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Royals finally click behind their winning mix

Solid pitching, defense keys to Kansas City's 14-3 run since break

Suddenly, it all clicked for the Kansas City Royals. Yeah, just like that. Is there a better baseball team on earth at the moment?

Let us count the things to love about a team that has won 14 of 17 games since the All-Star break following Monday night's 13-0 rout of the Twins to run its record to 57-52:

• Baseball's best defensive team by a mile.

• Terrific starting rotation.

• Power arms lined up in the bullpen.

• Leadership.

Ah, an intangible.

I can tell you're cynical. You're not sure these things can be quantified. Honestly, I'm not sure, either.

All anyone around the Royals will tell you is that the environment changed the moment right-hander James Shields walked through the clubhouse door for the first time in Spring Training. His professionalism and attitude and work habits impacted every corner of the room. For instance, on Monday, some of Shields' teammates were grumbling about the batting-practice music not being loud enough at Kauffman Stadium.

Shields found a club official, told him the boys wanted the music louder and got it done. Go ahead and roll your eyes, but little things can mean a lot in the context of a spring-to-fall season.

And then in late May, George Brett agreed to take over as interim hitting coach. Even if he stayed only two months, he made a difference. Some of those young hitters -- most notably first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas -- can trace their improvement to the work they did with the Hall of Famer.

Sometimes, when a team starts to play well, things happen that can't be explained. Maybe learning how to win is part of the process. Anyway, the Royals have. How else can you explain 39 one-run victories, tied for most in the Majors.

They've won 16 of their last 21 one-run contests, and if you think a lopsided number like that one eventually will even out, you're probably right. On the other hand, winning these one-run games builds confidence, and teams, especially young teams winning for the first time, can ride confidence for weeks at a time.

The Royals are a reminder that learning how to win is part of a franchise's growth just like developing pitchers and hitters. In the six years since Dayton Moore took over as general manager, very few people in baseball did their jobs better.

Moore hired talented people and laid out a blueprint based on stacking one great Draft on another. He'll be forever thankful to owner David Glass for staying the course, because the road hasn't always been smooth.

There have been times when Moore had to take a deep breath and see the Royals for what he believed they could be rather than what they actually are. When they went 8-20 in May, there weren't many fans who still believed in Moore's blueprint.

Nor did they believe in manager Ned Yost, who has done tremendous work in keeping the club focused while consistently praising his players and saying he absolutely, positively knew that things would work out because he believed the club had enough talent.

"I can't say enough good things about Ned and the coaching staff," Moore said. "They worked working and stayed positive. It rubbed off on the players."

And then Kansas City started to win. In early June, the Royals scratched out a six-game winning streak against the Twins and Astros.

Confidence, right?

They took two of three from the Tigers and three of four from the Rays. Just before the All-Star break, the Royals were swept in a three-game series by the Indians. They came out of the break and won series against the Tigers and Orioles, and they've kept it going.

Good clubs begin with pitching and defense, and Kansas City has both. Shields, Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie are at the front of a rotation that's rolling out one quality start after another. Since July 23, the club's starters are 9-0 with a 1.58 ERA. The Royals' starters have worked at least six innings 81 times, one fewer than all last season. They've worked at least seven innings 40 times, three more than all of last season.

Shields and Santana were controversial acquisitions, especially Shields, who came in the trade with the Rays that sent outfielder Wil Myers to Tampa Bay. Moore knew that Myers might end up being a middle-of-the-order hitter for a decade or more. But one of the reasons Moore built a great farm system was so he could add a piece like Shields when it was time to win.

Kansas City got center fielder Lorenzo Cain in the Zack Greinke trade, and almost three years later, Cain is one of the American League's best.

And there are Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, the guys who began the reconstruction of the Royals and endured a lot of losing to get to this point.

Finally, there are the power arms in front of closer Greg Holland, who has made good on 29 of 31 save chances. In Kelvin Herrera, Luke Hochevar, Aaron Crow and Tim Collins and others, the Royals have a group as good as just about any in baseball. Thanks to those workhorse starters, Kansas City's relievers have pitched the fewest innings in the AL.

Along the way, the Royals have awakened interest in a terrific baseball city. Sunday's road victory over the Mets was the most-watched television program in Kansas City over the weekend.

Despite all the winning, the Royals remain 7 1/2 games behind the first-place Tigers in the AL Central standings. They trail the Indians by 3 1/2 in the race for the second AL Wild Card berth. But they're in the mix, and after all the hard work and all the struggles, that's a huge step in the right direction.

"We're in a place we haven't been in a long time," Moore said. "We also know we haven't accomplished anything yet. We're staying competitive, but we want to accomplish more."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
Read More: Kansas City Royals, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, James Shields, Greg Holland, Eric Hosmer