As I write this, Major League Baseball is a game away from its midseason break. And the All Star Game activities now couldn’t come at a better time for the Kansas City Royals.
Given an opportunity to go into the break 4.5 games out with a split against Detroit, or 0.5 games out with a sweep, Kansas City (47-46) is now staring at a legitimate chance of both taking a break 8.5 games behind the AL Central leaders and losing their grip on second place in the division after dropping the first three in a four-game set against the Tigers. Cleveland (46-47) is a game behind KC in the standings, and both Chicago and Minnesota are now visible in the rear view mirror.
“Objects in this mirror are closer than they appear…”
A win Sunday would be huge for the on-again, off-again confidence of the Royals. It would also be at least a visible sign the Royals aren’t shying away from the biggest moment this franchise has seen in close to 30 years.
In the narrowest sense, the shortest term, the reasons why Kansas City are no more than a .500 club are pretty easy to spot. They can’t hit, at least when it counts. Yeah, they can rack up the singles and an occasional double, possibly a home run here or there, but…well, Friday, the Royals had 11 hits and one run. That’s pretty hard to do, but if you wanted a microcosm of the Royals’ season, that was it. Making matters worse was the strong effort of Danny Duffy and the bullpen in a 2-1 loss.
The Royals have won a lot when they haven’t scored much, but they sure don’t give their pitchers much leeway.
Also, certain hitters just aren’t producing. Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer come to mind (yes, even Hosmer, even though he actually looks like he has an approach at the plate now aside from whacking at everything remotely close to the plate…only took half a season for that to show up…). Even Alex Gordon has disappeared at the plate for major stretches this season before getting hurt, and Nori Aoki simply hasn’t been the player that was sold to Royals fans. Made for some interesting GIFs, though, on his fielding prowess. No further comment.
I’m not nearly as much of a stat guy as a lot of people, but as of Saturday, the Royals are fifth in batting average. And 16th in on-base percentage. And 15th in runs scored. And 23rd in slugging percentage. Hard to do, but I think you get a sense why the Royals are so streaky.
That streakiness is exactly what the Royals can’t afford as the season progresses, and despite the Royals’ best efforts to imitate the revolving mall door scene in “Elf” with the coaching staff (and the batters doing the puking), one would have thought some of that hot-and-cold nature of this team would have started disappearing by now. The coaches have changed, well, at least the hitting coaches have, but the lineup largely hasn’t. This is the core group that was supposed to be playoff-primed by now. It was supposed to take that fabled next step in The Process, eliminate the troubling mistakes and trends from the past few seasons, smooth out the ride and take off into greatness.
Instead, here we sit. Seven and a half games back midway through the season.
Put it this way. The Tigers (53-37) have played .587 baseball for the first half. The Royals have played .505. It’s quite possible, although rather unlikely, that the Tigers could scuffle through the remaining games with a 36-36 record. Should that happen, the Royals could play .600 baseball — meaning they would go 42-27 over the second half — and still finish behind Detroit at the end of the season.
The Royals need Sunday in the win column. Once play resumes after the All Star Game, they also need to go gangbusters like they did to start the second half of the 2013 season. The Royals should win four of six from Boston and Chicago, the two road stops immediately after the All Star Break. Otherwise, the only thing fading from view in rear view mirror may be the most important thing, the one thing the Royals desperately need for themselves and their fan base: a playoff spot.