Fast start crucial for Royals

Lynn Worthy
The Kansas City Star (TNS)
Kansas City Royals' Danny Duffy pitches against the Detroit Tigers during the first inning of Sunday in Detroit.

Each game won serves as a building block for this current edition of the Kansas City Royals.

Collectively, they don't have the foundation of the 2014 and 2015 clubs. They're not in the middle of a multi-year run of playoff and World Series contention like the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Some of the current Royals have won either on past Royals clubs or in other organizations, but the players on this Royals team haven't won together like they're winning right now.

On Monday, they wrapped up the first four-game road series sweep in more than 10 years. They've won 10 of 14 games, and they had the best winning percentage (.636) in the majors entering Tuesday.

"It's huge," Royals pitcher Brad Keller said of the fast start. "The past few seasons, we've never really got off to a good start. So to kind of have that trust and belief in ourselves early on is the season kind of propels us through the rest of the season. Going into spring training, I feel like a lot of people counted us out."

Even though it's still April, it all matters for a team without an above-.500 season since 2015. The Royals have had substantial uphill climbs ahead of them by the time they reached Memorial Day in each of the past three full-length seasons.

Before going 26-34 in last year's pandemic-shortened season, they were a combined 117-207 in the previous two seasons. They didn't collect their 14th win until May 10th of 2019, after having gone 9-20 through March and April. In 2018, their 14th win came on May 18 to make them 14-30. In 2017, their 14th win didn't happen until May 12.

That period of time covers the entire big-league careers of players like infielder/outfielder Hunter Dozier, infielder Nicky Lopez, first baseman Ryan O'Hearn, starting pitchers Jakob Junis and Keller and relief pitcher Scott Barlow. Slow starts were all they'd known. Could this group be different, with playoff-tested talent in veterans Carlos Santana, Andrew Benintendi, Jarrod Dyson, Greg Holland and Wade Davis and club mainstays Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez?

"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 we're surprising a lot of people. ... It doesn't seem like we're ever out of the game. The group as a whole is a lot of fun to be around. We love each other. We fight for each other. It's a lot of fun to be in this clubhouse."

Following Monday's win in Detroit, the Royals have matched the second-best start through 21 games in franchise history. Only the 2003 club turned in a better start through 21 games, when it went 17-4. The Royals held the Tigers to five total runs in a four-game road series, the ninth time in franchise history they've allowed five runs or fewer in a four-game series.

The Royals proclaimed their championship aspirations this spring, and they haven't backed off those goals.

"We're playing good baseball right now," Dozier said. "We're finding ways to win. If we're not hitting, our pitching is picking us up and vice versa. It means a lot. It's hard to win up here, so any game we win — it's big. Hopefully, we can just keep rolling."

Royals manager Mike Matheny has both played for and been at the helm of winning clubs in the majors. He, too, sees real value and significance in this group getting out of the gates quickly.

"It sounds a little contradictory because I always talk about how there's not this must message about the beginning of the season — how you must get off to a good start — because there's lots of time to make up," Matheny said. "But I would also say in the same breath, for teams who haven't necessarily had a lot of success in the recent past, I do think it's important to be able to show, one, what we believe is true. They need to see it be true to completely believe it. I would also say, along those lines, that 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."

The Royals certainly have fallen victim to tough seasons and slow starts in recent years. Matheny hopes the diverse ways in which this team has won will bolster its efforts going forward.

They've already shown an ability to rally from sizable deficits to win. They've gotten out early and controlled games. They've come up with the necessary defensive play to secure a tight victory. They've won in walk-off fashion and they've also gone 6-0 in one-run games.

"As much as talent is very important, that belief is equally important for the long haul of the season for a team to become as good as they can become," Matheny said. "I'm excited that we've seen this team do a number of different things. ... We know we've got some of that in our tank and we should expect it. Then it just sets the level of expectation very high going forward."