Sam Mellinger

The pivotal game of the season may be at hand for the Royals

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jason Vargas (left) walked off the mound Tuesday after being relieved by manager Ned Yost in the sixth inning. Vargas took the loss and is now 11-8.
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jason Vargas (left) walked off the mound Tuesday after being relieved by manager Ned Yost in the sixth inning. Vargas took the loss and is now 11-8. AP

Seasons change with moments. Stories shift in seconds. Winners are separated in a blink, and the Royals just had a bad blink. Momentum is overrated and overstated in this game, but the frustration felt in this clubhouse is real.

The Royals had it set up, somehow. Two on and no outs, ninth inning, their best two hitters due up. All night long, it never really felt as if the Royals were in this one. That all changed when the first two batters of the ninth reached against the Tigers’ shaky closer and Alex Gordon walked to the plate.

Baseball teams that accomplish what the Royals are trying to accomplish can almost always look back on games like this, lost causes turned into triumphant moments. The Royals have had their share. Sal Perez’s home run at Tampa Bay. Gordon’s walk-off against the Twins. Raul Ibanez‘s homer for the only run in a win at Oakland. This felt, for a brief moment, as if it could be another on the list.

Then, in the span of four pitches and a tense few minutes, the hope drained. Gordon struck out. Jarrod Dyson, on as a pinch runner, was picked off. Perez struck out on three pitches. Opportunity gone. The Tigers won 4-2, taking this pivotal series, setting up a chance for a sweep and pulling into a first-place tie with the Royals.

Today, with control of the division on the line against the Tigers and James Shields on the mound, becomes the most important game so far during the most important Royals season in a generation.

Oh, publicly, the Royals usually present each game the same as the rest. This is the ethos in baseball, a tool to manage a brutal 162-game grind. But of course there are some in and around this team who will admit, yes, this is a big series. Bigger than what they just left in New York, and certainly bigger than beating up on the fading Rangers last week. First place is on the line.

There is an apparent mental block for the Royals against the Tigers, the three-time defending division champions and now winners of 11 of 15 over the challengers. If the Royals had found a way to win just one or two of those games, the standings and confidence among the fan base would be different.

After losing an ugly one on Monday, the thinking among some inside the Royals was that winning at least one of the final two took on a little more importance. As it now stands, there is an added burden on Shields, the ace for which the Royals traded some of their future, and who is scheduled to start today (if the weather allows it).

Because the Royals, quickly, are in a troubling trend. For the 11th time in the last 16 games, they scored two runs or fewer, which is no way to go through a pennant race. The slump on offense comes at a bad time, even if the team has done enough other things right to win seven of those 16 games.

Omar Infante, in particular, is playing through a sore shoulder and providing little threat, magnifying Christian Colon’s injury. Perez is swinging at far too many pitches, perhaps the headliner of a teamwide problem with approach and plate discipline. The Royals have always been operating without a safety net, especially on offense. What would be minor dips in other lineups are amplified without the kind of traditional sluggers on most contenders.

The Royals need timely hits. On Tuesday, they had just one hit in 10 at-bats with a runner in scoring position. They had nine hits in 25 at-bats otherwise. These are the kinds of small things that can shift wildly from game to game, of course, and the kinds of small things that are magnified for the Royals.

This was never going to be easy. The Royals aren’t good enough to win a division going away. That puts them in good company around baseball. Losing the first two games of this series the way they did — bad starting pitching and defense on Monday; rotten offense and two more errors on Tuesday — is support for questions about how this team handles pressure.

If the Royals don’t take advantage of the opportunity they’ve earned in large part with pitching, defense and resiliency, these two games are a tidy picture of the likely reasons.

September baseball is playoff baseball. That’s become something like a talking point among Royals players, and it’s worth noting that they arrived here having won a tight series in New York. They earned their way here with talent and belief. They’ve taken hits much worse than these last two games in Detroit, and come out of it stronger for the wear.

That’s why, as tempting as it is to say, the words must and win cannot be responsibly used consecutively. Not now. Not with the Royals, technically, still co-habitants of first place and 19 games (including the suspended loss-in-waiting against the Indians) left in their most interesting season in a generation. Must-win? Not yet.

But we’re getting closer.

The Royals still have the schedule in their favor, and too much of a history this season of pulling back on course when they lose their way for a stretch. That is, as much as anything, the defining characteristic of this team so far.

They have their biggest opportunity yet to live up to that, and to do it with their most accomplished player on the mound. This is an important chance, and however this goes, the context means this is one of those few games we’ll all remember at the end of the season.

This is still too early to call a must-win.

But we can see that point from here, as the Royals enter the most important game of their most important season in years.

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

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