Abundant signs of something bordering on baseball euphoria had been sprouting here recently during the most meaningful Royals home stand in years.
A decade of Royal pain had been eclipsed by a virtual Royal reign since the All-Star break, a span during which they’d amassed the best record in the American League: 19-6 entering their game Wednesday with the floundering Miami Marlins.
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That sense of thrill crackled over the Internet and no doubt around the office watercooler at least figuratively, if those maybe aren’t ever-present any more.
And the delirium surged in the TV ratings, which soared, again, to their highest mark in 11 seasons (1997-2002, 2008-present) of the Royals’ association with Fox Sports Kansas City for a Tuesday night game, against a Miami team with the second-worst record in baseball.
Yet there were holdouts, too.
Some stubbornly insist that general manager Dayton Moore and/or manager Ned Yost can’t get it done regardless of what they see on the field now. Some remain fixated on what was given up (He Who Shall Not Be Named) to make this season happen instead of appreciating it.
Others just had a healthy skepticism. And why not when it comes to a franchise that hasn’t made the postseason since 1985 and has seemed lost in a fun house of trap doors and smoke and mirrors ever since?
This is all so new and fragile, and it might not be safe yet to expect much. Why buy in only to get fooled again?
And, boy, was that caution justified on Wednesday.
Instead of atoning for a 1-0 loss the night before and re-establishing the mojo, the Royals crumpled in a hideous 5-2 loss featuring 11 men left on base, five hits from the makeshift lineup they are left with by a sudden rash of injuries and a costly, miserable defensive lapse by third baseman Elliot Johnson — who suffered a good booing from an invested and frustrated crowd of 17,760.
The deflating, momentum-busting game was the last thing they needed entering the start of a five-game series tonight at Detroit that shaped up — and still does — as one of the most compelling and defining moments they have faced in the last 20 years.
Never mind that the Royals are more entrenched in the wild-card race (five games out of the second spot after Tampa Bay’s win over Seattle on Wednesday night) than they are in the American League Central (71/2 behind the first-place Tigers).
Certainly, the series looms as the most momentous for a core of young Royals.
“These are huge games for us,” said first baseman Eric Hosmer, 23. “We’re not going to sugarcoat it.
“We know we’ve got some ground we need to make up. That’s the good part about going into this series. We control that. We don’t have to worry about who’s playing, who they’re playing or what the score is in that game.
“(And) they know we’re playing good baseball, and they know we’ll be ready to play.”
But it’s hard not to wonder now if this mess Wednesday will have a ripple effect.
“Well, it certainly doesn’t help, you know,” a somewhat ashen Johnson said. “But every day is a new day.”
This streakiest of seasons has been nothing if not a demonstration of that for the Royals. And they may well psychologically adjust to getting up off the mat (again) instead of playing off the pedestal they’ve occupied recently.
They may also be empowered by the knowledge they’re 5-3 against the Tigers this season and that tonight’s starter, Jeremy Guthrie, is 4-0 in five starts against them as a Royal.
Yet there is another lingering matter to overcome.
A team that had been remarkably injury-free all season is now in the grips of several at once, with three key players sidelined.
In addition to outfielder Lorenzo Cain already on the 15-day disabled list, infielder Miguel Tejada (severe strained calf) was moved to the 60-day DL on Wednesday and starting third baseman Mike Moustakas (strained calf) remains in limbo after missing a second straight game.
“I’ve been through this many, many times. It’s part of the game,” Yost said before the game, later adding, “We feel like we’ve got enough depth to cover it.”
That looked less certain after the game, particularly because of the void at third without the fine glove and steadily improving bat of Moustakas.
The best Yost could project after the game was to have his “fingers crossed” that Moustakas may be able to return to at least pinch hit on Saturday or Sunday.
That made for a bit of a sigh from Yost when asked his options at third the next few days.
Perhaps it will be recently acquired Jamey Carroll, hitting .223. Or Emilio Bonifacio, batting .218, picked up Wednesday from Toronto for a player to be determined later or cash.
Yost didn’t mention Johnson, conceivably an oversight since Yost sought to mitigate the error that paved the way to two runs as “a cue-ball shot with a lot of English” on it.
While Yost made it a point, too, to say players aren’t robots or machines but humans, he acknowledged it changed the “complexion” of the seventh inning, which the Royals entered leading 2-1 and left trailing 3-2.
In turn, that inning seemed to change the complexion, or at least the perception, of where this Royals team is.
“We all realize that we needed to win this game,” Hosmer said.
Unpalatable as it was, though, Yost was right when he said, “It’s just two days.”
It’s the next four days (and five games) that will most reveal and influence this season, a truth-serum chaser after a few weeks of the bubbly flowing.