Royals enjoying rare opportunity to win

The baseball season is a lot more interesting in Kansas City than it was two weeks ago, when general manager Dayton Moore assessed the limited options at his disposal and turned Kauffman Stadium into a news-free zone at the trade deadline.

Sure, the Royals made a minor deal on July 31 to acquire outfielder Justin Maxwell from Houston for minor league pitcher Kyle Smith. More notably, they decided not to trade away starter Ervin Santana, who will be eligible for free agency in November. Santana could have fetched a prospect or two in return, but moving him would have sent a signal that the Royals were ready to punt on the 2013 season. With no directive to shed salary from Royals owner David Glass, Moore simply wasn’t ready to make that step.

And that's a good thing for Royals fans: Contending for a playoff berth is far more entertaining than the alternatives -- like obsessing over the 30th anniversary of the Pine Tar Game, keeping a daily vigil to monitor manager Ned Yost’s job security or busting out in tears every time Wil Myers’ name appears in a Tampa Bay Rays box score.

While the Pittsburgh Pirates are bound for the playoffs despite a rough weekend in Colorado, the Royals are suddenly crafting their own upbeat, small-market narrative in the American League Central. They’ve won 18 of 23 since the All-Star Game, and they made a major statement over the weekend by taking three of four from the Boston Red Sox.

Although one of the games at Kauffman Stadium was a sellout, the Royals averaged 25,180 for the other three -- a sign that the locals are not yet ready to go full-fledged bonkers over their team. At 61-54, the Royals are 4½ games out in the wild-card race and have a 22 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to coolstandings.com. The next few weeks will determine if they’re a team coming of age at the optimal time or just a temporary diversion from the Los Angeles Dodgers, Max Scherzer and Alex Rodriguez’s Biogenesis suspension appeal.

Regardless of the duration, Kansas City’s recent run has to be gratifying to Moore, who bet big on this team when he sent Myers and Jake Odorizzi to Tampa Bay in that daring December trade for James Shields. And it has to be heartening for prospect watchers who root for young, homegrown players to overcome obstacles and become fantasy-league heroes.

You can cite a lot of reasons for the Royals’ surge. Closer Greg Holland has converted 25 straight save opportunities and is averaging 14.5 strikeouts per nine innings, and Kansas City’s other relievers come at opponents in hard-throwing waves. Shields, Santana, Jeremy Guthrie and Kansas City’s starters go deep enough into games that the Royals bullpen has logged a mere 320 innings, the lightest workload in the majors.

But the Royals wouldn’t be here if not for a welcome revival by their young, marquee position players. First baseman Eric Hosmer ranks second to Yasiel Puig among major league hitters with 84 hits since June 1 and resembles the confident prospect who finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting at age 21. After George Brett resigned as Kansas City’s interim hitting coach three weeks ago, he downplayed his acumen as a Mr. Fix-it type. But Brett and assistant hitting coach Pedro Grifol apparently did a nice job ingraining more confidence in Hosmer, who slugged .465 in 2011 before slipping to a Yuniesky Betancourt-like .359 in his second season.

“He’s getting back to the swing he had two years ago,” an AL scout said of Hosmer. “He was using that inside-out approach, and he had gotten so contact-conscious, and now, he’s back to letting the bathead go and driving balls.”

Third baseman Mike Moustakas is also back among the living. He’s raised his average from .177 to .231 since June 9, although Royals people say he's still fighting a penchant to be overly hard on himself and take bad days to heart.

Yost takes his share of dings in Kansas City -- and occasionally invites criticism when he’s in a mood to tangle with the media -- but he and the Royals deserve credit for running the kids out there day after day until they figured things out. Major league teams have to determine if their young players are mentally strong enough to handle failure on the biggest stage, and Hosmer and Moustakas are trying to pass the same test that Alex Gordon passed on his way to becoming an All-Star at age 29.

Lo and behold, the seemingly minor trade that Moore swung at the deadline has had a positive impact; Maxwell has three homers and a .900 slugging percentage in his first eight games with Kansas City. And when you look around the field, the Royals are doing it precisely the way major league teams should. In Sunday’s game against Boston, seven of the nine players in Yost’s batting order were drafted and developed by Kansas City. The only exceptions were shortstop Alcides Escobar and second baseman Elliot Johnson, both of whom came over in trades.

The Royals took another step forward in an eventful week for the division. When last week began, the Cleveland Indians stood three games behind the Detroit Tigers with a four-game series on the docket at Progressive Field. Chris Perez blew a ninth-inning lead Monday, and the Indians dropped six straight before rallying to salvage the finale of their homestand with a 6-5 win against the Los Angeles Angels on Sunday.

It’s not going to be easy for either Cleveland or Kansas City to make a playoff push with Detroit so far ahead in the AL Central, the Texas Rangers and Oakland A's both playing well in the West and Boston, Tampa Bay and Baltimore all sporting better records in the East.

But, as the Indians begin a monster nine-game trip to Minnesota, Oakland and Anaheim on Monday and the Royals take on Miami in a three-game series Tuesday, Detroit's two pursuers are both still part of the conversation. Moore even made a trade Sunday, acquiring veteran infielder and strong character guy Jamey Carroll in a deal with the Twins.

The Royals have to feel good being a buyer in August, regardless of the magnitude of the transaction. After nine straight losing seasons, it’s nice just to be relevant.