Only a distant, healing week back, the Royals’ starting rotation seemed to be deteriorating from a vague concern to a fatal flaw.
Amid the flux of regressions, suspensions and injuries, Royals’ pitching had allowed 51 runs in 10 games, punctuated by 19 in their last three, most of which were the responsibility of the tone-setting starters.
The impact and panic factor were muted some because the Royals managed to win five of those, but the issue was gathering momentum as a potential Achilles’ heel.
Left to spiral, the trouble could in itself unhinge the operation. Not to mention that ongoing turbulence could grind down or render irrelevant the Royals’ ridiculous bullpen advantage.
That was then, though, and this is now.
As suddenly as the starting pitching seemed to emerge as a concern, just as suddenly it’s been revived.
Punctuated by Jeremy Guthrie’s six shutout innings in a 7-1 victory over the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday night at Kauffman Stadium, the Royals tied the 39-year-old franchise record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched with 24.
That made for some tidy symmetry and symbolism on a night the Royals improved to 26-14, the best 40-game start in franchise history.
This is a multifaceted, deep team, so much so that it was able to sustain itself through endless absences from the lineup, including many at the same time.
It’s a team that can beat you with defense and manufactured run and, presto, even home runs this season.
But in the end it only can go as far as the starting pitching can take it, so it was a fine thing that as of Thursday manager Ned Yost could accurately say, “It’s rounding (out) quite nicely.”
Not that he was worried, exactly, about it coming back to form.
“I knew that they’d get settled down. They’re just too good a group not to. We saw it last year,” Yost said. “Like all players, these guys aren’t machines. They’re not robots. They’re going to have ups and downs.
“The offense did a great job of covering them when that happened, and there’s going to come a point in this season where the offense is going to slow down and the pitching’s going to cover them.
“And that’s what makes a good team.”
It all falls, though, on the starters, who furnished 20 of the 24 scoreless innings, including seven apiece from Edinson Volquez and Yordano Ventura.
And if you skip back over Danny Duffy’s still-misaligned-but-encouraging outing on Saturday against the New York Yankees to Chris Young’s sterling start Friday, Royals starters have given up one run in 25.2 innings in four of their last five games.
One turn through the rotation, of course, doesn’t a trend make.
The defining majority of the marathon season remains to be played, and pendulum swings and fluctuations are certainties along the way.
Meanwhile, for all the other upticks, Duffy’s return to last year’s form is a vital priority for the Royals and it’s impossible to know what direction he’ll go in his next start on Saturday against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Still, this turn trumps the alternative and provides some traction and direction for the group, particularly with Jason Vargas about a week or so away from returning from a strained flexor tendon injury and adding more depth and options for Yost.
Maybe nobody embodies the turnaround more than Guthrie, who gave up 21 runs in 29 innings over his first five starts but just four in 18.1 innings over his last three.
“It’s just been command,” Yost said. “He’s refined his command.”
Or as Guthrie put it: “I was able to throw the ball, for the most part, where I was trying to.”
The margin for error between good Guthrie and struggling Guthrie is a slim one, reflected in the Reds loading the bases with one out in the first on a single and two walks.
But Guthrie struck out Marlon Byrd on a foul tip and induced a fly out by Jay Bruce.
“The thing about Jeremy is at times he gives up base hits, but he always finds a way to limit the damage. He always finds a way to make a big pitch,” Yost said, perhaps exaggerating a smidge but also on point when he added: “He never gets too worked up; he doesn’t panic in those situations.”
Nor, it turns out, should Royals followers have assumed the worst about the Royals starters.
All have come through before, for one thing.
Moreover, their struggles appear to have been largely with the fixable — command and mindset — rather than abruptly lost stuff or velocity.
The last week has been testimony to what they can be.
Enough so to rebuff concerns and inspire some faith that they ultimately will buoy the team — even if more dips are inevitable.