Sam Mellinger: Royals' season is slipping away
Well, wow, there's so much to talk about with the Royals right now and none of it's good, so maybe it's just best to be blunt?
They stink. This team really, really, REALLY stinks right now.
Their best pitcher is hurt, their hottest hitter got hurt, and now perhaps their steadiest starter is pitching through shoulder pain. Their best player just got healthy, and he even homered, but what's that saying about a grain of sand at the beach?
The Royals lost to the Tigers 6-5 on Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium, their 11th loss in 12 games, a stretch that began three weeks after an 11-game losing streak.
If the Royals were a person right now, they would be the guy on the side of the road, hood up, engine smoking, running late to a meeting he's beginning to understand will go on without him.
"This is the first time I believe we're feeling the grind," Royals manager Mike Matheny said.
Baseball seasons are marathons and 162-chapter books and all the other cliches, and this team has shown itself to be so streaky that nothing should surprise us. But baseball fans in Kansas City have developed a feel for these things, and at the moment this has all the familiar symptoms of a season slipping away.
Here's what we thought before the season: the Royals had a small but not insignificant chance to be a playoff team if their best players performed to reasonable expectations, the young pitchers added depth and dynamism, and they caught a few breaks along the way.
Here's what we've seen through 67 games: Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler are among the league's least productive hitters, two top pitching prospects have debuted to horrific results, and their luck is such that you'd expect the clubhouse air conditioning to go out any scorching hot day now.
The Royals bullpen has been fairly solid recently, and with no game on Thursday, Matheny had the luxury of emptying all chambers with a two-run lead going into the seventh. This is as close as baseball gets to a sure thing: the Royals were 22-2 when leading after seven innings, and major-league teams had won 88% of games when leading after seven.
But maybe you're cynical enough to roll your eyes here and respond with something like "Hey Bub, the Royals screwing up is as close as baseball gets to a sure thing right now," and if so you come by it honestly because, ahem: Greg Holland gave up the lead after just two batters, then Scott Barlow gave up the go-ahead run on a wild pitch. Jake Brentz gave up another run in the eighth on another wild pitch, and Josh Staumont did not look like himself in giving up another run in the ninth.
Matheny chose — publicly, at least — to focus positive energy on the Royals pumping hope with two runs in the ninth, but at this point anything positive said about the Royals feels a little too much like: hey I know you bellyflopped that dive at the pool in front of the girl you like but at least now she knows who you are!
If the Royals won — they'll win again at some point, right? — this space probably would have been about Mondesi homering in his first plate appearance back from injury and turning an instinctual and graceful double play in the field. But it just doesn't hit the same when a team is nosediving down the standings against a division rival they're supposed to be better than, and don't even get us started on a schedule that presents 10 of 13 games against winning teams starting Friday and 20 consecutive games starting Tuesday.
"The only thing I want is to win games," Mondesi said. "We hope next day, next game, everything changes."
How many times has a Royals player or manager said something similar over the years? This team was always flawed, and nobody believed that whole best-record-in-baseball thing would last, but there is no excuse or logical explanation for a group stocked with championship experience to have essentially one-third of its season so far engulfed in losing streaks of five or more games.
It makes no sense, and it makes less sense the deeper you look. There are times this team appears completely incapable of the big hit, or of getting out of bad momentum. If a pitcher is going right, he has a chance. But if he gives up a few, it often disintegrates.
Same thing with hitters. They might find a groove, but if the other team's pitcher is in a rhythm it will almost certainly be a long night. In the last six games they are 5-for-49 with runners in scoring position. That's a .102 batting average, which would seem hard to pull off, and not to pile on, but this year pitchers have a .114 batting average.
"I keep saying we run into tests, but we're tested every day," Matheny said. "And it's gonna be how we respond. The biggest part about that for me is how these guys think of ourselves. We've got to remember some of the things we saw this year, and we've got to remember too that there's even better ahead."
Matheny is expansive and insightful on the mental and emotional challenges of big-league baseball, and to hear him talk is to hear a man trying everything he can think of without knowing if it's working.
He's a naturally emotional man in a sport that's often best navigated evenly, but besides, if we all agree that wins should be celebrated then how could we possibly believe the losses won't drag you down?
This is something Matheny says often, and he referenced it at least three times on Thursday: that the players needed to think of themselves more as the team that was in first place May 1, and less as the team that has to go back two weeks to find even two wins in a row.
The problem is that first place is in the distant past. Right now, rotten is their reality.
A season is slipping away.