For so many years and through so many disappointments, the joke was that by the time school’s out, so are the Royals. Dark humor can comfort us in times of trouble, and back in 2004, the Royals were 11 games out of first place on Memorial Day.
The next year, it was 18.
The year after that, it was 23, and the Royals would fire their general manager two days later.
The Royals have come a long way since then, of course, but even in their seasons of progress the car often crashed this time of year.
In 2013, on Memorial Day, they lost for the 17th time in 21 games. They lost again the next day, again the day after that, and that’s when they fired the hitting coaches they’d hired only a few months earlier. George Brett was the new guy, and given one simple and clear directive from general manager Dayton Moore: Rescue us mentally.
In 2014, on Memorial Day, they were blown out by the bottom-feeding Astros. Mike Moustakas had been demoted the week before, and Yordano Ventura walked off the mound after recording just eight outs, holding his elbow. The Royals lost again the next day, again the day after that, and that’s when they replaced another hitting coach and the calls for Moore and manager Ned Yost to be fired took their annual turns in the local news cycle.
For so many years, expecting the Royals to be dogs this time of year was not pessimism. It was realism.
Look at those Royals now. Memorial Day is Monday, and the Royals are the best team in baseball.
The usual question: What else can go wrong?
The current question: Is this real?
“This is such a different feeling,” shortstop Alcides Escobar says. “Everything is going perfect, man.”
The Royals didn’t even need to play a whole game to win on Saturday night. They led 3-2 when the rain came heavy after 5 1/2 innings, and that score turned final after a rain delay.
They are now 28-14, the best record in baseball. They entered Saturday’s game having allowed fewer runs than any other team in the American League, and having scored more than all but one.
They have outscored their opponents by 70 runs, the biggest margin in baseball. Forty-two games in, their run differential is bigger than at any point last season and bigger than any full season the Royals have had since 1980.
You will notice that this includes the 1985 world champions.
Royals history is full of bright moments that turned out to be mirages. Angel Berroa once won rookie of the year. So did Bob Hamelin. The 2003 Royals were in first place in August. Remember when Kyle Davies had that great September?
So even as the run to the World Series changed the Royals’ history, there is still an extra bit of validation in the team not just playing well so far — but dominating.
Because this is the time of year we’ve grown used to seeing them struggle, even in seasons like 2014, when there is so much joy to come.
Think about it like this: The Royals had built-in explanations and newfound credibility to cover a slow start. If they were 21-21 right now, looking up at the Tigers instead of down, we would talk about four starting position players, three starting pitchers and two of their best relievers missing time for injuries, suspensions or a family emergency.
If they were 19-23 right now, more like the last-place Indians, we could talk about how a slow start was inevitable after the emotional ride of last year and that this group had proved itself to be better as the season goes on.
But this is all reinforced by the context that 42 games is a representative chunk of the season. Moore and many others around the sport often view 40 games as enough to make fair and considered judgments about what they have. This is when plans start to form about trade targets, for instance, or when big-picture strategy is altered.
That’s a big part of the reason the Royals have made so many major personnel changes this time of year — the hitting coaches fired in 2013, Mike Moustakas being demoted in 2014.
So, in that way, this is more than just the comfort of a great start. It’s a great start that has every look of turning into a great season, maybe more.
The season started about a week earlier last year, but the teams with the best two records and the best two run differentials in the American League on Memorial Day made the playoffs.
The last two AL teams to have both the best record and best run differential on Memorial Day either won the World Series (2007 Red Sox) or 116 regular-season games (2001 Mariners).
These Royals are not just playing well, in other words. They are playing so well that even a lot of the reasonable doubts many had before the season — remember how many people picked them third or even fourth in the division? — now read like a bad joke.
The defense and bullpen are on historic paces. Mike Moustakas is hitting .335. Kendrys Morales and Eric Hosmer have driven in more runs than any pair of teammates in the league. Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Ryan Madson and Jason Frasor have given up a total of nine earned runs in 78 innings. For a while, the starting rotation was a concern, but its given up nine earned runs in its last eight starts.
“My job is three times easier than it ever has been in the past,” Yost says. “I have not seen one day where their energy has dropped, or their focus has dropped. You write out the lineup, and you sit back. Normally, I’d be right there at the top of the rail.
“Now, I just sit on the bench and watch them go.”
On a Thursday afternoon two years ago, back when May meant a horror scene, the Royals led the Rays into the fourth inning when the rain started. Then, the snow. It was a bizarre scene, some players bringing their cell phones out to the field to take pictures, and eventually the game was postponed.
The Royals had already had three games postponed for weather, and another when Boston shut down in pursuit of the Marathon bomber, and it sure felt as if they could not catch a break. Three more outs, and the Royals would’ve had a win. Instead, they had nothing.
“Let’s throw down some dirt and let’s try to get it in,” Jeff Francoeur said.
“We played four innings, why not play one more?” Alex Gordon said.
The postponement meant the game was replayed from the beginning, essentially erasing another off day and wasting four innings.
On Saturday, with the rain starting to pick up, Royals starter Edinson Volquez was one inning from making the game official. It was a race against nature, and Volquez gave up a run and then loaded the bases with one out. The Royals have folded in much easier situations in years past, but this time, Jhonny Peralta swung at the first pitch and grounded into a double play. Threat over.
Shortly after that, the skies opened and the game was called. Had the rain came a half hour earlier, as some forecasts said, the game may have been wiped out and replayed from the start.
Instead, the Royals beat one of the best teams in baseball without even needing their bullpen.
Lucky and good. That’s a fierce combination and a stark change from what we’ve grown used to this time of year.