Royals see ’chance’ to do something special

Lynn Worthy The Kansas City Star
Kansas City Royals' Whit Merrifield hits a solo home run against Cleveland on Monday, July 2, 2018.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — This major-league season will be like none other experienced by any of the Kansas City Royals.

Spring training 2.0 started last week at Kauffman Stadium, three and a half months after the COVID-19 pandemic halted baseball and every other professional sport in the country. Now, it's game on again with a format never seen before.

MLB released its 60-game schedules for each team Monday night. The Royals will play 40 of their 60 games against four American League Central Division foes — the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins -- starting on July 24.

The grind of 162 games has been truncated into a two-month flurry of baseball.

"I think we felt pretty good about our team going into the regular spring training," Royals All-Star infielder/outfielder Whit Merrifield said. "Knock on wood, the guys stay healthy, we navigate this (COVID-19) thing and keep guys on the field, I think we've got a really good chance to do something pretty cool."

After experiencing 207 losses the past two seasons, Royals players like Merrifield have held onto optimism that this season could mark a turning point, from a rebuilding team to one starting to climb the ladder of respectability.

"These young guys have gotten a little more experience," Merrifield said. "I think we have more depth. We got some bullpen help. We'll have Salvy (Perez) back. (Alex Gordon) had a great year last year, so he's kind of back to his form. Our starters got a little more experience. (Danny Duffy) is healthy. We feel good about where we're at."

Relief pitcher Ian Kennedy will be playing his 14th season in the majors. He views this year with both intrigue and vigor. He has even seemed to embrace the idea of the entire pitching staff, bullpen included, being used in non-traditional ways, outside of designated roles, to meet the needs of a shortened season.

"Mentally, for me, it's like you've got to be foot on the gas pedal from the get-go," Kennedy said. "So I think it's kind of exciting. I've never had that before. Unless you were playing like that in college when you play about 60 games. It's going to go by really quick. The road trips are going to go by quick. I imagine all of us are going to wish it was longer because we're used to doing it a lot longer, playing 162."

The dynamics of a 60-game season will be quite different from a normal season that spans from March until the end of September. Ebbs and flows can be ridden out with patience over the course of weeks or even a month during a six-month season.

The 2014 Royals team, which went on to earn a wild card berth, advance all the way to Game 7 of the World Series and start a two-year run that included back-to-back AL pennants and a World Series championship, went 50-50 through the first 100 games of the 2014 season. That group found its stride down the stretch and went 39-23 the rest of the way before embarking on a magical playoff run.

For all intents and purposes, this year the playoffs start as soon as the season does.

"In a regular season it's more like a marathon," Royals outfielder Hunter Dozier said. "You have time to relax. You have time to kind of get settled in, but with the 60-game season you're gonna have to get off to a good start or you're going to have to have a really good stretch.

"I think it's going to bring excitement. It's gonna be a lot of fun. It's almost like we're hunting for a playoff spot in a typical year. Everyone's in first place right now and we're almost in mid July or whatever. It's gonna be fun. It's gonna be exciting. But yeah, I think getting off to a good start is extremely important."

Many variables could factor into the Royals getting off to a good start. They've already seen three players test positive for COVID-19, including two this week. All are expected to be crucial contributors, in All-Star catcher Salvador Perez, starting pitcher Brad Keller and first baseman Ryan O'Hearn.

The unpredictability of a shortened season — and how quickly and drastically a winning streak or losing streak could rearrange the standings — leaves the door open for a team like the Royals, projected to be near the bottom of its division early this year, to potentially catch lightning in a bottle.

Despite being sidelined by a positive test the same year he's making his comeback after missing the entire 2019 season due to Tommy John surgery, Perez was abundantly optimistic about the Royals' outlook.

"We've got a hungry team, that's what I think," Perez said. "... I think we're ready. Hopefully, we make it to the playoffs. It's 60 games. Anyone can win! We've got to be consistent. We've got to be focused. We've got to play hard. I think we've got (a good) chance to be back in the playoffs."