KANSAS CITY, Mo. — First, there was magic. Then there was a magic number.
Ninety-four. As in victories.
“It’s not like we talk about it,” Kansas City Royals infielder Elliot Johnson offered after his men rallied for a 9-8 win over salty Tampa Bay late Wednesday night, leapfrogging Detroit for first place in the American League Central. “But the target, for me, is about 94 wins.
“And you know, (we’ll) take as many as (we) can get … we’re going to go out again (Thursday) and try to sweep them. Then, if we don’t, you’re still content to get two out of three. But you’re still playing a game to win it. We’re still trying to build toward that 94.”
“Right now, we’re holding (Tampa’s) head under water, so to speak, and we want to keep them down there,” Johnson continued. “So let’s come out here (Thursday) and try to get this ‘W’ (Thursday).”
It could just be the adrenaline talking, of course: Johnson is new to Kaufmann Stadium, a throw-in as part of the deal that brought James Shields and Wade Davis from those aforementioned Rays. He homered Wednesday to open the scoring for the local nine, a moon shot to right, his first tater since last September 11. There’s no revenge to be had upon an ex, after all, quite like living well.
Then again, it could be something else.
Karma. Mojo. Pixie Dust. Fate. Whatever. Wednesday was the club’s 10th comeback win, which means two-thirds of the Royals’ victories this season have involved some sort of rally. And this rally got kind of loopy:
Down 2-0 after one.
Down 4-0 after two.
Down 6-1 after four.
Up 9-6 after six.
That’s not a fluke. That’s a pattern.
“If you give yourself enough chances with this team,” offered Jeff Francoeur, whose two-run, two-out single blew open a five-run sixth frame for the hosts, “I feel like, with our approach, we’re going to get hits and drive some guys in.”
“You see the way we start piling on,” added Johnson, who wound up 1-for-4. “We didn’t scatter a whole lot of hits. We put them together, and we just continue to build off each other, it seems like, on this team.”
The Royals outscored Tampa 9-0 in the sixth inning alone during the first two contests of this three-game set. Every spot in the lineup Wednesday collected at least one hit. Eight out of the nine scored at least one run.
“I mean, these guys never give up,” noted reliever Bruce Chen, who worked out of a two-on, one-out jam in the top of the sixth to keep the hosts within shouting distance. “And it’s just fun to see these guys battle every single at-bat … everyone could be Player of the Game.”
Share the load, share the glory.
This isn’t football. This isn’t the NBA Playoffs. There are too many games, too many peaks and valleys, to allow yourself to get twisted into an emotional pretzel. But there’s no denying it — the Royals have played these past two nights with extra pep in their steps, high-fiving and fist-pumping the way a College World Series team does under the lights in Omaha.
Maybe it’s because 40 percent of Kansas City’s starting rotation was with the Rays at this time a year ago. Maybe it’s because the Rays are what the Royals want to be — or, at the least, what Royals fans want them to be: A Neiman Marcus team on a Big Lots payroll, a franchise that spends smart and plays smarter.
Tampa rode Cinderella’s carriage all the way to the World Series in 2008. Between 2010-12, the Rays averaged 92 wins. They take little grief from the Red Sox, and even less from the Yankees. They turn their budget weaknesses into a quiet strength, a giant chip on the franchise’s collective shoulder.
“They had good baseball luck tonight,” Tampa manager Joe Maddon said of the Royals. “We did not.”
After two wins in a row, on consecutive evenings, that followed almost the exact same script?
After 10 comeback victories?
This is more than baseball luck.
This is getting interesting.
The Royals finished the night atop the division, a first on May 1 since that scorching start of 2003. A year ago at this time, the club was 6-16, 5.5 games back. It’s just the fifth time in 25 seasons the Royals have sported a winning record on May 1 (’89, ’03, ’09, ’11 and ’13), and just the fourth time since 1989 the club has been within a game of first, or leading its respective division as May began.
“We don’t know yet,” Francoeur allowed. “For me, as long as we keep taking care of what we can (take care of) … we know Detroit is going to win a bunch of ballgames. Cleveland’s played well, they’ve been hitting. So we know we’ve got our work cut out in this division. But for us, our goal is to keep winning series, and it’s good that we were able to do that. And, hopefully, come (Thursday), we can go out and get a sweep. To have a chance to sweep a team like this doesn’t happen too often.”
“You cannot buy it, you can’t try to establish it, it just happens,” Chen chuckled. “I mean, I’m (being) honest. People have been trying to get the formula (for) what’s going on, why teams click, why things happen — like, why the Baltimore Orioles or the Oakland A’s (last year)?
“But you know, sometimes, people click. And right now, we’re feeling good. I know that right now, it’s only a the first month of the season, but you know, with the way we’re playing, we can surprise a lot of people this year.”
It’s early. Too early to get crazy. But not too early to dream.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com