KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It didn’t save a series. But it sure beat the living Shinola out of the alternative.
"It’s huge," said veteran pitcher Bruce Chen, Sunday’s emergency starter, after the division-chasing Kansas City Royals rallied for a 5-2 win over the division-leading Detroit Tigers — the former’s first home victory against the latter since Sept. 8, 2013.
"We lost three games in a row (in the series) against this team. We hadn’t beat them at Kauffman Stadium, we could’ve been 8 1/2 games back (with a loss), we could’ve been tied with Cleveland (for second) if we lost (Sunday)."
Instead, the Ned Nine mosey into the All-Star break at 48-46, alone in the American League Central’s No. 2 slot, 6 1/2 games behind the Motor City Kitties (53-38), one game ahead of third-place Cleveland and four games ahead of fourth-place Chicago.
So, basically, the glass is half … well, half something. Pick your poison.
"We’re eight games better than we were last year (43-49 at the break)," manager Ned Yost noted late Sunday afternoon. "And I think we’ve got the best baseball ahead of us that we’re going to play."
Scrappy, Sunday was. Art, it wasn’t. Yost rolled out a lineup that was minus two All-Stars — catcher Salvador Perez (rest) and left fielder Alex Gordon (wrist) had the day off — and outfielder Lorenzo Cain (rest) against the husk of what used to be Justin Verlander (8-8).
A third-inning, moon-shot double by Brett Hayes aside, it was pretty much turn-back-the-clock Verlander until the bottom of the seventh, when the hosts blew up for five runs in the frame. The Royals opened the inning with three straight solid singles and used two dribblers — an infield single by shortstop Alcides Escobar and a grounder to second by center fielder Jarrod Dyson — to chase the Tigers rightly and knot the game up at 2-2.
With two out and the bases juiced, second baseman Omar Infante roped a hard single to left to snap the deadlock and give the Royals their first lead in the series; Eric Hosmer followed with a rocket to the gap in right-center for a ground-rule double that scored another and extended his hitting streak to 13, the longest by a Royal since Perez notched a 17-game run in 2012.
"For us to win, we need Billy (Butler) going, we need Hoz going, we need Gordy going, we need Sal going, and Moose (Mike Moustakas) doing what he does," Yost said. "I mean, that’s imperative. As an organization, we’ve said from Day One, those are the guys that are going to carry us offensively."
Butler’s OPS: .679, more than 100 points lower than his career .811.
Hosmer’s OPS: .697, almost 50 points below his career .745.
Moustakas’ OPS: .627, almost 50 points below his career .673.
Which is kind of why Yost is clinging to the glass half-full view. With both hands.
"Our guys — Moose included, Hoz included — are second-half guys," the Royals’ skipper continued. "So I think all things are pointing upward for us in terms of our offense."
Moose, 2011-13: A .241 batting average before the All-Star Game, .247 after.
Hoz, 2011-13: A .262 clip before, .293 after.
Butler, 2011-13: A .285 mark before, .312 after.
The back of the baseball card doesn’t lie. Although it doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story, either.
"I have no idea (why)," Yost said. "If I (knew), I would’ve fixed it. You just can’t … I don’t know why it happens. It just happens."
It is what it is, and with six more head-to-head meetings left between the Royals and Tigers — three at Comerica Park on Sept. 8-10 and three more at Kauffmann on Sept. 19-21 — it’s still, mathematically, a race.
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The Royals haven’t been lousy (11-14) since moving into first place in Detroit on June 17 so much as the Tigers (17-7) have been unconscious over that same stretch. But you have to take care of business head to head, and the Tigers lead that mark, still, by a count of nine wins to four.
"But what I’ve noticed from this team is that this team never quits," said Chen, who scattered eight hits over 5 1/3 innings, allowing two runs in his first start since April 24. "We could’ve just said, ‘You know what? Let’s get ready for the All-Star break.’
"And nobody did that. We battled, we battled (and in) the seventh inning, we scored some really big runs. And I think this team is going to battle in the second half, and it’s up to us to make a run for it because the Tigers are playing really well right now."
Yost says the Royals are a second-half team, though recent results are kind of mixed in that regard. During last year’s Chiefs training camp — July 26 through Aug. 14 — the Fighting Neds were a stellar 14-5, climbing out of a dark pre-All-Star-break hole. But during the last five Chiefs training camps, the Royals lost an average of 2.6 games in the standings from start to finish; even last summer’s tear resulted in a minus-0.5 net gain on Detroit.
"As the season goes on, we lean on each other," Cain said. "Chemistry, it strengthens. And like I said, we start pulling for each other more and more as the season (goes on). So the next thing is just (that) we’ve got to keep going, keep plugging away, keep playing hard and wins, I think, (are) going to come in huge numbers next half."
"Urgency" is a dangerous, misused word in baseball — too many games, too long a race — but the further you get down the road, the more the foundation of your season is already in place, the more it applies.
Take the next month on the Royals’ dance card. The first 13 tilts after the All-Star break feature no opponents with winning records as of Sunday morning, and 10 of the 13 from July 18-31 are against division foes — three at Chicago, four with Cleveland, three with Minnesota — against whom the Ned Nine have posted a combined record of 14-13 so far. The cumulative record of the first four teams up after the break, starting at Fenway Park against the underachieving, mercurial Red Sox, was 170-197 (.463) as of Saturday night.
But get a load of the next 13, Aug. 1-14: at Oakland for three, at Arizona for three, home for three versus San Francisco and home for four against the Athletics. Of that stretch, 10 of 13 foes had winning marks to start the week — the Diamondbacks (40-55) being the exception — with a cumulative record of 147-130 (.531) through Saturday evening.
Summing up: Some good, some bad, and a lot of "meh." But you have to take care of the "meh," lest you join them: Since 2004, only one American League playoff team — the 2012 Rangers, who ended the season in freefall — reached the postseason with a losing record against its own division.
After Sunday, the Royals are 18-22 versus the Central; Detroit is 22-16. There’s a chance to rectify that, obviously, right out of the chute.
"Everyone can go in (to the break) in a better mood, not thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, we just lost,’" Chen said. "It’s more like, ‘You know what? We won, we’ve got four days off, we come back and we’re ready to win again.’ So hopefully, that’s what this picture translates into in the second half."
Hopefully. According to Fangraphs.com, the Royals are on a pace to win 82 contests, which is below the bar that fans — and certainly the clubhouse — set for themselves at the start of the party. If there’s an upside at intermission, it’s that the same site also projects the last AL wild-card slot to land in the laps of an 85-win Seattle bunch.
Which means that same bar is also still perfectly reachable. And another 14-5 stretch sure as hell couldn’t hurt.