KANSAS CITY -- What's next? Where do the Royals go from here?
Up. At last that remains the optimistic outlook by a team that was sizzling hot until getting cooled off by mediocre Miami and dynamic Detroit in the past two series, going a collective 3-5.
Before that, the Royals had won seven straight series following the All-Star break, with an 18-5 record, bringing them back from the dead zone and into the lively area of prospective playoff teams. They had down time on Monday, their only day off in a 44-day span, to ponder their situation.
"We had a good run, and now it's not like we're playing horribly, we've just got to bounce back," left fielder Alex Gordon said. "We've got a day off. Just like the All-Star break, we had some days off and started off strong. Maybe a day off will be good for us, and we can come back strong and have a nice homestand."
The homestand begins on Tuesday night with the first of three games against the Chicago White Sox, the last-place team in the American League Central. Then the Washington Nationals, a sub-.500 team, arrive for a weekend Interleague series. The last game comes next Monday, originally an open date, when the tough Tampa Bay Rays drop in for an afternoon makeup game.
"It's only going to get tougher from now on," pitcher Bruce Chen said after Kansas City lost three of five in the Detroit series. "It was good experience, but we have to move on. We've made too much progress since the All-Star break for this to be a setback for us."
Indeed, of the Royals' remaining 39 games, there are six more with the first-place Tigers. Also within the division are seven games against Chicago, six against Cleveland and three against Minnesota. In addition to the three with Washington and one with Tampa Bay, there are still three each with Toronto and Texas and seven with Seattle.
The Royals are 8 1/2 games behind the Tigers and six games out of the AL Wild Card race, where the Rays and the A's are holding the two spots.
"We only lost a game on the Tigers," second baseman Chris Getz said. "It's a minor setback. Looking forward, there's still a lot of games to be played. We still feel good about what we have offensively, defensively. We're getting some guys back health-wise -- [Justin] Maxwell coming back. The pitching will remain to be strong. We're still very optimistic."
Maxwell, who has hit .406 in his brief Kansas City stay, is due back from the bereavement list. Third baseman Mike Moustakas is likely to resume play on Wednesday night after resting his sore left calf another day. Left-hander Danny Duffy, back from elbow surgery, stymied Detroit on Friday and figures to play a role in September. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain, however, remains out with an oblique injury.
The Royals have certainly earned some respect from the Tigers this season. After all, Kansas City leads the season series so far, seven games to six.
"This team has been hot for a long time. When you see a team like that, you don't want to play against them," said Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera. "You know anything can happen with these guys. There's not a lot you can do against their starting pitching and bullpen, because they're great. They're one of the best in the big leagues right now."
Not that Cabrera didn't deliver big hits against them last weekend, managing to hit .326 against Kansas City this season.
"Everybody in here respects what they can do. We know they're a talented young team," said Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer after shutting down the Royals on Sunday. "They have a lot of pieces to the puzzle. They always find a way to scrap and grind against you. The lineup they've been throwing out there this weekend was really a track star team. They had some guys that could really fly, and it really puts pressure on you to hold the ball, control the running game, not to mention they have some big bats in the middle in the lineup."
Some of those big bats, however, have been sluggish lately. Until Billy Butler homered in the last inning on Sunday, he'd gone six games without an RBI. In the past two series, Gordon hit .129 with two RBIs. On the flip side, Eric Hosmer hammered big home runs in both ends of Friday's doubleheader sweep.
On a broader scope, from the ugly May slide to the post-All-Star sprint, what Kansas City has shown is a way of playing hard, aggressive baseball.
"They've got a lot of intangibles, these guys have a heart to play this game," general manager Dayton Moore said. "Every single player on this team has a heart to play. So they come out and give a great effort and pull for one another and play all nine innings."
Not long ago, a reporter asked manager Ned Yost how he spent the All-Star break after the Royals had just lost five straight games to fall six games under .500.
"I went home and had a miserable four days, but from the minute we started this season, I always thought it would take some time, but once these guys finally got it together and jelled as a group, they would be capable of putting a run together," Yost said. "Everybody just kept grinding. We came back and got off on the right foot out of the All-Star break and just kept going from there."
Now the Royals' mad rush has slowed a bit.
"We knew it wasn't going to be smooth sailing to the end," Getz said. "We've lost the last two series, but that means, in our minds, we're due to make another run."
There are 39 games to go.
"Nothing's over, but we've got some work to do," Gordon said.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com.