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Flanny's Five: Next 20 games will make or break Royals’ season

Royals embark on a crucial portion of their schedule while looking to avoid last season's letdown

KANSAS CITY, Mo -- Five observations on the current state of the Royals….


ANY BETTER NOW THAN LAST YEAR?


Last year at this time, the Royals also had just completed a four-game series with the Twins in Minneapolis.


And last year at this time, the Royals' season basically was over after that Twins series, thanks in no small part to Jonathan Sanchez.


To rewind, the Royals went into Minneapolis on the verge of crawling back to the .500 mark. They had suffered through a 12-game losing streak in April, and dropped to 11 games under .500 at 3-14.


But over the course of the next two months, the Royals fought back, despite having to endure a Sanchez start every five games. They beat the Twins, 4-3, on a Friday night in late June, a pulsating win that pulled them within four games of .500. It was their fourth straight win and 11th in 16 games.


But then, the next day, Sanchez took the mound again to ensure the Royals' momentum would end abruptly. And it did.


Sanchez gave up 10 hits, walked six batters and allowed six runs in four innings as the Royals lost, 7-2.


The Royals never recovered, losing 20 of their next 26 games, and the city turned its attention once again to Chiefs training camp. Sanchez was around to contribute three more brutal losses before being traded to Colorado.


The Royals are in a similar spot this time around, having recently completed a series with the Twins and finding themselves just three games under .500.


This year's team, though, would appear far more equipped to keep the fight going. Jeremy Guthrie has replaced Sanchez, and the Royals also have two ace-like starters in James Shields and Ervin Santana that they didn't have last year.


But the Royals are at a similar crossroads: Their next 20 games are against playoff contenders – the Indians, A's, Yankees, Tigers and Orioles.


The next 20 games will make or break the season, and determine how quickly the city turns its annual attention toward the Chiefs.


GIO'S TIME


Second baseman Johnny Giavotella has one more shot at winning the job, after the club recalled him from Triple-A Omaha on Saturday and designated Jeff Francoeur for assignment.


Whether Giovatella feels the pressure or not, this is a huge moment in his career. He has had opportunities to win the job in each of the past two spring trainings, and also had chances to steal the job in the regular season in 2011 and 2012. He whiffed on all of them.


Giovatella will be 26 this month, and the clock is ticking on his opportunities.


At least manager Ned Yost made it clear he isn't expecting Gio to be a Gold Glover at second. Yost wants Gio to do one thing and one thing only – hit.  


"I need some offense," Yost told Bob Dutton of The Kansas City Star. "I don't need an infielder. I got infielders."


REALLY?


For the most part, the Royals flexed a little muscle in Minneapolis, certainly a welcome sight.


But after watching one of the league's worst offenses for three months, I found it interesting what Twins manager Ron Gardenhire had to say about the Royals' offense after Sunday's game:


"They've got some hitters over there," Gardenhire told reporters. "Those guys can swing the bats. I know they haven't been consistent doing it, but they got some good young hitters who can pop a baseball."


When Eric Hosmer , Sal Perez, Mike Moustakas and Billy Butler (and even David Lough) are hitting homers, I guess this offense does look somewhat potent from a distance.


MOORE WITNESSES ZIMMER NEAR NO-HITTER


It has been a rough year so far for the Royals' first-round pick from 2012, Kyle Zimmer.


Zimmer entered Saturday's game against Potomac with a 1-7 record and a 5.98 ERA for Class A Wilmington.


But with Royals general manager Dayton Moore on hand to observe, Zimmer turned in his best outing as a pro. He no-hit Potomac through five innings, and gave up just two singles (one an infield hit) through seven innings in a 2-0 win.


Wilmington shortstop Jack Lopez told the Delaware News-Journal that fans can expect to see plenty more great outings from Zimmer.


 "That was just a little bit of what you guys will see in the future from Kyle," Lopez said. "He's a big guy, big prospect. You'll see him in a couple of years up there (in Kansas City) doing big things."


THE RIGHT WAY


As Royals broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre pointed out during Sunday's telecast, the Royals are committed to building this team through their own system, at least in regards to position players.


And Sunday, the Royals featured seven of their nine starters from their own system – Alex Gordon, Butler, Hosmer, Moustakas, Giovatella, David Lough and Sal Perez. The other two starters – Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain – came to the Royals via a trade of one of their own developed players (Zack Greinke).


That was Moore's goal to win at the small-market level – win from within.


You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter at @jflanagankc or email him at jeffreyflanagan6@gmail.com