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Tracy Ringolsby

Royals need Moustakas to snap out of funk

Struggling third baseman may need to clear mind at Triple-A Omaha

Royals need Moustakas to snap out of funk play video for Royals need Moustakas to snap out of funk

SEATTLE -- The Kansas City Royals were ready for a breakout season from Mike Moustakas.

So was he.

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Six weeks into the season, the wait continues. And the questions loom.

A promising stretch in the schedule begins on Tuesday in the Royals' bid to overtake the first-place Detroit Tigers in the American League Central race. Faced with a five-game deficit in the standings, Kansas City is scheduled to play 12 of its next 15 games at Kauffman Stadium, kicking off a stretch in which the club is slated to play 29 of 45 games at home.

The Tigers, meanwhile, are embarking on a stretch of 29 of 46 on the road, including 16 of their next 20 games.

"There are a lot of good signs," Royals manager Ned Yost said.

And then there is Moustakas.

While the Royals were rallying to pull out a 9-7 victory against the Mariners at Safeco Field on Sunday, putting the wraps on a 4-3 West Coast swing that started in San Diego, Moustakas was given a day off, more to allow him a mental break than anything physical.

"We have to figure out a way to get him going," Yost said. "If we are going to win, he has to be on the field."

The debate for Kansas City is how best to get Moustakas going.

Do the Royals keep putting Moustakas in the lineup, waiting for a turnaround in a season in which he may be leading the team with four home runs, but also while hitting .147 with more strikeouts (22) than hits (16)?

Does Kansas City try and ease pressure by going ahead with a platoon that has begun to emerge in which Moustakas shares time with Danny Valencia, a right-handed hitter, who at the age of 29 is with his fourth big league team since the start of the 2012 season?

Or do the Royals look for a way to let Moustakas take a deep breath with a refresher course at Triple-A Omaha, to try and find that spark?

There's no debate about the importance Moustakas plays in their bid to return to the postseason for the first time since they claimed the only World Series championship in franchise history in 1985.

"He is a tremendous competitor," Yost said. "He pushes himself."

Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux was quick to explain whenever asked the key to handling a difficult challenge is "to try easier."

That's something Moustakas hasn't mastered.

"He needs to get on a bit of a roll and take some pressure off himself," said Yost. "He has great power. He has great hands. He has a great work ethic. He's there every day, working to turn things around."

During the spring, it seemed that everything was finally falling in place for the left-handed-hitting third baseman, who was the second player taken in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft -- right after Tampa Bay selected David Price.

Moustakas had a winter tune-up in Latin America and then a dominating spring in which he not only hit .429 with four home runs and 18 RBIs, but he also struck out only 11 times while drawing 11 walks in 56 at-bats.

And then the season started, and the questions returned.

"It's not fun to struggle, but we are playing good baseball as a team, and that helps," Moustakas said. "I'm getting good counts to hit in. I am putting myself in position to succeed."

Success, however, has come slowly.

It's more like Moustakas' last two big league seasons -- a combined .238 average with 32 home runs and 115 RBIs -- than the eye-opening spring. It's a far cry from the 2010 Minor League Player of the Year season in which he hit .322 with a combined 36 home runs and 124 RBIs between Omaha and Double-A Northwest Arkansas.

"I still feel like I did in the spring, but the results are not there right now," Moustakas said. "Obviously the game is very results-oriented. I know that."

And that's why the Royals keep searching for the best way to get Moustakas going. They know what he means to this team.

Moustakas has the potential to be a run-producing bat and a Gold Glove Award-winning third baseman. Without him, there's a hole that is hard to fill.

It was apparent on Sunday.

Yes, Kansas City managed to rally to pull out that victory against Seattle. The bullpen rescued a struggling Jeremy Guthrie by turning in 4 1/3 shutout innings.

Yes, the offense got a surprising lift from shortstop Alcides Escobar, who delivered a grand slam in the second inning, and backup second baseman Johnny Giavotella, whose first home run since September 2012, was a three-run shot that erased a 7-6 deficit in the seventh.

All, however, wasn't well.

On a day when Yost felt compelled to give catcher Salvador Perez only his third day off of the season, and starting second baseman Omar Infante missed his fifth game in a row with lower back pain, Moustakas was on the bench against Mariners left-hander Roenis Elias. Valencia hit cleanup, the right-handed-hitting alternative at third base.

Things worked out well for a day. But that's a short-term solution.

The Royals know the long-term answer lies in unlocking the potential of Moustakas.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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