Playoffs? Playoffs? Hey, one strong streak and Royals could do it

After creeping within 4½ games of wild card, Royals are truly in the playoff picture with 25 games to go

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


These 2013 Royals simply won't go away.


As depressed and angered as Royals fans were Saturday after that 4-2 loss to the Blue Jays -- and, oh my, wouldn't you love to have that game back -- they have to be equally intrigued now that the Royals have bounced back with two straight wins and pulled to within 4 ½ games of Tampa Bay for that final wild-card spot.


Of course, we have been here before, hoping and dreaming the Royals can do the unthinkable by slipping past the Indians, Yankees and Orioles, and then chasing down whatever wild-card leader is still standing.


Suddenly, though, here on Sept. 3, it seems doable, even with only 25 games left.


I say that because those teams in front of the Royals have finally -- finally -- started to stumble.


Tampa has lost five straight and eight of 10. The Indians have lost seven of 10. The Orioles and Yankees each have split their last 10 games.


And inside the Royals' clubhouse, players still insist they have one monster hot streak left in them. That certainly is what it would take -- another nine-game winning streak by the Royals and another huge run of winning 17 of 20.


If the Royals could pull that off, leapfrogging the Indians, Orioles and Yankees is more than feasible -- it's almost a mathematical certainty, considering the remaining schedules.


The Royals have six games left with the Tribe and if the majority of a hot streak came against the Indians, well, that likely would take care of the Indians, though it's kind of scary that the Tribe have four layups against Houston and three with the Mets coming up.


The Yankees have seven left with the Red Sox, four with the Orioles and three with Tampa. The Orioles have four with the Yankees, six with the Red Sox and four with Tampa. Tampa has three with Boston, three with the Yankees, four with the Orioles and four with the Rangers.


Each team in the race has its share of cupcakes left on the schedule, but there are enough head-to-head meetings among the contenders and enough tough games for them that there should be ground to be gained for the Royals.


Of course, nothing matters unless the Royals take care of their own business, which includes the next three with the Mariners before they start the 12-game gauntlet with the Tribe and Tigers.


As the late Fred White used to say, "If you want to dream a little here ...."



Anyone watching Monday's game could easily catch left-hander Danny Duffy's reaction when Ned Yost came out to pull him with two outs in the fourth inning: Duffy turned away from the approaching Yost and barked out a tremendously loud F-bomb.


Duffy said afterward he was frustrated that he didn't have command of his pitches like he had in two previous starts, and that he felt he had let his teammates down. But his reaction to getting pulled demonstrates the competitor inside him: Duffy wanted to finish the inning and was furious that he had let his pitch count get so high (91) again.



There also was plenty of barking after the game from fans wishing left-hander Will Smith would return to the rotation after his brilliant outing Monday. Smith was flawless: He struck out eight in 4 1/3 innings and gave up just one hit, a routine fly ball that Jarrod Dyson lost in the sun.


Of course, those types of outings have Royals fans wondering if Smith should go back to being a starter. Then again, Smith has told me more than once that he may be more effective in his present role because he doesn't pace himself as he would if he were a starter. Smith lets loose on every pitch now -- which is how Luke Hochevar explains his success now.


I can envision Smith and that incredible slider serving the Royals as a shutdown lefty in the 'pen for years to come. Seriously, Smith has made left-handed hitters look ridiculously helpless at times, and that would be a great weapon for the Royals.



Emilio Bonifacio has given Yost something he hasn't had all season -- a prototypical No. 2 hitter. Bonifacio now has hit second in 10 straight games, which has allowed Yost to stay with the same top four in the order -- Alex Gordon, Bonifacio, Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler -- during that span.


Yost may have found something he can carry into next season. Bonifacio has hit .316 in those 10 games (12 for 38) with four stolen bases and seven runs scored, and his speed puts immediate pressure on the defense.


The Royals are 7-3 in those games.



Somewhat quietly, right-hander James Shields has won four straight games and six of his last seven -- when the Royals have needed him most. Big Game James has given up just six earned runs in his last five starts covering 35 1/3 innings.


Any questions or concerns about the 31-year-old's arm being tired should be alleviated.


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