Sam Mellinger

Alex Gordon will return to a stronger Royals team than the one he left

The Royals have gone 31-17 since Alex Gordon suffered a groin strain and went on the disabled list. He is expected to return this week.
The Royals have gone 31-17 since Alex Gordon suffered a groin strain and went on the disabled list. He is expected to return this week. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

They say the baseball season is a marathon, and the intent of the analogy is obvious, but the better metaphor is a book. A long book. A very long book, actually, with enough cliff-hangers that you can think back a few chapters and realize what looked like an emergency turned out to be one more piece of a building narrative.

Or, at least, that’s how it’s been with this Royals team. They took a much-welcomed day off Monday, 30 games over .500 and the reigning kings of the American League.

It was the team’s first day off in two weeks, and the players and coaches likely had better things to do. But if a reflective mood hit, they might’ve considered everything they’ve been through so far.

The soap-opera drama with the White Sox and A’s. Yordano Ventura going from opening-day starter to a pseudo-demotion and then back to the form that earned him that big contract. Mike Moustakas’ remarkable turnaround, even through needing to twice leave the team for a family emergency.

But the biggest challenge, at least so far, will almost certainly wrap up this week. The Royals have played the last 48 games over 54 days without Alex Gordon, their best player, hardest worker and most admired teammate.

When he lay on the grass because of what would later be diagnosed as a grade two-plus groin strain, the stomachs of coaches and team officials dropped. The Royals were having a good season, and everything about the team’s reaction screamed out that their success would now be tested like never before.

Gordon is likely to return to the Royals on Tuesday. If not, then almost certainly this week. Thursday will be exactly eight weeks since the injury the Royals’ training staff predicted would require eight weeks of recovery and, um, well, we can check “long-term injury to the best player” off the list of things that could sink what could be a historic Royals season.

The Royals won the game in which Gordon was hurt, pushing their record to 49-33 and a .598 winning percentage. They had a 6 1/2-game lead in the division, and a 2 1/2-game lead over the Astros for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Without Gordon, the Royals are 31-17 for a .646 winning percentage. They lead the Twins by 13 games in the division, and entered the off day leading the Blue Jays by six games for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Resiliency has long been this group’s defining characteristic, so maybe the last 54 days serve only as the latest example.

The Royals are a different team now than when Gordon was injured. Most obviously, of course, they traded for Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist. Jeremy Guthrie is out of the rotation, and Omar Infante is out of the starting lineup. Greg Holland’s effectiveness has replaced Gordon’s absence as the Royals’ most pressing first-world problem.

But it’s interesting that without Gordon they have performed, overall, almost exactly the same as they did with him.

With Gordon, they hit .272 with .323 on-base and .404 slugging percentages while averaging 4.3 runs per game. Without him, they have hit .266/.320/.412 while averaging 4.4 runs.

The success without him can’t be credited to the pitching, either. The staff ERA before and after the injury is exactly the same — 3.53.

At the moment, the Royals’ greatest external pressure is coming from the Blue Jays, owners of baseball’s best record since the non-waiver trade deadline. Since Aug. 1, the Blue Jays have scored the most runs in baseball and allowed the fewest.

It is a torrid stretch that lines up with a trade haul highlighted by Troy Tulowitzki and David Price, and as the Royals showed last year, it is often far more important how a team is playing going into the playoffs than what its record is from April to August.

The same factors that worked in the Royals’ favor last year — a hot finish and the unpredictability of baseball games in a short sample size — are up for grabs now.

For those inclined to worry, Cueto’s performance on Tuesday after consecutive poor starts is important. Holland’s ability to close out games with confidence is the team’s biggest internal concern.

But as Gordon’s pending return represents one more mile marker in the Royals’ most anticipated and so far successful seasons in a generation, it’s worth a reminder that — all the way back to Eric Hosmer’s broken hand last July — this group has answered every challenge with an emphatic triumph.

Gordon’s injury was bad enough that some of his teammates choked up talking about it. He returns to a team that actually, somehow, won more without him. The biggest challenge of the year is turned into a powdery pile of irrelevance.

There will be more obstacles, of course. And at this point, there is no reason to believe the Royals will not be up for it.

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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