Vahe Gregorian

Mission control: Royals’ sixth win in seven games is a welcome phase in process

On the occasion of day games, Ned Yost’s pre-game interview session is conducted in the comfort of his office rather than with a swarm around him in the dugout or in the more stiff confines of the media room.

Typically without TV cameras present, it makes for an informal setting and a certain playful stream-of-consciousness dynamic between Yost and reporters that perhaps is a smidge more agreeable when the Royals are as hot as they are now: After beating the White Sox 6-5 on Thursday at Kauffman Stadium, they won a fourth game in a row for the first time all season and are 6-1 since the All-Star break.

You never quite know what will come up in these chats or where they will go, but it almost always is worthwhile either for some unfiltered observations, revealing insights, twists from his life or just sheer humor.

On Thursday, it was a fusion of all, including Yost taking to YouTube to further clarify points about the Apollo 11 mission that he’d been expounding on with apparent expertise the previous few days amid 50th anniversary commemorations.

But it also was the backdrop for candor about the state of the union even as players in the clubhouse were talking about how the vibes feel different since the All-Star break despite being 36-62 overall.

Ever the contrarian, when asked if there was some sense of reward in finally getting results now, Yost said, “We’ve got 35 (now 36) wins, what reward is that?” and added that a week doesn’t define anything.

And what’s more defining is this: Yost offered a realistic viewpoint that the Royals have been reluctant to state or accept in the wake of back-to-back World Series appearances in 2014 and 2015.

Debts came due all at once in the form of contracts for emerging stars they couldn’t afford to keep and a depleted minor-league system they’d mortgaged to win as big as possible then.

Yost doesn’t accept losing any more than he accepts moon-landing conspiracy theories, but he understands the implications of what general manager Dayton Moore has stressed is a draft-based reset.

“Generally, in order to get back to the World Series, for a couple years you’re just not going to play .500 baseball,” Yost said. “And if you are playing .500 baseball, the odds of you getting back to the World Series are going to drop dramatically. Because you’re not getting the quality draft picks.”

It’s tough to be truly competitive and rebuild at the same time, in other words, which isn’t what you want to concede but an ever-lingering hazard for MLB’s small-market teams.

Which all at once leaves Yost consumed with the way back to a World Series, relishing a journey that is inherently unsteady and clinging to a creed he rolled up his sleeve to show on his right arm: a tattoo touting the preaching of his dear friend Dale Earnhardt Sr. to “Never Accept Mediocrity.”

Yes, there might seem to be some contradictions in all this, never more so than when Yost says it makes no difference at this stage if the Royals were to win 50 games or 75 and so …

“Fifty gives me a better chance of going (back) to the World Series, if you understand what I’m saying,” Yost said.

Understand it this way: If you accept that the Royals hit a point of no return long ago this season and that the road back begins with development both in the minors and here.

As clear and present cases in point, the Royals now have the luxury of letting the likes of Nicky Lopez and Bubba Starling play regularly for the next few months as they sort out pillars of the future. Ones to go with Adalberto Mondesi and Hunter Dozier and maybe Jorge Soler and presumably-hopefully the quite-well established Whit Merrifield and the injured-but-returning Sal Perez, among others.

None of which means the Royals think it’s OK to lose, which Yost says makes him irritable and grumpy. But when he wakes up after a loss still angry and frustrated, he added, he embraces the feeling.

“I know one day when this team wins the World Series again, I’ll remember this feeling,” said Yost, who may or may not still be managing by the time that happens. “Because when we won the World Series last time, that’s what I remembered: the hard part.

“It makes the winning that much sweeter, and just to come in and win without going through this, it’s not near as fun.”

Maybe even a little like the way to the moon.

Narrating play-by-play on the a video like some of us might feel the urge to do with movies we know well, Yost at one point said, “Now they’re doing pitchover at (P-64), which begins their approach phase of the descent.”

When he turned off the video a few minutes later, those words lingered like a convenient segue to ask what the baseball parallel might be in this.

As he’s apt to do, he shut down the concept … only to reintroduce it later in terms of what it will take to get to the Royals’ own “P-64” phase — turning upright toward descent and touchdown.

Get the foundation set through development and more high-impact draft picks, he believes, and .500 ball becomes part of the trajectory back.

Even getting to the approach phase still seems a galaxy away right now. Or at least a giant leap.

But for a franchise with some promising pieces in place, it’s a fine thing to see some tangible progress that at least makes the horizon seem a little closer and clearer … and still no doubt fuels a man who knows about how both these sorts of things work.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.