Even by this franchise’s own impressive standards, the last week or so has been what we might as well call a Royals-coaster.
They have won with brilliant pitching and lost when the pitcher was left in too long. They have won with raw power and lost when a pinch runner got picked off.
Their critical season continues to twist in the breezes of a reality in which six of the expected nine regulars are either not in the lineup or significantly underperforming. And that’s just on the field.
Off the field, they have grumbled about criticism in the newspaper and boycotted a radio station. They’ve even reacted to Twitter. A struggling young slugger went passive-aggressive to the media after a big game, which sent management into damage control. They stood by their player, then benched him, then demoted him for everyone’s benefit.
This is a stressful time, and that stress is showing through. You can hear it in manager Ned Yost’s daily news conferences and in conversations with others around the team, both uniformed and not.
Nobody ever said this would be easy, but the only way the Royals are going to like what they see on the other side of this stressful stretch is to grow up.
Big-league baseball is more player-controlled than any other major sport, so this has to be on the players to fix. That means ace pitcher James Shields has to do even more to change where this team is mentally and with accountability. First baseman Eric Hosmer has to mature into the All-Star he’s supposed to be. Catcher Sal Perez needs to remind the teammates who look up to him what really matters, and what really doesn’t.
Bluntly: It’s up to the best players on the team to make these things happen.
Because this is a talented group, but not accomplished enough for some of the arrogance being shown. A promising group, but without the kind of margin for error to waste time with irrelevant drama.
They need to understand — not just hear, but understand — that if they win, nothing else matters. They will be kings of the city, even after the Chiefs start playing, because while winning baseball games in Kansas City has specific challenges compared to some other markets, it also comes with enlarged rewards.
Even before acknowledging that every player and coach on the team is dealing with real-world personal stress like anyone else, that’s a lot to take on. It’s also the job description of the big leagues.
A year ago this week, the Royals talked George Brett back into the dugout as hitting coach. General manager Dayton Moore asked Brett to “rescue us mentally,” and in Brett’s first public comments, he referenced Gerber (yes, the baby-food company) and said he wanted to get rid of the baby bottles.
At the time, the team’s need for big-boy pants was concerning but natural. That group had never played under real big-league expectations. They were used to the ease of the minor leagues and the cushion of being young in the major leagues. Over and over, directly and otherwise, Moore has referenced that mind-set as part of the club’s motivation in trading for Shields.
And Shields has brought a certain professional swagger to this team. He’s a daily model for how a big-leaguer should carry himself — the right combination of confidence and humility, intensity and perspective.
But it’s clear this team needs more.
Before last season, Yost unofficially announced that the Royals were in Phase Two of their rebuilding project. Winning would be the only thing that mattered. No more leaving a young player to hit in a crucial spot as a learning experience if there was a better option on the bench. No more wearing the struggles of a young starting pitcher as an investment for the future.
On the field, the Royals have stuck with that promise. Jeff Francoeur is gone. Billy Butler was moved down in the order when his slump reached a certain point. Mike Moustakas was benched, then sent to Omaha. Sal Perez plays whenever possible because you never know when his backup is going to let three wild pitches go by in a one-run loss.
We can disagree about the details in any of that. The Royals should’ve made the moves with Francoeur and Moustakas sooner. Butler too, probably. But those are moves that they (or other teams, for what it’s worth) probably wouldn’t have made in a lower-stress, development-first phase.
Moving from development to winning isn’t just about strategy. There is a different attitude required, a stronger focus — a different “approach,” as baseball people like to say.
That’s no easy thing, but the Royals should be better with it. Left fielder Alex Gordon has a productive, quiet intensity. Perez plays with an inclusive and contagious joy. Closer Greg Holland takes his job seriously, but not himself. Second baseman Omar Infante has been on three playoff teams, teammates with Ivan Rodriguez and Chipper Jones and Justin Verlander and others.
It’s a good mix of backgrounds and personalities, in other words, but at least so far these guys are still wasting too much energy and time on things that are both irrelevant to their jobs and out of their control.
It’s not just Brett who has noticed this, either. The lack of maturity has long bothered and been subtly referenced by many former Royals, and is now being noticed in other baseball circles, too.
Again, this is a talented group. Their pitching and defense are among the best in baseball, good enough to wrestle one of the league’s worst offenses to the middle of a pack of flawed teams competing for a wild-card spot. There is more reason to believe that the hitting will improve than that the pitching will fall off, but either way, this is a group that needs complete focus and cohesion and a little bit of a luck to make it all work.
They’re not going to get there worrying about what’s said by media or fans. They’re not going to get there by cultivating needless drama. They’re only going to get there by growing up.
Because if they win, nothing else matters.
And if they lose, they’ll have all the drama they want.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to email@example.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.