Baseball is easy to overcomplicate, but the process of a major-league baseball team attempting to drag itself out of last place is a lot like your neighbor trying to drag himself back into shape.
Well, at least if your neighbor was interviewed about it every day.
You don’t lose 10 pounds with a half-hour on the elliptical, and you don’t bury a 10-20 start with one good road trip.
Your neighbor might measure his progress by running two miles, then three, then being comfortable in those pants again.
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The manager of your local baseball team is taking a similar approach with the Royals.
“I just take it day to day,” Ned Yost said. “I don’t know. I really don’t. We’ve got so far to go.”
Yost went on, talking about first aiming at reaching .500, then a few games over .500, before concentrating on the division race. This is a mental trick. A way to chop big tasks into something more manageable.
Well, in that context, the Royals ate a metaphorical cheeseburger in what turned out to be a 8-3 loss to the Red Sox on Tuesday. They are now 34-36, in third place, 3 1/2 games behind the division-leading Indians.
This was their first shot at .500 since dropping below exactly two months earlier. They are no longer the lost group of April, but they are also not yet in a place that demands belief.
This group is a puzzle, a constant paradox. Figuring out where they are in the moment is both impossible and irrelevant.
Impossible, because they change, constantly. They’ve always been like this. Yost sometimes jokes that his players like each other so much they slump together, and the collective swings took fans from wanting him fired in July 2014 to watching him in the World Series three months later.
This group is similarly volatile — the Royals’ nine-game losing streak in April is tied for the longest in baseball this season, and with eight wins in nine games they were the hottest team in the American League entering Tuesday.
They have been some combination of bad, injured, and unlucky — until the last few weeks when they’ve been terrific, turning talk of a fire sale into talk of another possible postseason run.
“I just think that’s how baseball is though, man,” Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas said. “Just so hot and cold.”
That’s true, to a point, but the Royals are constantly pushing the boundaries. That losing streak in April may seem like a long time ago, but the games still count, and it’s been five years since a team was both bad enough to lose nine in a row and good enough to make the playoffs in the same season.
Moustakas, particularly when the subject is baseball and team performance, is among the most relentlessly positive players on a team that’s made relentless positivity a large part of its identity. He positions the losing streak as something like a learning curve with different teammates.
“You look around this clubhouse and you see different faces, different people,” he said. “It’s trying to figure out that vibe, of how each other responds, and acts. I think we’re back to where we were.
“We’d figured out each other. Each other’s strengths, and weaknesses, and go from there. We knew how to pick people up, when somebody needed a push, we were there, and that’s a big key to why we were a successful team.”
The players won’t say it, and they shouldn’t, even if they think it. But reality is not lost on others in the organization. The Royals are 24-16 since that miserable start, but a +1 run differential suggests an unsustainable level of good fortune. They are 12-6 in June, but have gained just two games in the division.
If nothing else, the Royals’ push forward does three things.
First, it makes them more interesting, and that’s no small thing for those of us who spend far too much time thinking about sports.
Second, it slices the possibility that Dayton Moore will trade anyone away. He is an ultraconservative man by nature, reputation, and action. If he believes the Royals have a chance — and, just as importantly, believes the players believe they have a chance — then he will let them chase a miracle.
Third, it increases the possibility that the Royals will take compensation picks for departed free agents this offseason instead of a prospect package next month. That will make the future more difficult, but Moore’s belief and trust in this group has been an essential part of the success.
Missing out on both an infusion of young talent at the deadline and the postseason has always been the worst potential outcome of 2017.
So, in other words, the rest of this season would be a good time for this group to pick a type of streak and stick to it.