I mentioned it ever so briefly in one of my Friday Notes columns. I had a thought in my mind that part of the issue the Royals were facing throughout their rough start to the season was a lack of toughness. I’m not sure if I’ve said this in print, but I’ve commented to people that I thought they might sort of be chokers. I’m pretty sure I was dead wrong. My reasoning was that the Royals came into the 2012 season with the highest expectations of any Royals team since probably 2004. Whether or not the marketing campaign of “Our Time” added to the expectations or if it put weight on the players’ shoulders, I don’t know, but this season was, without question, highly anticipated.
The season began with a shutout loss to one of the best pitchers in baseball, which wasn’tthat big of a deal. Then the offense picked it up and won the next two and then lost two out of three to Oakland. Of course, in the last game prior to the home opener, Jonathan Broxton had a historic meltdown. If you don’t think it was historic, you’re forgetting that the last time a pitcher hit two consecutive batters to “hit” in the winning run was sometime about 50 years prior. So then they came home. In spite of the previous loss, fans were pretty excited to see this team that they had deemed ready to compete. Of course, if you were really thinking about it, you’d have realized this team was probably a year away from truly being good enough to go to the playoffs due to the weak rotation, but sometimes as fans we tend to have blinders because we’re just so hungry for a winner.
You all know what happened from that point forward. The Royals got bludgeoned by the Indians and went on to lose their first 10 home games as a part of a 12-game losing streak. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, though I did (and still do) believe that they need a change in leadership. Then, I started noticing that they’d put together a great run of games on the road. The pitching would look sharp and the offense would come together and they’d win games. Then they’d come home and look like a little league team again and lose games they shouldn’t lose. Somewhere around mid-May after returning home from sweeping the Rangers in a two-game series in Arlington, I started putting together my theory that this team was soft and couldn’t handle the pressure. It wasn’t based on anybody I’d talked to or anything. It was just another one of my half-cocked theories. Then I really got to thinking about it and a lot of it made sense, so I ran with it.
I was wrong.
I bolded it because I think people will probably enjoy that I admitted that. I still think this team had some soft moments and some soft tendencies, but I think they were just that and not a label that was fair to put on this team. My opinion really started to change in the Brewers series when they were tied 1-1 in the first game of the series and Billy Butler drove in what proved to be the game winning run in the bottom of the eighth. Then the next night, the Royals were down by two in the ninth and found a way to tie the game before winning it in the 11th for their first extra inning win of the year (and their first walk off). And then in the third game of the series, they beat the Brewers closer, John Axford yet again for their second straight walk off win. You all remember that.
Friday’s game, while dramatic, didn’t exactly display this new found toughness, but the next day proved to me that this team doesn’t quit and that they are, in fact, tough. As you know, the Royals were down 6-1 very quickly due to a subpar performance from Bruce Chen. The Royals chipped away and chipped away and eventually they were down 6-4 in the seventh when they scored 3 runs to take the lead. It was one of the more unlikely comebacks I could remember because this was an offense that was struggling mightily to score runs. They just worked their way back. They, of course, ended up losing, but that wasn’t a game that would have had a chance to even be close six weeks away. And then of course Sunday’s marathon was what put me over the top in believing how wrong I was for my initial thought as they came back in the top of the ninth with two outs and two strikes and then eventually won the game in the 15th inning.
If Sunday put me over the top, Monday night’s game against the Astros put me firmly in the “this team has stones” camp. Down 9-2 in the ninth inning, the Royals scored five runs on eight hits against the Astros closer who came into the game having allowed just 15 hits in over 22 innings with an ERA of 1.99. Yes, it would have been nice if Louis Coleman hadn’t imploded in the eighth. And yes, it would have been nice if any of the hits in the ninth inning weren’t singles. If they were, the Royals may have tied that game up or taken the lead. And finally, yes, I’d have much preferred if the offense wasn’t completely lifeless for the first eight innings of the game. But still, to be down seven runs in the ninth inning against a very good closer and to get the tying run to second base in the ninth inning is quite an accomplishment.
Once again, I was wrong. And I couldn’t be happier about it. One of the hallmarks of last year’s team was that they never gave up. It was part of what made them so fun to watch. Sometimes early in the system, it would seem like if the Royals got into a hole, they just weren’t going to crawl out of it. Now, it looks like they’re playing with the same style as last year’s team. They’ve been hamstrung a little bit with some holes in the lineup at catcher and center field, but it looks like help is going to be on the way soon. Salvador Perez appears to be ready to come off the disabled list on Friday while Lorenzo Cain began a rehab assignment on Monday night. If Cain suffers another setback, it may be Wil Myers time in Kansas City. Either way, expect an offensive upgrade in center. I don’t think this means the Royals are ready to climb their way to the top of the division, but I also think this new toughness coupled with players returning from injury will allow them to hang around a little bit for at least a few more weeks. Either way, this team is now fun to watch again.
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