Here come the Kansas City Royals. After getting off to a troublesome 29-32 start, the AL Central contenders have caught fire by winning eight games in a row. The latest—an 11-8 victory over the Detroit Tigers—has put the defending division champions on notice.
By taking the first of a four-game set at Comerica Park, the Royals exited the night with the most wins (37) of any team in the AL Central. In the process, the hottest team in baseball continued to roll on the strength of solid starting pitching, a rising offense and team-wide confidence that permeates onto the the field.
Let's start with the pitching, led by James Shields at the top of the rotation. As Jason Vargas (7-2, 3.25 ERA) continues to be a better-than-advertised addition, and Yordano Ventura (70.1 IP, 3.20 ERA) and Danny Duffy (54.0 IP, 2.83 ERA) work through growing pains to showcase high-end talent, it is Shields' right arm that has carried the Royals through two mediocre months.
Without the durable force atop the rotation, Kansas City may have been buried before June arrived. Now, with a winning streak in tow, Shields' recent efforts—12 IP, 3 ER, 11 SO—have been good enough for two personal victories.
When the Royals traded for Shields prior to last season, sacrificing top prospect Wil Myers in the deal with the Rays, this was the type of rotation-carrying excellence expected and needed from the now 32-year-old righty. As his free-agent year continues, few starters in baseball have been more valuable in setting an example for an entire rotation to follow.
In Kansas City, success stems from pitching. From Shields' fellow starting staff to a hard-throwing, overpowering bullpen, the Royals can pitch with any team in baseball. Offense, however, has eluded an organization that built a foundation on young position players.
From first baseman Eric Hosmer to catcher Salvador Perez to third baseman Mike Moustakas to left fielder Alex Gordon, Kansas City's front office seemingly put together enough of a talent base to profile as an above-average offense. Entering play on June 2, that couldn't have seemed more off base.
At 26-30, the Royals were underachieving in large part because of an offense that couldn't average at least four runs a game, displayed an alarming lack of power and failed to generate enough to support a very good rotation. After Monday night's 11-run outburst in Detroit, the tide has shifted.
Over the last 13 games, Kansas City's bats have generated 77 runs, good for 5.92 per contest. Although hard-pressed to find a .500 slugging percentage in manager Ned Yost's everyday lineup, the Royals just pounded out 17 hits in a game Justin Verlander started. Even when factoring in Verlander's struggles in 2014, that represents a significant change to Detroit and the entire AL Central.
Finally, there's the personality and demeanor of Yost. The Royals haven't been to the postseason since their 1985 World Series title, but Yost led the team to their first winning season since 2003 last season. On the path to that 86-win season, the Royals suffered through an awful May (8-20), including the process of firing a hitting coach. When an identical scenario presented itself last month, Yost leaned on recent history to exude confidence from the dugout.
Last summer, the Royals won 64 games after May 31 and set the stage for big expectations in 2014.
Are the Royals the best team in the AL Central?
Through 60 games this season, Yost's club sat at 29-31 and was seemingly lost. Instead of panic, Yost reflected past experience and predicted the run his club is now on, per Jeffrey Flanagan of Fox Sports Kansas City.
"But we came back from the All-Star break and we took off. This club is going to take off again. No doubt about it," Yost said.
There's no doubt about how good this group has been since the start of last June. Even when factoring in the uneven beginning to 2014, the Royals have now posted a 101-78 record since June 1, 2013. That mark is good for a .564 winning percentage, a number that amounts to a 92-win season over 162 games.
To be fair, not everything is suddenly perfect in Kansas City. After nearly three full decades of empty Octobers, the Kauffman Stadium ticket operators shouldn't send invoices out for playoff tickets at this juncture of the season. But, for the first time in a long time, the idea isn't crazy.
in other news, @Royals now sport best run differential in Central. Nope, didn't see this coming.— robneyer (@robneyer) June 17, 2014
When the Royals walked off the field on Monday night, only five teams—Toronto, Oakland, Milwaukee, St. Louis and San Francisco—owned higher win totals. Furthermore, AL wild-card contenders like the Yankees and Orioles both owned negative run differentials, well below Kansas City's current plus-11 mark.
Over the next month, Kansas City will be tested. After three more in Detroit, a stretch of 16 of 22 games against winning teams will commence. With dates against the Dodgers, Angels, Mariners and Indians, Yost's crew will be tested.
Finally, a four-game rematch against the Tigers puts a wrap on the first half of the season. If the Royals continue to display big-time pitching, emerging offense and Yost's suddenly steady hand, the words "first place" and "Kansas City Royals" could become synonymous during the Midsummer Classic on July 15 at Target Field.