Kansas City Royals Eric Hosmer (35) celebrates with teammate Alex Gordon in a game against the New York Mets. Photo by Pat Benic/UPI
The Kansas City Royals did it again on Friday night. They staged another heart-pounding comeback, this one a 5-4 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals couldn’t get it going for a long time but, with two on and two out in the ninth, they finally put it together and rallied from a 4-1 deficit.
The last three Kansas City at-bats produced run-scoring hits. Alcides Escobar singled to bring in one. Alex Gordon singled to bring in another. And Whit Merrifield gave them the win with a walk-off two-run double. Down by two runs in the eighth in Boston on Wednesday, Sal Perez lifted the Royals to a 6-4 win with a grand slam.
With this triumph, the Royals climbed back to .500 at 36-36 and became something fascinating to watch for the next five weeks. At the start of the month, Kansas City was dead last in the AL Central and plans were being laid for a serious sell-off. It is a major league-best 14-6 in the month of June now.
At three games back of Cleveland in the division and two games off the pace for the second AL wild card, the Royals can’t be thinking of themselves as sellers right now.
You win when you can and the Royals have a group of players that have demonstrated it can win. The foundation of position players for the 2014 American League champions and 2015 World Series champions is still intact: Perez at catcher, Eric Hosmer at first base, Escobar at shortstop, Mike Moustakas at third base, Lorenzo Cain in center field and Alex Gordon in left field.
That doesn’t mean some tough calls don’t remain for general manager Dayton Moore.
Things looked so simple a month ago when the club was nine games under .500 and 7 1/2 games back in the division. Escobar, Gordon and designated hitter Brandon Moss were hitting under .200 and none of the regulars aside from Perez had an OPS over .800.
Hosmer, Cain, Escobar, Moustakas and suddenly phenomenal starter Jason Vargas will all be free agents at the end of the season. Dealing them away to contenders was an open door to a fast rebuild as each would be worthy of bringing back at least one player of substance in trade.
Now nothing is simple. The Royals could still stick to a rebuild plan, make trades and lay groundwork for the future of the club. Or they could try to ride a group of proven winners and deal away the remaining prospects in the organization to bolster them in their quest for another World Series title. They don’t have the budget to retain all of those free agents to-be, so Kansas City would be a greatly diminished team.
How the Royals play in the weeks leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline is now must-watch. For so many teams, the decisions will be clear. Heck, the Oakland A’s this week punted on the 2017 season and ushered up the best of their prospects. But what if the Royals play well during the rest of June and July?
Vargas, back from Tommy John surgery, is a surprise 10-game winner. Moustakas has 19 home runs and is on pace for the club record of 36 by Steve Balboni. Cain has hit .320 with a 1.000 OPS in the past month. The lineup is averaging 5.5 runs per game in June.
The feeling here is they’d have to take a go-for-it stance.
When Kansas City reached the 2014 World Series, it was making its first postseason appearance since winning it all in 1985. A passionate fan base, long suffering, became inspired. And that team was so close to beating the San Francisco Giants for the crown. When the Royals won it the next year, an entire community celebrated.
Royals fans are sharp enough to know exactly where the franchise is and — if you put it to a vote — they’d surely take a couple more years of suffering for another World Series win.
"We’re playing like we know we can and we’re moving in the right direction," Merrifield, the second baseman, said on Wednesday, "and hopefully we can keep that up and keep making progress."