KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Royals have been in first place for 11 days now, and will remain there at least another day as they open a three-game set with Texas tonight with a 1 1/2-game lead over Detroit in the AL Central.
This is the first time the Royals have been in first this late in the season since 1985, a fact that has been flying around Kansas City for a couple of days now because of the significance of that season.
The Royals were in first in 2003 as late as Aug. 20. They dropped out of first for good that day after 51 straight days in the top perch.
This, of course, feels different. This team seems ready to fight through September, unlike the 2003 team, which faded and went 13-17 down the stretch.
The point general manager Dayton Moore was making to me in our conversation Thursday was a valid one — that as much as the Royals are winning these days, there’s still room to play better.
No question that the Royals’ offense has been generating more runs. During the 22-6 stretch, the Royals are averaging 4.9 runs per game, well over the league average of 4.2.
But the Royals have been doing it without having anyone smoking hot. Billy Butler has been very good during this stretch — .327 average/.370 on-base average with four homers. But that’s not crazy hot.
Moore believes two or three Royals will be crazy hot down the stretch.
And the Royals, for all their winning lately, have not pulled out any late-game miracles usually associated with such a long winning stretch. That may be yet to come as well.
"At some point you know we’ll have to come back late in a game," Moore said. "That happens when you get two or three guys really hot at the same time."
THE SAL SITUATION
Sal Perez’s injured knee provided a minor scare this week. He jammed his right knee on the base paths in Minnesota, and it tightened up on him again in Colorado. An MRI showed no structural damage, as expected. There is simply some swelling around the patellar tendon.
Hopefully, though, this will serve as a warning to manager Ned Yost — don’t overuse Perez, especially when he has any type of injury. The Royals need Perez healthy down the stretch, and they have a capable backup in Erik Kratz. Rest Perez whenever possible.
One area where Yost deserves a lot of credit is his overall use of his Big Three in the back of the bullpen — Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland.
Yost has done a great job of not overusing any of the three. He won’t go more than three days straight with any of that trio, and that has kept them rested and sharp, for the most part.
That strategy sometimes means an individual game has to be sacrificed — see the 4-1 loss to Minnesota last Saturday when Yost had to rest the trio — to keep the focus on the big picture.
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The primary reason the Royals have been so effective this season is they simply don’t blow leads late. They are 51-3 with the lead after six innings, 58-1 with the lead after seven.
Basically, Yost can play for a six-inning game — have the lead after six and it’s pretty much checkmate. But that wouldn’t be the case if Yost overused Herrera, Davis or Holland.
Rookie Christian Colon has been playing fabulously since his most recent call-up. But he did make a major mistake Wednesday against the Rockies that was critical.
With left-hander Danny Duffy cruising along in the sixth inning, Colon made a nice fielding play on a grounder with two out. He had all kinds of time to make an accurate throw to first because the ball was hit sharply.
But Colon rushed his throw without getting the grip he wanted, and the ball bounced in the dirt. Butler couldn’t come up with the scoop. The two-out error led to a grand slam three batters later and a 5-2 loss.
Colon is a thoughtful player who will learn from his mistake. In the minors, such an error might lose a game but still will be forgotten pretty quickly. Not the case here. In the bigs, there’s too much at stake to commit such mistakes.
Colon will figure that out quickly.
Much has been made of the fact that the Royals really don’t have a very difficult schedule in the final 36 games. The schedule consists mostly of games against Texas, Cleveland, Minnesota and the White Sox. The toughest part will be four games against the Yankees and six with Detroit.
Keep in mind, though, that Detroit might have an even easier path. The Tigers have 11 games left with woeful Minnesota and seven against the fading White Sox.
The toughest part of the Tigers’ schedule will be three games with the Yankees, three with the Giants and six with the Royals. But those 11 against Minnesota are like gimmes.