Royals have a legitimate chance at earning wild-card spot

07/27/2014 6:35 PM

07/28/2014 1:01 PM

The mantra of baseball players is to win series. One hundred and sixty-two games is the longest grind in professional sports, six months of monotony that can make today feel like a grain of sand at the beach.

So chopping the season into series is a coping mechanism so valued it has become cliché, but this particular Royals season has outgrown convention.

Because here they are, winners of three of four against one of the teams they’re clawing with in the standings, and the mood is decidedly sour because a 10-3 loss to the Indians on Sunday is a whiff.

“You can sit back and say three out of four is nice,” Royals manager Ned Yost says, “but if you have the opportunity to take four out of four, I wish we would’ve capitalized on it.”

Inside the Royals clubhouse, the feel was mostly the same. This team has been through so much. They own the longest win streak in baseball this year, along with enough low points for the manager’s job to be questioned and the hitting coach to be replaced.

Maybe the focus would be more on the series win than missing the sweep if not for other dropped opportunities along the way, but the truth is that with exactly two months left, the Royals — despite themselves as much as because of themselves — can still turn this season into a happy memory.

Honest.

They will need to play their best of the season from here on out. But the difference between what’s required and what they’ve shown might not be as big as you’d think.

The Royals are 53-51. They have scored four more runs than they’ve allowed, essentially the definition of an average team two-thirds of the way through. They have specific strengths and specific weaknesses, but like we’ve talked about before, the invention of the second wild card and a mediocre American League mean they have legitimate hope of ending — all together now — the longest playoff drought in major North American sports.

Fifty-eight games remain, and the Royals are two games out of a playoff spot. An open date Monday before James Shields pitches against the Twins on Tuesday makes this a good chance to assess the Royals’ chances of making good on a critical season’s opportunity.

At the moment, the Blue Jays hold the second wild card spot and are on pace for 86 wins. The Royals are one of four teams within 2 ½ games of the Blue Jays, so figure it will take at least 87 by the end of the year.

To get there, the Royals will need to finish 34-24. That’s a stretch, but not undoable. The Royals went 35-25 from April 15 to June 18, for instance. They’ve gone 27-21 since June 2 and finished 33-25 last year. Making the playoffs will require the best 58-game stretch of this season, but you can see where it’s possible with the right breaks.

The most obvious place to start is still the most important place. The Royals need offense, and they need it bad. They are scoring exactly four runs per game, which is a quarter of a run under the league average.

Ned Yost and other club officials have referenced the team’s record when scoring four or more runs so often it’s become like talking about the humidity around here, but it remains the easiest barometer for the Royals: 44-8 when scoring four runs or more, 9-43 when scoring three or fewer.

Billy Butler had three singles, two homers and a double in the last three games and for a team that was built on the assumption that he’d hit, there is a sort of cautious optimism that he has his form back. For those reading between the lines, though, it’s worth noting that Yost didn’t even wait to hear the whole question before saying he isn’t ready to move Butler up the lineup.

Eric Hosmer is likely back on Tuesday, making the position players whole again. He was hitting .410 in July before taking a pitch off his hand and not being able to hit for the last week. There is always concern about timing when a guy has that much time off. This was always an offense without much of a safety net, and the season is old enough that the margin for error is shrinking. It’s hard to imagine the Royals gaining ground if the injury sets Hosmer back.

But whatever happens with Butler and Hosmer the rest of the way, we have more than 100 games to know what the Royals are. And as much as they will need to hit, they will also need to win games when they don’t.

Nobody talked about it much, but during the five-game win streak that ended on Sunday, the Royals won twice while scoring a total of four runs. During their 10-game win streak last month, they won twice with two runs.

Yost and club officials will continue to cite their record on each side of that four-run threshold, but if they’re honest, they know a chunk of the team’s success will depend on a strong rotation and an increasingly worked bullpen being able to cover up some two- and three-run nights from the offense.

One place the Royals stand to benefit is with the schedule. Of their 58 games, only 20 are against teams currently at or above .500. Twenty-two are against teams currently in last place. They have 29 games left in the division, and as much as some fans freaked out about this in April and May, the Royals are now 17-9 against the division in June and July.

There is a way, in other words. A legitimate, no-miracles-needed way for the Royals to turn these last two months into a worthy finish for eight years of patience.

Now, doing this means the Royals will have to break their habit of wilting under pressure, but, you know. One foot in front of the other.

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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