Resurgent Royals now face to face with challenge of contention

08/08/2014 10:36 PM

08/09/2014 4:17 PM

Only nine days ago, the Royals seemed condemned to squandering this season. All that anticipation and supposed promise was in peril at a time when it’s fair to ask if not now, when?

Sure, they’d fizzled before and crackled back to life. But this looked to be for keeps to anyone who assumed what’s past is prologue, and it’s hard not to do that if you’ve followed the folly of the Royals.

Never mind that they had just won six of eight games.

They were gridlocked at the trade deadline, unable to extract some essential juice for their sputtering offensive game.

Holding with an unfavorable hand and hoping it would play out seemed at best, well, a gamble. Even general manager Dayton Moore radiated exasperation over not being able to engineer an upgrade for the Same Old Royals.

Then it just seemed like redundant piling on a few hours later when first baseman Eric Hosmer aggravated a hand injury that rendered him out three to six weeks.

All of which unfathomably has triggered close to the best stretch of baseball the Royals have played all season.

That inspired run extended with a 4-2 victory over San Francisco on Friday at Kauffman Stadium for their seventh win in eight games since their apparent demise.

It all makes for a fresh reminder that every game of every season has its own unpredictable narrative that has no relationship to the past.

Otherwise, there really is no tidy, simple, or sensible explanation for this revival, which has hoisted the Royals to hovering just 2games behind Detroit in the American League after winning 13 of their last 16 overall.

If the season ended Friday, they’d have a wild-card playoff berth for their first postseason appearance since 1985.

While acknowledging “there’s a lot of shuffling left,” first baseman Billy Butler also said, “We control our own destiny.”

Actually, destiny by definition is the other way around.

But you get the idea: The Royals are free to succeed or fail all on their own as of Aug 8. That’s a breakthrough in itself.

You may assume that this has something to do with rallying around the loss of Hosmer. Not so much, say, winning for the Gipper as everyone is striving to take up some slack in his wake.

But you wouldn’t think that so much after making some rounds on Friday afternoon.

“I mean, maybe,” third baseman Mike Moustakas said. “When you lose a player like Eric, it shakes up the team. A lot. … And with him going down, we’ve got to pick up the pace somewhere. … (to) help fill that void.”

Trouble is, that mentality might just as easily mean pressing too hard rather than finding a groove.

“If you treat it like that, you’re going to actually not be as good as you can be. You just have to let your talents come out …,” said Butler, who continued a quest to revert to form with a two-run homer and three RBIs on Friday. “At some point in every season, guys are trying too hard and tightening up and just not relaxing …

“You can’t try to force it; I’m a victim of that this year as well.”

Then there’s this quibble with the concept:

“If I say guys pick it up automatically (after an injury like Hosmer’s),” manager Ned Yost said, “that (suggests) that they weren’t picking it up before.”

Improbable as this might have seemed, this sequence only reinforced what’s already obvious about this team.

Superb pitching always will give it a chance, and if it can just muster mediocre-plus offense, it will win plenty more than it loses.

That’s why they’re 50-8 if they can just … score … four runs or more. They were 6-0 in this span when they did that.

Now, though, the Royals have to contend with another force: the squeeze of pressure that comes with relevance and expectation.

The real trick, Moustakas said, is “not getting in our own heads.”

It’s one commendable thing to regroup as they have when they seemed in danger of plummeting out of the race.

It’s another to be smack in the middle of it and flourish.

They demonstrated that earlier this season by winning 10 in a row to seize first place for a few days … and promptly losing six of seven.

In theory, the nucleus of this team gained experience in this last year when it remained in mathematical contention until nearly the season’s end.

In actuality, lagging on the fringe looking in probably isn’t the same mental challenge that being in the middle of it every day would be.

But it’s still reasonable to suggest that will have an impact here.

“I really feel like that definitely opened everybody’s mind to what that type of feeling is, what playoff atmosphere is, what pressure situations are,” Butler said. “There’s always pressure situations in every game, but they’re different when there’s a little more at stake than just one game. It’s what can make or break a playoff berth or not.”

Yost seems of the mind that the topic itself should go without saying, literally. Asked what message he tries to send his younger players now, he growled, “There’s no message. They go out and play.”

At the same time, Yost is uncompromising on the point that the immediate goal is to win the division – not play to squeak into the playoffs via the wild-card.

“The wild-card is Plan B, that’s exactly what it is,” he said. “But we stay focused on Plan A.”

Which is a long way from where they were just over a week ago.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter.com/vgregorian

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