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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

First things first, big picture priority for upstart Royals

Winners of nine straight, Kansas City is eyeing its first playoff berth since 1985

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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

The Kansas City Royals are in first place in the American League Central, and they just might be baseball's best team at the moment. That's also about the last thing anyone in their clubhouse or front office wants to be reminded of. Perhaps more than any other team, the 38-32 Royals understand that talk is cheap and winning is monumentally difficult. See you in September?

OK then, so let's step aside and admire them as they grind out victory after victory and as they do the things that the real good teams do. They're baseball's best defensive team by miles.

In fact, they do things defensively that take your breath away, and they've done them so often the last two seasons that it all seems routine. To watch Salvador Perez behind the plate and Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson and Alex Gordon in the outfield is to watch four players who play defense at the highest level possible.

In fact, Gordon has played so well in so many different ways that he has put himself into the AL MVP Award conversation along with Mike Trout, Jose Bautista and others.

Kansas City has won 14 of 18, including nine in a row. The Royals have scored more runs than any other AL team in this stretch. Their rotation has been solid, their bullpen reliable.

The Royals have also made up seven games in the AL Central, going from 6 1/2 out to a half-game lead over the reeling Tigers after Tuesday's 11-4 victory in Detroit. In this 14-4 sprint, they've gone 9-4 against the Blue Jays, Cardinals, Yankees and Tigers.

The Royals understand that people are paying attention, that passing the Tigers in the standings is the kind of thing that will make fans take a second look. They also understand that they still have 92 games to play.

The Royals haven't been in first place this late in a season since 2003, so there's that. Again, though, there are 92 games remaining, and for a club that has been through so much, they understand the big picture as well as anyone.

If it works out, they'll be a tribute to a long list of people. First, there's team owner David Glass. He has been a rock of patience and perseverance, steadfastly staying the course he committed to in 2006, even when plenty of people were screaming for change.

Glass hired a tremendous baseball man, Dayton Moore, to be his general manager eight years ago this month and gave him the resources -- and more important, the time -- to build a franchise the right way.

Glass wanted no shortcuts. He wanted a first-rate player development system, and he wanted a foundation that would last, one that would put Kansas City back on the map for years to come. From the beginning, Moore kept reminding Glass that player development is a risky business, that young players thrill you one minute, break your heart the next.

Plenty of us thought the Royals turned a corner in the second half of the 2011 season when Perez, first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas made their big league debuts and the club played .500 ball after July 18 (33-33).

At that point, Kansas City became a popular pick to ride those young players into the postseason in 2012. Only thing is, the reconstruction of the franchise wasn't done, and bitterly disappointing season of 72-90 followed.

Still, Glass stayed with the blueprint, and Moore would be the first to tell you that plenty of owners would have pulled the plug and started over. Glass -- and his son, Royals president Dan Glass -- continued to believe they had the right people in charge, especially in Moore and rock-steady manager Ned Yost.

If Kansas City ends up back in the postseason for the first time since 1985, the club's success will be a tribute to an owner who never lost sight of the big picture. And, in the end, Moore predicted pretty much every pothole.

What Moore did was keep working at it. He tweaked the roster again and again. Moore took some chances, too. For instance, he dealt one of the highest-regarded young hitters in the game, Wil Myers, for veteran right-hander James Shields.

Moore knew the downside of such a move. He also knew that Shields would bring leadership and that his relentless work ethic would impact every young player in the organization.

And -- oh yeah, there's one other thing -- Shields is at his best when the stakes are the highest.

If the Royals indeed are a finished product, they're a tribute to Moore adding Shields and Wade Davis for the 2013 season and then making three more impact additions -- left-hander Jason Vargas, right fielder Nori Aoki, second baseman Omar Infante -- for 2014.

That said, Kansas City primarily is a homegrown team. Hosmer and Moustakas. Perez and Gordon. Starting pitchers Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura. And all those hard-throwing relievers -- Aaron Crow, Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera and Louis Coleman.

One thing that should be said for the Royals: They're not likely to be flustered by the grinding pressure of a pennant race. For the last three seasons, they've lived with self-imposed pressure, with high expectations and fans who desperately wanted to believe the worst was over.

To get to 86 victories last season was a breakthrough, but it didn't get Kansas City in the postseason. And then just when this season looked like a repeat of some of those other disappointing seasons, the Royals snapped to life.

It's a fun ride and a reminder of what they once were. When the Royals won the World Series in 1985, they were arguably baseball's model franchise, from the ownership of Ewing Kauffman to general manager John Schuerholz to a clubhouse led by George Brett.

From Royals Stadium (now Kauffman Stadium) to a model farm system, the Royals did things the right way. Perhaps we'll look back and see that a similar groundwork was laid the last few years. Or maybe we should just enjoy the first-place ride for however long it lasts.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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