Younger fans don’t remember, but when baseball went on strike back in 1994, the Kansas City Royals were making a run for the playoffs. The Royals were 64-51 when baseball shut down, 4 games out of first and closing on the division leading Chicago White Sox. The season had started slow for Kansas City, but Hal McRae’s squad was one of the hottest teams in baseball at the time and there was a good chance that team could have made it to the postseason. But instead, the strike happened, McRae was fired, and the Royals team that took the field in 1995 when baseball came back was not the same team. Since that year, the Royals have only one season of above .500 play. One winning season, that is it. ONE. Sure, the Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 1992. Poor Pirates fans. I’m sure they understand us Royals fans. They understand our pain, the misery we’ve seen. Every year, we keep asking: is it OUR time. Wait, bad choice of words. Royals fans keep asking: is this the year we finally have a reason to cheer? Is this the year we don’t have to look for silver linings? Finally, in 2013, we might have. Yes, I am showing up late to the party. But after this past weekend, I might finally be a believer. This Royals team could possibly contend this year.
So let’s start at why I didn’t think this team would be where they are this year. To be honest, I saw a team that looked a lot like the 2012 team, just with some new pitchers. Now, granted those pitchers didn’t seem all that horrible. I knew James Shields would hold his own, and I was happy with Jeremy Guthrie coming back. But I was unsure about Ervin Santana and I think we can all say there was skepticism with Wade Davis. But outside of that, it was the same cast of characters. The offense couldn’t score runs last year, and they brought back the exact same lineup. The bullpen was still good, but manager Ned Yost was coming back too. It just didn’t feel like anything had changed. Now, to be fair here, some hasn’t. Davis hasn’t shown that he can completely revert back to the rotation yet, and Yost is still, well, Yost. Frank Yost, that is. The lineup had trouble early on, but they seemed to have improved over the first couple weeks of the season. None of these factors though are why my mind has shifted since Opening Day.
No, the change is with the mentality. This team believes. They believe they can win. They believe that no matter the deficit, they can get back in the ball game. I know Shields has been a big part of this transformation, as he wanted to bring over the winning environment he was around in Tampa. The rumors of him being a big time leader seem to be true, as he has this young group of players believing they are Superman and no one has their Kryptonite. I mentioned the offense earlier and their struggles. They still aren’t kicking on all cylinders, but they’ve received something that winning teams have; clutch hitting. Get your hits when it counts, and it won’t matter where you rank in the league. Just ask the 2012 San Francisco Giants. The starters have stepped up too, making sure the team is always in the game. Can’t remember the last time a Royals team did that? Me either. All this team seemed to need was some big wins under their belt, and the newfound confidence would do the rest. But there is some credit I probably should hand out.
First, credit needs to go to Dayton Moore. I know, I rag on him quite a bit, and most of it is deserved. Seriously, he acquired Yuniesky Betancourt twice. You get flogged in other countries for worse crimes. But he knew his butt was on the line this offseason and went out and picked up pitching. Shields, Guthrie and Santana have been better than advertised and have helped change the atmosphere at the K. Santana more than anyone seemed a long shot. Here is a guy who was awful for the Angels last year, gave up the most long balls in the league, and had a 12 million dollar contract(albatross) around his neck, yet Moore was still willing to take a flyer on him. So far, it’s working. Moore also put trust in his offense, expecting the youngsters to step up and improve this year. Now, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer aren’t quite where we wish they would be, but you still see glimmer’s of hope. Alex Gordon and Billy Butler are still the pillars of the offense, and Alcides Escobar has even turned into a really good offensive player. Lorenzo Cain is in the top ten in average, and Salvador Perez is starting to turn around his season. Hell, Jeff Francoeur is even contributing. Maybe his faith in these players was crazy, but it seems to be working. It could be better, but so far Moore’s gambles have paid off.
This is even more painful for me; a little bit of credit has to go out to Ned Yost. Now, you all know my dislike of Neddy. I still feel like he isn’t the guy for this job. But…so far, he has pushed a lot of the right buttons this season. He stuck with Greg Holland during a rough few outings. He also wasn’t afraid to pull him if the situation dictated it. He has juggled with the lineup a bit, but he has kept Gordon and Escobar at the top this entire time, and they are your two most consistent hitters. He has even done a good job with the bench, lately using George Kottaras in situations that help the team. You see, Kottaras is one of those guys who is really patient at the plate and doesn’t go up there hacking. The Royals lineup doesn’t have a lot of those guys, so late in a game, Kottaras is just as big a weapon as Jarrod Dyson. He has made a few guffaws(he still occasionally doesn’t know when to pull a starting pitcher, and still hasn’t realized to not put Luke Hochevar into a game when runners are on base) but for the most part he has let these guys go out there and do their thing. I still want him fired, but right now he seems to have learned how to properly manage.
So has my prediction of 78-80 wins changed? I won’t say changed as much as I can see them being above .500 now. I am still a realist, and I know there is still a lot of baseball yet to play this season. The Royals really haven’t had to face much adversity yet, so one does wonder how they will handle it. What I will say is this is a different team. This team has confidence, and just like how you need confidence when approaching a woman, you also need confidence if you are going to be a winning baseball team. This gang of Royals have that. For right now, things are good in Kansas City. But we are all aware that the wheels could come off the bus tomorrow. Santana could come back down to earth. The offense could start struggling again. Neddy could have flashbacks to his Milwaukee days. But for now, the Royals are winning…and winning feels good. Change is definitely a good thing.