Did you hear the Royals had lost two games in a row prior to Saturday night’s win against the Red Sox? True story, and many fans were upset. The Red Sox stink this year, and even if the Royals won their five previous games, two losses in a row means worry. Maybe this is the beginning of the end.
Or what about Kelvin Herrera’s velocity being down? Dude’s fastball averaged around 97 mph in Cincinnati after being around 99 for most of the last month. He hasn’t given up a run in two weeks, but still. Ninety-seven? It’s amazing he’s still in the big leagues.
There’s also Sal Perez’s bat. He’s tracking for a career-worst on-base percentage. It’s also true that he was hitting .326 in his last 12 games heading into Saturday, and remains the game’s best defensive catcher not named Molina, but still. These are what pass as concerns for the Royals these days.
You know, Greg Holland isn’t the same. He’s walking more batters than ever, striking out fewer, and, well, this one actually is a legitimate concern. Or, to be clearer: as legitimate a concern as can be had about a closer whose converted 120 or 129 saves the last three seasons and is on a team that’s lapping the American League field at a historic pace.
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These are strange times for the Royals and their fans. For a generation, you didn’t have to look for reasons to worry as much as reasons to worry attached themselves to you, like a jellyfish.
Since the strike in 1994 — Eric Hosmer was 4 years old then and, presumably, only learning proper bat-flip technique — this is the third season worth remembering. The previous two come with significant caveats, at least in terms of reasons to worry.
In 2003, for instance, the Royals somehow won 16 of their first 19 and smoke-and-mirrored their way into first place as late as August, but, let’s be honest. They signed Jose Lima sight-unseen from an independent league because someone heard his fastball was in the mid-80s. There was plenty to worry about. They finished in third place, seven games back, which felt entirely appropriate.
Then last year, the Royals ended up giving Kansas City its most thrilling sports ride in 29 years. But to get there, they went through another miserable May, replaced another hitting coach, heard another round of calls from some fans for the manager and general manager to be fired, and were under .500 after the All-Star break. Before that epic comeback in the AL Wild Card Game, some team executives were searching for flights to scout the fall league the next day.
Now? The Royals are, and somehow the math makes sense on this, a 100 percent lock to make the playoffs. It is entirely possible that the Class AA Northwest Arkansas Naturals could play the rest of the big-league team’s schedule and protect what is an absurd 12 1/2-game lead in the American League Central Division.
For a franchise and a fan base used to trap doors at every turn, this is a bit like a lifelong hitch-hiker getting a ride on a Gulfstream IV jet. This kind of luxury is foreign around here. You’ll have to pardon folks for looking out the window and muttering, man, that’s a long way down.
Ending a 29-year playoff drought with a run to the World Series was always going to make for a strange dynamic, no matter what happened this year. But, honestly, who does this?
The Royals haven’t had a division lead this big since 1980. They actually have a bigger lead on the AL East-leading Yankees for the best record in the AL (six games) than any other team has in its division.
Baseball isn’t used to seeing this kind of thing. No AL team has been this far ahead at this point in the summer since 2008. Before that, it was 2002.
To be sure, the success has helped spread wild confidence around parts of Kansas City. Any group of people as large as fans of a major-league baseball team cannot be accurately painted with such a large brush, and the trades for Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist filled the club’s two biggest and most obvious needs.
There is an entirely different feel than in years past. Inside the organization, they are talking about maintaining focus, of “not watching the scoreboard,” and attempting the balance between rest and rust.
Nobody expected this, of course. This is a confident group. Part of that is because this is a group of professional athletes, a demographic that, next to rap stars, rock stars and surgeons, might be America’s most confident subset.
So, sure, the Royals expected to be back in the playoffs. But they also expected to fight for it. Before the season, unprompted and in separate conversations, two executives and two coaches talked about the division race coming down to three or fewer games, same as last year. In the clubhouse, the vibe was unshakable confidence after winning the pennant but also supreme respect for the Tigers’ run of four consecutive division titles.
“Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we were the best team in the American League,” one team official said. “We weren’t. We were one of them, but we didn’t even win our division.”
That’s all so different now, even as executives and coaches have begun to repeat we still haven’t accomplished anything.
Among some fans, there is a strong and honest fear that the same thing could be said in three months. The same way you hear about people stuffing a new windfall of money under the mattress because they don’t trust banks, there are some Royals fans missing out on an amazing run because they don’t trust the standings.
To play professional baseball requires a stubborn optimism. It is an unrelenting grind filled with failure, and you can’t get through something like that without focusing on the positive.
But watching professional baseball can lend itself to worry. Away from the grass and dirt, the mind can wander. Pitchers break down, you know. Why did he swing at that pitch? Why is Ned sticking with Rios? It’s easy to forget that other teams have bigger and realer problems.
The Royals are in such a strange place right now. Forty games remain . That’s the exact amount general manager Dayton Moore and many others around the game cite at the beginning of the season as a fair representation of what a team is.
But beyond Alex Gordon’s return from a severe groin injury, the Royals are unlikely to learn anything about themselves over these final 40 games. The goal is to avoid injuries, get healthy, and use the cushion to, for instance, get Holland back to his accustomed form before the playoffs.
But, mostly, the Royals are like the couple who has the party all set up four hours before the guests arrive and spend the afternoon double-shining the spoons.
Baseball’s unpredictable nature means certainty does not exist. The Blue Jays have David Price and a ridiculous lineup. The Astros have two terrific starting pitchers and hit a ton of home runs. The Yankees have good hitters and a very strong bullpen. The Angels employ Mike Trout.
Once in the playoffs, of course, it becomes more of a lottery. Baseball people often use the term “small sample size” to downplay recent trends, but by definition the playoffs are won with small sample sizes.
Last year, that unpredictability helped the Royals go from a wild card to the World Series. This year, it means being the best team in the American League guarantees nothing other than home-field advantage in the division series. These are first-world problems, like the WiFi on your flight being slow.
Royals fans have dreamed for years about having these types of problems. It’d be a shame if they missed on some of the fun worrying about nothing.
Last week, an anniversary passed without much talk. Ten years ago, the 2005 Royals lost 19 games in a row. That was the streak of the Chip Ambres Game and Buddy Bell saying “I’ll never say it can’t get worse.” That was the team that gave us 106 losses and finished 43 games out of first place.
Those were the days Royals fans had real worries.