KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Royals are more than surviving their first early-season test, a rugged three-city road trip that pitted them against baseball’s best — first Atlanta, then Boston, and now Detroit.
The Royals are 3-2 on the trip, and sit atop the American League Central at 10-7.
Yes, it’s a little early to start organizing parades through The Plaza. But it’s not too early to give the Royals some love for standing toe to toe with the Braves, who had won nine straight before the Royals came to town, and the Red Sox, who had won six straight before the Royals showed up.
The Royals split with the red-hot Braves, then swept the Red Sox in a double-header Sunday to claim the series. It was also the Royals’ first double-header sweep at Fenway Park since 1971.
One could even make the case that the Royals should be 4-1 or even 5-0 on the trip: Two bullpen meltdowns led to both defeats, though, to be fair, the bullpen has rescued the Royals plenty of times already this season.
Sunday’s gutty sweep of the Red Sox certainly takes some pressure off. The Royals will come home Friday no worse than .500, though surely their sights are much higher.
Now, however, comes the real test that general manager Dayton Moore, manager Ned Yost and most Royals fans are the most curious about: How do they match up with the Tigers, who are the class of the American League Central?
All of Moore’s off-season moves were geared toward closing the rather cavernous gap between the Royals and Tigers.
And Moore improved his team in the one area where the gap was at its largest: starting pitching.
The Royals’ rotation this year has been simply phenomenal, especially compared to years past.
Through 17 games this season, the Royals’ starters have a 3.29 ERA (last year Royals starters had a 5.01 ERA, fifth worst in baseball). And the starters have gone at least six innings in 14 of their 17 starts – that is paramount to success this season because manager Ned Yost desperately wants to keep his best weapon, his bullpen, rested. Last season, Yost had little choice but to wear out his bullpen because of horrible starting pitching.
This year, the team’s starters have kept the team in every game. Only once has a starter failed to go five innings – Wade Davis went four innings and gave up four runs in Philadelphia, and hasn’t allowed a run since.
Having starting pitchers fighting that hard to keep their team in the game, even when they don’t have their best stuff, is the main reason the Royals sit at 10-7. The Royals, at least now, don’t have the type of offense to win any shootouts.
But the Royals have shown they are capable of scratching out some runs late in games, and they have pulled out unlikely wins mainly because the starters have kept games close.
Royals designated hitter Billy Butler noted on the last homestand that the team’s starting pitching has helped develop a new attitude in the dugout.
“Our starters just keep it close and the feeling is that sooner or later we’ll come through with some runs,” he said. “Even if we’re not swinging the bats well, maybe one or two guys come through late with a big hit to win it. But you’d never have a chance to do that if your starters don’t keep you in games.”
That is the luxury the Tigers enjoy thanks to a powerful rotation consisting of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister.
The Royals perhaps can’t top the Tigers’ rotation, but this year they can at least compete with it by countering with James Shields, Ervin Santana, Jeremy Guthrie and Davis.
The gap has definitely closed.
And keep in mind the Royals still maintain the edge in bullpen strength, especially now because the Tigers have not solved their closer question.
Where the Tigers still hold the edge is offensively.
The Royals can’t match the 1-2 power punch of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, but they can compete offensively if — and only if — they start getting some production out of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas (zero homers, five RBIs combined).
Only three teams in the league have scored fewer runs than the Royals (68) this season, and it will be next to impossible for the Royals to keep winning without at least an average offense.
Royals outfielder Alex Gordon, who drilled his first homer of the season Sunday, conceded as much.
“I don’t even think we’re playing our best baseball,” he told reporters in Boston. “Our pitching is doing great. But offensively, we can do better.”
Yes, the offense will have to do better if the Royals are to further close the gap between themselves and the mighty Tigers.
But at least with a radically improved rotation, the Royals have bought some time for their offense to get on track.