KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - When Ned Yost was the bench coach in Atlanta, he watched the Braves cruise to a few division titles with big leads by the time August rolled around.
This year, he’s learning how that feels as the manager in Kansas City.
After eking out a wild-card spot last year, the reigning American League champions had rolled to a 12-game advantage in the Central entering Tuesday night’s game against the Detroit Tigers. In fact, there were more games between the Royals and second-place Minnesota Twins than separated the West-leading Houston Astros from the last-place Oakland A’s.
The St. Louis Cardinals had a five-game lead in the NL Central, the second largest margin of any division. Otherwise, most races are wide open entering the final six weeks of the season.
“It’s nice. That’s good. It gives us some breathing room,” Yost said, “but we still have 50-something games yet. Even though you have a big lead, you can’t let your guard down for a second. Everybody is out to get you.”
It would be easy for a team to relax with such a comfy cushion, but the Royals insist that’s not their style. They quickly point out that they have not won a division title since 1985, the year of their only World Series triumph, and that anything - injuries to pitchers, slumps in their lineup - could send Kansas City limping toward the finish line.
“You just keep playing the same way. You can’t rest on your laurels at all and think you have it all figured out,” said utility man Ben Zobrist, who arrived from Oakland in a deadline trade and has filled in admirably for injured All-Star outfielder Alex Gordon.
“We have to keep that mindset going through the rest of the year,” Zobrist said, “and hopefully that will put us in a good position to make the postseason.”
Well, the Royals are already in good position for that.
No team in the divisional area has had a 12-game lead this late in the season and failed to win the division, according to STATS LLC. The only time it’s ever happened was 1951, when the Brooklyn Dodgers squandered a 13-game lead in the National League, then lost a three-game playoff to the New York Giants on Bobby Thomson’s infamous walk-off home run.
With a 12-game advantage after Monday night’s victory over Detroit, the Royals achieved their largest lead since finishing the 1980 season 14 games ahead of the A’s in the AL West.
The Royals never get too high or low, even though they remain one of the youngest teams in baseball. When they dropped three straight games last week, they quickly ended the skid with a win in Toronto. They followed the slide with a three-game sweep of the White Sox in Chicago.
“You try to do too much in this game, you can get a negative result,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “I think over the course of our careers and going through the postseason, we’ve learned that you let the game come to you. You don’t get so up for the situation.”
Then again, there isn’t much to get up for. The Angels and Orioles were the only teams still on the schedule with winning records entering Tuesday night’s play.
Not that playing in first place should be all that strange to Kansas City by this point. The long downtrodden franchise has been atop the AL Central for 109 days, counting Tuesday, more than it had spent in first place in the previous 11 seasons combined.
The division isn’t all that’s at stake, of course. The Royals also began Tuesday with a 5 1/2-game advantage on the New York Yankees for the best record in the American League. And since their league won the All-Star game, that would mean home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Yost said he plans to take advantage of the cushion by resting some of his key players, such as catcher Salvador Perez - who leads all major league catchers with 380 games caught since 2013 - and center fielder Lorenzo Cain. He also could give his pitching staff a break from time to time, especially the back end of his loaded bullpen.
But while the Royals insist they will continue to play to win, they also acknowledge that such a big lead is a rare luxury.
“There’s a lot of games to be played, and we have to focus on winning games,” Zobrist said. “What we’ve won to this point won’t win us anything. We have to keep going.”
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