Home plate umpire Greg Gibson (53) throws Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera out during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Oakland Athletics at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, April 19, 2015. Herrera threw at Oakl
Orlin Wagner
April 23, 2015

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) The Kansas City Royals earned a reputation for being a scrappy bunch last year, when they stole bases and dazzled on defense and used old-school small ball to reach Game 7 of the World Series.

They've taken that intensity up a notch this season.

And they were at it again Thursday night in Chicago.

Kansas City starter Yordano Ventura snagged a grounder from Chicago outfielder Adam Eaton and the pair appeared to exchange words before Ventura threw to first to end the inning. After the play, players from both dugouts and bullpens ran onto the field. Several punches were thrown and Kansas City's Ventura, Lorenzo Cain and Edinson Volquez were ejected along with Chicago's Chris Sale and Jeff Samardzija.

During the bottom of the fourth, Ventura hit Jose Abreu in the left arm with a pitch. In the top of the fifth, Sale hit Mike Moustakas, leading to warnings for both benches.

The Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics also have taken umbrage with the way Kansas City plays, a devil-may-care attitude that borders on cavalier. If someone slides into one of the Royals spikes-up, like the A's Brett Lawrie over the weekend, better watch out for a 100 mph fastball zinging past your head.

''We're a team that's going to grind it out, and we're a tough team that's going to stick together,'' first baseman Eric Hosmer said. ''We're going to give you everything we've got.''

That approach made them the feel-good story of last fall. They played the game in a throwback manner, pine tar and dirt and grass stains becoming the complementary colors to starched white and royal blue. But these days, they're starting to tread a fine line between playing the game in an endearingly hard way, and playing it downright dirty.

In that three-game series against Oakland, the Royals and A's cleared their benches each day. Nearly as many people were hit by pitches as hit home runs. And five players and coaches were ultimately thrown out of the finale, when things boiled over.

Among those tossed was reliever Kelvin Herrera, who threw that fastball behind the head of Lawrie, then pointed to his own head in a threatening manner. Herrera was suspended five games for it pending an appeal, a punishment that could have easily been stiffer.

''We've got to have each other's backs,'' outfielder Jarrod Dyson explained. ''If you come at us, we're not going to back down. We're going to keep playing the game our way.''

In the eyes of the Royals, it was Lawrie who instigated everything anyway, when he wiped out shortstop Alcides Escobar with a reckless slide in the opener. From there, the two teams simply engaged in a dangerous game of retribution, neither one backing down.

It was noticed throughout baseball, and opinions began to form.

''We just care about what goes on in here,'' Hosmer countered. ''Obviously there's going to be perspectives, an outside point of view. But we stick together as a team, and we realize if we got everyone on the same page, we're a tough team to beat.''

That part is undeniable. Even after dropping Wednesday night's game to Minnesota, the Royals are still off to an 11-4 start, validating what they accomplished last fall.

In fact, Royals manager Ned Yost thinks that success - an American League pennant in their first playoffs since 1985 - may be contributing to these intense early games.

When he was on Bobby Cox's bench in Atlanta in the early 1990s, the same phenomenon happened. They went from worst-to-first to begin a decade of dominance, and their games became chippier as opponents began trying to knock their Braves from their pedestal.

Opposing pitchers began throwing inside more, leading to more hit batters. Retaliation was inevitable. Benches would clear regularly as tensions increased.

''It was different,'' Yost acknowledged, ''but I don't remember it to this extent.''

By that, he means his players get hit 15 times in their first 15 games.

''We've been lucky here,'' Yost said. ''The last three or four years we haven't had anything wild or crazy like it was last weekend. But you know, we had them all those years in Atlanta, we'd go through instances like that on a number of occasions.''

Yost accepted some of the blame for the Royals occasionally taking things too far.

This is still a team full of 20-somethings at key positions, and many are experiencing what it's like to be the hunted for the first time. Yost said that it falls on his shoulders to help them understand when they're playing hard and when they're taking things too far.

''It's actually been a good thing for us,'' he said, ''to learn how to deal with this.''

Several players insisted they aren't going to change the way they approach the game. Nor do they plan to tone things down, or become a bunch of pushovers.

They also aren't worried about all the intensity burning them out.

''That's the beauty of a major league season, to see what teams can keep it up and what teams can't,'' Hosmer said. ''We're a team that's gone through some downs together and we're a team that's gone through a lot of good times together. We know what it takes.''

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