Whit Merrifield (right) and the Royals could not close out the Cleveland Indians on Thursday night. It was the Indians’ 22nd straight win, and another tough loss for the Royals, whose playoff hopes are fading. David Dermer The Associated Press
Whit Merrifield (right) and the Royals could not close out the Cleveland Indians on Thursday night. It was the Indians’ 22nd straight win, and another tough loss for the Royals, whose playoff hopes are fading. David Dermer The Associated Press

Sam Mellinger

The Royals are the Indians’ henchmen, and their season is by now all but over

By Sam Mellinger

smellinger@kcstar.com

September 14, 2017 9:53 PM

CLEVELAND

By now this Royals season is all over except the schedule. Sixteen games remain, including one final homestand, maybe the last ever for some stars who changed a franchise. More words will be said, more games played.

But the idea of this team in the playoffs is done, realistically anyway, and this has been true for some time.

So maybe it’s best to say an already dying season took its last breaths here, in a 3-2 10th-inning loss in front of a sold-out crowd and many more on television who viewed the fading Royals as nothing more than plucky henchmen as the Indians pushed their amazing winning streak to 22 games.

The symbolism with this is too deep to ignore. The Royals were supposed to be the team competing with the Indians, if not for the American League Central championship then at least close enough for one of two wild-card spots. Instead, they’re burned forever in the highlight reel, their season sunk while their rival reaches unprecedented heights.

This isn’t how it was supposed to go. One-third of baseball teams now make the postseason, and with a fully matured core of stars less than two years removed from a parade, one club official said he’d never been more confident about a playoff spot except for 2015.

The Royals will never be the same after this year. That was always going to be true, with Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain each hitting free agency. The Royals will try to sign each of them, particularly Hosmer, but that’s unlikely and the finality of their time together makes this the most disappointing Royals season since 2012.

That’s not as bad as it might read on first blush. In 2013, the Royals had a winning record for the first time in a decade. In 2014, they made the playoffs for the first time in 29 years, all the way to game seven of the World Series. In 2015, a world championship parade. Even last year, in 2016, there were so many injuries and another year of the group being intact that the letdown diminished.

But this, well, this sucks. The projection models never gave this group a chance, but the projection models never give this group a chance. That’s a problem with their algorithms, not the Royals’ talent, and this group should’ve been better.

Hosmer is having a career year, and the Royals’ best offensive season in more than a decade. Moustakas will — we assume — break the franchise home run record. Cain has been good. Whit Merrifield a breakout. Sal Perez has been Sal Perez. Jorge Bonifacio has 16 home runs, and Brandon Moss 21. Jason Vargas made the All-Star team.

On July 24, the Royals were just 1  1/2 behind the Indians and a game ahead for the last playoff spot. They traded for a starter and two relievers in a move most in the industry thought made them better. Six days later, they were 2  1/2 clear of a playoff spot and traded for Melky Cabrera.

At that point, the Royals had recently improved their rotation, bullpen, lineup, and defense while winning 10 of 11 games. Playoff tickets went on sale, and it seemed like a sound plan. That seems like forever ago. An innocent time.

You can shove your blame most anywhere for this failure. There are no wrong answers, but the original sin will always be this eat-cake-and-lose-weight strategy in which the team tried to win, while rebuilding, and limiting payroll. Also, here at the top, we should say that virtually every move by general manager Dayton Moore backfired.

Trading Wade Davis for Jorge Soler was never going to be good for the 2017 Royals, but the front office didn’t think it would be this bad. Particularly with the bullpen’s inconsistency, having Davis might be the difference in two, three, even four games. Maybe more, who knows? It’s simple math to see how that might change the standings.

Alex Gordon has followed the worst season of his professional life with one much worse. Alcides Escobar has been even worse than usual offensively, and not as dynamic as he used to be defensively. Perez was injured.

The pitchers deserve their own paragraph. Vargas faded in the second half. Danny Duffy has been good when healthy, but too often not healthy. Ian Kennedy has stunk. Jason Hammel hasn’t been good enough. The bullpen, with the notable exception of Scott Alexander, has essentially been a top-to-bottom disappointment. Injuries and poor performance have meant 29 different pitchers used, including 14 starters. In 2014, they used just 23 pitchers, and eight starters.

Royals' Peter Moylan: "There is no such thing as overuse this time of year"

Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Peter Moylan came in and said he was available to pitch today, despite manager Ned Yost saying he needed to give Moylan a day's rest.

John Sleezer and Maria Torres The Kansas City Star

More than anything else, this team is just tired. Worn down. Maybe the tragic death of Yordano Ventura still hangs, but most in and around the team dismiss that as an explanation, even privately. Teams have overcome tragedy before. Teams with less talent, and facing better competition, have made previous postseasons.

But this is a different taste of disappointment. Royals fans who were around before the wild-card game have sharp palate for baseball disappointment, and this is not the desperate comedy of Tony Pena showering in his uniform, or the white flag hopelessness of Eduardo Villacis starting at Yankee Stadium, or even the pent-up anger at Our Time in 2012.

This is something else. Something sad, sure, but by now the bill has been paid. This group, no matter what happens now, delivered a parade and changed baseball’s place for a generation of Kansas Citians. They leave the Royals better than they found them.

There should have been more these past two years, yes, and that will always be a part of their story. The ride ended too quickly, too soon, with too much talent.

But sooner than it probably feels at the moment, that will be a primary memory only for the impossible to please. Because the next few years could get sloppy and long, and if this group leaves after two consecutive disappointing seasons, it also leaves without owing Kansas City a nickel.

The winning didn’t last forever. It never does. But in Kansas City, more than most places, we know the winning doesn’t always start.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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