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Once Royals’ weakest link, revived starting pitching has been crucial to hot streak

·4 min read

Two weeks after ESPN incensed Royals fans by all but ignoring Sal Perez’s 28-home run performance in the Home Run Derby preceding the All-Star Game at Coors Field in Denver, the delightful and mesmerizing soul of the Royals extended his season-long version of the barrage on Thursday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium.

Stoking the Royals to their ninth win in 12 games and seventh in the last eight, he staked them to a 2-0 lead over the White Sox with his 25th homer of the season in the first inning.

“Sal, doing what Sal does,” manager Mike Matheny said after a 5-0 victory, the Royals’ third of their four-game series against Chicago.

That made for a swell encore to his previous at-bat the night before, when his ninth-inning blast tied a game the Royals went on to win 3-2, and it keeps him on track to shatter his single-season home-run standards of 27.

So his play might be the most gaudy element of this current pushback of the pendulum by the Royals, who had tumbled to a season-worst 18 games under .500 after losing two of three to Baltimore coming out of the All-Star break.

But it’s hardly the most essential reason that it’s a team we can still find intriguing and appealing … even while it’s been so exasperating for so much of the season that the franchise’s true focus has to be on 2022.

And it’s not about just some clutch hitting by Michael A. Taylor. Or the resurgent play of Hunter Dozier, who after a season-long funk was third in the American League in on-base percentage since June 29 entering the Thursday game. And signs of life in Jorge Soler (back-to-back two homer games earlier this week).

More than anything, it’s been all about the rejuvenated starting pitching. With a career-best six shutout innings from Carlos Hernandez on Thursday, Royals’ starters provided a quality outing for the eighth time in nine games since would-be mainstays Danny Duffy and Brady Singer went on the injured list. (Duffy was traded to the Dodgers on Thursday night.).

The team that largely was undone by its starters in the first half of the season, when they had a collective ERA of 5.38, over those nine games has given up a measly 15 runs in the last 54.1 innings for a yield of 2.50. Over the last five, the starting ERA has been 1.36, and that’s included everyone in the current rotation, including veteran Mike Minor and opening day starter Brad Keller, who has returned to his anticipated form the last few weeks after a largely wobbly few months.

But maybe of greater note looking forward is the work of youngsters Hernandez, Kris Bubic and Daniel Lynch — who went eight shutout innings last Sunday against Detroit in his return to the Royals after unraveling his first go-round earlier this season.

“It takes time to be a complete, quality, successful, consistent winning pitcher in the major leagues,” general manager Dayton Moore said earlier this week.

There probably are a zillion reasons why the starting pitching is so fundamental to any chance a team might have in baseball, starting with such morale issues of not having to play from (much) behind from the get-go and swamping the bullpen.

Moreover, it engages all the gears.

“It puts the game in rhythm,” said Moore, stressing the broader focus and alertness a quality start generally promotes in all aspects of the game. “You play better defense. You tend to have better at-bats, more quality plate appearances. The fans seem to have more energy and excitement in supporting the team.”

Or as Matheny put it on Sunday: “Our starting pitching is going to set the tone.”

Even when the ultimate alignment for the season, alas, largely was established before the All-Star break.

At 45-56, the Royals are no realistic threat to challenge the American League Central-leading White Sox and have only a scant, remote sliver of a chance of navigating their way into wild-card contention.

And if you think you can count on any particular path now, we remind you that this confounding group had the best record in baseball for the first month of the season only to plummet into an 11-game losing streak that established its potential for extremes.

Trying to guess where this goes from here would be like, say, throwing darts through fog at a Whitman’s Samplers box on a roulette wheel. You can only guess what you’re going to get, especially as we await the trade deadline this weekend.

And that lingering sense of volatility certainly applies to the starting pitching, splendid as it’s been in this small sample size, and what they do with it from here is the real question.

Just the same, as the Royals gird for 2022, this area of the game will be a leading indicator of where this is all going.

And along with Perez, the hoped-for return of the injured Adalberto Mondesi, the much-anticipated arrival of Bobby Witt Jr. and other developments, it’s ample reason to stay tuned for the stretch.

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