That's a headline I never thought I'd type this season. On June 4, the Royals were shut out by the Twins and fell to nine games under .500. It was their 15th loss in 18 games, and it put them in a tie with the miserable White Sox for last place in the American League Central. The big playoff push they were supposed to make this year, the one that cost them stud prospect Wil Myers in an off-season trade for ace James Shields, looked like just the latest punch line to one of baseball's longest running jokes.
You couldn't have blamed Kansas City sports fans for deciding, after that loss to the Twins, to start planning their pregame barbecues for Chiefs games. For more than two decades, the Royals have been baseball's most reliably miserable franchise. The Pirates may get all the credit because they haven't had so much as a winning season since 1992, but in all that time, the Royals have won more than they lost just three times—and only twice in non-strike years, when they managed 83 (2003) and 84 wins (1993). They last made the playoffs in 1985, a futility streak seven seasons longer than the Pirates', or that of any other team in MLB. The Royals' logo really ought to be a white flag.
Now, though, it's August 13, and the Royals are eight games over .500. They've won 19 of their last 24 games. They're 6.5 games out of first place, they've passed the Indians for second place, and they're only four games back in the race for the wild card.
How did we get here? The Royals don't have a hitter who ranks in the top 20 in the AL in OPS, but their top guys have been getting it done. Designated hitter Billy Butler, who hit .271/.371/.402 in the first half, is batting .353/.417/.529 since the All-Star break. First baseman Eric Hosmer, since going .285/.332/.427 in the first half, is putting up a .327/.361/.465 slash line. The Royals lead the AL in stolen bases, and they've succeeded on 24 of 28 chances in the second half. All of this has helped contribute to a plus-40 run differential in the second half.
Meanwhile, the pitching has been surprisingly good. Shields and Ervin Santana have been quality all year, and they're finally getting some help from the rest of the rotation. Bruce Chen, age 36, has been having one of those inexplicable stretches in which he's BRUCE CHEN since the break, with a 1.40 ERA and 6.7 strikeouts per nine innings. Then there's Wade Davis, he of the 5.89 ERA during the first half. He's been at 2.57 since, giving up just one home run in four starts after yielding 13 in 18 starts before the break. The bullpen has also been excellent. In these last 24 games, the Royals' pen has an ERA of 1.67 in 75.1 innings pitched, with 9.6 SO/9 and a SO:BB ratio of 3.48. And that's not just in keeping with a recent trend: For the season, KC's bullpen ERA of 2.70 is best in the AL.
How much of this is the bullpen and how much is the fielding is an interesting question. Going by Defensive Runs Saved, their defense has been worth more runs than the next two best teams put together. It's not that good—UZR, a competing system, gives them a more modest advantage—but it's almost certainly the best in the league, and probably good enough to keep some of the team's sketchier pitchers looking better than they are for another month and a half.
Can this last? Maybe. Nine of the 24 games the Royals have played in the second half so far have been against the Twins and White Sox, and nearly a quarter of their remaining games are against the division-leading Tigers. Baseball Prospectus puts their playoff odds at a mere 8.6 percent. But it also simulates their win total to be 84 games. Which is progress.
* The headline on this post has been changed.
Photo: Associated Press