Sam Mellinger

Royals got April started with gusto

The Kansas City Star

The heel turn would’ve fit perfectly on pay-per-view. The Royals came into the season as the energetic, hard-working, vitamin-taking upstarts who erased a generation of disappointment with a month-long thrill ride that changed how baseball is viewed in Kansas City.

They might as well have been wearing yellow tights, walking up to the plate to “I am a Real American,” and kissing babies after games.

Then, at some point after Brett Lawrie’s dirty slide into Alcides Escobar’s leg, Beaver Cleaver got an attitude.

Yordano Ventura, most notably, has taken criticism for instigating or perpetuating three separate skirmishes with three separate teams. Kelvin Herrera threw 99 mph behind Lawrie and then pointed at his own head. Edinson Volquez, a day or two after saying he would be a calming influence, threw a punch in a bench-clearing brawl.

The White Sox showed worse than the Royals in that latest — well, latest at press time, anyway — brawl with Chris Sale knocking on the Royals’ clubhouse door looking for a fight, but by then the die had been cast.

The Royals were heels.

They had collected nine ejections (10, if you count Don Wakamatsu being kicked twice from the same game) and five suspensions in the first three weeks. National media began calling them the Bad Boy Royals. A Cleveland pitcher watched the first game of the series against the Royals wearing boxing gloves. Entrepreneurial fans printed up “Straight Outta Kauffman” T-shirts.

And, son of a gun, the Royals are wearing it well.

They entered May with the best record in the American League. As it turns out, Beaver Cleaver is perfectly comfortable in a ski mask. It’s a heel turn that Hulk Hogan would be proud of.

Like with all things in professional sports, this is all about results, and for the first month the Royals’ results were spectacular.

The bullpen and defense, somehow, have actually been better than expected. Alex Gordon’s wrist looks stronger every day. Mike Moustakas is one month deep in what would be one of baseball’s all-time breakout seasons. The Royals are at or near the top of the American League in hitting, on-base percentage, slugging, doubles and runs.

To be sure, there are signs that the Royals are trying to put the drama behind them. Ned Yost, Eric Hosmer, Jeremy Guthrie, Volquez, and others spoke in subtle but unmistakable ways about mistakes and carrying themselves with more maturity going forward. Some of the celebrations have been tempered, or moved into the dugout, or both.

But there is also something different about this group, something better, that can be tied directly to this new persona.

Giving credit to unprovable intangibles is a proud tradition in sports, particularly baseball, so maybe this is like talking about a certain player as a clutch hitter or explaining a team’s success with grit.

But one of the common traits of championship teams is that they play with what we often call an identity. Roles are clear, from stars to subs, and there is a collective understanding about what the group does and does not do well. Baseball is a game of failure, the saying goes, so you can’t always control the result. But you can control what you put into the result.

The Royals did this beautifully last year. They hit (far) fewer home runs than anyone else in the American League, but made up for it with speed, defense, putting the ball in play and a bullpen that would not stop.

All of that is true again now. Compared to the rest of the league, the Royals’ strikeout rate, bullpen ERA, and advanced defensive metrics are so good they look like statistical anomalies.

But now, that specific style of play is being reinforced with a collective persona that the guys in the clubhouse seem to have embraced.

These Royals have been a close group for some time. That doesn’t always happen in major league baseball, by definition a transient profession, but guys like Hosmer and Moustakas and Sal Perez and Jarrod Dyson have been together from bus leagues playing in nowhere towns to the center of the baseball universe in the World Series.

That was always going to be there, at least until the economics of baseball start to send them in different directions, but the joy (and ultimate disappointment) of last October has combined with the drama (and success) of this April to both deepen those bonds and further forge an identity.

There is something to be said for this. Danny Duffy has talked about being tired of “seeing my brothers with bruises.” Lorenzo Cain, the No. 3 hitter and the first player intentionally plunked this season, has talked about the encouragement of knowing his teammates have his back.

Moustakas and Hosmer and Kendrys Morales and others have talked about fighting together — metaphorically, but it works both ways — and can it really be a coincidence that nine of the Royals’ first 14 wins were comebacks?

Fans and scouts alike have talked of how the team appears to have played in April with the same intensity it played last October. It would stretch the boundaries of human endurance to carry that for 162 games (and then, potentially, the playoffs) which might be why the team has subtly downshifted in the last week or so.

But no matter what happens the rest of the season, the Royals made a few things clear this first month.

They will not back down. They will fight for each other. And an aggressive, emotional, and fast style that took them to the World Series is now fortified by a collective experience of clearing benches and being labeled as bad boys.

It’s a long season, of course. But one month in, the Royals are better for the wear.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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