The ever-enigmatic Royals had won nine out of 10 games to reach a relatively magical .500 mark in June for the first time in a decade only to drop eight of 12 to start the predictable plummet into irrelevance that has with ample reason come to be assumed.
Then on Wednesday night at Kauffman Stadium against division leader Cleveland, the Royals had to contend with a draining, distracting 2 hour, 47 minute weather delay. They watched their best player, Alex Gordon, suffer an unnerving injury, fell behind 4-1 and saw the lights zap out at midnight for 12 minutes, but they stayed lasered in and scrapped back to win 6-5.
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Less than 12 hours after that ended, on Thursday afternoon, their ace starter, James Shields, came unmoored and they tumbled behind 5-0.
It was another back-breaking scenario in the making for a team that spent the first few months of the season only scrounging up runs and appeared ready to start the second half of the season, their 82nd game, the same way.
“Early in the season, a 5-0 lead was almost a death sentence,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “But it doesn’t feel like that now.”
Especially not after the Royals clubbed their way back to tie it on back-to-back home runs, including Lorenzo Cain’s grand slam, pulled away on Salvador Perez’s three-run double in the eighth inning and sealed the 10-7 win with Greg Holland’s 12th save in as many opportunities.
What was essentially a night-day doubleheader was basically just a day’s work, and it was only two games in a 162-game marathon. And what the Royals pulled off Thursday to improve to as good as 40-42 this late in the season for the first time since 2003 could be a mere mirage, just setting up more torment ahead.
But unsightly as they’ve been at times, and may yet be, they’re too intriguing to look away from or dismiss yet.
And if they still are hovering within a few games of first when it matters, the events of the Fourth of July might be seen as pivotal, two games that demonstrated a certain resilience and coalescing and mojo rising.
A team without some meaningful character and chemistry, not to mention sound pieces in place, doesn’t do what the Royals did.
“It’s baseball; it’s a long season, and that’s why you play out each at-bat,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said.
Hosmer, who hit his fifth home run in six games after hitting four in the previous 76, is a walking illustration of that after following up his rough 2012 season with a lumbering 2013 start.
“I feel like I’m doing my part right now,” Hosmer said.
For that matter, the once-listless Royals offense finally is doing its part, too.
Suddenly energized at the plate, the Royals have amassed 41 runs in their last six games after managing 41 in their previous 12. They were a study in resourcefulness and economy on Thursday, when for the first time in franchise history they scored 10-plus runs on no more than six hits.
“We feel like we’re over the hump offensively,” Yost said.
So, where were the fireworks before?
“It’s been there; this is no magic, no big fluke,” said Yost, though giving a nod to the work of George Brett and Pedro Grifol since they assumed their roles working with hitters on May 30. “Now, (the players) are starting to believe. These kids are starting to feel what a good swing feels like.”
Much of the season, the Royals have been buoyed by stellar pitching and defense, two time-honored baselines of good teams.
Between that and the much-touted sprouting of home-grown position players, the foundation arguably is there for a fundamental shift in fortune for a franchise that has had just one winning season since 1994.
Too many times, though, the bats went numb when only a few runs would have sufficed. And the pitching couldn’t hold up forever, especially with no help.
No one suffered more from that dynamic than Shields, who entered the game Thursday with the Royals mustering only 3.9 runs in his starts, accounting for his pedestrian 3-6 record despite a sharp 2.99 earned-run average.
On Thursday, though, the Royals reversed the trend with their 10-run binge that gave them their seventh straight victory in games he’s started.
“Our offense is coming alive,” Shields said. “And if our pitching can keep doing what they’re doing and our defense (stays) phenomenal, good things are going to happen.”
There are some “ifs” to that, especially when it comes to a team that is prone to wild swings (see, 17-7, followed by 1-12 earlier this season) and hasn’t yet proven it can hold up for the long haul.
But it’s “built for the grind,” Yost said Thursday, and maybe he’s onto something. There is at least a logical basis for hope, a victory in itself, and to ask if something has started to turn.
“I don’t think anybody knows what moment it was,” Hosmer said.
Maybe because it just happened.