The changing world of the Royals is perhaps best symbolized by Matt Strahm, the ultra-thin North Dakotan with the hard fastball and freaky release point that the best hitters in the world have yet to figure out.
Strahm is something of a revelation. The Royals thought he was good. They just didn’t expect this. He always had talent, but enough limitations that he never made a top 100 prospects list. Here is Strahm, two months into his big-league career, showing all of the swing-and-miss stuff he used to beat minor league hitters with none of the occasional control issues.
All but eight of Strahm’s 37 appearances above low Class A were as a starting pitcher, so this is a heck of a find for a team in need of starting pitching. There are some questions about Strahm’s third pitch, but the Royals see him as a starter long-term and originally planned on giving him that opportunity sometime in September.
Then the last three weeks happened, and everything changed.
Strahm will still get his chance to start — in spring training.
At the moment, he is exclusively a relief pitcher — because the Royals are back to focusing on now.
For good reason, too. The Royals beat the Yankees 8-5 on Monday. Combined with Baltimore's loss to Toronto, the Royals are now two games out of the second wild card, the closest they've been since this wild run began 18 wins in 22 games ago.
The Royals remain unlikely to make the playoffs. They began the workweek three games out of the playoffs, one of seven teams holding or close enough to a wild card spot to dream. That’s not just the projections of various computer models. It’s the honest judgment of a team whose best stretch in two years has brought them only to the edge of the playoff race.
But, this much should be said — if the Royals do get in, they’ll be a mother of an opponent for somebody.
And, even if we stay in the moment, they are the last team that contenders like the Red Sox, Tigers, and especially the Orioles and Astros want to see making this move.
For crying out loud — the bullpen just completed the longest scoreless streak since before the Royals even existed, and Wade Davis has been on the disabled list.
“Yeah, definitely,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “I think that’s how this season goes. It’s the team that can get hot at the end and carry that on through the playoffs. And we’re definitely getting hot now as a team. And we just got to do whatever we can to keep it rolling.”
Some of the names are different, but this is mostly the same group operating precisely the same plan that went 23-8 in the last two postseasons. In that time, three teams holding or contending for playoff spots have been eliminated by the Royals. The Tigers have lost nine of 13 against the Royals, one year after Kansas City ended Detroit’s vise grip of the American League Central.
The strengths of the Royals are coming more into focus, and the weaknesses are at least temporarily being muffled. On Sunday, they won on another bunch-hitting rally in which their first run scored on a ground ball that did not even reach the pitcher’s mound. On Monday, they scored their first run on a ground ball that reached about five feet behind the pitcher’s mound.
They are scoring with speed, and with grounders finding holes, and often in ways you wouldn’t normally expect — that rally in Boston included a walk by Sal Perez, and a three-run triple by Raul Mondesi.
The rotation remains the team’s biggest weakness, but it hasn’t been a problem in nearly four weeks. Starting on Aug. 4, Royals starting pitchers have only given up more than three earned runs three times.
Those old Royals — the ones that had executives planning on starting Strahm some in September — had five separate streaks of giving up more than three earned runs in three consecutive games.
The Royals are making this late push on guts and belief and experience, but the attention on an inspirational insect clouds some the actual baseball happening. Like Jarrod Dyson said the other day, if it was about a third-generation bug, the players could stop stretching and lifting weights and generally caring.
Their batting average on balls in play, which is typically used as an indication of luck, has actually gone down slightly during the hot streak. The biggest difference between an offense that was averaging a league-worst 3.8 runs per game and has been working at a five-run average during the hot streak is power — .395 slugging before, and .426 slugging since.
Another point of optimism is in the schedule. Whether you go by remaining home games (and the Royals still have baseball’s biggest home-road split) or games against contenders, the Royals have the easiest schedule among the seven teams holding or close to a wild card spot.
Look, this is still a longshot. Just as the Royals were always one prolonged stretch like this from contention, they are now one 2-5 week from taking on what would almost certainly be too much water to stay afloat. The bottom of their order remains something like an advance-two-spaces-for-free card for opposing pitchers, and the rotation is still earning trust.
But they have positioned themselves as baseball’s most dangerous longshot, and made the last month of the season about the scoreboard instead of glorified tryouts for 2017.
Not bad for a team many wanted to sell pieces at the trade deadline.