It's no coincidence that a surge on the victory side of the ledger came with the insertion of Ned Yost into the managerial role. The club was floundering in the third season under Trey Hillman and the logical and realistic preseason prospects of improving, to at least the .500 mark, were rapidly fading.
Yost brought not only the weathered face of experience and an old-school attitude, but a fresh look at bringing a sense of order and, above all else, doing whatever it takes to win.
It has been working. At the 81-game halfway point of the Royals' season, Yost had them playing over the .500 mark (27-26) after a 12-23 getaway under Hillman.
General manager Dayton Moore reluctantly dismissed Hillman, his first hire as a manager and a good friend, but the turnaround had him very pleased. Moore wouldn't commit, just yet, to bringing back Yost for 2011, but based on the way the team has performed, that wouldn't be a surprise at all.
Yost accentuates the positive.
"We've got a lot of things that have been going good right now," he said. "Our starting pitching has been basically really good, our bullpen has been very, very solid. We've swung the bats well and we've continued to get better defensively -- especially in the infield."
Yuniesky Betancourt appears to have widened his range at shortstop, Alberto Callaspo is much sharper at third base than second, where ex-shortstop Mike Aviles has adapted well. Billy Butler continues to improve at first base.
Even at the start of the season, the Royals were posting one of the highest team averages in the Majors, but crucial hits were lacking. Gradually the team has developed a knack for clutch hits, notably in two-out situations. In fact, on 30 occasions in the first half, they scored with two out and the bases empty.
"I like our attitude, I like the way that they never quit. I like the way they fight through adversity when we do have some and don't let it affect them," Yost said. "No matter if we're down four or five runs, two outs and two strikes down in the inning, they're still fighting to produce until that last strike is made or that last out is made."
Royals midseason awards
|MVP||David DeJesus||A consistently hot hitter most of the season, he's also superb on defense.|
|Cy Young||Zack Greinke||Despite a slow start, he's again showing his 2009 award-winning stuff and staff leadership.|
|Rookie||Blake Wood||Made a late jump to the Majors, Wood adjusted quickly to become a key setup man for closer Joakim Soria.|
|Reliever||Joakim Soria||All-Star Closer is once again piling up saves and strikeouts in sticky situations.|
Yost has settled into a lineup that usually features Scott Podsednik leading off with stolen-base potential, Jason Kendall with bat-handling skill next, hot-hitting David DeJesus in the third spot, Butler's natural power at cleanup, followed by rejuvenated slugger Jose Guillen.
"We're getting more confident, we're just getting to know how Ned is coaching us and managing us in different situations," DeJesus said. "And the more we get to play on the field with him and know him better, I think the better our team is going to play. And I don't think we've reached our top potential yet."
Despite having rotation regulars Gil Meche and Luke Hochevar out for extended periods through the All-Star break, the starting pitching was holding its own. Zack Greinke, after an uncertain getaway, was reprising his 2009 Cy Young Award efficiency and Brian Bannister was leading the staff in victories.
One of Yost's most rewarding moves was establishing well-defined roles in the bullpen, providing a consistent map for getting the game to All-Star closer Joakim Soria. Mostly it was Robinson Tejeda and rookie Blake Wood effectively following a reliable core of middle men.
Was it being reckless or even foolish to suggest that the Royals might even approach the division leaders as the second half goes along?
Not in Yost's estimation.
"We feel good about it," he said just last week at Seattle. "You look at today and we're a good week and a day from being out of first place. That's the way I look at it. If something bad happens and some [other teams] start losing some games and we get on a bit of a run. ... I mean we were 10 games out at the All-Star break in Atlanta and we ended up winning the division. So we're in a good spot. We just have to continue doing what we're doing and slowly but surely make up ground."
Yost, who learned as a coach under Bobby Cox in Atlanta, has a track record of helping guide a struggling franchise at Milwaukee to the path of respectability, only to be dismissed with the Brewers on the cusp of the playoffs.
Now, he has the Royals looking like a team with fire and purpose and tenacity.
Yost was asked if it was the force of his personality that produced such an attitude adjustment.
"I don't know if I did or not," Yost said. "That's definitely my personality. I told them early, all I ask from you is just go out on the field, give your very best effort and never quit until the game's over. That's all I ask. I don't ask you to go 4-for-4, I don't ask you to strike everybody out, because I know that's not going to happen. But every day you can be consistent with your mental approach -- the way you play the game and the intensity you have. They're all habits that you have to ingrain."
The bottom line was he's made an impression on the Royals' approach.
"We never give up," DeJesus said. "Even when two outs come around, we hear Ned saying, 'We'll get him, we'll get him.' I think it just rubs off on a team."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.