Stop if you’ve heard this before.
It’s a make-or-break series for the Kansas City Royals this weekend.
As the Royals approach the upcoming Fourth of July holiday — the traditional measuring stick for the Major League Baseball season — they host an important four-game, three-day series starting tonight at The K.
The formerly woebegone Minnesota Twins — baseball’s laughingstock last year — come to town with the best road record in the American League at 24-12. That has them just behind the Cleveland Indians in the American League’s Central Division standings and just ahead of the Royals, who contributed greatly to the Twins’ sad-sack record last year by pounding them in 15 of 19 faceoffs.
The Royals are just 3 1/2 games back of the Indians, but it feels like more. Cleveland has yet to hit its stride while Kansas City has needed a hot streak just to climb back to the elusive .500 mark, of which it is now one game under.
The Royals are also still in the wild-card chase as the American League is extremely balanced this year other than the runaway freight train Houston Astros.
But you get a sense if the Royals lose three of four or get swept by the Twins, it’s the beginning of the end.
There’s so much pressure on the Royals. July 31 — the trade deadline — keeps staring them in the face and no team in baseball has more high-profile free-agents-to-be. And their free agents happen to be five of the six most important players on the team, whose performance probably has to be affected somewhat since they don’t know on Aug. 1 if they’re still going to be with the team.
KC General Manager Dayton Moore has been sending out the vibe the Royals are going to be all-in for this year and not move anybody. But the trade deadline is the perfect time to replenish your roster if you have a big-name player with an expiring contract as teams often will overpay for that one missing piece to the puzzle, like the Royals did for Johnny Cueto or Ben Zobrist. While those players did help the Royals in the short term win the World Series, it wiped out their farm system pitching.
And pitching is what it’s all about for the Royals right now. Starters Danny Duffy and Nathan Karns have missed extensive time and replacements Jakob Junis and Matt Strahm are struggling. That puts so much pressure on Jason Vargas, Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel to deliver everytime they’re on the mound, though Kennedy and Vargas are being handsomely paid for little production as they have six wins between them (they’re being paid about a combined $20 this year).
Tonight’s game sets the tone. Vargas and Minnesota’s Ervin Santana are surprisingly the top two candidates to start the All-Star Game and they square off tonight. I keep waiting for Vargas’ bubble to burst, as few pitchers are successful with average stuff. Vargas has been a career .500 pitcher, but his Tommy John surgery has been an elixir as his career has turned around after missing last year.
My prediction is if the Royals win tonight, they’ll have a 2-2 weekend. A Vargas loss and I see them going 1-3 and falling farther behind.