The players and coaches and executives with the Royals are fond of talking about how hard it is to win major-league baseball games, which is a bit like people in the Sahara talking about how hot it can get.
There may not be a group of fans in professional sports with a deeper or longer understanding for the difficulty of any sort of success, and so it’s fitting that the franchise with the longest playoff drought in North American sports made a symbolic step in a historically difficult way.
The Royals beat the Indians 4-1 on Wednesday, and you don’t have to reach for the importance here — a two-game sweep of a division rival, moving above .500 for the first time in nearly a month, and a promising recovery through their schedule’s toughest stretch after what they hope is their rock-bottom moment two weeks ago.
The way they did it, you don’t have to reach for the symbolism — no team has ever scored this many runs all on sacrifice flies in a win since the statistic was invented in 1954. Alcides Escobar turned a popup to deep shortstop into one of those runs, just the fifth time all season someone has scored on a ball caught by an infielder.
So this is a major step, done with major struggle, perfectly fitting for a team that will have to grind to make good on the promise of a crucial season eight years in the works. It is far too early for serious scoreboard watching, but the Royals pulled to two games behind Detroit in the American League Central Division and 1 1/2 games behind the Mariners for the last AL playoff spot.
“I’d be lying to tell you it doesn’t mean anything to get over .500, because it does,” manager Ned Yost says. “It’s a big thing.”
Royals fans have been trained by the team they love to lose hope after Memorial Day, and to react to most any sign for optimism with dismissal. You can’t have your heart broken if you don’t make yourself vulnerable, and the old duck-and-cover has saved a lot of grief over the years.
But this latest injection of hope comes in direct response to the season’s lowest moment, that three-game sweep by the last-place Astros that left even some of the believers in the clubhouse visibly shaken.
“That was hard,” Escobar says. “Wow, since I’ve been here in Kansas City, I’ve never seen a series like that.”
The players met, and challenged each other. They needed to grow up, and knew it. Some are calling the Astros series their wake-up call. Others see the timing as coincidence. Whatever, the variable chi of sports teams is impossible to predict and hard to describe even for the men involved.
But if this is going to end up as the season where The Process finally turns to The Playoffs, we will almost certainly look at the last two weeks as the moment it turned.
Back then, the Royals were losers of seven of nine, nose-diving toward the bottom of the standings. They faced 20 straight games against playoff contenders, a precarious team with wobbling confidence looking ready to hit the canvas. They sent their third baseman to the minor leagues and replaced their hitting coach, invoking the we-had-to-do-something strategy of the desperate.
And look at them now. Winners of nine of 13 against the Blue Jays (first place), Cardinals (second place), Yankees (second place) and Indians (second place until now). Baseball players tend to look at the standings a lot more when they’re winning, and you can hear more and more references in the clubhouse to the playoff race now.
The Royals will tell you these last two weeks are the indicator for what they are, not the previous two months, and in some ways they might be right.
There is nothing going on over the last 13 games that shouldn’t be vaguely replicable for this specific group. Their overall hitting numbers have climbed to around league average, and their run prevention is actually down a tick from the rest of the season.
Depending on how much you want to dream, Billy Butler has doubles in four of the last six games, Eric Hosmer has two homers in the last four, and Mike Moustakas has a homer, a double, a single and a hard out in his last five at bats.
On Wednesday, the Royals won in a very Royals way. They hit some line drives, but none over the fence. They stole some bases and made productive outs and grunted their way to that four-run goal that seems to be brought up so often around here. Escobar, Hosmer and Alex Gordon made highlight defensive plays.
Yordano Ventura — in his second start after leaving that first Astros loss holding his elbow — commanded the strike zone and handed a lead to the increasingly dominant combination of Wade Davis and Greg Holland.
This is largely the way they expect to win, in other words, and it has largely been the way they’ve at least temporarily put themselves back closer to the top of the standings than the bottom.
Royals fans have spent the entire last two seasons navigating wild ups and downs. By now, we should be used to this kind of thing, the dimming light of a sweep against the Astros followed by the sunshine of a 9-4 stretch through playoff contenders.
This is still a team with a significant weakness for every significant strength, of course. Two decades of failure have trained Royals fans to expect the worst, but this ripple of hope has come in sustainable ways.
Every day that goes by now with the Royals above .500, however long it lasts, will draw a few more courageous souls away from their layers of well-earned skepticism.