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Royals back in first place, and with feeling this time

Kansas City held first place for only three days in June, but a lot has changed in two months

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

For the second time this season, the Royals have overcome a seven-game deficit to take a lead in the AL Central.

Last time, they only occupied first place for three days (June 17-19), and the fact that Kansas City needed an eight-game winning streak and a dismal stretch by the Tigers to regain the top spot suggests that regression could make this stay another short-lived affair.

But there are a handful of key differences that might kick history to the curb and make this dogfight its own, um, animal.

No. 1: The rest of the season is half as long this time.

There were 90 games left in the season on June 19. On Aug. 12, there are 45. If the Tigers are truly the better team -- and that case is flimsier than before -- they can't rely on time to correct all wounds, especially if they don't fare well in the six remaining head-to-head games.

No. 2: The Tigers' big deadline deals are nullified for the next couple weeks.

Dave Dombrowski brought in Joakim Soria to shore up Detroit's late-inning woes. He posted a 10.38 ERA over his first six appearances before heading to the DL with a left oblique injury.

Also joining him on the shelf? Anibal Sanchez, who suffered a Grade 2 right pectoral strain that will knock him out of action for three or four weeks. Justin Verlander might not be far behind, as he exited after one inning in the Tigers' loss to the Pirates on Monday night with shoulder soreness. That diminishes the punch of the David Price trade, because Brad Ausmus is still down a starter.

No. 3: Eric Hosmer might be Ewing Theory material.

Hosmer last played on July 31, going on the DL with a stress fracture in his right hand. The Royals are 9-1 since, and there's a chance they could be related.

Ned Yost not only started Hosmer in 101 of 107 games, but he batted Hosmer third in the top third of the order for all but a handful of games. That's a lot of PA to devote to a replacement-level player (.267/.312/.377 at first base). With Hosmer out, Billy Butler -- who Yost had demoted -- donned a mitt and moved back to the middle of the order, and the Royals have benefited from the positive regression.

(And yes, this is something for the White Sox to consider with their own replacement-level starters.)

No. 4: Sung Woo Lee.

If you've missed the story of #SungWooToKC, this post by Rany Jazayerli will get you caught up. To summarize: Sung Woo Lee started following the Royals in the mid-1990s, which is weird, because he had a choice, living in South Korea and all. He forged his fandom through years of losing and 14-hour time difference, and became a regular presence on message board, blogs and social media.

But he hadn't been able to see them play in person until this summer, when everything lined up for him to take a trip to Kansas City. The Royals' online fan contingent rolled out the red carpet, and the local and national media picked up on it.

Over time he became a well-known and welcome part of the Royals social media community. His devotion to the team, despite the vast geographic and cultural and even chronological gap – he would frequently tweet during Royals games on the weekend even though it was the middle of the night in Korea – earned him respect, as did the fact that he never criticized the team, but also never criticized the critics. In one memorable exchange two years ago, Danny Duffy – who was as honest and open and heartfelt on Twitter as any athlete, which is probably why he had to finally quit it – offered to fly Sung Woo to Kansas City to see the team play. [...]

This summer, Sung Woo finally decided to take the plunge. Taking advantage of a job change, he was able to carve out ten days from his schedule to come to Kansas City, watch the Royals play, and maybe do a little sight-seeing and barbecue-eating while he was in town. He emailed Kamler and fellow Royals fan Dave Darby that he was buying his plane ticket and reserving his hotel room; they told him not to worry about transportation, that they’d pick him up and drive him to the ballpark and introduce him to Arthur Bryant’s and maybe the Negro League Museum while he was in town.

If the story had ended there, that would have been enough: three people who have never met, and can barely communicate with each other, bonding together like long-lost friends over a shared mutual interest in a crappy baseball team. A couple of guys were going to take a day or two off of work to show a complete stranger around town. Movies have been made with flimsier plots.

But then Kamler decided to have a little fun, and use his influence – and I use the term "influence" loosely for a guy who impersonates Ned Yost on Twitter and spends most of his time there making fart jokes – to publicize the fact that Sung Woo Lee was finally coming to Kansas City, and it would be great if other Royals fans would welcome him and make him feel at home.

He had no idea what he was getting himself into.

The Royals clobbered the Diamondbacks 12-2 on the day he arrived, and they've won all seven games during his trip, which has made the journey all the more magical. If the Royals somehow hold off the Tigers, this could be the narrative to end all narratives. But even if the Royals fade again, this surge served a purpose in amplifying a great story that highlights why we do this in the first place.