CHICAGO -- Sometimes how you won is almost as important as whether you won. Or at least that's what the Kansas City Royals are hoping.
Don't misunderstand. The Royals needed a win in the worst way, and no matter how a victory might have unfolded, K.C. would have still basked in the booming postgame music that fills clubhouses after a W.
"It's great hearing music," said Royals starter Ian Kennedy, who put up a quality start in Saturday's 5-4 win over the Chicago White Sox. "We haven't heard it in awhile. We're pretty streaky lately, so hopefully we get a streak going the other way."
Here's some context: After beating the Boston Red Sox on July 28, the Royals had run off nine straight wins and reached a high-water mark of seven games over .500. They were just two games back of Cleveland in the AL Central and 2.5 games ahead of the scrum for the American League's second wild-card spot. After a loss the next day, the Royals won in Boston again to raise their run differential to break-even for the first time all season.
After that point and before Saturday, the Royals' feel-good, turnaround season had transmogrified into an Edgar Allan Poe-kind of slow, unfolding nightmare. The top of the stat sheet told the story -- 10 losses in 12 games -- but when you dig in, it was even worse than that. At the very point when Kansas City might have put a stranglehold on its third postseason appearances in four years, this happened:
A three-game sweep at Baltimore, in which the Royals scored a total of three runs against a team that entered the series with the second-worst team ERA in baseball.
After a home split of a four-game series against Seattle, the Royals were pounded in a four-game, home-and-home set with their archrival, the St. Louis Cardinals. Their bullpen in that series had a 9.56 ERA.
Another defeat in Chicago on Friday, with the bullpen again letting a game get out of hand when Tim Anderson hit a two-run homer off Peter Moylan to break open the game. The losing streak had stretched to five games, K.C.'s record had slipped below .500 for the first time since July 19, and half of the AL had mobbed around the Royals in the wild-card chase.
Since the Royals' wave crested in Boston, the bullpen had put up a collective 6.92 ERA and blown three of five save chances. Every middle reliever between set-up man Joakim Soria and closer Kelvin Herrera had an ERA over 5.00. In other words, no matter what number manager Ned Yost dialed up, it was the wrong answer.
"Just seems like the last four or five days, they've all struggled a little bit," Yost said at the start of the series. "Those things get turned around quick, so I don't worry about it too much."
That trend continued Saturday despite the win. Kennedy departed with Kansas City up 3-2 after he walked Anderson with one out in the seventh. Omar Narvaez, the first batter lefty Scott Alexander faced, doubled to drive Anderson to third. With the infield drawn in, Alexander got Adam Engel on a grounder to keep the runners in place. But Leury Garcia plated them both with a two-out single.
Voila. The bullpen strikes again.
"The pitch to Garcia was a pretty good pitch," Yost said. "He just poked it into center. Ian had been grinding all day. Threw the ball extremely well."
Flashback to late July, with the Royals so clearly a big part of the AL playoff chase, general manager Dayton Moore went about adding complementary pieces to his roster. Three pitchers were added from the San Diego Padres, all of whom had performed well in San Diego but, so far, not so much in Kansas City. And he added old pal Melky Cabrera from Saturday's opponent, the White Sox.
Cabrera was the Royals' center fielder in 2011, a formative campaign for the core of what eventually became a championship club. Cabrera had a good season for Kansas City, hitting .305/.339/.470 and, more importantly, having a positive impact on then-green teammates like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Salvador Perez. That was the vagabond phase of Cabrera's career, as he toiled for five different teams from 2009 to 2013.
Cabrera had joined the White Sox by 2015 and quickly became a fan favorite. He seemed poised to help mentor Chicago's gradual influx of young talent and seemed happy to do it. In fact, when phenom Yoan Moncada was called up in late July, he was given the locker between Cabrera and Jose Abreu, who hit two homers in Saturday's game. Instead, Cabrera was shipped out to the contending Royals, not an unhappy development for either party.
"I had Melky here back when these kids were coming up," Yost said on Friday. "He was a great presence in the clubhouse when Hos and Moose and Salvy all came to the big leagues. They loved him for it. They were tremendously excited when they heard that he was coming back. He's the same guy, just a pleasure to be around."
Then the Royals arrived in Chicago on Friday. And the first time Cabrera strode to the plate, the modest gathering at Guaranteed Rate Field gave him a surprisingly robust standing ovation. Cabrera returned the love by tipping his batting helmet to his old fans. But then it was time to get back to the task at hand: helping his new team, which is his old team, get back to the playoffs one more time while the old gang is still together. Cabrera knows that with this bunch now, his mentoring days are behind him. Now, it's about providing a boost for one of the AL's most maddeningly inconsistent offenses.
"I know most of the guys here," Cabrera said before Friday's game, through an interpreter. "They are very talented players and you can notice a difference [from his first stint]. This is a good team that is competing for the playoffs."
That boost came in the eighth inning Saturday, in the very next half-frame after the Royals coughed up yet another lead. With Cain on first, Cabrera lofted a high-trajectory fly ball to the fence in left-center field. His old outfield mate, Engel, made an acrobatic attempt at climbing the wall, but the blast settled into the bleachers to give the Royals a 5-4 lead. You could almost see a puff cloud of relief emanating from the Kansas City dugout.
"Anything he does for us is always big," Moustakas said. "Melky is a huge [part] of what we've got going on. He's a huge leader and definitely makes our team a lot better. We were very familiar with him. He's been here for awhile. It's great to have him back."
There were still six outs to get, but at least the outcome was then placed in the steady hands of the close-out crew. Soria zipped through a perfect eighth. Herrera walked Narvaez with two outs in the ninth and then pinch runner Tyler Saladino stole second. But Moustakas made a nice stab of an Engel grounder and fired across the diamond to Hosmer, who pumped his fist with perhaps a little more than the usual vigor.
"Great play," Yost said about the game-ender. "A game-saver, really."
It's just one win, but the Royals hope it spurs more for a team that has been as streaky as any in baseball this season. The record is back to .500, and because the 2017 AL playoff race rewards that kind of mediocrity with contention, it feels something like a clean slate as the season turns toward the home stretch.
"These kinds of wins are the ones that help you stop the bleeding," Yost said. "We've just been struggling. It was huge to answer back right there."