KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Longtime Royal Billy Butler remembers the bad times all too well.
In his first six seasons in the big leagues, the Royals averaged over 92 losses a season.
"It was tough," he recalls. "You got to the ballpark …. I mean we had good players, but there wasn’t a feeling we were going to win. We just kind of hoped we would."
Oh, how times have changed. The Royals have won 14 of 16, and 22 of their last 27, soaring to the top spot in the American League Central.
Expectations are much different now when Butler arrives in the clubhouse each day. The Royals are baseball’s hottest team.
"You’re excited about winning," he says, "but then again, you sort of expect it. It’s what we’re supposed to do. When we don’t, it’s really upsetting, like, ‘How did that happen? How did we lose?’"
And there is nothing arrogant about that assumption.
"We know we took a big step last year," Butler says, "and it was a nice feeling to be over .500 after all those years of losing. But then again, we didn’t really accomplish anything. We didn’t make the playoffs. We know that.
Surging to the top spot in the division is something the Royals have done before this season, back in June, after they rode the crest of a 10-game winning streak. But when that streak ended the Royals crashed hard, quickly dropping well behind Detroit.
The Royals haven’t forgotten.
"I think back then we might have been on a real high after getting to first and we were like, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh,’" he says. "Now it feels like we’re just doing what we’re expected to do."
"We’ve shown we can play with the Tigers and we’ve shown we can play with Oakland and we’ve shown we can play with Anaheim and Baltimore," he says. "I think that’s when the light came on for us — we showed we can play with all these teams, so it was like, ‘Why isn’t our record (showing it)?’
"That’s when we started to take off. And now our record is showing how good we are."
And now that the Royals have sat in first place for over a week, Butler says they have adjusted their goals.
"If you’re in first place already, you’ve got to play for something else," he says. "You need to stretch out your lead and you need to look forward to something like catching Baltimore (for the No. 2 seed).
"It’s not enough just to be in first. You have to keep trying to gain on something."
The Royals are just 2 1/2 games behind Baltimore for the No. 2 seed, and only 4 1/2 games behind the Angels for the top seed in the playoffs.
"You think about 4 1/2 games and if we were that far back of Detroit, we’d still think we were in the division race," Butler says. "So, if it’s just 4 1/2 games to get to the top seed, then let’s go after it. It can be done, right?"