When the pressure’s on, the Royals turn off

07/20/2014 9:32 PM

07/21/2014 10:24 AM

Hope is not a plan. Belief is not a right. Patience went out years ago. You want to talk about the problems with the Royals? That’s a good place to start.

So is this:

They regularly shrink as the moment grows.

As much as anything, that is the mark of these Royals. They laid down with four hits and no fight in a rare game that even the same-day-everyday baseball establishment recognized as important in Boston on Sunday, opening the most important second half of Royals baseball in a generation with a sweep that alternated between infuriating and incompetent.

When the Royals do this — and, basically, they do it every time expectations raise even a smidge — they expose all their other flaws in gruesome detail. They stink with the bats, haven’t developed nearly enough hitting, and are less than three months from losing the ace they mortgaged part of their future for to free-agency.

Remember when they surged into first place by winning that series in Detroit that we all thought was important at the time? The Royals are 9-17 since then, now in third place, below .500, and closer to last than first.

The Royals always seem to do this, don’t they? Grab just enough of your attention, and then scatter. For the last few years, the Royals have regularly played their worst when the attention is the heaviest.

It is often said of good teams and good players that the brighter the lights shine, the better they play.

For these Royals, the brighter the lights shine, the more their flaws are exposed.

This could be a column pointing out that Ned Yost torpedoed a game with a brain-dead pitching change on Friday, the kind of failed leadership the Royals just can’t afford. This could be a column pointing out that Dayton Moore has had more time in charge of the Royals than the constitution allows presidents in the White House, all without a postseason while the team that just passed them in the standings is on its second successful rebuild in that time.

This could be a column pointing out that it’s always about the players, good or bad, and too many of them are content and pampered and have been celebrated beyond their achievements.

Actually, each of those three specific columns may be written very soon. But right now, really, this is on all of them.

The Royals are dropping an opportunity eight years in the making with a combination of weak hitting, bad decisions and an inability to justify the trouble. They seem to wait until the stakes are just high enough to let you down.

They are the worst kind of hometown team: too slow in developing, too quick to claim victory, not good enough to be more than hope and not bad enough to completely forget.

Because, sure. The Royals could turn the season. They could win 10 in a row the way they did last month or they could win 17 of 20 the way they did this time last year. Eric Hosmer could keep up this form, Billy Butler could regain his, and there is enough talent on the roster to come up with a realistic way for the Royals to end the longest playoff drought in North American sports.

But to do that, aside from a long list of lucky breaks, the Royals would have to break their habit of charring under the spotlight.

There is no reason to believe they’ll do that. No reason to expect it. Some Royals players and others in the organization are reading these words. You can put these men into one of two groups: those self-aware enough to understand this is all true, and those with enough delusion and arrogance to think it’s not.

This team should be better. By now, this should be a winner, not a team trying to win. Three years ago, in 2011, the joke among scouts in spring training was that the best team anyone saw was the 2014 Royals. The coming success was so locked that a Back to the Future-style article in Sports Illustrated talked about the playoffs in 2013 and the world championship in 2015.

The 2014 Royals are now seven games behind the Tigers, 3 1/2 behind the Mariners for the second wild card, and, barring a break from character, 65 games from becoming the first franchise in more than 20 years to not make the playoffs within four seasons of being chosen baseball’s best farm system by Baseball America.

It is impossible to single out one problem for all of this, of course. The slow development of top-shelf prospects like Mike Moustakas and Hosmer get most of the attention. Christian Colon over Chris Sale still keeps some in the organization up at night. Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura are the first smell of good homegrown starting pitchers. We could go on.

But they are also developing quite the reputation for an inability to perform under any modicum of expectation. They are too often at their worst when it matters most.

They have baseball’s worst record in one-run games despite a lockdown bullpen, and — whether it’s the season opener, gagging in front of big home crowds, the 9-17 nosedive since the 10-game win streak, losing three of four to the Tigers going into the break or being swept out of Boston out of the break — seem to find the precise wrong moment to go soft.

On Sunday, the Royals hit one more low. Alex Gordon said the players needed to look in the mirror. Yost called a closed-door meeting. The Royals have fired the hitting coach, juggled the lineup, demoted a should-be slugger and heard the manager admit that the players need to grow up.

It’s all led here, to a team that wipes out good streaks with bad, and good pitching with weak hitting. They have scored one more run than they’ve allowed, and lost one more game than they’ve won. They are, in other words, a near-perfect picture of mediocrity.

Actually, so far, they’ve shown mediocrity is where they’re most comfortable.

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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