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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Down at Triple-A, there were rumors. Brett Hayes heard about what happened to the Kansas City Royals at home after a win. Someone flicks off the lights. Another person turns on a strobe and a smoke machine, putting the club in clubhouse. Finally, the player of the game – maybe the guy who hit a game-winning home run or maybe, as in Hayes' case Wednesday, the guy playing in his first major league game in almost a year – activates the neon sign and sets the place aglow in red, purple, yellow and blue.
They're having fun here. This is a novel concept in Kansas City, where the Royals have been so awful for so long, fun seemed like a cipher. And the numbers always seemed to add to more and more losses, more worthless Augusts and Septembers. The crowd here at Kauffman Stadium broke out into the wave Wednesday, practically an involuntary reaction after all those years of boredom and disappointment. Like the men in the clubhouse, they, too, are re-learning how to have fun. Friendly suggestion to crowd: The wave is not necessary.
It takes getting to know the team, which Kansas City is doing. The television ratings here are bordering on absurd. Over the weekend, nearly 10 percent of the homes here watched a Royals-Mets game. On Monday, for a Royals-Twins game, it was more than 10 percent. A great sports city has been asleep for almost three decades. This is what happens when it awakens.
Kansas City is not greedy. The slightest crumb of success gathers the masses. This is more than a crumb. This is a nibble that turned into a slice that's threatening to become the whole damn cake. The Royals won again Wednesday, a 5-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins, their 15th win in 19 games, one that kept them within 4½ games of the second wild-card spot in the American League. They struck out a franchise-high 16. They started a left-hander whose second pitch registered 99 mph on the radar gun, finished with a closer whose second-to-last pitch registered 98 and in between showcased the sort of pitching and fielding that wins playoff games.
The realists in here understand: It won't be easy. Texas and Baltimore each made the playoffs last season. Cleveland was as hot as any team before running into the Detroit buzz saw. Climbing three teams is no easy feat. Still, at 58-53, the Royals are just three games back in the loss column from the Rangers. Following this weekend's series against the Boston Red Sox, they play only one out-of-division opponent over .500 for more than five weeks, meaning they can feast on lesser teams as they have of late and make up ground in 17 head-to-head games with Cleveland and Detroit.
They'll do so with arguably the best pitching in the AL, statistically the best bullpen and a group of everyday players that makes baseball defense into an art form revered by objective metrics and subjective eyeballs. It all makes up for a pedestrian offense that will stand as the lone impediment between Kansas City and October baseball for the first time since 1985, when the Royals won their only World Series.
"It's a whole different feel in this clubhouse than it was last year," said Danny Duffy, the aforementioned 99-mph-slinging starter. "A whole different feel."
Duffy arrived from Triple-A for one start, and chances are he'll head back there until returning as another bullpen weapon in September. He blew out his elbow last season, another Royals disappointment that prompted general manager Dayton Moore to take drastic measures this offseason. He traded for Ervin Santana, making $13 million and coming off a terrible 2012. He re-signed Jeremy Guthrie to a three-year deal. And he pulled off the most criticized and perhaps the riskiest trade this decade, acquiring frontline starter James Shields for a package that included outfielder Wil Myers.
In 158 at-bats, Myers is hitting .335/.386/.532. He has eight home runs, more than all but four Royals. He is batting cleanup for one of the best teams in baseball. This could be a remarkably painful trade. It may already be. And yet as easy as it is to fixate on Myers, people here don't want to. Part of Royals fandom is gallows humor, sure, but it's impossible not to enjoy this, even if it is an apparition, even if it ends in disappointment. When Duffy talked about a different feel, he wasn't spouting a cliché. Winning does something to a team. It doesn't necessarily make it better as much as it makes it come alive.
"It's fun. It's awesome. Everyone is so happy," Duffy said. "We lost [Tuesday], you would've thought we were on a 10-game losing streak. Every game counts. Every game counts. To see that kind of winning culture in this clubhouse is amazing.
"People say that every year. Every year at the beginning of the season. This is a different team, this, that and the other. It is a different team this year."
Well, at least through Aug. 8 it is. The Red Sox are coming, and it's another test, like the Orioles and Tigers, both of whom the Royals took series from coming out of the All-Star break.
"We can play with anybody," Royals starter Bruce Chen said, and people here want to believe that. They want to think a team with a tepid offense that relies on a bunch of kids and a pitching staff that has overachieved can improve over the final third of the season, that Myers is not some sacrifice to the baseball gods that will go unanswered like all the rest.
They want to cheer and yell and dance in some smoke.
"I thought it would add a little character – a little flair," said backup catcher George Kottaras, who bought the machine this spring. "It works."
"Oh, it works," Hayes said. "A little too foggy."
About 10 minutes after the victory, the smoke still hung in the air and the neon – a custom job ordered by Shields with a Texas Heart Shot bull's-eye on a deer, plus a Royals crown atop a W – burned bright. Hayes had caught each of the 16 strikeouts and knocked a couple of hits. And with Salvador Perez's likely return from a concussion days away, Hayes' teammates gave him the honors of switching it on. He may not be here much longer, but he was part of this team, whatever it does.
From the start of this season, the Royals' belief in themselves has been disproportionate with the rest of the baseball world's opinion of them. Few understood that Lorenzo Cain patrols center field better than anyone this side of Carlos Gomez. And that Eric Hosmer needed only a tweak to unleash the powerful swing of his rookie season. And that Greg Holland was every bit the peer of Craig Kimbrel and Mariano Rivera. Inside, amid the fun of a 17-10 start, they saw this, and in May, it prompted big words.
"This is a playoff team," Jeff Francoeur said.
Francoeur was playing right field for the Royals then. Since then, they released him and gave his job to David Lough, who has hit over .400 with runners in scoring position and two outs. Francoeur can be blustery, sure, but he has been to the postseason with Atlanta and Texas. He believed this was a playoff team.
"This is a playoff baseball team," he said. "No doubt about it. It's our job to go out there and play and do what we do, but we have as good a chance as any team that's been here in a long time to go to the playoffs. We'll look back at the end of the year, and if we're not there, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Dayton, Ned [Yost, the manager] – they've done a good job of giving us the talent, the team. And now it's our job to win with that."
Over the next two months, the Royals went 26-39. They looked like the antithesis of a playoff team. It looked like July would be nothing more than it normally is in Kansas City: time for Chiefs training camp.
Then the All-Star break hit, and they started winning, and they won some more, and it looked legitimate, and suddenly it seemed like Francoeur was onto something. That with seven weeks and 51 games left, maybe, just maybe, the fun is only beginning.