KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The glass is … well, it’s fuller. Or less empty, if you choose to look at it that way.
The Kansas City Royals got what they wanted out of the first post-All-Star break weekend; namely, to gain ground against the Detroit Tigers, the cream of the American League Central. They took two of three from the Kitties at Kauffman Stadium, notching two dramatic, fan-pleasing victories along the way.
And heck, they even remained within shouting distance for much of Sunday’s series finale before falling to Doug Fister and his sinker, 4-1.
“They played a heck of a series — their defense really stuck out,” Detroit manager Jim Leyland said, sounding more relieved than anything else after the matinee. “This entire series, they played absolutely terrific. So we feel real good to come out of here with a win, and we’ll move on to Chicago.”
The Royals feel good, too, though it’s more of a measured, baseball-is-a-long-season-and-we’ve-still-got-a-ways-to-go sort of good.
“As much as everybody wants us to, we’re not going to win every game,” Royals skipper Ned Yost said. “But we’ve got to focus on winning series. And if we can do that, from here to the end of the year, we’re going to be in great shape.”
That’s the macro view, and it’s smart. As a fan, if you treat baseball like the NFL or college basketball, your significant other is going to start hiding the sharp objects around the house.
You have to win games to win series, but winning series (after series, after series) is the coin of the realm. To put it another way, football is “Angry Birds,” baseball is “Tetris.” The blocks just keep coming, and a bad series of moves can be forgiven by any number of sharp ones.
If the point was to get back off the mat after riding a five-game losing streak into the break, it worked. If the point was to leave an image burned in the back of the Tigers’ collective backsides, apparently, that worked, too.
“Are they legit? Absolutely,” Detroit outfielder Don Kelly said.
“We’ve got to bring our ‘A’ game to beat them,” Detroit pitcher Luke Putkonen said.
“I mean, we know that (they’re in the hunt),” Leyland continued.
“I think the Royals and the Toronto Blue Jays were the most talked-about teams in spring training. … Obviously, (the buzz was) how good the Royals look, and we know that. They’re very athletic. Their defense is absolutely terrific. And it’s showing up. And some of the young hitters are getting more experience as they go. They’ve got a terrific artillery in the bullpen with some veteran pitching with (Ervin) Santana and (James) Shields, and now (Bruce) Chen back in there. No, this is a really, really good team, and they’re very athletic.”
Feisty, too. The Royals went into Sunday’s action having played a best-in-the-majors 34 games decided by one run, winning 17 and losing 17. They’ve already been involved in 19 games decided by two runs, and 16 games decided by three.
“They’re never blown out,” Kelly noted. “Do you know what I mean? They’re always in a game. There’s one play here or another that could probably flip that game around.”
In fact, Saturday night was the fifth straight one-run game played between Kansas City and Detroit, and the 16th one-run tilt among the two clubs’ past 25 meetings. The Royals were 6-1 in the past seven of those contests and 11-5 over the last 16.
“It’s not like when you come in here, (it’s easy) … it’s never been like that,” Kelly continued. “I mean, they’ve always been a good ballclub. But now, like, you know you’re in for a battle.”
Which begs the question: Are they in for a race?
Over the past 20 seasons, come July 21 — usually about the time the NFL machine starts to crank up again — the Royals have found themselves fewer than 10 games back just twice before this year: in 2003, when they were up 5.5 games atop the division, and 1994, at 49-46, in third, nine games back and with an ugly work stoppage looming right around the corner.
Which is all well and good, except for the fact that the glass is still sitting there, still half … something. From 2005-2012, the Royals’ average division spot on July 21 was fourth (4.5, actually) and their average games back was 16.5. Sunday night, they were in third place, seven games out, the franchise’s best record this far into the summer wind since the out-of-nowhere thrill-ride of ’03.
They also have the ninth-best record out of the 15 clubs in the American League and, according to CoolStandings.com, tote a 2.1 percent chance of reaching the wild card and a 5.5 percent shot of making the postseason, period.
“When you’re talking about a team that has never had those expectations, and now they’re placed on this team,” Kelly said of the Royals. “I know last year, we were coming off the ALCS, last year, (and fans) were like, ‘Oh, you’re going to go to the World Series.’ Well, it was a battle the whole year to get to that point. And, yes, we did end up going to the World Series. But the game’s not won or lost on paper. You’ve got to go out there and play.
“It completely changes things. Because now you can’t read the media, you can’t listen to that kind of stuff. You have to focus on what you can control, and that’s going out there and playing as well as you can. Because when you start thinking things, (like), ‘Oh, we’re supposed to challenge the Tigers,’ or, for us, ‘We’re supposed to win the World Series,’ and it doesn’t happen, then you start focusing on the wrong things, rather than the day to day.”
In other words, before you can play in a September That Matters, you have to get to an August That Matters first. And the Royals’ August dance card includes five games in the Motor City, right in the middle of the month, when baseball’s days are at their absolute doggiest.
“I mean, we had a chance to chip (the lead) to five. We’re at seven,” Royals slugger Billy Butler said. “But you know, there are a lot of games left.”
With 67 tilts still to go, even if the math isn’t on your side, it hasn’t completely turned its back, either. Although every day you don’t gain a game is a day you don’t get back.
“It’s just a matter of time for them, I’d imagine,” Putkonen said.
And no time like the present.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.