Remember when the Kansas City Royals occupied first place in the AL Central? That was a fun two days.
Their little tear started with a sweep of the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field June 13-15, then continued with three straight wins at Comerica Park -- including two thrashings -- that gave them a 1½-game edge. But that disappeared as soon as the schedule allowed, and the season has been a real drag for them since.
The Royals return to Chicago with a 9-17 record over their last 26 games, and they started the second half with a disheartening sweep at the hands of the Red Sox in Boston that has two of its most notable writers wondering if the ship is sinking.
In the opener of the Red Sox series, Ned Yost steered the Royals into an iceberg by falling into a pinch-hitting trap with White Sox bullpen reject Scott Downs. When Yost called for Downs, John Farrell answered with Jonny Gomes, Gomes homered, Boston won, and Ned Yost told reporters afterward, "I outsmarted myself."
"I outsmarted myself," he would tell reporters afterward, which is not at all what he did. People often compare managing to chess … and the comparison is usually silly. But this was exactly like chess. It was like Ned Yost was a beginner chess player, and he moved his queen to check the king thinking that was a bold and smart move and did not realize that his opponent had four pieces in position to take the queen. That is not outsmarting yourself. That is not knowing how to play chess.
Not remembering Johnny Gomes, not understanding that pinch-hitting for No. 9 hitter Jackie Bradley is no big deal in any inning, not appreciating that Downs can’t get out righties, and Gomes eats lefties for afternoon snacks … this is beginner’s chess. And at a time when the Royals are supposed to be contending.
But at least the Royals scored four runs on Friday. They scored just one over the other two losses combined, including a lifeless 6-0 rout with Yordano Ventura on the mound Sunday.
Basically, the Royals opened the most important second half of Kansas City baseball in decades by falling under .500 and into third place as quickly as they could. If they needed bulletin board material to get them going, Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger provided hundreds of words' worth with a scathing column:
Because, sure. The Royals could turn the season. They could win 10 in a row the way they did last month or they could win 17 of 20 the way they did this time last year. Eric Hosmer could keep up this form, Billy Butler could regain his, and there is enough talent on the roster to come up with a realistic way for the Royals to end the longest playoff drought in North American sports.
But to do that, aside from a long list of lucky breaks, the Royals would have to break their habit of charring under the spotlight.
There is no reason to believe they’ll do that. No reason to expect it. Some Royals players and others in the organization are reading these words. You can put these men into one of two groups: those self-aware enough to understand this is all true, and those with enough delusion and arrogance to think it’s not.
White Sox fans can't really look down their noses at the Royals, because the Sox are looking up at them in the standings. The Royals have something to play for, so it's not like we can laugh -- except maybe at the parts involving Downs.
But there's a lot at stake for the Royals and the AL Central in this series, even if the huge implications all lie on Kansas City's side. The Royals could well use another trip to the Cell as another springboard back into the race, but this time it's almost necessary. A series win would extend the Royals' doldrums long enough to cover an entire month, and a sweep could result in rolling heads before the team plane leaves Chicago.