For the first time in more than a month, they’re the second-place Royals.
The Royals’ 4-2 loss to the Red Sox on Friday coupled with the Tigers’ victory over the Indians marked the first change atop of the American League Central Division standings since the Royals took over first from Detroit on Aug. 11.
They were a sizzling team then. Even when the Royals dipped a bit afterwards they managed to remain ahead of the three-time defending division champion Tigers.
Now, after a second straight loss to a team that arrived in Kansas City 20 games under .500, the Royals, 80-66, gaze up in the standings by one-half-game, and manager Ned Yost wants his team motivated by the shuffle.
“I want them to toughen up and get back in first place,” Yost said. “I want them to look at it and say, ‘Let’s go, we’ve got to get ourselves back into first.’
“It’s not time to sit and feel sorry for yourself because you’re not in first place anymore. It’s not a group that does that, but our goal now is to get back into first.”
It will require more than what the Royals have delivered in the past two games, which were hauntingly similar.
Not enough hitting, shoddy defense and pitching from starter Yordano Ventura on Friday that would suffice on most nights if the bats and gloves were doing their thing. But only scoreless efforts from starters have put the Royals in the victory column recently.
Fifteen games plus the conclusion of the unfinished contest with the Indians remain in the Royals’ push for a first playoff spot in nearly three decades. They can’t have many more that look like the launch of this 10-game homestand.
One bad inning shouldn’t do in a playoff-driven team, but the third is when things unraveled on Friday.
Jemile Weeks grounded a double past first baseman Eric Hosmer, and Mookie Betts followed with a run-scoring single. In between this sequence was a pair of Ventura strikeouts, so the damage was limited.
But things then turned ugly.
Ventura plunked Daniel Nava, and Yoenis Cespedes, who usually is dangerous with the long ball, chopped a grounder to Mike Moustakas. Moustakas made a nice short-hop pick, and it appeared he could have gotten Cespedes with a good throw.
But the ball went wide of Hosmer at first and Betts scored. The Red Sox made it 3-0 when Nava scored on Ventura’s wild pitch.
But the inning was all too mindful of Thursday’s shenanigans, when the Royals committed three errors and walked five in a 6-3 loss.
Something that was different for the Royals on Friday was a ball hit out of the park. Hosmer got around on an Allen Webster offering and dropped it into the seats that curl around the right-field foul pole. Alex Gordon had walked ahead of Hosmer, making the blast worth two and cutting the Red Sox lead to one.
Maybe the Royals had the blow they needed to snap out of an offensive misery so bad that Yost and coaches met for 45 minutes Friday and discussed a batting order switch, but they couldn’t come up with a solution.
“If you had two or three guys who were really swinging the bat well you could get them up to the top of the lineup,” Yost said. “We might switch it up some (Saturday) but you really try to stay away from it and let it work itself out, but we’re kind of running out of time.”
The Sox answered Hosmer’s homer immediately with Nava’s RBI single.
Ventura went seven innings, struck out six against a batting order that did not include David Ortiz or Mike Napoli.
Billy Butler returned to the lineup for the first time in four days, getting the start at designated hitter after Josh Willingham suffered a strained groin on Thursday. But Butler’s slump continued in a zero-for-four night, making him two for his last 29.
Two other big bats have gone just as silent. Salvador Perez is three for his last 29, and Gordon has now gone six games (19 at-bats) without a hit.
“We’re struggling,” Gordon said. “I think maybe everybody’s trying too hard and it’s just not coming together right now. We’re in the middle of the pennant race and we’re not swinging well.
“I don’t think it’s pressing. It’s frustrating …We’re not playing they way we’re capable of playing. You’re not going to play your best baseball all the time. You have to be a man and accept it. Come here tomorrow with a new attitude and get it done.”
As for falling out of first place, Gordon reminded that the Royals aren’t alone in that trajectory this season.
“Detroit was out of first place for a while and got back in it,” Gordon said. “Why can’t we?”