It will take more than a couple of bitter, one-run defeats in Motown to make the Kansas City Royals feel any less optimistic about what could be a watershed season.
The Royals head home from their season-opening series in Detroit to play the Chicago White Sox in their home opener Friday. Kauffman Stadium is expected to be sold out, and not just because it represents the first chance for most of their fans to see the club this spring.
No, it’s also sold out because expectations are soaring - despite a rough start against the Tigers - for a fan base hoping to finally see some postseason baseball.
“We had a great second half last year as a team, and the fans always come out in Kansas City,” Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas said this week. “They love us. They love their sports teams. They’re dying for a winner.”
The Royals haven’t made the playoffs since 1985, when they beat cross-state rival St. Louis to win their lone World Series. In truth, they hadn’t sniffed meaningful baseball in a decade until a magical second half kept them in contention until the final week last season.
Kansas City still wound up with 86 wins, its most in more than two decades.
“I’ve played in Kansas City so long. It is home for me, so I can’t wait to get back,” designated hitter Billy Butler said. “It’s an electric feel there now. We’re a different team.”
Even if they looked like the same ‘ol Royals in Detroit.
James Shields dueled with Tigers ace Justin Verlander before the Kansas City bullpen let him down in a ninth-inning, 4-3 defeat. Two days later, newcomer Jason Vargas hung with reigning AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer before the bullpen again let the Royals down in a 10th-inning, 2-1 loss.
Their game against Detroit on Wednesday was rained out, which means they’re limping home with a winless record, sending Jeremy Guthrie to the mound Friday against Chicago’s Erik Johnson.
The key will be to make sure two losses don’t become 10, or more. The Royals endured a brutal May last season that included a 12-game slide, and played catch-up the rest of the season. They never did make it all the way back, finally eliminated late in September.
“That’s the thing. You have to learn how to limit those,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “The more experience you have, you realize you lose a couple games, you have to sit back and instead of trying harder, just take a deep breath and loosen up.
“That’s one thing Shields and these guys have brought to the clubhouse,” Hosmer said, “that laid-back attitude where everyone has to be themselves. If we do that, we’ll be all right.”
Hosmer is among the many key players back from last season, trying to build on a breakout year that has fans dreaming of future All-Star games. Also back are outfielder Alex Gordon, catcher Sal Perez and closer Greg Holland, all of whom made the Midsummer Classic a year ago.
Then there are newcomers, including outfielder Norichika Aoki and second baseman Omar Infante, who the Royals hope can provide some offensive punch - even if they came up empty in Detroit.
Put all those pieces together and this season points to being a make-or-break campaign for Royals manager Ned Yost and general manager Dayton Moore, one that began in Detroit but really gets going when Kansas City returns home.
“This team got over a big hurdle last year,” Butler said. “Expectations are sky-high.”
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