Mercurial Royals back on the upswing
Butler's revival steadying erratic offense as club continues postseason push
We Kansas City Royals bandwagon passengers have endured a rugged ride this season. Every time you start to expect big things from the Royals, they run into heavy traffic. Every time it appears safe to count them out, they go on cruise control in the open lane.
I suppose you don't shake off 29 years of October rust without a few bumps along the way, but man ...
Remember when the Royals hit just 11 home runs in April? Remember when Ned Yost intentionally walked Robinson Cano in the third inning of a game against the Mariners and gave the platoon advantage to Corey Hart (who, naturally, singled home the game's only run)? Remember when Kansas City was silent at the non-waiver Trade Deadline and then found out, hours later, that Eric Hosmer will miss three to six weeks with a fractured bone in his right hand?
Well, of course you remember that last one. It was only last week. And all of the above qualified as daunting days on the road to potentially being baseball's best story here in 2014.
But look at what's happened recently. The Royals are cruising again. They've won 12 of their last 15 to grab possession of the American League's second Wild Card spot.
Oh, by the way, they're also just 2 1/2 games behind the Tigers in the AL Central.
And here you thought the Central was over when David Price arrived in Detroit, if not on Opening Day.
Well, listen, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves just yet. There are seven-plus weeks of the season left, the Royals are 4-9 against the Tigers thus far this year, and that second AL Wild Card spot is as tenuous as they come, with four clubs -- the Royals, Mariners, Blue Jays and Yankees -- all grouped within a half-game of each other and the Indians lurking not too far behind.
The Mariners and Blue Jays are trying to snap prolonged October droughts of their own, and so, too, are the Yankees, who haven't been to the postseason since way, way back in 2012. It's heated out there.
Besides, sweeping the Paul Goldschmidt-less D-backs, as the Royals just did, ought to be a postseason prerequisite, anyway.
But you've got to like what's going on in Kansas City right now. The Royals needed a hitter -- presumably from the outside -- to augment their erratic and often punchless lineup, and it turned out that hitter was still lurking within.
Billy Butler has revitalized himself and that Royals lineup. A month ago, he was committing perhaps the game's greatest sin: Butler was a designated hitter who wasn't hitting. But over his last 27 games, he is hitting .316 with an .858 on-base plus slugging percentage, four homers, six doubles and 10 RBIs. Butler's season OPS has risen nearly 50 points in that short span, from .659 to .705.
Country Breakfast might look like a guy you hang out with on the front porch, sittin' and whittlin', but he's an incredibly hard worker behind the scenes, and that work has paid off in recent weeks.
"Middle-of-the-lineup guys, we need runs, and they're the ones that generate runs," Butler said earlier this week. "It's been an inconsistent year for me, and I've prided myself on my ability to be one of the more consistent guys in the league. So I'm just trying to grind it out. It's been a tougher year for me. It's been good of late; we've been winning some games, and I've just got to continue to come in with the same mindset and contribute any way I can."
Clearly, the Royals need the contributions to keep coming. Hosmer is a long, long way from being the Major League hitter scouts told us he'd be, but he's still a big, big part of what Kansas City is trying to accomplish. And his absence encourages others to rise to the occasion.
It's not just Butler and his hot hitting. It's Lorenzo Cain going 13-for-his-last-32. It's Alcides Escobar continuing his underrated offensive season. It's Alex Gordon joining the Royals' exclusive 1,000-hit club four years after that looked impossible. And the backbone of most Kansas City wins is the same as it ever was -- solid starting pitching, a bullish bullpen and excellent defensive work.
While the Deadline did not bring the Royals the impact offensive upgrade it seemed they needed (and if you look around, you'll see striking out in that area was par for the course), August is an interesting time for Kansas City on the waiver wire. And the Royals have already added some veteran bodies -- outfielder Raul Ibanez, pitchers Scott Downs and Jason Frasor, catcher Erik Kratz -- to the mix for the postseason push. Would you believe the Royals actually now have the second-oldest roster in the league, behind only the Yankees?
"That shocked me," Yost said when that bit of STATS, LLC minutiae was presented to him.
Shocked me, too. And maybe Kansas City is ready to shock the world.
The Royals have got a tough stretch on this upcoming homestand against two of baseball's best from the West -- the Giants and A's. But then their schedule lightens up considerably -- 26 of their final 42 games are against clubs currently carrying sub-.500 records.
Schedule strength ain't everything in this game, because it's not just who you play but when you play them.
Right now, though, the Royals are not a team you want to play. They're hot, they're cruising, and the ride on the bandwagon is suddenly smooth. Maybe it will lead us to a big, beautiful blue sight at Kauffman Stadium come October.