On a May weekend a year ago, the Royals defied baseball gravity and uncorked the most prolific ninth-inning rally in club history when they amassed seven runs to beat the Chicago White Sox 8-7.
Even with Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon sidelined by injuries from their freak collision, even after the deflating development of Sal Perez being helped off the field in the top of the ninth after his own pileup with third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert.
The win epitomized what had come to define the team.
You never could count the Royals out.
Not since their very identity had been rewired in the transformational comeback against Oakland in the 2014 American League Wild Card Game, and certainly not after their preposterous eight come-from-behind wins in the 2015 postseason on the way to winning the World Series.
For all we know, that collective resolve and resilience still is bubbling within.
But it’s at best dormant or tamped down into an unrecognizable mush right now.
The Royals on Sunday at Kauffman Stadium capped what might have been a revitalizing home stand and a chance to redirect their sagging season with a 1-0 loss to Cleveland that was the likely outcome the moment Danny Duffy allowed a Carlos Santana RBI in the fifth inning.
Duffy drooped in frustration with himself immediately after Santana’s hit zoomed by him, no doubt subconsciously aware of the thin margin for error he had.
Afterward, he took the blame for the run and the loss because that’s what great teammates do.
“We might still be playing right now,” Duffy said.
Maybe still, considering the Royals’ astonishingly inept offense.
The Royals lost on Sunday, fell to 10-20 overall and 3-6 in the would-be ground-making-up home stand, because they mustered one hit off a fellow named Mike Clevinger and four Cleveland relievers.
Clevinger had a 5.26 ERA in 17 appearances with Cleveland last year, and he was making his first major-league appearance of the season since being called up from Class AAA Columbus Clippers.
Yet he might as well have been Madison Bumgarner on Sunday, when he struck out five Royals (and walked four) in 5 2/3 innings as he helped keep the home team stranded at 82 runs this season.
That’s the fewest runs in baseball and 30 fewer at the start of the day than the Oakland Athletics, the runner-up for least productive in the American League.
With that yawning gap in their game, a sense of futility is permeating the fan base.
Whether it’s enthusiastic calls on Twitter for a fire sale or the most half-hearted, apathetic of boos on Sunday after Jorge Soler, Jorge Bonifacio and Alex Gordon struck out in order in the seventh, those who have faith in what was once their signature act are rapidly dwindling.
It’s also a distress signal to see the Royals 10 games under .500 for the first time since 2012, back when they were trying to emerge from a generation-plus without postseason play.
Still, as accountants like to say, if you torture the numbers long enough you can get them to confess to anything.
So the fact that the Royals are all of six games back on May 7 with 132 to plays says to chill a little.
Trouble is, there is no way to know when or if the Royals might pull out of this funk and revert to production that better reflects career patterns.
Worse yet, it’s dreadful to watch.
But it’s a funny thing about the perception of “try harder” in baseball.
Most of the time, that just means pressing and squeezing too hard.
Now, you might see moments on the field that look lackadaisical, and you might subscribe to the theory that looming free agency is somehow messing with Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer and Alcides Escobar.
Maybe there’s a smidgen of truth in that, in what games of the mind do to people, especially when they get in a bind and have to find a way out.
A lot of times, though, we tend to simply see what we’re looking for when we try to explain the seemingly unexplainable.
Which still leaves us with the question of … how can it be that a team that so recently was indomitable just can’t make anything happen?
It could be that this is all there is at the intersection of too many things gone wrong, from Gordon’s dramatic drop-off to the lack of production by designated hitters that have been instrumental in the team hitting a major-league low .208.
Then again, the answer might be found just in the arcing rhythms of baseball, complete with its wildly swinging pendulum.
“You know that they’re giving their very best effort: You can feel the energy, you can feel the intensity inside the dugout,” manager Ned Yost said. “You can feel the frustration when they come back.”
Accordingly, Yost doesn’t subscribe to the mythology that somebody needs to flip over a table in the clubhouse or that he should be tearing into his team.
“It just doesn’t do you any good, especially me, being in a leadership role, to get overly frustrated, because then that just makes their frustration worse,” he said. “I mean, I’m not walking around hugging them and patting them on the back, ‘It’s OK, It’s OK.’
“I don’t want people getting the wrong idea here. But for me to get frustrated, I’ve learned … that that’s counterproductive.”
Indeed, this shouldn’t be misconstrued as passivity.
But Yost has learned, both from overdoing it in Milwaukee and in finding the right touches here as he cultivated the 2014 and 2015 teams, that he has to be a steady presence.
He didn’t say it Sunday, but he also knows this:
At some point, it’s on veteran professionals to find their own way back.
Just like the core players of this group have done so many times before, a characteristic they’ll need to summon again if they want to make one more run together before operators are standing by for the fire sale.