KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- No one circles the Houston-Kansas City week on their schedule with fear and loathing, especially this season, when the Houston Astros ushered in their new identity as an American League team with the worst record in baseball and the Kansas City Royals finished the first two months eight games under .500.
But the most predictable thing about baseball is that there is no money in predicting. The Boston Red Sox were fortunate to get out of Houston winning two out of three, staging big comebacks in both wins. Then they caught the Royals playing as well as they have all season and lost three out of four, the last of which was eked out by the Royals 4-3 on Sunday in what was as close to a statement series as they've played since George Brett still had a union card.
"It's funny playing against these two teams," Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes said, "One like Houston, it's like playing cards with someone and they have house money. I mean, they play rambunctious. They frickin' suicide squeeze back-to-back, they hit and run, they back steal.
"All that's good, but, I mean, if we were to do that and it didn't work, there's a lot of like, 'What are you guys doing?' But if you have house money like Houston -- they're just trying to learn and build, and, sometimes, that's like a tough matchup, believe it or not."
The Royals, meanwhile, are now 17-5 since the All-Star break and would have leapfrogged Tito Francona's Cleveland Indians in the AL Central standings, except that the Indians broke a six-game losing streak by rallying from five runs down to beat the Los Angeles Angels on Sunday afternoon.
The Royals showed off their lockdown bullpen -- one earned run in 10 innings. They outhomered the Sox, four to one. They had 11 hits with runners in scoring position the past three days. They played excellent defense. The artist formerly known as "Big Game" James Shields came up big Sunday by holding the Sox to two earned runs in seven innings. They looked legit, which is what they're craving.
"They're hot," Gomes said. "We've been hot. They gave us their best bullet and beat us by one run. It wasn't our best bullet. You saw that, but we're still hanging in there."
Hanging, and actually gaining ground on their closest rival in the AL East, the Tampa Bay Rays, who had drawn to within a half-game of the division lead after the Sox were shut out Monday in Houston but had lost four in a row entering Sunday night's game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, a stretch that included blowing a 6-0 lead in L.A. with nine outs to go Friday. The Sox have not had a game to match that one in ugliness so far on this trip, although Jake Peavy might argue that giving back three leads in his start Friday night might qualify.
This is the time of season -- seven weeks left to play, a stretch with 16 of 19 on the road with three games against the New York Yankees next weekend during the brief stopover at home -- when the good teams are looking to survive, the pretenders look to make up for lost ground and the bad teams have nothing to lose.
"That's what it is," Gomes said. "We set ourselves up in case there was a little bump in the road. That's why a good start -- a good half -- is so important, because all 30 teams are going to have a bump in the road. You just don't want it to be in Games 150-160."
Gomes didn't have to mention a certain team going 7-20 in September 2011.
"It's hard not to grind, bang your head against the wall," he said. "At the same time, we won one of four here, and we're leaving two, maybe three, games ahead in first. That's why we've got to be professional, clean the slate and start over."
The Royals won a game Friday night when Eric Hosmer stuck out his bat against Drake Britton and punched a good slider into left field for a two-run single, but they also sent 11 men to the plate in that inning, with one good at-bat after another. They won Sunday by taking advantage of John Lackey walking the first two batters he faced, some opportunistic baserunning, an RBI single through a drawn-in infield in the second and a broken-bat RBI single in the same inning. But they also got the third-inning big fly from Alex Gordon, which ultimately provided the difference.
In short, they played well.
"They have to to beat us." Gomes said. "They catch the ball. The pen. They got speed, power, left-handers who can hit lefties. They're good, but they went a month where they won eight games the whole month [8-20 in May]. We didn't. Look where they are. As hot as they've been all year -- as hot as they've been in years -- they're 7½ games back.
"It's not hot month, cold month. It's consistency, which is what we've had," he said.
So it's on to Toronto for a day off Monday, then a three-game slog against the Blue Jays. Still ahead is the worst turnaround on the schedule: a Sunday night game against the Yankees at Fenway, followed by a cross-country flight and a game the next night in San Francisco.
"This month, Baltimore and Tampa have it easy," Gomes said. "Tampa has like six or seven days off. This is our grind month. September, we have it easy. We have off days. A bunch of home games. [If] We grind through this month, we can turn it on and finish the season."
Just don't make any predictions.