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Royals surge to end 1st half in thick of race

After slow start, Kansas City grinds out wins to get within striking distance in AL Central
MLB.com @FlannyMLB

KANSAS CITY -- On May 7, the Royals sat at 10-20 after another discouraging loss, this one a 1-0 defeat to the rival Indians at Kauffman Stadium.

Talk of fire sales came flooding in, and the team's slow start further worried Royals fans that the front office would soon be trading pending free agents, such as Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain, among others.

KANSAS CITY -- On May 7, the Royals sat at 10-20 after another discouraging loss, this one a 1-0 defeat to the rival Indians at Kauffman Stadium.

Talk of fire sales came flooding in, and the team's slow start further worried Royals fans that the front office would soon be trading pending free agents, such as Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain, among others.

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But slowly but surely, Kansas City began to grind out victories and put together a winning May. That set the stage for the Royals' recent surge, as they have won 18 of 27 and vaulted back into the thick of the American League Central race. They are a game behind Tampa Bay for the second AL Wild Card spot.

Now talk of fire sales has been replaced by talk of whom general manager Dayton Moore might add to bolster the Royals' postseason chances.

What went right
Manager Ned Yost decided to flip his batting order on June 5, putting Whit Merrifield in the leadoff spot and rookie Jorge Bonifacio at No. 2. Since then, Kansas City is 20-12 and is averaging 5.6 runs per game. The offensive resurgence has been the key behind the Royals' race up the standings, and their power numbers are off the charts -- with 107 home runs, they are on pace to shatter the club record of 168.

Video: KC@SEA: Merrifield mashes solo homer to left-center

"There is that feeling now that anywhere in the lineup, we can do some damage," Yost said. "We can get quick runs from anywhere."

What went wrong
Some of Kansas City's offseason moves have yet to pan out. Brandon Moss, a free-agent signing, was expected to step in for designated hitter Kendrys Morales, who departed for Toronto. But Moss has hit just .193 with 10 home runs. Outfielder Jorge Soler, acquired from the Cubs for closer Wade Davis, was injured to start the season and has yet to get going: .159 with two home runs. Right-hander Nate Karns, acquired from the Mariners for Jarrod Dyson, had just found his groove, posting a 2.01 ERA over his past four starts with 32 strikeouts in 22 1/3 innings, before sustaining inflammation in his forearm. He hasn't pitched since May 19, and he could miss the rest of the season pending an upcoming examination, as he may need thoracic outlet syndrome surgery.

What we learned
This is a resilient bunch, though it seems like we've said that for years. Considered out of the race by national observers in early May, the Royals have come together, and they now seem like a legitimate threat to reach the postseason by either winning the AL Central or grabbing the second Wild Card spot. Moore never wavered, and he has insisted all along this group can reach the postseason. His focus now is on evaluating his team's needs for the second half as the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline nears.

First half top everyday player
There's no doubt Moustakas, Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Cain and Merrifield are having solid seasons. But Moustakas is headed for a historical one. With 25 home runs, he already has set the club mark for most homers before the All-Star break while also setting a personal career high. Now all eyes will be on him as he chases Steve Balboni's record of most home runs by a Royal in a season (36), which has stood for 31 years.

Video: KC@SEA: Moustakas drills two-run jack to right-center

First half top pitcher
Jason Vargas. Coming back from Tommy John surgery in 2015, Vargas has been nothing short of sensational, posting a 12-3 mark with a 2.62 ERA and earning his first All-Star appearance. Vargas has spotted his 84-86 mph fastball effectively and dazzled hitters with his secondary pitches, posting a 1.15 WHIP and a 0.9 home run rate. His career high in wins is 14 -- Vargas should top that.

Video: KC@SEA: Vargas gets Cano to go down swinging in 2nd

First half top rookie
Though right fielder Bonifacio opened eyes again with a fine Spring Training, no one thought he'd be seen again before September callups. But then Paulo Orlando struggled out of the gate. So did Moss. And with Soler injured to start the season, the Royals turned to Bonifacio, who has been a pleasant find, hitting .250 with 11 home runs while securing the No. 2 spot in the batting order.

Jeffrey Flanagan has covered the Royals since 1991, and for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter @FlannyMLB.

Kansas City Royals