The Royals are speeding through the first month of the season, to the top of the division and to the top of the entire American League.
And they are not planning on slowing down.
A 3-2 win over the Tigers on Monday afternoon at Comerica Park sealed the Royals’ fifth consecutive victory -- and their first four-game sweep on the road since May 7-10, 1999, against the Twins at the Metrodome.
Through 21 games, the Royals sit at 14-7 (.667) atop the AL, just ahead of the second-place A’s (15-8, .652).
Kansas City has won 10 of its last 13 and has matched its second-best start through 21 games, trailing only the 2003 club (17-4).
It is only April, and there is still a lot of baseball to be played. But for a team that has struggled early the past few years -- they won seven games in April in 2017, ‘18 and ‘19 and nine of their first 21 games last season -- the hot start is bringing a different feeling into a clubhouse that has clear contending goals in 2021 and beyond.
“I do think it’s important to be able to show what we believe is true,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said before Monday’s game. “They need to see it be true for them to completely believe it. And I would also say along those lines, [for] teams that have fallen victim to tough seasons, when [they] do get off to a hard start, it’s harder for them to rebound from that. Teams who have had success [and] get off to a slow start tend to understand that it will come around. And that belief, as much as talent, is very important.”
All month, Matheny has emphasized the importance of “gut-test” wins -- either comeback wins or holding onto a slim lead. Three of the four wins in Detroit qualified as those types of victories, with the pitching holding things down as the Royals manufactured runs when they could.
The difference in the game Monday came in the fifth inning, when Jarrod Dyson doubled, Nicky Lopez bunted him over to third and Whit Merrifield hit a go-ahead sacrifice fly.
“These guys are expecting that somebody’s gonna pick us up, somebody is going to be able to make something happen, to give us a chance to win,” Matheny said. “If not, we’re just going to dig our heels in and scrap our way through. … People call them little things, but they’re big things. They’re really important for teams that fight like our team fights.”
It started with Brad Keller, who turned in his best start of the season. The Royals' right-hander threw his first quality start of the year, allowing two runs in six innings with four strikeouts and two walks, which both came in the first inning. Keller threw 103 pitches and was bailed out by his defense a few times, but the outing was a good stepping stone to where the Royals need their Opening Day starter to be.
“I pride myself on going deep into ballgames, so those starts where I’m getting pulled in the second, third, [or] fourth really took a blow to my confidence,” Keller said. “To be able to, especially today, battle around so many hits and a few walks and just battle around traffic all game to pitch in the sixth is huge. Our starting rotation balled out this series, and honestly our whole last go-around. Really just wanted to keep it going.”
Royals starters went 4-0 in this series, posting a 1.90 ERA (five earned runs in 23 2/3 innings), with 29 strikeouts and just four walks collectively. The pitching staff as a whole yielded only five runs over four games. The bullpen was a big part of that, including Monday.
Scott Barlow issued back-to-back walks in the seventh before getting three strikeouts to strand the runners. Greg Holland allowed a leadoff triple to Akil Baddoo that missed being a homer by inches before retiring the next three batters. And Josh Staumont shut down the Tigers in the ninth for his second save of the series and the season.
The Royals are 6-0 in one-run games this season. On top of that, they have now won 58 consecutive games when leading after the seventh inning, which is the longest active streak in the Majors, according to Elias Sports Bureau. They haven’t lost when leading after the seventh since June 21, 2019, against Minnesota.
The streak matches the second-longest run in club history (May 3-Sept. 24, 1992), and only trails a 111-game stretch from May 7, 2014-Aug. 11, 2015. And you know what happened those years.
“I truly believe that with this team and the fight that we have, we’re really good,” Keller said. “We’re sneaking up on a lot of teams and are surprising people. That’s who we are. Mike [Matheny] instilled that into us early in Spring Training.
“We’re here to win.”