Royals down, not out

By Vahe Gregorian

McClatchy-Tribune

KANSAS CITY, Mo. --  If so inclined, it's simple to rationalize the Royals' unsettling series against Detroit even if it was punctuated Sunday with a 9-4 trampling that left them outscored 26-8 over three games.

Hey, it's early in the season.

"I don't think it matters who's in first place May 4; I'll leave it at that," said designated hitter Billy Butler, whose sixth-inning single with the Royals trailing 7-0 snuffed out the only lingering drama of whether they'd be further embarrassed with a no-hitter by Justin Verlander.

And never mind that the Royals are 0-5 against their supposed rivals in the American League Central. The Tigers are just hot, you heard all around the Royals' clubhouse Sunday at Kauffman Stadium, as if that didn't require them to flame on against the Royals.

"It's all about who gets the last laugh," center fielder Jarrod Dyson said. "That's how I look at it."

Now, there actually is a lot of truth to those points, and moping and doubting among them now does nothing to enhance where they go from here.

Faith remains a reasonable notion for fans, too, if you can cling to it.

But one definition of faith is "belief without evidence."

And that's about all the Royals can inspire from outside now.

Because 30 games into it, there is nothing to panic over ... but there is no evidence, either: no indication that they're actually on trajectory to the much-anticipated transformative season that would end the longest playoff drought among the ranks of Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NFL and the NHL.

Thirty games into it, and they're floating at 14-16 and coming off a jarring weekend that leaves them five games behind the Tigers.

The lost weekend is only a snapshot in a marathon season.

But it was an emphatic reminder that the Tigers appear a tier above the Royals, who at once demonstrated that their stellar starting pitching can't hold up indefinitely and that there's nothing inevitable about the notion of them breaking out offensively.

Those dueling dynamics were at play in a loss that punctured the illusion of their invincibility when they muster four or more runs. Make that 14-1 in those scenarios now, to go along with 0-15 on the same number of occasions they've scored three or fewer.

Then there's the disturbing reinforcement of a different pattern: The Royals are transmitting their annual May-days distress signal.

They're 0-4 this month, 77-124 in May since general manager Dayton Moore's first full season in 2007 and 136-231 in May since 2000.

In some ways, of course, those numbers are mere coincidences and dwelling on them is a little like believing in jinxes.

Just the same, considering they went into a 4-19 funk last May after starting 17-10, who's to assure there's no chaos looming now despite all the apparent improvements they've made?

The more salient matter, though, is this:

Even if we're still working with a limited sample size of a season, it's more than a sliver now. It's beginning to become statistically significant.

We're at the 100-plate appearances mark for enigmatic third baseman Mike Moustakas, for instance, that manager Ned Yost had roughly set as a time for assessing him.

And while Moustakas leads the team in home runs with four, he is stranded at .151 after going hitless in three at-bats and striking out twice Sunday.

He's hardly the only one under-delivering for one of the least productive lineups in baseball, of course, and let's not hold Yost or Moustakas to that specific number of at-bats that Yost tossed out off the cuff.

But it's still indicative of a defining time on the near horizon, and we're closing in on another similar milestone, too.

When I spoke with Moore in January, he said, "This team in 2014 is one I expect to be able to compete from the first day to the last day."

And, yes, May was on his calendar.

"When I watch our baseball team play for the first 40 or 50 games in 2014, if it will be trending one way or another in certain areas, then we'll have to make some adjustment at that point in time," he said, later adding, "To make the playoffs, you have to perform consistently, and what's hurt us in the past is we've had some tough streaks, very difficult months, which have made it almost impossible to overcome."

So it's early in the season, and nothing is clear yet and, yes, he who laughs last laughs best.

But the Royals are lagging now as they make a pivotal seven-game trip to San Diego and Seattle.

"We're glad that it's early," first baseman Eric Hosmer said, "but we've got to rebound."

Because it won't be early much longer ... and it might be too late when it isn't any more.