The Royals have lived in a strange otherworld for so long, with so much joy and so many doubters proven wrong that the following sentence is both absolutely true and perhaps a bit jarring:
They have virtually no chance at making the playoffs. Still.
This is true, even now, with eight straight wins and 11 of the last 12. This is true, even now, with a wild-card deficit cut from 9 1/2 games to 3 1/2 . This is true, even now, with the starting rotation soaring and Alex Gordon hitting and Paulo Orlando making a sneaky case for team player of the year.
This is true, even now, for two main reasons:
Math, and July.
The math is simple enough. Ninety wins is a good guess on what will be required for a wild-card spot. To get there, the Royals would need to win 26 of their final 38 games. They have not won 26 of 38 this year, which is probably self-evident, but even a year ago, when they won more games than anyone in the league, they did not have a stretch of 26-12.
The Royals won 26 of 38 during their finishing kick of 2014, but actually, combined with what they’ve done in the last two weeks this would be a 37-13 finish. The Royals have not won 37 of 50 since 1980, when George Brett was batting .400. In the last five years, only the 2013 Dodgers and 2015 Blue Jays have been that good over 50 games.
Which brings us to July. The Royals would not be in this situation if they did not do the baseball equivalent of turning an entire month’s worth of games into a flaming bag of human waste. The Royals won just seven games in July.
They had not won fewer in a month of at least 20 games since April 2012 — that was the year they were booed 16 minutes into the home opener, and did not win a home game until May.
They have not had a worse win percentage in a month (.269) since August 2008 — that was the year general manager Dayton Moore sensed the team quitting on manager Trey Hillman, making a rare appearance in the clubhouse to call them out, sparking an 18-8 September finish that actually had people debating whether Kyle Davies could be a viable big-league starting pitcher.
You probably noticed that the Royals’ win total and percentage were each worse in July than their May of 2013, which was so bad the team fired the hitting coaches, replacing them with Pedro Grifol and George Brett to, in Moore’s words, “rescue us mentally.”
But that month is a fairly good reference point here. The Royals were eliminated from the playoffs in the last week of the season — back then, that was an accomplishment — and talked about how they’d have made it if not for that one rotten month. They were right, of course.
Take away May, and the 2013 Royals had a .582 win percentage, a pace for 94 wins.
Well, take away July, and the 2016 Royals have a .581 percentage.
This is the path of teams that are good enough to almost make the playoffs.
The Royals’ current situation is further complicated by the number of teams they are competing with. The Orioles are in the second wild-card spot right now, but merely catching them may not be enough. The Royals are one of five teams to begin Monday within four games of a playoff spot.
If you’re looking at the schedule, Tuesday’s series in Miami begins a stretch of 12 straight games against winning teams. It loosens some after that — 17 of their final 26 are against losing teams — but it’s not that simple. The Tigers have 10 left against the Twins, for instance.
Look, there’s a lot to feel good about right now. The Royals are playing as well as they have all season, and as well as they did at any point last season, when they were the best team in the American League.
In two weeks, Alex Gordon has gone from his manager — consciously or not — already talking about next year to being one of the American League’s hottest hitters. The rotation has been holding the Royals back all season, but now has just three bad starts in the last 17. The bullpen hasn’t given up a run in more than a week.
These are all good things, and it’s true that playoff teams don’t necessarily need to be great teams. But they don’t often essentially give away an entire month of the season, either. This current streak has the feel of turning what could’ve been a miserable season into a more respectable one, but expecting the postseason now means ignoring the gravitational pull of baseball.
Of course, I thought the exact same thing two years ago, too.