It's early, but KC not playing like a contender
Winless at home, Royals have dropped 12 straight games
CLEVELAND -- Let the record show that shortly before they suffered their 12th consecutive loss here Tuesday, the Royals did win a game. It's just that it happened to be a video game in the visitors' clubhouse at Progressive Field.The bulk of the 25-man roster huddled around the leather couches in the middle of the locker room, cheering on their Xbox-enabled selves in a virtual version of Rogers Centre, with Luis Mendoza manning the "MLB 2K12" switches. "Why are we playing Toronto?" one player asked. "We have to get them back somehow," another answered, referring to what was, at the time, Kansas City's latest loss. The virtual Royals erased a fifth-inning deficit, then took over on an Eric Hosmer grand slam. The room erupted. "Good to see the guys relaxing and enjoying themselves," manager Ned Yost said afterward. And then the Royals -- the real Royals -- took the field and lost yet another ballgame that counts. Their streak has reached a dirty dozen, and they've already ensured themselves of a winless month at home. In fact, the Royals became the first team in 99 years to lose their first 10 home games. And on Tuesday, the losing continued away from Kauffman Stadium, with a late rally that came up short in a 4-3 defeat at the hands of the Indians. Even at this unmistakably early juncture, it's getting more and more difficult to take these Royals seriously as American League Central contenders. And while the cynics among us will note that it's been a long, long time since a Kansas City club has been taken seriously in that regard, anyway, this unsightly skid flies in the face of the "Our Time" motto the Royals have employed to boast their burgeoning core. "I've said from day one that I didn't like that [motto]," right fielder Jeff Francoeur said. "It's time to go out there and play baseball. It's not 'our time' or anything like that. Let's just go and play baseball." And to that, these Royals must add a clarification: "Let's go and play baseball well." Stop being overly aggressive on the bases when the situation doesn't call for it. Hit the cutoff man. Execute with runners in scoring position. In other words, stop looking like the Royals of losing seasons past. Alas, the reality for these Royals is that, for all the strides made in player acquisition and development, this is an extremely young Major League club. The youngest in the bigs, to be exact. And with that youth comes an immaturity and inconsistency that doesn't always mesh with that "Our Time" philosophy. In fact, the elevated expectations seem to have instilled a sense of urgency in these youngsters that has only exacerbated their mistakes. "I think we were trying to win all those games back in one game," Hosmer said. That never works. "We're trying to get them to try easier right now," Yost said. Nine of Kansas City's 14 losses this season have come by two runs or fewer, and so the players believe they are guilty, in many cases, of beating themselves. "The thing about it, it's not like we've been getting blown out," Francoeur said. "I thought coming into this season -- and I still do -- that the strength of our team would be our lineup. Last year, we did a great job of getting guys over, getting them in. [Monday] night, for the first six innings, three out of those six we had a guy on third with less than two outs and didn't get him in. That's just not us." The Royals entered Tuesday's game with a .728 team OPS, ranking ninth among the AL's 14 teams. More to the point, they were hitting just .252 with a .682 OPS with runners on. Yost has already employed 14 different lineups in just 17 games, rotating seven different men through the No. 2 spot. Nothing's clicked. "It's just a case where they're pressing a little bit too much," Yost said. "Once they can relax a little bit and get over that, everything will fall in line." Hosmer has been striking the ball harder than his uninspiring numbers (.206 average, .701 OPS) would indicate, Mike Moustakas (.300, .860) seems to have grown quite a bit from his rough-and-tumble rookie year, Alcides Escobar (.306, .816) has been a pleasant surprise at the plate, and center fielder Lorenzo Cain is expected to return to the lineup Friday. If healthy and if the upside comes through, the Royals should have a lineup that blends power and speed and therefore adequately supports its pitching staff over the long haul of 162. "We've got the most talent we've had since I've been with the Royals," designated hitter Billy Butler said. "That doesn't just go away. Everybody knows our time is coming." Yet even if the offense starts to come through more consistently, this assemblage of arms seems beyond a quick or easy patchup. Bruce Chen is an effective finesse lefty, and Danny Duffy is one of the league's hardest throwers (if a bit of a wild one thus far). But once again Tuesday night, Jonathan Sanchez had an estranged relationship with the strike zone, and Luke Hochevar and Luis Mendoza have a combined ERA of 6.35 through three starts apiece. And the Joakim Soria injury forced Aaron Crow back to a bullpen that has not been dependable. So while this particular streak will reach its inevitable conclusion at some point soon, the Royals have their share of issues to address before they can reasonably be counted on to make strides in the standings. "Let's talk at the end of May and see where we're at," Francoeur said. "It's not fair to judge a team through April 24. We got off to a great start last year and the year before that, too. I'd rather start slower, continue to get better and finish strong." For now, the only thing the Royals had to celebrate on yet another lost night was fleeting video-game glory.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.