Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 14, 2016

As Deadline Decisions Loom, The Royals Steal The Show

Its midsummer break over, the Great Game resumes Friday with a full slate of fifteen contests. Though every team is past the halfway point of its schedule, what remains is always referred to as the “second half” of the longest season. Whatever it’s called, with the non-waiver trade deadline little more than two weeks distant a number of general managers must soon make the choice between being buyers or sellers. Five of the six division leaders enjoy some clear daylight in the standings. While seventy or so games is plenty of time for fortunes to change, only Baltimore’s two game edge on Toronto and Boston could be called a close race today.

But beginning with the 1997 Marlins a dozen Wild Card teams have advanced to the World Series and half of them claimed a championship; so clearly winning one’s division is not the only route to October glory. At this point every franchise at .500 or better is within striking distance of one of their league’s two Wild Card spots. That brings to nineteen the number of clubs that harbor legitimate postseason hopes as players prepare to once again take the field.

It’s a number that will decrease, and probably soon. In the National League the Mets, Marlins and Cardinals are slated for a virtual round robin tournament of games against one another over the remainder of July. It’s a schedule with the potential to damage the hopes of as few as one to as many as all three of those teams that are bunched within a single game in the Wild Card race today. In the AL the Yankees ended the first half in Cleveland. The four game series against the Central Division leaders could have pushed New York solidly below .500. Instead they took three of the four to keep hope alive in the Bronx. Now they start the second half with a ten-game home stand. First up are division rivals Boston and Baltimore, followed by San Francisco, the team with the best record in the majors. By the time New York goes back on the road to face Houston, a team back in contention after a dreadful start, GM Brian Cashman should have a clear indication of whether this year’s Yankees are contenders or pretenders.

Another AL team that might see its 2016 fate quickly turn, for better or worse, is Kansas City. The Royals will be in Detroit this weekend for three against the Tigers, then return home to entertain Cleveland and Texas. The Tigers are a half-game ahead of the Royals and are one of four teams Kansas City will have to pass to climb into the second Wild Card spot. Cleveland leads the Central Division that Kansas City won last year, and Texas has the best record in the American League.

Next Thursday, on the off day between those two home series, the Royals players and team officials will travel to Washington, DC to visit the White House. It’s the ceremonial moment that champions in all our major sports get to savor, recognition of their achievement by the President. It’s also a reminder, if one is needed, that while Kansas City may be on the outside looking in at the playoffs right now, the Royals are both the reigning World Series champions and the back-to-back American League representative to the Fall Classic.

That resume has earned Kansas City a trip east to be feted by President Obama, but it has done little to impress most baseball analysts. When the Royals made their remarkable run through the 2014 postseason, ending a nearly three decade long playoff drought, they were treated as charming interlopers. Lacking a big budget or widely known superstars, all the Royals did was win. Kansas City trailed Oakland 7-3 with six outs remaining in the Wild Card Game, before rallying to win 9-8 in 12 innings. It was the first of seven straight victories that carried the Royals through the ALDS and ALCS. In the World Series the improbable victory streak ended at the hands of Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants. But while many pundits professed delight at the Royals success, almost all picked them to regress significantly in 2015.

Instead Kansas City won 95 games last year, moving from a Wild Card to Central Division champion. Still with a modest budget and still without big name stars, the Royals displayed a determined and gritty brand of baseball, making the most of every scoring opportunity. After getting by Houston in the ALDS and Toronto in the ALCS, the Royals beat the Mets in an exciting World Series that was far more taut than one might think, given that it lasted just one game over the minimum. The winning team’s style of play was symbolized by Eric Hosmer’s unexpected dash home on an infield grounder to tie the score in the 9th inning of Game 5. Three frames later the Royals were champions.

That too did nothing for most pundits, who again picked Kansas City to regress to a losing record this year. Perhaps this time the experts will prove correct. The Royals start the second half just two games over .500 at 45-43. The dropped six of their last eight games before the All-Star break, and are 16-21 since the beginning of June. The gurus at Baseball Prospectus, with their computer simulations and complex sabermetric statistics, are still forecasting a losing record for Kansas City come season’s end. The site’s thousands of computer simulations for the remainder of the season result in the Royals making the playoffs just 8.4% of the time.

Perhaps the pundits are right about the limits of Kansas City’s roster; or perhaps, as Royals’ fans would insist, the team has been bitten unfairly hard by the injury bug. Should Kansas City miss this year’s playoffs, those fans can look back on this week’s All-Star Game as one last reminder on the national stage of what their team has been capable of through two exciting seasons. On a lovely Tuesday evening in San Diego, it was first baseman Hosmer who got the AL on the board, knotting the score at 1-1 with a 2nd inning home run to left field. Two batters later, with Boston’s Mookie Betts on first, Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez put the AL ahead to stay with another homer to left. The next inning Hosmer, who was named the game’s MVP, scorched a one-hopper past Kris Bryant at third, plating Edwin Encarnacion with the American League’s final run in a 4-2 victory. Before the game was over the Royals’ Kelvin Herrera worked a perfect inning in relief; while in the dugout almost every one of Kansas City manager Ned Yost’s decisions seemed to work out.

Three months from now, when the playoffs are underway, perhaps the Royals’ All-Star Game heroics will be the last best moment for this year’s team. But there is another possibility of course. Namely that the All-Star Game was but a reminder that the doughty Royals just won’t quit. A lot can happen in seventy or so games.

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