They did it again, another moment in a long line of them, one of these small frays that gets ripped into a big gash that the Royals are strutting through to the top of the American League.
This is the first inning. Friday night. The Tigers are here, and Kauffman Stadium is sold out. Kendrys Morales is at the plate, two out, and runners on first and second because Eric Hosmer bunted against the shift. Morales hits a changeup off the end of his bat, the ball scooting by Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera on the fourth or fifth bounce.
In a hypothetical world where Morales does this against the Royals, Hosmer makes the play, inning over, no damage done.
In the real world where Morales does this against the Tigers, two runners score on the play, one more in the inning, and the Royals go on to a 4-1 win.
They are the best team in baseball in a season that is still very young, but also into its second month, and the whole thing just grows more impressive the longer you look at it.
The Royals are taking this story past “Hey, they’re pretty good now” and straight into “No, seriously, do you realize how good they’ve been?”
This is about more than another win over the Tigers, and even more than about a night that began with a spot start to cover for a suspended pitcher including no-hitter drama in the eighth inning (followed by bases-loaded-with-Cabrera-at-the-plate drama).
We are talking about 23 games, that’s all, basically one-seventh of the season, so all the reasonable caveats are in play here.
But what the Royals have done so far is past worth pointing out to appreciate.
This is a show worthy of the team’s broadcasts being the highest rated in baseball, of the attendance being up more than 50 percent from last year, and of that hotel across the street going back to being named Adam’s Mark, the way it was when this old building was Royals Stadium.
Because the Royals aren’t just winning. They are are winning in a way that looks like a statistical anomaly, like the whole thing is a video game controlled by a bored teenager curious what it would look like to put a bunch of the settings up to 99.
The Royals are tied with the Astros for the best record in the American League. Their +45 run differential is the best in baseball and more than 50 percent better than anyone — the Astros included — in the league.
They have, basically, played a month’s worth of baseball the way they did last October — only more.
We knew the bullpen would be good, right? But so far, the relievers have a 1.08 ERA in 74 2/3 innings. Batters are hitting less than .200 against them and getting on base less than once an inning.
We knew the defense would be good, right? But Alex Gordon’s sprint into the second row at U.S. Cellular Field is the highlight version of a defense that’s measurably on pace to be the best of any team in the era of defensive metrics. As a group, they entered Friday’s game with 29 defensive runs saved. The next-best team in the league had nine.
To put this in perspective, no team has finished with 100 runs saved in the 14-year history of the statistic. The Royals are on pace for more than 200.
The offense is a strength, too, the Royals ranking second in the league in runs, first in hitting, second in slugging and first in on-base percentage. They are hitting better than the Tigers, Cabrera included.
The Royals are hitting .306 — as a team. Their opponents are hitting .218.
This is about more than numbers, too. Part of why some thought the Royals would regress was their remarkable health in 2014. It’s nearly impossible to repeat that, and the Royals haven’t.
Already, Alcides Escobar, Greg Holland and Alex Rios have gone to the disabled list. Edinson Volquez has missed a start for a suspension. Along with Sal Perez and Lorenzo Cain, Escobar is as irreplaceable to the Royals as ballplayers can typically be. And, still, the Royals are humming along like nothing’s wrong.
Catch them in an honest moment, or present the question the right way, and even some of the most confident Royals — Ned Yost and Hosmer, most notably — will admit that parts of this start are above their expectations.
Obviously, this will not last. The Royals will not hit .306 the rest of the season, and they will not win the 113 games they’re now on pace for.
It is not lost on many within the organization that May has been a wicked month for them. This is when the Royals went under .500 last year. This is when they skidded in the mud and fired their hitting coaches in 2013.
The schedule is turning nasty, too. This series with the Tigers is the Royals’ first against a team that entered Friday with a winning record. By the time May is over, the Royals will have played 19 such games.
Yordano Ventura has had his next start pushed back because he is serving a suspension. Kelvin Herrera and Lorenzo Cain are still appealing suspensions, but each is likely to miss time soon.
So as promising as this start is, the next month will say more about the Royals than the last month.
But the Royals are winning with pitching and defense and speed and hitting. They are winning close games and blowouts. They are winning games that look close before turning to blowouts, and games that look like potential blowouts and turn close.
No team in baseball is winning more often, and no team in baseball is winning by as much. This is still a relatively small slice of the season, but the Royals have already been tested by drama and injuries.
The terminology is changing, or at least it should be. The Royals aren’t just “playing really well.” They are a really good baseball team.
It is almost literally impossible for them to keep up this pace, but then, they don’t have to keep up this pace to have a great season. One of the constant questions about this group was how it would respond to the wild, draining, fame-making run of last October.
They have answered emphatically. Kansas City is watching in record numbers to see what comes next.