KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Raul Ibanez arrived with the Royals in late June, the first thing he noticed was how much talent surrounded him in the clubhouse.
"It’s as much talent as any team I’ve ever been on," Ibanez said back then. "Seriously."
But what Ibanez didn’t say at the time was that he noticed something else: The Royals didn’t always play like a winner.
That, Ibanez said, has changed.
"Now you have the attitude and the talent matched together," he said. "I like seeing guys doing everything for the benefit of the team. It’s team-first.
"Now there’s first-place attitude with first-place talent."
Hearing that, of course, is music to general manager Dayton Moore’s ears.
"That’s a good way for Raul to put it," Moore said with a hint of a smile. "Raul is a better man to articulate that because he’s with them every day. But with my conversations with everyone involved, there’s a common belief among the players that they will push this all the way through. They believe in themselves."
The turning point likely came July 22 in Chicago. The Royals had lost four straight games coming out of the All-Star break, and the players huddled together in the lunchroom of the White Sox’s visiting clubhouse.
Grievances were aired in this 40-minute players-only meeting. Veterans such as Ibanez stood up to remind the team they were talented enough to win a championship if they just started playing together.
"I think at times … sometimes the perception of yourself is different than what others think," Ibanez said. "I think it was important then to let them know what others felt, that around the league the perception was this was a really talented group — pitching, defense, guys that can swing the bats …
"But you got to play as one unit. And we have done that now for quite some time. There’s a great feeling and a team concept going on here, and a lot of positive energy. It’s confidence, not arrogance. There’s good balance here. They’re staying focused and staying humbled."
Coming out of that players-only meeting, the Royals have won 24 of 32 games and vaulted to the top spot in the American League Central.
The question now is whether they have what it takes to stay on top.
Moore, naturally, believes so.
"I believe in our bullpen and our defense and our starting pitching," Moore said. "If we get enough offense down the stretch, we should be in this right until the end.
"It’s a very resilient group. It’s been that way for a while. I would say our team … the commonality is that they go out and play hard every night. A different guy does it every night. The hunger is very apparent every night."
That hunger won’t be satiated until the Royals return to the playoffs, a place they haven’t been in 29 years.
Ibanez, of course, knows a thing or two about playoff chases. He has been through it countless times before with Seattle, Philadelphia and the Yankees.
He loves talking to his teammates about what it takes to survive and win down the stretch.
"They ask a lot of questions, which is good," he said. "At this point of the season, you just have to slow it all down. Focus on each day. Take care of your business on the field each day, and after the day is over, if you want to peek at the standings, go ahead.
"But really focus on the moment. And have a short memory whether you win or lose. Move on to the next challenge."
Ibanez can sense the excitement among this group of Royals, as well as the excitement in the city.
"It’s fun that when you start talking about the postseason, the hairs on their arms starts to stand up a little," Ibanez said. "They’re excited. It’s such a special time. It’s what you play for.
"When you’re a little kid you dream about being up in the bottom of the ninth, 3-2 pitch with the bases loaded in Game 7 of the World Series. That’s what you want to get to. You’re not dreaming about Game 32 in April or May.
"It’s such an exciting time for these guys and for this franchise. I can’t wait for these guys to experience that (the playoffs). It changes your perspective about what playing in the big leagues is about."