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Good start key, but not everything in long season

Royals manager Ned Yost had a message for anyone calling Kansas City's first-half schedule a true test of whether the club's offseason moves were worth it: a long, derisive exhale.

The Royals will play 19 of their first 31 series against teams that finished .500 or better in 2012, and two of the other 11 are against potential American League East contenders in Toronto and Boston. Kansas City will play a majority of those games on the road, too. Oh, and in May there's only one team on its schedule (the Astros) who shouldn't at least contend for a playoff spot this year.

That doesn't bother Yost or his players. Not yet, anyway.

"The schedule's the schedule. We play the schedule," Yost said. "Whatever the schedule is, we play it, and that's the way it's going to go."

Most players and managers stick to the one-game-at-a-time, one-series-at-a-time cliches when asked about their schedule, but most of them also emphasize the importance of a hot start to the season. Taking a look at each club's schedule, the Royals might have the roughest early road, and the Pirates -- who also have quite a bit to prove -- aren't far behind.

Out to finish above .500 for the first time since 1992, Pittsburgh will play nothing but contenders in April after opening at home against the Cubs. And it doesn't get much easier from there for the Pirates. Of their 31 first-half series, 22 will come against teams that finished .500 or better a year ago.

As difficult as the Pirates' road through April should be, the Rays might have it even worse. After opening the season against Baltimore and this weekend's series against Cleveland, Tampa Bay will face Texas, Boston, Baltimore, Oakland, the Yankees and the White Sox -- and 14 of those 20 games are away from Tropicana Field.

Of course, a strong couple of months can easily be wasted and forgotten. Consider where the Pirates stood last year. They survived a brutal slate of opponents in April and May, stayed afloat enough to wake up on the morning of Aug. 9 with a 63-47 record, then collapsed down the stretch to finish 79-83.

On the flip side, consider the 2012 Rays. Tampa Bay was barely above .500 last July 31 but wound up winning 90 games thanks to a 37-22 finish. But, as executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman noted, the Rays could have been in a better position to contend -- and perhaps make the playoffs instead of falling short -- had they paired their strong finish with a better record the rest of the way.

"I think it's always important to get off to a good start. That being said, you play 162 for a reason," Friedman said. "With our goal of playing competitive games in September, it's just more difficult over a five-month period to be in a position to do that on Sept. 1 if you get off to a bad start.

"So I think it's important, but I don't think it's everything."

It's also important to keep the schedule in perspective. Take last year's Tigers, who won nine of their final 13 games to swipe the AL Central crown from the White Sox. During that stretch, the Tigers beat up on the Royals and Twins, while the White Sox dropped nine of 13 to the Angels, Rays and Indians.

Detroit didn't command its division until the end of the season but wound up pushing on to the World Series. Those games in late September counted just the same as the ones they won and lost earlier in the season, no matter how much time is spent analyzing the standings throughout the rest of the year.

That's why Tigers catcher Alex Avila said a tough first half -- like the one the Royals and Pirates might be in store for -- shouldn't determine whether a team is a contender or not.

"It's always going to be important to be playing really well at the end. That doesn't matter if you win the first 25 games of the season or lose the first 25 games," Avila said. "Last year, we were the hottest team the first 15 games in baseball and won 88 games and the division. It's always good to get off to a good start, but it doesn't matter. You know that you're going to win some and lose games.

"It would be nice to win and get off to a good start, but if we don't, it's not the end of the world. You have to be able to play well at the end no matter how you start."

Still, if a club like the Royals makes it to the end of their rough early road in good standing, you couldn't blame Yost for letting out a different kind of exhale: a long sigh of relief.

Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.