Whatever you might have perceived or even concluded to be the dominant, more telling side of the split personality that has defined the Royals this season, the identity remains to be clarified in the final fourth of the season that essentially commenced Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium.
Everything before was just a disconnected series of events, snapshots of a meandering, topsy-turvy trajectory that included dismal breakdowns (4-19 in May) and delirious breakthroughs (19-5 after the All-Star break).
That surge that left the Royals on the verge of a playoff race was followed by the buzz-killing 2-5 trudge of two deflating losses to the crummy Miami Marlins and a spirited but ultimately ground-giving 3-2 series loss at Detroit over the weekend.
“It wasn’t great; it wasn’t ideal,” Royals manager Ned Yost said before the Royals took on the Chicago White Sox. “But it wasn’t doomsday, either.
“We’ve got 39 games left to make something happen, and every game’s important.”
If not to a wild-card spot and first playoff appearance since 1985 — a prospect that a week ago was coming into focus but now is on the hazy horizon — then at least for tangible traction that would back up the reasonable notion that this club is in the best shape it’s been in over the last two decades.
For a franchise that was 258 games under .500 over the previous nine seasons, playing meaningful games deep into September would be a big stride even if it’s been a long time coming.
But if Day One of the rest of the season was any indication, even establishing that benchmark will be a painstaking and elusive chore.
The Royals sauntered into the stretch with a wretched, fizz-less 2-0 loss before a post-All-Star break-low crowd of 13,060.
The inauspicious outcome came despite the Royals coming off a rare day off, playing a White Sox team that was 46-73 and having on the mound Ervin Santana, who entered the game with the 10th-best ERA in the American League (3.19), against John Danks, whose 2-10 record this season evidently was trumped by his 5-0 history against the Royals.
“We’ve got to go hard every single day,” Yost said before the game, and maybe they did.
But it sure wasn’t obvious on the scoreboard, where the Royals now have amassed 16 runs in eight games as injuries to Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Miguel Tejada (later suspended as well) exposed their meager margin for error offensively.
It wasn’t evident in their rash of inattentive plays, including catcher Salvy Perez’s passed ball that allowed the second run in the second inning to come in from third by ground rule because it took an odd hop and was lost in the revolving advertising behind the plate.
Skip slightly differently, and the ball might have caromed back to Perez with no harm done.
“That’s what I was waiting for,” Santana said, smiling, “but lucky me.”
The curiosity of the play in some ways obscured the fact that it was a ball Perez normally would handle, part of an off-kilter night by the Royals when renewed intensity was required.
Right fielder Justin Maxwell lost track of the base-runners after that and threw home instead of to third after catching a fly with a runner on second. That didn’t prove costly, but it hurt when second baseman Chris Getz later was picked off first with one out in the eighth inning.
“The one guy I can trust in that situation to not get picked off is Chris Getz,” said Yost, who bluntly assessed the blunders: “I’ll put it this way: Those things can’t happen.”
What also can’t happen now is for the Royals to generate timely hits. They are just eight of their last 66 at the plate with runners in scoring position.
So flimsy as it might have been, a 2-0 Chicago lead might as well have been a 10-run buffer, a dynamic reminiscent of the Royals team of the first two months of the season that seemed to have been left behind.
After the Royals rallied from a 5-0 deficit to beat Cleveland 10-7 on July 4, even Yost said, “Early in the season, a 5-0 lead was almost a death sentence. But it doesn’t feel like that now.”
That empty sense resurfaced Tuesday, and early in the game, too.
Although Santana pitched well enough to deserve better (six innings, four hits, one earned run), it seemed like true trouble when he allowed Gordon Beckham to hit his fourth home run in 250 at-bats this season in the first inning.
Then he allowed a Paul Konerko double to open the second, followed by an Avisail Garcia single to put Konerko in position to score on the passed ball.
It wasn’t much to give up in the big picture.
But there isn’t much margin for error for the Royals now, inning-by-inning or game-by-game, against any team they play.
Of the nine AL teams ostensibly contending for the playoffs, the Royals entered the day with the second-easiest strength of schedule (16 games against winning teams, 23 against losing) and an apparent path to finish strong.
But they took a step back on Tuesday. And every game’s important.