Royals close the gap; now it's time to leapfrog teams in front of them

Royals know they must keep playoff mind-set going as they head to Cleveland and Detroit

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



This certainly isn't your 2012 Royals, who would have wilted after the 16-2 beat-down handed to them by the Tigers on Friday.


The 2012 Royals might have drifted aimlessly into a weeklong losing streak. But the 2013 Royals flushed the Friday loss quickly, won the next two games and won the series against the Tigers, proving again they belong in the playoff conversation.


And while the Royals have shrunk the gap between themselves and Tampa Bay, which leads in the race for the second wild card, to 3½ games, this is the week the Royals need to start to leapfrog teams in front of them.


The Royals open a three-game set with the Indians tonight, while Baltimore and New York square off in a four-game set. That means if the Royals take care of business, they are bound to gain ground on at least two of the teams in front of them, maybe all three if the Orioles and Yankees split.


And make no mistake: The Royals know how crucial each game is against the Indians over the next three days.


"The last time we went into Cleveland, they swept us, so we've got some business to take care of over there," first baseman Eric Hosmer said. "It's a huge series for us and a huge road trip, but we've got to continue to take it day by day and not get too far ahead of ourselves. If we stick to that approach, we'll be in a good spot."


The Royals' basic approach has been simple, said designated hitter Billy Butler.


"You treat every game like a playoff game now," he said.



The Royals will be sending out their "Big Three" for the Indians series -- Ervin Santana, Jeremy Guthrie and James Shields.


But the trio has not gotten the job done lately. In a recent three-game series with the White Sox at The K, the trio fell flat and the Royals lost all three games.


Then the trio started the three-game set at Toronto and lost two of three. The trio then started the final two games of the Seattle series and the first game of the Detroit series -- the Royals lost two of those three.


So, in the "Big Three's" last three turns in the rotation, the Royals are 2-7.


Time to change that now, starting with Santana, who hasn't won since Aug. 4.



On the bright side, the Royals are getting nightly contributions from their "Big Five" hitting group of Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Sal Perez and Mike Moustakas.


In last week's pulsating 7-6 extra-inning win over Seattle, Gordon started the rally from a 5-0 deficit with a two-run homer. Butler had a five-hit game and, of course, Moustakas won it with a walk-off homer.


Perez won Saturday night's game with a huge two-run blast, and Hosmer sealed Sunday's win with a three-run homer.


It's no secret the Royals have been offensively challenged this season, but with their pitching and defense, they can keep winning if someone in their "Big Five" comes through each night.



Royals skipper Ned Yost has taken his share of abuse from the fan base and from bloggers, and some of it perhaps deserved, but the Royals' playoff push has rejuvenated him, he says.


Like his players, Yost is treating every game now like a playoff game and he says he can feel the pressure and excitement.


"I'd be a liar if I said no," Yost said. "Yes, very exhilarating. Every win means something. Every pitch means something. ... Every game is really crucial."



Royals top pitching prospect Yordano Ventura was scratched from a playoff start last week for the Triple-A Omaha Storm Chasers for violating team rules. Apparently, he showed up less than an hour before game time; players usually are required to arrive about three hours before game time.


No word on whether Ventura will pitch again this season for the Storm Chasers, who have advanced to the Pacific Coast League finals.


Ventura did tweet the following apology: "I understand that my behavior was not the best and is not acceptable once again excuse me. I want to apologize to my teammates, trainers, family and fans if through my actions and behavior I have failed or offended you in some way."


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