As focus faded and losses picked up in late July, Royals changed their game

Like so many of his teammates, Lorenzo Cain had been overwhelmed by Jon Lester’s pitching when the team lost a disappointing game July 20 at Boston. But he has also been at the center of all the good that’s transpired since, starting with a renewed dedication to the game.
Like so many of his teammates, Lorenzo Cain had been overwhelmed by Jon Lester’s pitching when the team lost a disappointing game July 20 at Boston. But he has also been at the center of all the good that’s transpired since, starting with a renewed dedication to the game. The Kansas City Star

The sight unnerved Rusty Kuntz as he entered the visitors’ clubhouse at Fenway Park on July 20. The Royals had just dropped their third game in a row, silenced by Boston ace Jon Lester, and had fallen below .500 for the first time in a month. They had tumbled from first place in their division and appeared content with floundering through the season’s second half.

When Kuntz walked inside the room, he saw a scene that had become all too familiar in recent weeks: a collection of Royals with their heads down, eyes locked on their iPads. The game was called “Clash of Clans,” and for a period of time this summer, its excessive usage by members of this club exasperated the coaching staff.

“At that time, in that situation, it’s really disappointing,” said Kuntz, the team’s first-base coach. He added, “You just got to a point where you go, ‘What’s the priority here? Is this just three hours out of your time, spent away from what you’re actually being interested in?

‘We’ve got to find a way to get this changed, so that the priority is the game, and all this other stuff is secondary.’ ”

Over the next three months, the Royals evolved into a well-oiled machine built for October, a club undefeated in these playoffs and the hosts of game one of the World Series on Tuesday against San Francisco.

The seeds of their maturation were spread in the days that followed that loss in Boston. Two days later, the players held a meeting that they would later credit as the source of their reversal. But more important than the rhetoric espoused in the meeting was the behavioral changes exhibited by the team.

The players began to show up earlier to get on the training table. They carved out more time to watch video of opposing pitchers. They huddled with hitting coach Dale Sveum more often. The length of their pregame sessions on their iPads shrunk.

“Their priorities,” Kuntz said, “have changed.”

All players rely upon diversions during the season. Each day, in the center of the clubhouse, closer Greg Holland and his fellow relievers solve crossword puzzles. Players relax by viewing movies on the clubhouse televisions or binge-watching TV shows on their iPads. The 162-game grind can wear a man down, so players search for intellectual outlets.

One day early in the season, reserve Jarrod Dyson introduced Lorenzo Cain to “Clash of Clans.” Cain indulges in video games throughout the offseason. When he was drafted in the 17th round of the 2004 draft, he barely paused his game of “Madden NFL” to take a call from the Brewers. In “Clash of Clans,” he found a new channel for his interest.

The game resembles the classic PC version of “Warcraft,” as gamers build a community and wage animated war. During the summer, the iPad activity became part of the daily routine for Royals such as Cain, Dyson and Danny Valencia. Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer also took part on occasion. The game’s verbiage entered the clubhouse lexicon, as players debated the relative merits of their clans and beseeched each other for orders of goblins and witches.

“Maybe I need to cut back some of my hours on it,” Cain said in July. “I think I’m going to cut back on it a little bit.”

Cain was laughing at the time. He may not have been aware that his coaches did not find humor in the situation. The frustration intensified later that month as the Royals frittered away their temporary lead on the Detroit Tigers. As the season burned, “Clash of Clans” acted as the fiddle.

A series of events helped arrest their descent. Before the team left Boston that Sunday in July, manager Ned Yost held a closed-door meeting and implored the players to show more energy. The next afternoon in Chicago, Kuntz beseeched his outfielders to focus their energies on the diamond.

After a loss to White Sox ace Chris Sale that night, the Royals fell two games below. 500. The whispers about Ned Yost’s job security intensified as general manager Dayton Moore flew to meet the team. Amid the tumult, Raul Ibañez approached James Shields. Ibañez suggested a players-only meeting.

Scooped off the scrap heap at the end of June, Ibañez hit .188 as a Royal. Yost left him off the roster for the last two postseason series. Yet he displayed his value to team officials on that fateful day at U.S. Cellular Field.

“He brings something to our club, regardless of production, that every championship team needs,” assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. “And that’s a championship personality. A guy that’s been there. A guy that players are going to listen to. That was a piece I think we were missing.”

Ibañez contributed to a meeting that lasted about 45 minutes. So did veteran pitchers Jason Frasor and Scott Downs. Two critical themes emerged from the discussion. The first was the talent of the club, which Ibañez called the best he had seen in 18 big-league seasons. The second was the importance of personal accountability.

In the days after the meeting, the Royals won 16 of their next 19 games. The iPad usage became less conspicuous. Dyson insisted he planned on deleting the game all together.

“It’s ending,” he said. “I’m ending it. I’m winding it down. I’m toning it down. I’m trying to tone it down. It’s going to be hard, but I’m trying to tone it down.”

Sveum suggested a new outlet for the players: Watching video of opposing pitchers. After he replaced Pedro Grifol as the hitting coach in May, Sveum sought to simplify the process for his hitters. He reduced the discussion of mechanics and amplified the need for study of opponents.

The practice increased during the second half of the season, once the players “bought into” the value of it, Sveum explained.

“You try to teach and make them understand, this is a weapon you can use to your advantage,” Sveum said. “Because that pitching coach and that pitcher is doing their homework on you. So you have to be prepared for that.”

On July 20, Lester struck out Cain twice. Cain felt overwhelmed by Lester’s cutter, which he spotted on the outer half of the plate.

“I felt like I couldn’t reach it,” he said.

As Cain prepared for the American League Wild Card game against Oakland, which acquired Lester before the July 31 trade deadline, he sought a solution. He moved closer to home plate, which put him in position to handle any of Lester’s offerings. Cain planned to pull any inside pitch down the left-field line.

In the third inning of the game, he did just that. His RBI double to left on an inside cutter gave the Royals an early lead. Unable to bust Cain inside, Lester fed him a sinker over the middle in the eighth inning. Cain ripped an RBI single that sparked the Royals’ eventual comeback against the pitcher who once brought them to the threshold of their downfall.

“That’s just an example of watching video, and understanding what the pitcher does, and what my strengths are,” Cain said. “I think that definitely helped.”

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.