First half a frustrating quest for elusive .500 mark
Inconsistent offense struggled to back much-improved pitching staff
KANSAS CITY -- Close. Always close -- to something.
That has been the fate of the Royals throughout much of the first 92 games of their season.
They were close to emerging as a bona fide contender in April. They were close to disaster in May. They were close to reestablishing legitimacy in June. They were close to .500 as the All-Star break approached.
They wanted to get to .500, but fell short -- way short, as it turned out.
"It was a goal. We didn't reach it and now you just move on," manager Ned Yost said. "We're still in the midst of this tough stretch. You've got to keep your head above water."
Ah yes, that elusive .500 mark. Yost has said it many times. You can't contend until you first reach the break-even point. That's not the ultimate goal, but you have to get there and beyond before you can even think about postseason play.
A rosy 17-10 record on May 5 had the Royals half a game out of first place in the American League Central. They went 5-20 the rest of the month, plummeted into last place, as far as 7 1/2 games behind the pace.
Even with a pitching staff beefed up with the acquisition of starters James Shields, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis, and the re-signing of Jeremy Guthrie, an anemic offense scored the second-fewest runs in the AL during May.
Finally, in June, the hitting began to catch up with the strong pitching and sharp defense. The month began with a 12-4 run and, voila, on June 17 the Royals had reached the magical .500 mark at 34-34. They promptly lost the next four games.
MVP: Alex Gordon Hard-nosed, tough and productive, Gordon's been an All-Star in left field, as well as at the plate.
Cy Young: James Shields Modest record, but the rotation leader with a 3.21 ERA and the team has won eight of his last nine starts.
Rookie: David Lough The only rookie on the team has been splendid since being recalled, hitting .294 with extra-base pop.
Top reliever: Greg Holland Might be the best closer in the AL with 22 saves along with a 1.80 ERA and a startling 60 strikeouts in 35 innings.
"Every time we get there, it's pfftt," Yost said.
That's the kind of season it's been. Close to breaking out, but never quite doing so.
The Royals have been stuck in third place for a month. When they went into the last pre-break series at Cleveland, a three-game sweep would have brought them up to .500. Instead, they lost all three to fall six games under at 43-49.
So, the Royals will emerge from the break on Friday a season-high eight games behind first-place Detroit. But they'll get an immediate crack at the Tigers, the first three of 14 games remaining with the division pace-setters.
That will be followed by four games against the tough Orioles from the AL East.
In the first half, the Royals were ...
"Up and down," Yost said. "I think that our pitching has been very good, our defense has been borderline spectacular on most nights, our offense has been inconsistent. But, we think that it's trending upward."
And, at last, young hitters Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas were coming around to give RBI leaders Billy Butler and All-Star Alex Gordon some needed backing. Catcher Salvador Perez was living up to his All-Star credentials offensively as well as defensively. David Lough provided an unexpected boost, enabling the Royals to cut loose unproductive right fielder Jeff Francoeur.
Players to watch in second half
Mike Moustakas "Moose" showed encouraging signs at midseason and now he needs to fulfill his promise at the plate.
Johnny Giavotella Getting his third chance at the second-base job, "Gio" has to be a strong hitter to keep it.
Alcides Escobar Great defensive shortstop needs to regain his 2012 batting stroke to be an effective No. 2 hitter.
"Definitely," Hosmer said. "I think there were a lot of games we could have won. There were a lot of games we lost by one run  that could've gone either way. The way our pitching threw was phenomenal in the first half. If our offense can pick up its part a little bit and the pitching keeps doing what they're doing, then it'll be a real good second half."
Unlike last season, this year's team has avoided serious injury -- and Yost requires you to knock on wood when mentioning this. At the moment, the only player on the disabled list is a leftover from last year's rash of Tommy John surgeries, pitcher Felipe Paulino. Another elbow patient, Danny Duffy, is tuning up in the Minors.
This team is feisty and quite optimistic.
"We all are, our players are," Yost said. "They get after it. They think like we think -- that their best baseball is to come. These kids have tremendous energy, they come every day ready to play. The clubhouse is always alive, it's never dead."
What's to be the fate of this Royals team? Let them get to .500 and then we'll talk.