- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

BOSTON — There is a Twilight Zone quality to this season for the Kansas City Royals.This is a team that has not had a winning season in 10 years. This is a team that hit bottom last year, losing 100 games for the first time. This is a team that is off to the best start in franchise history. It is, in fact, the greatest first-month turnaround in major league history.The Royals, who begin a three-game series against the Orioles tonight at Camden Yards, were 17-7 in April. How to explain this surprise? Perhaps it happened because the club moved to a new spring training home this year in Surprise, Ariz.”It’s not a surprise to me,” manager Tony Pena insisted. “I saw the talent when we put this club together. I told my general manager, ‘I like this ballclub. I like what I see. I like the personality we got.’ I loved the way we worked in spring training. We worked hard.”If Pena is not surprised, he is one of the few. The Royals are this year’s version of the Minnesota Twins: a small-market, perennial loser whose young players finally have clicked at the same time.”I didn’t see it coming,” said manager Jerry Manuel of the American League Central rival Chicago White Sox, who trailed the Royals by 4½ games entering yesterday’s play.The first-place Kansas City Royals? They have been on top of the AL Central since April 4. The last time the Royals were in first place was May 18, 1997, when they were 20-20.Kansas City has accomplished this despite losing its best pitcher to free agency. Paul Byrd went 17-11 last season, accounting for 27.4 percent of his team’s wins — a higher percentage than Randy Johnson’s 24.5 percent for the Arizona Diamondbacks or Pedro Martinez’s 21.5 percent for the Boston Red Sox.According to Mike Sweeney — a three-time All-Star first baseman who had been an oasis of excellence in a Royal sea of futility — there is a spiritual explanation for his team’s turnaround: the three Cs.”There are three components that I think are driving this team: chemistry, confidence and character,” Sweeney said. “Chemistry comes from having a good group of guys and good leadership with a manager like Tony Pena. Confidence comes from playing good baseball, which we have been doing the first month of the season. And character — we have guys who play with heart and enthusiasm.”Sweeney signed a five-year, $55 million contract extension last year. The contract includes an out clause that would allow him to become a free agent if the Royals don’t finish a season at .500 by 2004.General manager Allard Baird has a different explanation for the turnabout: A young pitching staff finally caught up with some of the talented position players who already had produced results. Those players include 29-year-old Sweeney (.340 average and a club-record 144 RBI in 2000), 26-year-old Carlos Beltran (.273 average, 29 home runs, 105 RBI last season) and 30-year-old Raul Ibanez (.294 average, 103 RBI last season), a product of the Seattle Mariners farm system who was signed as a minor league free agent two years ago.On the mound, Runelvys Hernandez, 24, is 4-0 with a 1.36 ERA. Jeremy Affeldt, 23, is 2-0. Chris George, 23, is 3-2. The bullpen has been strong as well behind veterans Jason Grimsley and Albie Lopez and is anchored by another surprise: 26-year-old closer Mike MacDougal.That MacDougal is even pitching is remarkable story. In September 2001, the converted starter was hit in the head by a bat that slipped out of Beltran’s hands. MacDougal sustained a fractured skull that kept him out all last season. He saved 10 games in April, one shy of the club record for a single month held by Dan Quisenberry and Jeff Montgomery.”The difference is our young pitchers are coming of age,” Baird said. “They were not ready before to play the game at the major league level. But we had position players who were ready, so we had to fill the void until those pitchers could develop.”The Royals’ success, coming on the heels of the Twins’ surprising run to the AL Central title and AL Championship Series, is not a coincidence. The Twins are the model for the Royals, and in fact the entire division consists of teams that decidedly do not depend upon big-money free agents.”This is a division that relies on scouting and player development,” Baird said. “We have tried to mirror the Twins not only because of economics, but also the way they had their position players and pitchers come up in unison. We had the hitters who were ready, but the pitchers weren’t. Now they are in unison, and that is important for affordability to make this work, to try to keep the young talent together.”There are questions, of course.Beltran, who missed the first 14 games because of injury and is just coming around to play at All-Star level, will be a free agent after the 2004 season.The Royals accelerated the development of their pitchers by sending them to play winter ball, and there are concerns about whether their arms can last a full season.”It is a long season,” Manuel said. “Let’s wait a little while, until we get into July and August, to make any judgments.”Baird knows this well and acknowledged a need to see how his team deals with slumps.Kansas City lost two straight games for the first time this season in Boston and took another defeat Wednesday night. Will they be the Royals of old and spiral downward, or will they rebound?”We feel good about where we are going, but we have a long way to go,” Baird said. “How we respond to failure is part of the development process.”Sweeney believes the three Cs will get them through the tough times.”We can’t allow ourselves to fall into a rut that will snowball,” he said. “Good teams don’t allow losing to turn into a monster.”

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