Nothing bugs the Royals like doubters, and they've still got plenty left

·MLB columnist
Eric Hosmer and the Royals have won enough to put themselves back in the AL wild-card race. (Getty)
Eric Hosmer and the Royals have won enough to put themselves back in the AL wild-card race. (Getty)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – On top of a silver-sheened table in the middle of the Kansas City Royals’ clubhouse sat a plastic box. The bottom and sides are see-through and the top fully breathable, with thin slits every centimeter. Inside of the box were three bugs. The first two sat on fake green leaves. The third hung upside down from the lid, lurking, stalking, waiting, an unassuming predator.

Somehow, the third bug, a praying mantis, had become the biggest story in Kansas City. Never mind that praying mantises are absolute monsters that eat their victims’ faces. The arrival of this one happened to coincide with the revival of the left-for-dead Royals, and as far as miserably trite and ill-conceived narratives go, the Rally Mantis spurring on the defending World Series champions may be tough to beat.

“We’re winning,” one Royals veteran joked, “because of a stupid-ass bug, of course.”

He laughed, careful not to insult the fans that have latched on to the mantis, the TV reporters who breathlessly chronicle its existence – after the death of the original Rally Mantis, the tenuous survival of 2.0 is big news, after all – or the club that for the low, low price of $44.99 now peddles mantis masks.

There is one, and only one, reason that the mantis should have any resonance, and it’s certainly not that the Royals won 18 of 22 games after they adopted one. It’s that in the entire animal kingdom, there may not be a single better representative of the Royals’ ability to make what seems impossible very, very real than the humble praying mantis.

Seriously, look at this attempt to murder a sweet hummingbird. The mantis just chills, chills, chills – and boom! And there were the Kansas City Royals on Aug. 5, not chilling, exactly, but struggling to put together any semblance of decent baseball. Injuries beat them down, and they weren’t hitting, and they weren’t pitching, and the prospect of more baseball in October seemed lost. They were 51-58. Eleven games back of Cleveland in the American League Central. Seemingly, to all rational minds, hopelessly gone.

“You look at it, and we’re a certain amount of games out, and you look at the staff Cleveland has, and you look at these other teams, and it’s like, how does it even make sense for them to come back?” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “That’s the beauty of this game. It’s nuts. It’s just as easy for a team to fall apart as it is to take off. But what all of this has taught us is when we take off from spring training, we know we’re going to be here for 162 games. And if it starts out rough, or gets rough at any point, we don’t shut down.”

This, now and forever, will be how the present incarnation of the Royals is remembered. They’ve never been the most talented team, the best hitting team, the best pitching team, the best at much aside from winning. They’ve been the ultimate Aristotelian team, losing so many parts – Mike Moustakas and Luke Hochevar for the year, Wade Davis and Alex Gordon for months-long stretches, Lorenzo Cain on and off all year – and witnessing the whole still somehow manage.

“We did it by ourselves,” Royals starter Edinson Volquez said. “You know what? I was thinking about this the other day. When people discount this team, these guys get angry. There’s motivation. They get better. That’s how we take every bad comment. We’re going to make this guy look bad. We’re going to win today. We’re going to win tomorrow. That computer says we’re going to win 72 games. How many wins we got now?”

Sixty-nine. Nice.

“They say 72? Let’s get 73,” Volquez said. “And let’s go right past that. After July, we had to get better. Because we didn’t want them to be right.”

The Kansas City Royals' Rally Mantis perched on a hat. (Getty)
The Kansas City Royals’ Rally Mantis has generated plenty of attention. (Getty)

After July, the Royals were dead, and then they won 18 of 22, and they weren’t. And now they’ve lost two extra-innings games at home in a row to the New York Yankees, and not only are they three full games back of Detroit and Baltimore for the second wild card, the Yankees and Astros are ahead of them, too.

And yet. It’s not just that these are the Royals. Their schedule is remarkably favorable. Of their remaining 29 games, 17 come at home, where they’re 41-23. Kansas City plays all but four of its games against the AL Central, against whom it’s 34-17 this season – and those other four are against Oakland.

So, yeah. They’ve lost two in a row. Both in pretty brutal fashion. But it’s no death knell. The Royals survived quintuple bypass as teams kept leapfrogging them in the standings. Surely they’re capable of weathering this.

“We try to be realistic with ourselves,” Hosmer said. “The way this game is, the way pitching is, it’s too hard to go out there and get three hits a night. So you turn the page. There were some rough times a couple months ago where we couldn’t do anything right. But there’s always that thought in the back of our mind …

“We know when we do get hot, we’re the toughest team to beat in this league. And that’s something that keeps it going.”

The Royals are the most confident 69-64 team imaginable, and it’s not going away for the foreseeable future, at least not until after the 2017 season, when almost the entire core of the team hits free agency. Until then, when new players arrive, they’ll see the attitude and the edge that the Royals are convinced fuel them past what they’re supposed to be.

Outfielder Billy Burns saw the first glimpses of this, in the 2014 AL wild-card game, when he was with the Oakland A’s. Kansas City played zombie all night and rode the win there to a World Series appearance, and Burns, like so many players around the league, wondered what the Royals did differently. Then he arrived in a July 30 deal.

“And since I’ve been here,” he said, “all I’ve seen is the winning.”

Burns doesn’t get it because it’s illogical, this team with a negative run differential and a loaded disabled list and mediocre starting pitching and the second-worst offense in the league doing … this. He doesn’t question it, either. His duty is to keep an eye on the mantis, and Burns does so with no complaint. Even as the losses wear off the bug’s invincibility cloak, the Royals still lurk, stalk, wait, excited to do the impossible one more time.

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