Royals Rundown: Contending Kansas City believes hot start is no fluke

Todd Fertig
Special to The Capital-Journal
Kansas City Royals left fielder Andrew Benintendi, left, and right fielder Jarrod Dyson celebrate after defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates 9-6 on Wednesday at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. The Royals finished April with a 15-9 record.

Despite a disappointing close to the month — a 9-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins on Friday night — the Kansas City Royals put one of their best Aprils in team history in the books.

The Royals surprised everyone with a 15-9 record in April, good for a .625 win percentage. Earlier in the week, they actually possessed the best record in all of baseball. That distinction slipped away at the close of the month. but the start is historic nonetheless and confounds the experts who predicted yet another losing season for Kansas City.  

According to manager Mike Matheny, the team’s record is a product of its belief in itself and its never-say-die attitude. 

“We’re expecting good things to happen,” Matheny said. “These guys are expecting that somebody is going to be able to make something happen to give us a chance. If it doesn’t, we’re going to just dig our heels in and figure out a way to scrap our way through it.

“We want that to be the expectation. I want them to expect good things to happen.”

A great start is just that. It’s certainly no guarantee of a World Series, or even a playoff berth. In fact, four of the five best starts in team history did not lead to the playoffs. (Of note is that some of those great starts occurred prior to the switch to three divisions and the addition of Wild Card berths in each league.)  

Prior to 2021, the top five Aprils in club history were as follows:

  • 1978 April record = 14-5 (.737); Finished 92-70, lost in ALCS 
  • 2003 April record = 17-7 (.708); Finished 83-79, missed playoffs 
  • 2015 April record = 15-7 (.682); Finished 95-67, won World Series 
  • 1989 April record = 16-8 (.667); Finished 92-70, missed playoffs 
  • 1973 April record = 13-8 (.619); Finished 88-74, missed playoffs

Obviously two things can result from the Royals’ strong start. As happened in 2015, they can sustain this level of play and prove themselves on the playoff stage. Or, as happened in 2003, they will fade, proving correct the skeptics who believe the start is an anomaly.

Some signs seem to foretell an imminent slide. Run differential, for one, could be used to indicate that the Royals’ hot start is unsustainable. Despite possessing a winning record, the Royals have actually scored two fewer runs than their opponents over their first 24 games. Analysts point to the inordinate number of close games won by the Royals as indication that their winning ways won’t continue. 

But one might argue that the Royals are winning and haven’t even begun to play up to their potential.  

Their best pitcher, Brad Keller, has struggled in four of his five starts. Their best power hitter, Jorge Soler, is off to his typically slow start. And their most dynamic player, injured shortstop Adalberto Mondesi, has yet to play a game. If those three get right, and outfielder Andrew Benintendi and third baseman Hunter Dozier heat up, this team could take it to another level. 

The players are not oblivious to the importance of a good start.  

“It’s huge,” said pitcher Brad Keller. “The last few seasons we haven’t gotten off to a good start, so to have that trust and that belief in ourselves early on in the season kind of propels us on through the rest of the season.”

Keller said the team is enjoying exceeding expectations and proving skeptics wrong. 

“Going into spring training, I feel like a lot of people counted us out,” Keller said. “But I truly believe that with this team and with the fight that we have, we’re really good. We’re sneaking up on a lot of teams and surprising a lot of people. That’s just who we are. (Matheny) instilled into us in spring training that we’re here to win, and that’s our mindset. Even if we’re down late, we’re never out of the game.” 

‘Piñata mañana?’

If you’ve seen what Carlos Santana can do to a baseball, imaging what he could do to a piñata.

The Royals have had plenty to celebrate so far this season, and they have taken celebrations to a new level. Complete with party lights and a fog machine, the clubhouse gets festive after every victory. But one bit of revelry has been withheld. 

Santana’s wife purchased a piñata for the players to break in the clubhouse to commemorate the 12-year veteran’s 1,000th career walk. But that walk was drawn in a humbling 14-7 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, so the piñata went unbroken in the somber clubhouse.

The Royals won the following game, but Santana insisted the piñata, which appears in a photo on Twitter to be a multi-colored bull, remain in his locker as a sort of good luck charm. Then the Royals hit the road for a nine-game tour. 

Santana said his anxious teammates keep asking, "Piñata mañana?" But he joked that it might just go unbroken until the team wins the World Series. It’s unlikely the Royals will win the title this year, but highly likely that Santana’s gregarious mates will prevail upon him to break out the piñata sometime soon. 

If you’re about wondering the significance of 1,000 walks in Santana’s career, he ranks fourth among active players. A high number of walks, of course, signify a hitter pitchers fear, and one who has a good eye for balls and strikes. Santana is highly regarded for his high on-base percentage, something the Royals have desperately needed over the years. He currently leads the team with a .364 on-base percentage. 

More fans

The Royals announced recently that, when the team returns home May 3, it will be to a fuller house. After allowing only about 10,000 into the stadium in April, a new social-distancing plan will permit 17,400 for May. Each month, attendance thresholds will be evaluated and potentially increased.

As before, tickets and parking will be accessible only on mobile devices, and they must be purchased in advance. Masks will still be required.