Flanny's Five: Hot Royals square off with the team to beat
Jeffrey Flanagan examines the top five Royals trends as they enter a huge four-game series at Detroit -- the only team above them in the AL Central standings. But if Kansas City can win three of four, guess who moves to the top of the heap?
If the Royals win this four-game series against Omar Infante's old teammates in Detroit, they will move into first place in the AL Central.
Denny Medley / USA TODAY Sports
By Jeffrey FlanaganFOX Sports Kansas City
It's OK to call this four-game series with Detroit exactly what it is: The biggest series of the season so far.
It weighs heavily on the minds of fans that the Royals are 0-5 against the Tigers this season, and it's time to let the Tigers know they are in for a season-long fight.
Normally, facing right-hander Justin Verlander tonight would strike plenty of fear. But this isn't the same Verlander we've been accustomed to -- he has an unsightly 4.61 ERA this season and an even more unsightly 1.505 WHIP.
Granted, it's hard to suggest that the entire reason for the Royals' recent turnaround is a simple flipping of the hitting coaches. And Royals players are cautious to give too much credit to new hitting coach Dale Sveum out of respect for the man he replaced, Pedro Grifol.
Both Sveum and Grifol preach the same principles as all hitting coaches do -- lay off pitches out of the zone and attack your pitch. Grifol instructed more of a body approach to hitting, using the lower body as leverage to create more power. That teaching was instrumental in Eric Hosmer turning his season around in 2013, when he hit 16 of his 17 homers under Grifol.
Sveum, too, understands the necessity of lower-body leverage, but while he emphasizes the hands and head, that doesn't make him a "hands" instructor (sorry, Rex Hudler). When Sveum talks about the hands, he is talking about having them in a proper position at the start of the swing so they are in the right launch mode. Using the bigger muscles in the swing (legs, hips, chest) is still the key to consistent hitting. The smaller muscles (like those in the hands) twitch easier and get hitters out of position. Sveum also emphasizes that the position of the head stay level throughout the swing (no bobbing).
At any rate, whatever subtle tips Sveum is handing out right now are working. The Royals are 12-4 since Sveum took over and are averaging 5.12 runs per game. The slash line under Sveum is .277/.327/.426. Under Grifol this season: .251/.306/.348.
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WAITING FOR A RETRACTION
It was rather amazing listening to Royals critics on the radio through the month of May, most of whom already had written off the Royals. In fact, many of the talk-show hosts announced the Royals had "no chance" of ever catching the Tigers and had hope to chase only the second wild-card spot. This, of course, is the danger of making such huge proclamations so early in the baseball season -- you almost always wind up sounding foolish. The Royals have a chance to overtake the Tigers this week if they can continue their hot streak and take three of four. If that happens, it'll be interesting to hear what those pundits will proclaim then.
Bottom line: It's a long, long season, friends. Let it play out.
ESKY THE MVP?
Who would have thought that shortstop Alcides Escobar's injury Friday night would have thrown such a scare into the Royals' fan base? Numerous friends texted me trying to find out if he was OK or was headed to the disabled list. They were in an absolute panic. (Esky had only a cramp, as it turned out.)
This illustrates how much Escobar has turned his career around, that he could now be considered so indispensable. But it's true -- losing Esky would be a huge blow. The dropoff defensively to anyone replacing him certainly would be felt. And guess what? So would the dropoff offensively.
Esky is third on the team in hits with 69, trailing Hosmer only by four. Esky is tied for second on the team in doubles with 19. He leads the team with 17 stolen bases. And he is fourth on the team in on-base percentage (.328) and slugging (.398). Have a year, Esky. And as Rex would say, keep driving the bus.
LIVING WITH MOOSE
While it has been easy to pick on third baseman Mike Moustakas this season, there is some light at the end of the tunnel for him, it seems. In the last seven games, Moose is hitting. 375 and boasts a 1.111 OPS. He has two homers (both off left-handers) and five RBI in that span, raising his average to .178 (hey, baby steps). He is certainly contributing to this seven-game winning streak. The bottom line is the Royals likely will live with Moose's numbers this year, even if he hits in the low .200s. As long as he continues to play good defense and delivers the occasional long ball, the Royals will be content because, as GM Dayton Moore points out often, there isn't a suitable alternative. And who knows? Maybe this recent surge is a sign that Moose will be a significant factor offensively the rest of the season.
There certainly was some concern recently when Omar Infante endured a 0-for-19 stretch and a 5-for-43 funk. But as a few of us writers were sitting in Ned Yost's office one day during that Infante slump, Yost assured us that Infante would soon snap out of it.
"He's a career .280-.285 hitter," Yost said. "He's going to hit. He has to. They're all going to hit."
Yep, Infante now has a modest six-game hitting streak and is batting .360 over that span. And the Royals will need a hot Infante at the top of the order as they prepare to face his old teammates.