GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Mike Moustakas let the first pitch breeze past for a strike and the second hit the dirt for a ball. He swung through the third, putting himself into the sort of two-strike bind that has been a point of emphasis in the Kansas City batting cage this spring. And when the man known as "Moose" got that two-strike offering from the Indians' Zach McAllister, he promptly smacked a line-drive single to the opposite field.
Here in the land of high skies and higher batting averages, it's deceptively easy to speculate about what Moustakas' scorching spring (I'd cite the exhibition stats, but that would break a newly-minted personal policy on such things) means for a maturing Royals lineup, just as it's deceptively easy to trot out an ever-optimistic opinion that this is finally the year that Kansas City will reach postseason pay dirt.
What's important, therefore, is to hone in on what's real. And what's real for the Royals right now is a true sense of stability in the lineup, a more intellectual approach at the plate and the respect their multidimensional pursuit of runs has earned from the opposition.
"They make me nervous," Tribe manager Terry Francona said. "Sometimes it's hard to win with all young guys. They had some guys who were forced to hit in the middle of the order maybe before they were supposed to. But now they deserve to. They're athletic, they all run. They're a hard team to play."
For all the gains made by the Royals in a 2013 season in which they posted the American League's best second-half record and logged a 14-win improvement over 2012, the reality is that they're going to have to improve upon their 648-run output in order to be considered a legitimate postseason contender. Perhaps significantly so if they endure any regression from the starting staff sans Ervin Santana. Even when Kansas City went 43-27 after the All-Star break last year, the club did so averaging just 0.07 runs per game more than it had in the first half.
So there's obvious room for improvement here. Still, the Royals very well might lead the league in intrigue.
Kansas City retooled the top of its order -- adding leadoff man Norichika Aoki and steady second baseman Omar Infante -- in order to get more run-production opportunities for Alex Gordon. And when you group Gordon's bat, which has turned in a .287/.357/.459 slash line over the last three seasons, with those of Billy Butler, whose adjusted OPS over the last five seasons is 26 percent better than league average, and Eric Hosmer, whose .852 OPS was perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the team-wide second-half uptick last year, you've got something brewing.
"Everything," Butler said, "is starting to fall into place."
If Moustakas' spring is absolutely any indication whatsoever of his ability to join all-world catcher Salvador Perez in lengthening that lineup, well, all the better. But Moustakas did, indeed, have a strong spring a year ago and has struggled against lefties thus far in his Major League career. And this is Arizona, after all. So let's just take the safe route and see how it goes.
What's important -- in the immediate, and in the midst of a spring prep setting up arguably the most anticipated baseball season in Kansas City in a generation -- is that this group at large has shown a newfound sophistication with its spring workload. There have been games in Cactus League play in which Moustakas has deliberately gotten himself into two-strike situations in order to sharpen his focus (as hitting coach Pedro Grifol likes to point out to his players, exactly 50 percent of all plate appearances in MLB last season reached a two-strike count) or, conversely, Hosmer has deliberately swung at first pitches, simply because that's something they were working on that particular day.
"I've never really done anything like that in spring before," Hosmer said. "Usually, I just try to hit the ball in the air, because it's Arizona and you want to put up stupid numbers. But this has been really beneficial. It really is working with a purpose, and it's going to help us in the long run."
The Royals can run, by the way. Only the Red Sox (86.7) had a better stolen-base percentage than the Royals (82.7) last season, and Kansas City should be in position to better take advantage of that skill set if the club improves on what was essentially a league-average on-base percentage (.315). And the athleticism extends to the defensive end, where the Royals are one of the most efficient teams in baseball at turning balls in play into outs.
Little wonder, then, that Francona -- and undoubtedly others -- are worried about what this Kansas City team will look like if the lineup truly takes off.
Ned Yost is sure hoping it does.
"You know," the Royals' skipper said, "you get to the big leagues on pure talent. And these kids all have tremendous talent. But to excel at the big league level for an extended period of time, all of a sudden the game changes from talent to your process, in your plan and your approach. That's how you take your game to the next level is mentally, after you get yourself established up here."
Yost feels this club is established enough that he hasn't had a heavy hand this spring when it comes to policing the locker room.
"Ned's really let this group grow up," Hosmer said. "He trusts us and holds us accountable to get our work done. We realize when your manager has that trust in you, it's up to the leaders in the locker room to make sure everybody is getting their work in."
The work continues for another couple of weeks, in an environment in which numbers are "stupid," as Hosmer said, hope is inherently high and very little is real.
But that nervous feeling Francona was talking about? That's real.
This Royals team might be, too.