As of May 28, the Royals were trudging toward irrelevance and on the verge of honoring what’s become their traditional June 1 expiration date.
It wasn’t just that they’d lost seven of nine games and four straight and already were lagging 6 1/2 games behind in the American League Central.
And it went beyond that their plate production was more futile than fertile, encapsulated in their absurdly feeble 21 home runs in 52 games.
It was that all of that was compounded by the meandering way they played against the Houston Astros, who lumbered into Kansas City with the worst record in the AL (19-32) and blasted off with a three-game sweep by a cumulative margin of 21-5.
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“We weren’t even competing in those games,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said.
Hosmer didn’t quite mean that literally. But there was something disturbing about what at best looked like a lack of urgency.
The flight to Toronto that night was unusually quiet, and some players felt uncomfortable with the commotion they sensed in the works.
“I’m not going to lie: It was, like, a different feeling,” pitcher Bruce Chen said. “We didn’t know what was going on … Sometimes, it makes people realize that there’s other people’s (careers) at stake.”
Then presto, just like that, virtually overnight, everything changed.
And it remains different, despite the three-game hiccup of losses the Royals now are in since their 10-game winning streak.
The idea that this is a hiccup, of course, may just be a matter of opinion.
But it’s a matter of fact that the last three weeks changed the complexion of the season.
Sometime between the moment they left the field against Houston and took on the scalding-hot Blue Jays the next night (and eked out an 8-6 win in 10 innings there), something transformative took hold.
Since the Houston fiasco, no team in baseball has won more games than the Royals.
Despite their 2-1 fizzle Saturday against Seattle — a buzz-killing but hardly defining third straight defeat — they are 15-7 since they appeared ready to shrivel away.
“We’ve been basically a different team since then,” designated hitter Billy Butler said Friday. “I can’t put a finger on it, but I think we were just struggling to get to where we were, who we knew we were.
“Because I think the team that you’ve seen since Toronto is the team that we are. And before that we were the team that we weren’t. For too long.”
So this remains a seismic change, which of course doesn’t assure that it’s here to stay or that there won’t be more shape-shifting to come.
And how it came to be is an intriguing, and elusive, question.
The most elementary answer is that it all stems from the Royals’ promoting Dale Sveum to hitting coach with a mandate to generate more power. Certainly, it’s hard to dispute that’s been a factor.
When Alex Gordon homered in the fifth inning Saturday, it was the Royals’ 21st home run in 22 games, and they entered the game leading the majors in hitting (.289) and the AL in doubles (46) in that span.
“You know, Dale’s only message was look for pitches up in the zone,” said Yost, who seems to wonder himself exactly what the catalyst was. “I don’t know if it was the shock factor of having to make a (staff) move. … I just think something kind of clicked right there.”
But there has been more to this.
Smack in the middle of the mess, for instance, Yost conducted a rare team meeting.
No players wanted to specify what his message was. But it clearly reflected his sentiments to the media that week that “there’s times you’ve got to wake up,” he said, clapping his hands for emphasis.
His approach was something less than fire and brimstone but something more than gentle encouragement.
As outfielder Lorenzo Cain heard his words, he took it simply as a reminder to always play hard, because it’s the only thing you can control.
Pitcher Danny Duffy took it more as a call to be themselves and said that Yost, as always, offered impassioned but constructive criticism.
“Probably the opposite of urgency: We just needed to realize who we are and what we have to offer,” said Duffy, who perhaps inadvertently spoke to the complexity of getting to that place. “And I think we were all trying to either do too much or just let it all happen too casually. We just needed to know who we are.”
Chen interpreted it as being “called out,” Butler said Yost got “elevated” in his delivery and Hosmer said the impact rippled through the team.
After Yost told them what “they don’t want to hear,” he said, the sentiment in the clubhouse was, “He’s right.”
That launched some direct dialogue among players, he added, breaking up a cycle in itself.
“You kind of get repetitive in your routine,” Hosmer said, “and that (shakeup) is what you need sometimes.”
And here’s where we’d like to furnish a neat, tidy narrative that pinpoints that meeting as the fundamental turning point.
Trouble is, different players remembered the meeting as taking place on different days that week. Moreover, the dynamics of the game are fickle and slippery and messy and don’t really lend themselves to such clean-cut answers.
The truth is that the active ingredient was a cocktail of various factors that included a lineup suddenly simply correcting more towards its career averages than its simultaneous career-lows.
Add it all up:
The change of coaches, the jolt of the need for the change, the shabby performance against Houston, Yost’s message and players taking that seriously enough to get on each other more.
And you get this:
“Something changed in all of us,” Cain said.
Yet for all of that, here’s the thing:
If Blue Jays’ shortstop Jose Reyes didn’t make a throwing error on what would have ended the Toronto game May 29, who’s to say how the dominoes would have fallen from there?
As poorly as the Royals were playing, that could have rolled into the next game … and the next.
For once, though, the Royals got a break.
Then they made the most of it by winning in the 10th inning.
That primed the pump, and now confidence is brimming and they expect to win instead of just hope to, Hosmer said.
“I don’t think we’re going away,” Butler said. “It’s just the beginning of how we’re going to be playing.”
They obviously won’t win them all, as the last few days have shown. And the sands are always shifting in baseball, as they know well since May 28.
But the Royals surely have demonstrated that the team they were believed to be really is in there. It’s just up to them now to show that’s who they really are, after all.
To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to email@example.com. Follow on Twitter.com/vgregorian