7/21/2014 11:15 P.M. ET
Solving Kansas City's playoff riddle
Without uptick in offensive production, Royals unlikely to reach postseason
By Phil Rogers / MLB.com
CHICAGO -- His arms tightly crossed across his chest, sunglasses hiding his eyes, Ned Yost talked about how the Kansas City Royals' hitters need to relax.
He looked anything but relaxed.
Yost seemed tense upon arrival at U.S. Cellular Field, no doubt the result of a weekend sweep at Fenway Park in which the Royals lost two winnable games before Jon Lester blew them away in the series finale. He had closed the clubhouse door after that 6-0 loss on Sunday, holding a brief meeting that spelled out the urgency of the situation.
So much for coming back fresh from the All-Star break.
In first place in the American League Central on June 18, having won 10 games in a row to climb to seven games over .500, Kansas City has since gone 9-18, falling eight games behind Detroit and into sixth place in the AL's Wild Card race. A season that has been almost a decade in the making, one that was designed to get the Royals into the playoffs for the first time since 1985, could slip away if players don't put on their hitting shoes in a hurry.
Yost was asked how he finds the words to help them do it.
"That's the hard part," said Yost, who is in his fifth season as the Royals' manager. "They're the ones that have to do it. You can't yell and scream. Nobody reacts well to being yelled and screamed at. You try to point out things to get them refocused."
There is an edginess to the Royals these days. It hangs in the air around them, and there is only one tonic and everyone knows what it is. It is the ageless remedy. They have to start winning, and that challenge only increases if hitters press. But how can you not press when the All-Star Game is behind you and a forest of contenders is in front of you?
Kansas City has a lot riding on solving that riddle.
Having patiently constructed a lineup through scouting and player development, general manager Dayton Moore pushed his chips into the center of the table before the 2013 season. He traded top prospect Wil Myers for the Rays' James Shields, who was then two years from free agency.
Moore could cut his losses by trading Shields elsewhere in the next 10 days but that would signal he's giving up on the 2014 season, and the reality is that the Royals remain one good stretch away from being right back in the battle for the league's second Wild Card spot, currently the tenuous property of the Mariners.
The Royals have too much good pitching, too much excellent fielding to abandon hope. But Yost describes the team's hitting as "consistently inconsistent," and he's right. It didn't help on Monday that first baseman Eric Hosmer, who is in the midst of a 16-game hitting streak, was scratched with a bruised right hand when All-Star catcher Salvador Perez returned after missing Sunday's game with a strained groin.
Kansas City is 12th in the AL with an average of 4.0 runs per game and last in the league with 55 home runs. You hear a lot about the pitcher-friendly dimensions of Kauffman Stadium, but the Royals also have hit the fewest road homers in the league.
It's safe to say Yost expected more power than what he has gotten from the guys that Moore built the order around -- Billy Butler (three homers), Mike Moustakas (10 homers, along with a .186 average), Alex Gordon (nine homers) and Hosmer (six homers).
"I think we have guys who definitely can hit for power," Yost said. "You don't believe me, just watch batting practice. We pound balls out of the ballpark. But I've yet to get the opposing manager to use our BP pitcher as their pitcher for that day."
As if to illustrate that point, the White Sox started three-time All-Star Chris Sale in the opener of a three-game series -- not exactly who you'd want to see after being shut out by Lester.
Kansas City made Sale work, collecting seven hits in his seven innings, but the telling moment in the 3-1 loss to the White Sox came in the fourth inning. Third-base coach Mike Jirschele did what you are supposed to do with two outs and your team slumping. He challenged the arm of left fielder Alejandro De Aza, trying to score Danny Valencia from first base on a double into the corner by Alcides Escobar, and Alexei Ramirez perfectly handled the relay from De Aza to cut down Valencia.
Welcome to the Royals' world.
"If you break it all down, if we hit, we're going to win," Yost said. "It's that simple. If we can score some runs, we're going to win ballgames."
He's right. The Royals are 41-9 when they score four runs or more; they're 7-41 when they don't.
Isn't Alfonso Soriano a free agent? Why not sign him or make a play for the Phillies' Marlon Byrd? Those guys added a lot down the stretch a year ago, even if Yost isn't looking for the cavalry to come riding over the hill.
"Basically, I think we're going to pretty much have to fix what we've got," Yost said. "We liked this team coming in. We made some great additions, we thought, at the beginning of the year. But the majority of our guys are pretty much homegrown guys, guys we have a lot of faith in. They have track records and you know they're going to be productive. It's just waiting it out. Hopefully the sooner, the better."
That's not now or never. But it is starting to feel like it.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.