Energizing as the rookie-infused resurgence of the Royals had been over the previous week with five wins in the last seven games, that trend figured to get doused against the White Sox on Thursday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium.
Chicago right-hander Dylan Cease, after all, had allowed just five runs in 76 innings (0.59 ERA) with an 8-2 record over his last 13 starts.
“Chances probably weren’t the best to win,” as ever-blunt starting pitcher Zack Greinke put it afterward.
But among the other virtues of being so youth-centric, with the starting lineup now made up of half or more rookies every day, is an abiding sense of possibility.
Not to say that they don’t know what they don’t know, exactly. But the mindset is “why not us?” and the lens is tinted this way:
If you are capable and show up prepared and excited to play, if you arrive fresh-eyed without lugging along defeatism, good things can happen even if you don’t exactly know how.
So, presto, the Royals won 5-3, stoked by Greinke’s 6.1 innings of shutout pitching, rookie Vinnie Pasquantino’s third home run in less than 48 hours (off of Cease in the second inning) and a three-run seventh against the Sox bullpen highlighted by Nicky Lopez’s two-run single.
“It’s just a different feeling around here right now,” Lopez said, “and it’s been pretty special.”
Lopez reiterated something he said the other day about the feeling suddenly being so “light” … and added to it with a lighthearted quip that within this group Sal Perez (32) is “like the grandpa,” Hunter Dozier (30) is the “dad of the team” and that at 27 he’s the uncle.
The sense of meshing with the newcomers and providing room for them to roam has helped enable this uplifting, albeit so far brief, turn.
“I think it’s liberating for them to come into a place where they’ve already been accepted,” said manager Mike Matheny, noting how Perez in particular has encouraged them to “be themselves, do their thing (and) not bow to him or anybody else” on the team. “They’re also all quick to listen, and that’s what’s made it really special.”
So, yes, this was entirely a team win that accented how the remaining veterans have clicked with the youngsters, or vice versa. But it also was very much underscored, again, by the undaunted first-year men.
“They’re the majority now, right?” said a smiling Matheny, who also suggested “I don’t think anybody really has ever seen that many young guys come in at one time and all of them contribute like they’ve contributed.”
Certainly enough so to change the daily dynamics that must yet face the test of time and inevitable funks … and the group mood swings that can come when things go awry too many times.
Still, what’s apparent in the clubhouse and in the dugout and from the stands has been plenty tangible in the results of the first two full series since the team essentially went all-in on the youth movement.
The Royals have won six of their last eight with identical 3-1 records against the Red Sox and White Sox. That means they’ve won their first back-to-back four-game series since 2014 (“a pretty good stat to have,” Matheny said) and that they’re 27-25 since June 15.
None of which atones for the debilitating 20-41 start. Yet it reflects a substantial rebound to competence that is bubbling up as something a bit more appealing than just that.
This theory, of course, will be put to a severe test right away in the form of the weekend visit by the Dodgers, who have, yikes, won 32 of their last 37 and are playing .700 ball overall (77-33).
The Royals could get swept, of course, or otherwise be cast back down to Earth. And that would challenge the notion that youthful resilience and resolve, not to mention the surge of sheer talent, are going to percolate through the rest of the season and into 2023.
But you have to like how Pasquantino addressed it:
“Obviously, we have one of the best teams in baseball coming into town tomorrow night, and they’re not going to scare us,” he said. “It’s not going to be something where we’re going to be intimidated because these Dodgers are coming to town. We’re ready to play them.
“I’m not guaranteeing a win or anything like that. I am going to guarantee tough games and that we’re going to go in and compete, compete our tail off for three games and see what happens.”
When I asked Pasquantino what it is that has made this group so undaunted, he said he didn’t exactly know.
But part of it surely is confidence in their own innate talent along with many of them coming up through the minor leagues and winning together and, now, enjoying at least early success at the highest level.
“I think guys in this locker room are realizing that we’re right there with other teams,” Pasquantino said. “The line in the major leagues, it’s very thin. From elite to great to good to average, it’s a very thin line. You’re talking very small percentages. …
“We’re getting some confidence going, and that’s a pretty cool thing.”
All the more on a day that included Greinke pitching out of a bases-loaded, no-outs, heart-of-the-order scenario in the third inning and the Royals working Cease out of the game after he had to throw 95 pitches in six innings.
At the heart of it is the rookie class that Greinke deftly summed up as “pretty much doing everything properly at the moment.”
However they fare at this next tier of challenge over the weekend, the real test the rest of the season is to what degree they continue to remain unfazed and cast light on the future.
“They’re playing the game the right way, and they’re playing well. Playing well together,” Matheny said. “And all of that just kind of self-perpetuates …
“It’s something that I know should set a template about the level of expectation moving forward. Of at least that energy. And of at least that positive experience every time we walk out of the clubhouse.”
All of which could go a long way toward affirming Lopez’s belief that this new nucleus makes it “a good time to be a Royal, for sure.”
Something no one’s been able to say for a while, and something that remains to be seen … but also something that comes with a fresh sense of possibility furnished by this new wave.