The story of the first quarter of this Royals season is of disappointment, of a search for answers, of a group that’s fresh from the sport’s highest accomplishment now finding itself in the middle of the standings.
But inside the Royals’ clubhouse, the story is different. The story is more certain. The story is happier. Generally, that’s how it’s always been.
The Royals beat the Red Sox 8-4 on Tuesday, the first time they’ve won consecutive games in nearly four weeks. Yordano Ventura’s fastball hit 99 mph, the best Ned Yost says he’s pitched all season. Cheslor Cuthbert had three hits. Paulo Orlando was a double short of the cycle. Eric Hosmer hit another long home run and continues to be among the league leaders in hitting, on-base percentage, and OPS.
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The whole thing felt very 2015, which was significant, because most of the last three weeks have felt very 2005. Maybe this is nothing. But maybe it’s something.
Wade Davis has a theory — a thought, a ballplayer’s way of looking at what the outside views as frustration, and instead seeing sunshine.
“If your mindset is, ‘Nobody can beat me, no matter what,’ then that makes it a little bit better,” Davis says. “Do we still have that? Yeah. I mean, obviously it’s been a grind. It’s been tough.”
Davis talks about the things ballplayers always talk about when their teams aren’t playing great. Catching other teams at the wrong time. The agonizing seesaw of losing one game because of starting pitching and the next because of weak offense, and then when those two line up together losing a game because of the bullpen or defense.
It’s enough to rock even the confidence of professional athletes. Davis has been on teams like that. Before he came to Kansas City four years ago, plenty of Royals seasons collapsed under less than two bad road trips.
But these Royals are different. If nothing else, they’ve shown themselves to be different. Davis’ words are different, too. He is effectively smiling at the struggle, because there’s no sense in being threatened by something you don’t see as a threat.
“I don’t want to say it’s a good thing to struggle like that, but it might be,” he says. “However many times you get hit in the face, it’s how many times you get back up. That’s what you’re doing, is fighting back.”
Davis’ favorite moment from 2015 was not the comeback in Houston or pitching both sides of the rain delay against Toronto or even throwing his glove in the air after the final out in the World Series.
It was the series against the Oakland A’s, back in May, the one where Brett Lawrie set off a weekend of drama with a reckless slide into Alcides Escobar’s knee. The Royals won that series in the eighth inning of the last game, a Sunday afternoon in which they played their B-lineup and could’ve been shaken by more hit batters and more purpose pitches.
Winning that game, and doing it like that, proved to Davis the resiliency the Royals had long claimed as their identity. He’s been on teams that would’ve folded under the pressure. This group, he knew then, is different. And that kind of thing matters.
It matters as a group, and it also matters individually. Davis sees his own career track in the Royals’ path. He came here as a starting pitcher, but that first season could not have gone worse. His stepbrother — a man he called his best friend — died of a genetic heart defect. On the field, he was giving up a .320 average, a 5.67 ERA, and far too many line drives to stay in the rotation past August.
“I believe in (the value of getting back up),” he says. “I’ve been knocked down before. In 2013, that was my biggest low, for sure. The off-the-field stuff, you know, and then on-the-field struggling. I felt my stuff had never been that good as a starting pitcher, but my results were terrible, and now I’m getting moved to the bullpen. I’m like, ‘My gosh, this is as bad as it gets.’
“So, then that offseason, it motivated me to get mentally stronger. I went at it every day. Every day, I was dedicated to doing something, whether it was focusing, physical, making sure my arm was taken care of, whatever. I wanted to do something every day to show up at spring training knowing I was more prepared than anybody.”
Here’s where he brings it back to the Royals, and why he believes he and his teammates are about to run away from that slide.
“That’s how we all are,” he says. “I think as a group, we’ve all done pretty good, just knowing that eventually it’s going to get better, and working to make it not last too long. You know it’s going to get better. But it’s hard, man. It’s a hard game.”
The only way through this game of failure is belief, but the trick is that belief doesn’t usually come until the breakthrough. The Royals have had their breakthrough, so as long as their bodies are strong and the roster generally intact, that belief isn’t going anywhere.
Davis thinks he saw the first sign of proof in the Yankees series, even though the Royals lost three of four in New York.
“We didn’t feel defeated, even when we lost,” he says.
So that happened before?
“I think so,” he says. “I think when we’d lose, it was like, hurting us a little bit, emotionally. Now, it wasn’t fazing us. I think that’s a good thing.”
On Tuesday, a corner of the Royals’ clubhouse turned into the loudest game of sober Jenga you are ever likely to see. Mike Moustakas lost, tried to cradle the wooden pieces from falling over, and then ran off into a hallway laughing.
One of the cardinal rules about following baseball is to never make too much out of one game. Maybe this is just a momentary smile in an otherwise mediocre season. Or, maybe Davis is onto something. Maybe it’s bright only after it’s dark.
Maybe the Royals had to be knocked down, again, to regain their best.