Talk to people. You will hear words about not pressing, not trying to do too much, about the confidence in their talent, all of it shorthand for, basically, Yeah, we stink right now.
The Royals have been through this before. They lost to the Cardinals 3-2 here on Saturday. They managed just five hits. They struck out 10 times. They are hitting just .208 over the last three weeks. But, again. Those are numbers.
Royals fans know that a slump isn’t really a slump until Ned Yost tells that story about Bobby Cox. You have probably heard this one before, but it’s from Yost’s time as a coach with Cox, and back then Yost was particularly feisty. Intense. Cox was that way, too, but when it came to slumps he was maniacal about staying consistent.
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The Braves would slump and Yost would ask Cox the same questions the reporters asked him. When are you going to do something, Yost would ask. You have to keep your players comfortable, Cox would respond. Eventually, sure, the manager might get to a point where he’s ready to make a change.
“And then I’m going to wait another week,” Cox would say.
The Royals are nine games over .500. They are in first place, by two games, and own their league’s best record. They have a culture of resiliency and belief, and own American League championship rings that reinforce the approach.
So, yeah. Yost is at least a week away from making any major lineup changes, or anything else drastic. A failed run in Milwaukee reinforced those lessons from Cox. When Yost was fired by the Brewers, he promised himself that if he had another chance to manage he would smile through the struggles.
“Ten years ago, (I) probably would’ve done something,” Yost says. “But I think I’m a better manager than I was 10 years ago.”
Slumps can feel like shackles. Like you’re trapped. Like you’ll never get out. Little things seem to always go against you, then always turn into big things. The heat feels hotter. Fastballs look faster. Curveballs look curvier.
On Saturday, the Royals used a lineup stacked with right-handed hitters. Alex Gordon was the only lefty against Cardinals starter Tyler Lyons, who had given up a .188 average to lefties. So, of course, Gordon homered off Lyons and then popped up with two on and two out against right-handed closer Trevor Rosenthal in the eighth.
The Royals probably would’ve scored earlier in that inning, but Jason Heyward made a blind catch on a fly ball from Alex Rios that came right out of the sun. There is no way to measure these things, but, man, it sure feels like that kind of luck goes against when you when you’re struggling.
The Royals homered twice on Saturday, and since the start of last season, they had won 27 of 31 games when homering at least twice. On this day, both homers came with nobody on base.
Yost will make vague references to this, but part of why he isn’t making massive changes is that the whole team is struggling. He jokes sometimes that the Royals are such a close team they do everything together, including slump, and it’s all there in the results.
Rios batted third in the Royals’ righty-heavy lineup, Yost hoping the move might “jump-start” him, but Rios struck out twice and is now hitting .105 since returning from the disabled list. Eric Hosmer has three extra-base hits in the last three weeks. Alex Gordon has just six hits in 31 at bats this month.
During the team’s three-week hitting slump, Omar Infante is five-for-58, Alcides Escobar has a .205 on-base percentage, Lorenzo Cain is hitting .222, and Kendrys Morales is hitting .211.
The good trends are easier to track. Mike Moustakas is continuing a remarkable breakout season, and Sal Perez has five home runs in his last 12 games. That’s about it.
It’s ugly, is the point, and everyone knows it. The most obvious change would be to replace Infante with Christian Colon, or Rios with Jarrod Dyson or even Paulo Orlando, but Yost is committed to what he’s been doing.
The Colon move is the one that makes the most sense, and it’s the one that a growing chunk of the industry thinks the Royals should do. Unless Infante pulls out of this, it’s the move Yost is most likely to make, too.
But it has to be a strange feeling for Royals fans to have these legitimate complaints and concerns with a first-place team. The new Royals have earned the benefit of the doubt. Getting out of last May, and away from the struggles of last July, earns a team a certain amount of capital.
With an AL champions flag in left field, the same explanations about patience are grounded in reason a year after sounding like empty hope.
The burden of proof is now on the prosecution, in other words. The Royals will get out of this. They’ve done it before.
Alex Gordon is standing in front of his locker, answering questions from a dozen or so reporters. Baseball players are relentlessly optimistic, a defense mechanism to survive in a game defined mostly by failure, and there might not be anyone in this room who better embodies that characteristic. Few in the game have leaped over more professional hurdles.
So Gordon is talking about the usual, about not trying to do too much, and about focusing more on the process than the result, and at some point he can feel the line of questioning is a little more negative than he’d like.
“We just swept Minnesota,” he says. “So to be in the dumps like it sounds right now, the way everyone’s talking, I know we don’t feel like that.”
A reporter responds. So we should cheer up?
Gordon laughs a little.
“Yeah,” he says, and it’s good advice.
The Royals are in a slump. They are also in first place.