Vahe Gregorian

Royals (mostly) poised for success after All-Star break

The Royals could certainly benefit from a hot Alex Gordon in the second half of the season.
The Royals could certainly benefit from a hot Alex Gordon in the second half of the season. jsleezer@kcstar.com

With a 5-3 victory featuring a radical lineup shakeup on Saturday at Kauffman Stadium, the Royals, 45-42, assured themselves of entering the All-Star Game recess poking their heads above the tepid water they’ve been treading.

And even as they lag well behind American League Central leader Cleveland, hovering around the break-even point is not going to put them in sell mode as the trade deadline approaches.

Not if you consider recent precedent: They were 48-46 at the intermission two years ago, and promptly fell to 48-50 before recovering and soaring to Game 7 of the 2014 World Series.

And especially not if you consider current philosophy.

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The future is always a consideration, but they remain firmly fixed in the here and now.

That means they continue to covet not merely a wild-card berth but the division title, general manager Dayton Moore said.

And bet that they’d double down on that before they fold.

“There’s no reason to think that we’re not going to do everything in our power to improve this team in the second half,” said Moore, reminding that even as the Royals “piece things together” every other team has its own stuff to shore up.

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No doubt Moore and his staff will be resourceful in seeking to enhance a team that entering Saturday was last in the American League in scoring and routinely bogged down by one of the most erratic starting rotations in baseball.

Just as certainly, there are constraints on what they can do after trading five pitching prospects last year for Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist — reinforcements who enabled the Royals to win the World Series.

So this version of the Royals figures to remain a pretty contained unit that’s going to have to unleash the power within, as Tony Robbins would put it.

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But at least that comes with some apparent built-in boosts:

Due back from injuries shortly after the All-Star Game are center fielder Lorenzo Cain, a 2015 All-Star, and virtually impregnable reliever Wade Davis (recently voted an All-Star for the second straight year).

After seemingly being home only fleetingly all season, they also will be the beneficiaries of the scheduling imbalance the rest of the way.

Forty of their final 75 games are at The K, including 10 of the next 13 beginning Sunday.

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That’s handy for a team that’s 29-12 at home and 16-30 on the road.

Meanwhile, with the previously dormant Kendrys Morales resuscitated (nine home runs and 24 RBIs in the last 23 games through Friday), the offense is taking on a different complexion.

The Royals also evidently can continue to count on meaningful contributions from rookies Whit Merrifield, Cheslor Cuthbert and Brett Eibner, each of whom doubled in a three-run second on Saturday in the latest installment of proving themselves vital.

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Cuthbert later drove in the go-ahead run as he continues to minimize, if not downright neutralize, the damage from the season-ending injury to All-Star third baseman Mike Moustakas.

Moreover, Edinson Volquez’s six-inning, three-run performance represented the fourth straight fine start for a Royals pitcher, perhaps portending better days ahead in that category.

Still, it’s been a first half marred by inconsistencies and lapses.

“Just didn’t really mesh everything together,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said.

And pivotal unknowns lurk for a team whose starting lineup on Saturday featured only three players (Hosmer, Sal Perez and Alcides Escobar) who started the decisive Game 5 of the World Series.

Now, in many ways the nucleus of that world championship team is intact (and of course Morales would have started that day if it hadn’t been in a National League park).

But the scrambled look helps illustrate the flux the Royals have been in as they search for offensive traction … and particularly an answer for what ails Alex Gordon.

The two entwined questions were packaged together Saturday in one observation as manager Ned Yost explained why Gordon was sitting and Merrifield starting in left and leading off.

“We go through so many ups and downs offensively,” he said. “We’ve got to get Alex going.”

That they do — a massive X-factor for the Royals.

“Alex has always been capable of carrying us,” Moore said.

But Gordon, who missed 30 games with a fractured right wrist, is stranded at .201 and barely has been on base more times (68) than he’s struck out (64).

His career has been marked by extended slumps and sizzling streaks.

But this breakout has been a long time coming … and counting.

“I really believe that he’s going to have a terrific second half,” Moore said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Asked why, Moore said because he believes in Gordon’s overall approach and the subtle things he’s working on to get back in a groove.

Combine that mystery with the well-documented fickleness of a rotation whose most reliable starter now is Danny Duffy, who began the season in the bullpen, and there are more question marks than exclamation points as the Royals head into the nitty-gritty.

The most obvious: how to concoct, scrounge and otherwise manufacture more runs.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, only one team in the American League (Boston at a staggering .293) has a better batting average than the Royals (.271).

Yet as play began Saturday, the Royals had produced a league-low 342 runs — 30 fewer than even the worst team in the AL, the 30-56 Twins.

It’s not complicated to account for the disconnect.

As of the top of the day, the Royals had the fewest home runs in the league (78, 35 fewer than they’d allowed) and its fourth-worst slugging percentage (.409) and were the only team in baseball with fewer than 200 walks (192).

Oddly enough, in many ways those numbers resemble the Royals’ final regular-season stats of a year ago.

They hit .270 and waited out the fewest walks in the league and hit the second-fewest home runs.

But somehow they were sixth in the league in scoring.

If that doesn’t sound so meaningful, the per-game difference of 4.47 runs then and 3.98 now is precisely at the core of the dynamics for a team with a phenomenal back-end of the bullpen:

The Royals are 37-10 in games when they score four or more runs.

There are those skeptical of the very notion of “timely hitting,” or clutch hitting, and there’s no doubt that it takes a lot more work to get things done one base at a time than with a major swat.

But the fact is that this could all look a lot better if the Royals just do what they’ve done the last couple years:

Come through in the crucible with “keep-the-line moving” bursts and simply attend better to the fundamentals of moving runners over.

“Our players have proven in the past,” Moore said, “that they have the ability to have their best at-bats in the most crucial situations.”

The types that await in abundance after the All-Star break —- the type that Hosmer says are to their advantage after all the meaningful games of the last few years.

How it plays out, of course, is anyone’s guess.

But the future remains now for the Royals, goals within not just their vision but their grasp even after a mediocre first part of the season.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

 

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