Royals have to show they can handle pressure of winning

06/21/2014 5:50 PM

06/21/2014 9:24 PM

The horror is in the beauty. The pain is in the joy. The danger is in the fact that you feel so damn safe, like you’re in a nice neighborhood, surrounded by friendly folks, so why lock your doors? Cops will tell you this is how burglaries happen — and recent Royals history will tell you this is how heartbreak happens.

We’re not supposed to talk about this kind of thing. Not now. Not out loud. Everything has been going well.

Even after three straight losses, the Royals are four games above .500. When you look up the American League playoff race, the Royals are there, in the middle of a pack of good but flawed American League teams. Ned Yost is smiling. James Shields is high-fiving teammates, even before games. Bob Marley booms from the clubhouse sound system, so let’s get together and we will feel all right. There is not a care to be felt around here, not a worry to be heard.

“We’re here,” Danny Duffy says.

“Pressure?” Alcides Escobar says. “I don’t feel pressure.”

They’re always so laid-back and happy at the beginning of horror movies, too. Look, it’s hard to go 28 years in a row without making the playoffs. A lot has to go wrong. You have to fail on many different levels. You have to draft the wrong amateurs and trade for the wrong pros. You have to throw a lot of bad pitches, and miss a lot of bad ones.

You have to fail on so many different levels that it’s a bit unfair to pick on just one, but on the rare occasion when other things are going right, it helps if you can fail when it matters most.

Last year, the Royals won their most games since the 1980s. Three players made the All-Star team. Three won Gold Gloves. They have made up so much ground. Other teams use the Royals as a model for how other teams hope to build. But the last hurdle between them and real contention is being able to back up a nice surprise with some real performance. The hard part isn’t putting together a nice run when nobody’s really watching you as much as it is keeping it up when it’s not just your friends and family paying attention.

This is the test the Royals have failed before. This is the test they must pass now.

The vast majority of guys in the clubhouse had nothing to do with creating this problem, but it’s one they must deal with all the same. This kind of thing is inherited, sort of like male-pattern baldness.

Back in 2003, the Royals somehow managed a first-place tie as late as Aug. 29. That was a comically undermanned group, so maybe they don’t deserve this, but they did seem to look around when the expectations came in September and realize they didn’t belong. They lost 10 of 14, and finished in third place.

The next real hope came six years later, in 2009, when a combination of financial investment and Zack Greinke deciding to sign a long-term contract conspired to put the Royals into the national conversation. They were a trendy pick to compete for a wild-card spot. It all seemed quite logical, too, when the Royals started 18-11 with a three-game lead in the division into May. By the end of the season, Trey Hillman had lost all control of the clubhouse and the Royals lost 97 games.

Two years ago, the Royals were again a trendy pick for the postseason. You probably remember 2012. That’s the year the Baseball America stars made it to Kansas City for opening day. The year before, once they had all been promoted to the big leagues, they played over .500 the last third of the season, scoring more runs than the Rays and allowing fewer than the Yankees. That 2012 team was booed 16 minutes into the home opener, and lost all but three of their first 17 games.

The evidence about this team scuffling with pressure is more than just anecdotal. A Royals fan points out the team is 10-29 over the last five seasons when more than 30,000 show up at the K.

Maybe that’s just a small sample size. Thirty-nine games out of 722 isn’t much. But perception can be reality, too, especially with a roster made up of bonus babies without sustained big-league success.

Right now, there are some people around baseball — not just Royals fans working through the sports version of PTSD, but real baseball people — skeptical of whether this group can be the one to break the pattern.

Nobody comes to Kansas City trying to win baseball games if they’re afraid of history, of course, and part of the appeal has always been the opportunity to do something historic.

It’s all there for these guys. They will be remembered, or forgotten, by how they handle it.

So far, they are handling it the way you would probably expect a bunch of 20-something professional athletes to handle it. They acknowledge the history, and the challenge, but swear to concentrate only on what they can control while maintaining the perspective of today’s goals.

The situation the Royals find themselves in right now is like an incubator for time-honored clichés. The Royals promise to take things day by day, one game at a time, to focus first on winning a game and then on winning a series.

“It’s nice getting all the hype, and people are realizing how good we’re playing,” Eric Hosmer says. “But it’s just a short stretch.”

If there is something real in the pattern, most likely, it’s a combination of past teams feeling out of place in front of the attention and letting their minds and focus drift when the compliments come.

And if you are looking for reasons to believe this is the team to break that pattern, you don’t have to look all that hard. This is not the Yankees or Dodgers, but by now, between James Shields and Omar Infante and guys who’ve made All-Star teams and been hyped by the baseball industry they’ve had their fair share of attention.

Alex Gordon has ridden the volatile wave of phenom to bust, and bust to All-Star without so much as a flinch or the comfort of a candy bar. Shields, in particular, was part of the worst-to-first Rays and brings a combination of confidence and humility that’s a model for his current teammates.

So for now, the Royals are saying and doing all the right things. They show up at the same time, put in the same work. Hosmer, actually, responded to the 10-game winning streak by adding to his pregame work since he’s in an awful slump.

This is a strange place for this team. They are better equipped to handle the new context of expectations than the teams that came before them but so far dance to an eerily similar soundtrack.

Most of them don’t want to consider the pattern that’s been set, and that’s entirely understandable. But ask Hosmer. He pauses for a second. Gives it a bit of thought, and then the most honest answer possible to whether this group can pass this last remaining test.

“We’ve never been in this position, so I don’t know,” he says. “That’s a question I can’t really answer right now.”

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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