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The Strike Zone

Streaking Royals roll Tigers to win ninth straight, take over first in AL Central

Alex Gordon (right), Billy Butler and the Royals have capitalized on their torrid hitting of late. (Paul Sancya/AP)Alex Gordon (right), Billy Butler and the Royals have capitalized on their torrid hitting of late. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Break up the Royals! All hail Dale Sveum! The boys in blue are finally pounding out runs and winning ballgames.

On Tuesday night, the Royals steamrolled starter Max Scherzer and the Tigers, 11-4, to win their ninth straight game and take over first place in the AL Central by half a game. It's the first time they've owned a share of the top spot since April 19, and the latest in the season they've been in first since 2003, when they were atop the Central as late as August 29.

When the Royals reassigned hitting coach Pedro Grifol and replaced him with Sveum on May 29, the team was 25-28, and their offense was eking out just 3.87 runs per game, having homered a mere 22 times. Since then, they're a major league-best 13-4 and have cranked out 5.65 runs per game while clouting 16 dingers in that span.

Five of those homers have come via Alex Gordon, who started Tuesday's onslaught against Scherzer -- who in his previous start had snapped a four-start slump via his first career shutout. In the second inning, with Billy Butler on first base and the game still scoreless, Gordon destroyed a 94 mph fastball from Scherzer, hitting it 414 feet to right field:

[mlbvideo id="33803869" width="600" height="336" /]

After Salvador Perez walked, Scherzer served up another fat pitch, which Mike Moustakas pounded down the rightfield line for a two-run homer, his third in his last seven games. Four straight singles added two more runs, and an Eric Hosmer groundout yet another. By the time the dust settled, Scherzer had thrown an astounding 51 pitches in the inning while allowing seven runs. Tigers manager Brad Ausmus left him in the game to soak up some innings, but while Scherzer pieced together scoreless frames in the third and fourth, he surrendered three straight hits to start the fifth, including a double by Gordon. One run scored on his watch, and the other two came in after Phil Coke took over.

In all, the reigning AL Cy Young winner yielded 10 hits and 10 runs in four-plus innings. The 10 runs matched his career worst, set on May 3, 2010 against the Twins. His previous season high for runs allowed was seven, set on May 21 against the Indians, the first entry of a four-start skid during which he allowed 20 runs and 40 hits in 26 1/3 innings prior to last Thursday's blanking of the White Sox.

Meanwhile, Royals starter Yordano Ventura held the Tigers to three runs over seven innings, sending them to their 11th defeat in 16 games and 19th defeat in 28 contests. Since starting the season 27-12 and building up a seven-game lead on the rest of the division, they're now without at least a share of first place in the AL Central for the first time since July 2, 2013.

As I predicted in this space, Sveum is receiving no small share of credit for presiding over the Royals' hitters on the heels of a particularly dry stretch, when they were likely to regress towards their established performances. That said, hearing a different voice can have an impact, and Royals players have noted subtle shifts in the focus of their work. Via the Kansas City Star's Andy McCullough in the wake of a KC victory last Saturday:

Sveum has not instilled in his hitters a new philosophical approach, but he has delivered different points of emphasis. Grifol underscored usage of the lower half. Sveum concentrates more on a player’s head and his hands. The changes are subtle, enough so the players are reticent to assign him too much credit, for fear of criticizing Grifol, an instructor they appreciated.

“Honestly, man, I really don’t think that had anything to do with it, to be honest with you,” said first baseman Eric Hosmer, who recorded two RBIs and two walks Friday. “But something had to happen, obviously. If anything, it was a spark for us. Woke us all up.”

Sveum also hit on a simple refrain. Do damage on pitches up in the strike zone, he told his hitters.

With their recent outburst -- a season-high 11 runs on back-to-back nights, with two nine-run games and an eight-run posting part of this winning streak -- the Royals have climbed to ninth in the league at 4.30 runs per game. That's three-tenths of a run better than last year's team, which won 86 games and snapped the franchise's nine-year run of sub-.500 seasons. They won't maintain the pace of their past month, but with a league-average offense paired with the AL's third-best run prevention (4.04 per game), a shot at a playoff berth is hardly out of the question.

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