Here's how bad the Kansas City Royals have been during the wild-card era: They would need to win 430 consecutive games just get back to .500 since 1995.
Yes, it's easy to dismiss the Royals considering that laughing-stock track record of nearly 20 years, and many did that heading into the final days of the trade deadline, when it was suggested general manager Dayton Moore call it quits on the season and trade starting pitcher Ervin Santana. That's what the Royals are supposed to do at the deadline: Dump any player not in the team's long-range plans for prospects who may one day be able to help.
I thought it smacked a little of East Coast/West Coast snobbishness: "Kansas City? Eh, is that in Missouri or Kansas? Do they even know what sushi is there?" Trade Santana to the Red Sox or Orioles or Braves because that's what the Royals are, a farm system for the rest of baseball.
On July 31, the Royals were a game over .500, in the midst of a seven-game winning streak that had left them seven games behind the Tigers in the AL Central and five games out of the wild card. A postseason long shot? Sure, catching the Tigers would be unlikely and, yes, there were four teams between them and the second wild-card spot. But the Royals were playing their best baseball of the season and -- however small the chance -- winning that second wild card would be the best thing to happen to Royals baseball since Bret Saberhagen leaped into George Brett's arms in 1985 (not including Hal McRae's tirade and definitely not including Tony Pena Jr. bobblehead night).
General manager Dayton Moore kept Santana and instead made a minor move to acquire Justin Maxwell. He was criticized for not moving Santana and criticized for giving up a marginal fifth-starter-type prospect in Class-A pitcher Kyle Smith to acquire Maxwell. Granted, Moore hasn't exactly done much to merit a benefit of the doubt, but a GM shouldn't punt when you're five games out of the playoffs, especially a franchise that is dying for any type of important baseball this time of year.
As if to prove the skeptics wrong, the Royals have continued to win, winning on July 31 and Aug. 1 to run their streak to nine and then taking two of three this weekend from the Mets. Santana got the win in Sunday's 6-2 victory, allowing one run in six innings, his fourth straight excellent start. He's now 8-6 with a 2.97 ERA and .628 opponents OPS -- that's the eight-best OPS among AL starters, just behind Felix Hernandez's .626 mark and better than Bartolo Colon, Hisashi Iwakuma, Matt Moore or David Price.
So the Royals have an 11-1 record since July 23; unfortunately, the Tigers have gone 10-1 and the second-place Indians have gone 10-2 since then so they haven't made up much ground in the AL Central. They are, however, now 4½ behind the Indians for the second wild card, tied with the Yankees.
Do the Royals have it in them? Here are three reasons they can win a wild card ... and three reasons they won't:
1. Pitching, pitching, pitching: The Royals have allowed the fewest runs in the American League. The last time that happened? 1986. The last time the Royals even finished in the top half of the AL in runs allowed was 1996. This is exactly what Moore set out to do in the offseason when he traded for Santana and James Shields and re-signed Jeremy Guthrie. Skeptics would point out that the Royals are just ninth in the league in strikeout percentage and fifth in OPS allowed, but their .294 average on balls in play is right at the league average, so there's nothing that screams fluke there.
Part of the credit for the team's run prevention goes to the defense. The Royals rank first in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved at +74 runs entering Sunday's games. Leading the way has been Gold Glove candidate Lorenzo Cain in center field with +18 runs saved; David Lough has been +12 in the outfield and Salvador Perez +9 behind the plate.
2. Eric Hosmer is hitting: When the Royals hired George Brett as temporary batting coach on May 30, a primary reason was the struggles of Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. At the time, Hosmer was hitting .262 with one home run; since then Hosmer is hitting .308/.342/.496 with 10 home runs. Maybe not MVP material but at least he gives the Royals a solid middle of the order bat.
Look, I can't sugarcoat that this is still a bad offensive team (only the Yankees and Astros have scored fewer runs in the AL). But if Hosmer keeps hitting and Alex Gordon and Billy Butler improve to a something more like they hit last year, which is not out an impossibility, the offense could at least be respectable the rest of the way.
3. Schedule: The Royals have 54 games remaining, with only 25 of those against teams currently over .500. Eleven of those are against the Tigers and six against the Indians. The Royals also have 30 home games and 24 road games. If the AL East teams beat up on each other, that opens the door for the the second wild card coming from the Central.
OK, three issues to be concerned about:
1. Santana won't continue to pitch this well: There are some red flags in Santana's numbers, starting with a .259 BABIP. That's seventh-lowest among AL starters and could be ripe for some regression. His FIP -- Fielding Independent Pitching -- is 3.65, another sign that he has possibly outpitched his peripherals. As good as he has been, Santana is a pitcher plagued by inconsistency throughout his career. He's pitching confidently right now and relying on his defense. We'll see if that continues.
2. Back of the rotation: The fourth and fifth spots have been unproductive most of the season, although Bruce Chen has been solid since moving into the rotation a few weeks ago. But Wade Davis has been one of the league's worst starters all season -- 5-9, 5.42 ERA, 144 hits allowed in 109.2 innings. He may miss his next start due to a family emergency, but otherwise still remains in the rotation. Moore got hammered for not upgrading at second base but his failure to upgrade on Davis may haunt him even more.
3. Schedule: On the other hand, check out the remaining games against over-.500 teams for all the wild-card contenders:
The Rangers, currently four games up on the Royals, have an even softer slate of games remaining, including 10 against the Astros and 10 against the likely-to-fold Angels.
That's what's going to make things difficult for the Royals. They can catch Cleveland and they can catch Baltimore. But the Rangers' schedule will help boost them to a strong finish.
So I'm predicting the Red Sox or Rays and the Rangers to win the wild cards. But hoping the Royals give us some fun baseball down the stretch and a reason for Royals fans to watch some big games in September.