Pitching will give Royals a chance to fulfill ‘special time’

08/12/2014 11:05 PM

08/13/2014 1:08 AM

For weeks, evidence has been mounting that the Royals are on the verge of emerging from the wilderness or wasteland or whatever you’d like to call the last 28-plus years of playoff deprivation.

Even if you’re not quite up to believing that yet yourself, especially after their eight-game winning streak was busted with a hideous 11-3 loss to Oakland on Tuesday, chances are you’re seeing it all around you as the Royals retain a rare stance in first place in the American League Central.

Nowhere can you feel it more, of course, than at Kauffman Stadium. The other day, a neighbor of Billy Butler’s told him “you could feel the electricity in the place.”

“That’s just not the way it was in the past,” Butler said, “and rightfully so.”

Butler didn’t really have to be told this, of course. Players might be in their own worlds when they’re in a game, but that’s not the same as being in a vacuum.

“They feel it; they sense it. It’s almost like they crave it,” manager Ned Yost said. “It helps them take their game to the next level. Even though you don’t really notice it until the game’s over because you’re so tunnel-vision. But you feel it. It’s a real buzz and an energy that you feel.

“It’s a special time.”

Sure has been: Before their game Tuesday, the Royals had won 16 of 19. They haven’t been in first this late in a season since 2003.

And one clunker doesn’t puncture the special time, at least not automatically. But it does bring us face to face with the real question:

How sustainable is a division race for the Royals?

The answer is completely, which isn’t the same as saying they are assured of fulfilling that.

It’s not just because their AL Central competitor, Detroit, is trudging as it loses games and key players about every day.

And it’s not just because 32 of the Royals remaining 44 games are against teams that are below .500.

It’s because the Royals remain anchored by what’s been steadfast and constant all season: pitching.

The offense has come and gone and will come and go. But there’s always going to be a chance because the Royals inherently will be in virtually every game in ways that others can’t count on.

Simplistically speaking, that shows up just in their staff ERA, 3.54 entering the game, third in the American League.

That puts them well on track for a second straight season (3.45 in 2012) with a number resembling staff production during their World Series runs (3.83 in 1980, 3.49 in 1985).

Before last season, they hadn’t had an ERA below 4.00 since 1992. They surrendered more than 5.00 eight times in between.

Remember, too, that there was no assurance of continuity or improvement in that aspect of the game: Not with a need to replace the departed Ervin Santana and the injured Luke Hochevar, who found a home in the bullpen last season.

But continuity they’ve achieved … and then some.

They can depend on typically sturdy-to-stellar starting pitching.

It all starts with James Shields, who is as responsible as anyone for changing the culture in the clubhouse the last few years and from whom the entire pitching structure drizzles down.

With free-agency looming, Shields likely will be gone after this season. But he’s cast an imprint of influence on those around him that will last … not to mention matters a lot now.

Meanwhile, Jason Vargas has been an excellent pickup, and home-grown youngsters Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura have made not only the future look bright but have enhanced the present.

Yes, Jeremy Guthrie got pounded on Wednesday and is inconsistent. He’s also had some fine outings and is now the clear No. 5 starter, from whom you might expect some blips.

Bookend that with the devastating eighth-ninth combo of Wade Davis and AL-save leader Greg Holland (along with burgeoning seventh-inning specialist Kelvin Herrera), and the Royals have something special from which all else is defined.

Especially if they are fortunate enough to make the playoffs.

To Yost, this is all a reminder of the formation of the golden years of the Atlanta Braves, who went to the postseason in 11 of the 12 seasons he was a coach with them.

“There were many games,” he said, that he’d consider the starting staff that included Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux and John Smoltz and think, “OK, there’s your one run. Go win us a game.

“And we’d end up scoring another run or two. But we didn’t blow guys out. It was a lot like what we’re doing now.”

So name any stat indicative of the Royals’ successes this season, and it basically reflects pitching first and foremost.

Why are the Royals 52-8 when they score more than three runs? Why are they 38-11 when they hit one measly home run? Why are they 52-1 when they lead after seven innings?

The converse, of course, is true here: You can’t win if you don’t score. And that’s the offensively frail Royals’ X-factor, obviously.

At a glance, you might think that changed some during their hot stretch since they’ve had heaps of timely hitting and a couple outbursts (one 12-run game and three of seven).

But that’s also a bit deceptive.

In the last 20 games, the Royals have averaged 4.1 runs a game.

In the previous 98, they averaged … 4.1 runs a game.

In fact, what’s really been different is that up until Tuesday they’d generally pitched even better than they had all season.

That’s included two shutouts and three one-run games. Seven times, they gave up just two runs. Two more times it was three runs.

“They’ll keep us in every game,” Butler said, “so you’re basically saying, ‘Just put an inning (of offense) together.’ ”

So a special time still is in the air, in their grasp to maximize … and in their power (or lack thereof) to fritter away.

But for most of 118 games, pitching has given them a chance to actualize the anticipation. Why not for an electrifying rest of the way?

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

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