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This spring the Royals were picked to be baseball’s “Surprise Team” by – ahem – certain experts.
As of just more than a week ago, that prediction looked as if it was going to get you a worthless scrap of paper and an inclination to scrimp on lunch at McCarran International Airport on your way out of Vegas.
Last Saturday morning, the Royals were 29-32 and going nowhere. The trouble was their offense, which was supposed to be young and powerful behind burgeoning sluggers like Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez. It was only young. Through June 6, the Royals ranked second to last in the AL in runs (3.8 per game), and they were almost completely punchless. Their 26 homers – in 61 games! – ranked them dead last in baseball by a decent margin.
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Fast-forward a week, and all of a sudden the Royals’ offense looks how many thought it was supposed to all along. On Sunday, Kansas City defeated Chicago 6-3 for its seventh-straight win. The Royals did it with power, as Hosmer hit a two-run homer and Perez a three-run shot at U.S. Cellular Field. These were long ones, too: 431 feet for Hosmer and 418 for Perez.
The power surge was not merely a Father’s Day phenomenon for the Royals. During their winning streak, their scoring output has spiked to 6.4 runs per game – the best in the majors over the time period – and they have slugged nine home runs. Previously dead bats have now come alive. Hosmer had one bomb prior to the streak. He now has four. Butler had 21 RBI through his first 61 games. He has seven in his last seven. Even Moustakas, the third baseman who was hitting so poorly he was demoted to Triple-A Omaha on May 22, has contributed. The 25-year-old is batting .375 during the Royals’ run with two home runs and five RBI.
You could argue the Royals haven’t exactly been beating up on a run of aces, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Their last three wins, against the White Sox, came against a trio of starters in Jose Quintana, Hector Noesi and Andre Rienzo whose combined ERA is 4.54. Three of the other starters they faced – the Yankees’ Hiroki Kuroda and David Phelps, and the Indians’ Trevor Bauer – each have ERAs well over 4.00. However, after more than two months of uninterrupted ineptitude, the offense kicking into gear represents a positive sign no matter who it came against.
So does the continuing strength of their pitching staff, particular of ace James Shields. Sunday’s win was the Royals’ eighth straight in a game started by Shields. He is 8-3 with an ERA of 3.50. In a few starts’ time, he has gone from potential trade bait to the cornerstone of what might prove a playoff rotation.
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All of a sudden, the Royals have baseball’s eighth-best record, at 36-32, and are currently in position to win the American League’s second Wild Card, but they have reason to set their sights on a bigger prize. As recently as May 20th, they were seven games in back of the Tigers in the AL Central — a gap that seemed certain to continue to grow. Now they’re just 1.5 games behind Detroit where they will open a four-game set tomorrow night. Normally you would think a matchup with the Tigers would spell the end of a recent run of friendly opposing pitching, but that is not necessarily true with their struggling staff’s 4.97 ERA in June representing the AL’s worst.
That, combined with a lineup seeming to find itself all at once, means that by this time next week a club that hasn’t made the playoffs since 1985 could quite possibly be in first place.