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Terrerobytes: Kansas City Royals sit in AL Central throne

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Plus: Chris Sale looks better, Tyler Flowers grades out well, baseball in South Korea is fun, and studies in contrast for baseball legends

Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Because they made it to the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series in 2014, the Kansas City Royals entered the season with the AL Central's bragging rights. But since they slipped into the postseason as a wild card team, their pennant collection remained only half complete.

That ended on Thursday, as the Royals clubbed the Mariners while the Indians beat the Twins, which knocked Kansas City's magic number down to zero for the Royals' first division title in 30 years. That officially ended the Tigers' four-year reign, although that's been a foregone conclusion for weeks and weeks.

What's interesting about the Royals' rise is that many of their attempts to patch holes with veterans fizzled on them:

  • Omar Infante hit .220/.234/.318, and is under contract for two more years and $17.75 million.
  • Alex Rios' decline continued unabated for $11 million, as he hit .264/.295/.365 thanks in part to a wrist injury.
  • Jeremy Guthrie made $9 million and lost his spot in the rotation, and he has a $3.2 million buyout coming.
  • Jason Vargas underwent Tommy John surgery, and still has two years and $16.5 million left.

In that sense, the White Sox' problems are not unique. Where the Royals differ: They identified strengths and tailored the team to exploit them. Dayton Moore can build a bullpen and the defense can cover ground, so they could skimped on a rotation. The team can run, so they maximized that skill by not striking out. The White Sox have a strong collection of starters, which is something ... but now they need to figure out what their position players do well.

They also bet on age. Mike Moustakas saved their infield by figuring it out at 26 after two ugly seasons ... but because he reached the majors at 22, he had plenty of time to take lumps. The same goes for Eric Hosmer, who oscillated back to intriguing after a disappointing year at 25. (Keep this in mind for Carlos Sanchez, who's had an encouraging second half after turning 23.)

So the Royals aren't wartless, but they are 89-63 and division champs with 10 days remaining. They'll have some choices to make after the season -- Alex Gordon, Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist are all free agents -- but if they make another deep October run, they might be able to keep more than originally expected.

Terrerobytes

Thanks to Chris Sale's losing streak, it's hard to speak positively of any developments that don't result in one of his city-leveling performances. But aside from Carlos Beltran guessing correctly on a 98-mph fastball, the Yankees didn't punish his stuff over seven sound innings on Thursday night, which makes Tyler Flowers think that if Sale's mechanics started spilling secrets, he's tightened them up:

"Today was just a good hitter that took a shot at what he thought was going to happen and executed on it. There was a little something going on before, but we're past that now," said White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers, indicating but not confirming that Sale previously might have been tipping pitches. "You've got to eliminate a couple of those starts. At least from our minds, we have, and continue to work hard, and he's got one more. So one more to punch out three."

Speaking of Flowers, author of "The Fielding Bible" John Dewan says Flowers holds a slim lead in Baseball Info Solutions' assessment of the Gold Glove race among American League catchers.

On the basepaths, Flowers also takes surprisingly large leads from first base relative to his speed, while Tyler Saladino takes the fourth-longest leads against right-handed pitching. But this Ben Lindbergh article is more focused on how Ichiro Suzuki keeps finding novel ways to wring talent out of his 42-year-old body.

A few years ago, I wrote about Korean baseball games -- in short, they're a blast and you should try to find a way to get to one. Anyway, the New York Times profiled the cheermaster for my Doosan Bears.

Han’s favorite song belongs to Jung Soo-bin, the Bears’ boyish-looking center fielder. Borrowing the melody of the Beach Boys’ "Surfin’ U.S.A.," it features separate, intertwining parts for the male and female fans. When designated hitter Hong Sung-heon, 38, came up to bat for the first time, the Doosan fans sang his name to the melody of "What’s Up?" a 1993 hit by 4 Non Blondes. Hong loves the song when he is playing well; when he slumps, he hates it.

"Korean stadiums are like karaoke parlors," Hong said. "American stadiums feel like parks where you go for a quiet picnic with your kids."

Not so joyous is Ron Rapoport's recounting of Ernie Banks' slowdown before his death in January. It's not all that rare to see a writer undercut a beloved icon's joyous facade ...

As the unseemly battle over his estate would indicate, he was not a grinning, happy-talking caricature. He was thoughtful, introspective, and complicated—and difficult and exasperating, too. And toward the end, I came to see that he was one thing more: a fundamentally lonely man who could not countenance being alone.

"I think he was a tortured soul," one of Ernie’s friends told me. "He just hid it very well."

... but in this case, I can sense that Rapoport is trying to do Banks a service rather than a disservice. The squabbles over his funeral and estate hinted at skeletons of some sort. Many of them will never elevate above he-said-she-said, but the way Rapoport describes the heart of it, Banks was a guy who just couldn't allow himself to make or sustain the kind of connections he needed and wanted.

Yogi Berra is another guy who is easy to trap into caricature, but unlike Banks, Berra was a lot more proactive when it came to monetizing what made him famous. Also, the attempts to humanize him as more than a quotesmith are more immediate. Maybe it's because he was somebody who maintained relationships with friends, or maybe because the stories we don't know are just more edifying to rehash. Of everything that's come out about Berra since his death late Tuesday, Alex Belth's obituary for Berra was the most illuminating to me.

The fun stopped when it was time for him to negotiate his contract. In an era when players didn’t have agents and front-office cutthroats showed them no mercy, Yankees general manager George Weiss might have been the worst of them all. Berra refused to be cowed by him. "How smart was Yogi Berra?" Rizzuto said, recalling those 1950 negotiations. "A bunch of Yankees held out for more money that year, but Yogi was the only one who got what he wanted." And the next year it was déjà vu all over again.

"I have to stay in Yogi’s good graces," Stengel liked to say. "He’s in good with the bosses, you know?"