Return to Royal-ty - KC establishes itself as surprise team

Saturday, April 26, 2003

If the Kansas City Royals keep this up, they'll turn baseball on its ear.

Despite losing 100 games last year and slashing payroll to something approaching pauper status in this age of free agency, Tony Pena's team headed into the weekend with the best team ERA and the highest winning percentage in the major leagues.

They haven't lost any of their 10 home games. And when they return home on May 5 to start a six-game homestand against Boston and Baltimore, they'll be two wins shy of the major league record the Detroit Tigers set by starting the season 12-0 at home in 1911.

Even after their 16-4 mark after Friday night's 6-5 loss to Toronto, the Royals still had a seven-game lead over defending AL Central champion Minnesota.

"People ask me are we really this good," said Pena, whose never-say-die attitude and "We Believe" motto seems to be exactly what this cohesive blend of veteran position players and fresh young pitchers wanted to hear.

"I say yes, we are this good."

Asking if the Royals are for real isn't even considered polite any more in a clubhouse that seems to be gaining confidence with every go-ahead run that crosses the plate.

The real thing?

"I don't really care if people think we're for real or not," said outfielder Raul Ibanez. "We know we're for real."

When forecasting contenders for the season, every expert and national commentator dismissed the Royals with a sneer. And why not?

This team hasn't had a winning season since 1994. They haven't appeared in the postseason since the final out of the 1985 World Series was made.

They came out of spring training with a five-man rotation that consisted of four unproven youngsters who didn't have more than a year of major league experience.

They and journeyman Darrell May had 21 major league wins among them. But righthander Runelvys Hernandez, with command of four pitches, is 4-0 with a 1.10 ERA.

Rookie closer Mike MacDougal, a tall, skinny right-hander with a whiplash fastball that's been clocked at 99 mph, is 9-for-9 in save situations and has an ERA of 1.80.

Even 31-year-old long reliever Albie Lopez has gotten on board, sporting a 3-1 record and an ERA of 2.31 after going 1-4 with a 4.37 ERA in 30 appearances last year with the Braves.

The staff ERA was 2.90 after 19 games. Pitching, defense and lucky breaks were enough to put together a just-completed 5-0 homestand even though the offense in four of those games was held to four runs or fewer.

"This winning, this momentum started in spring training," said the perpetually upbeat Pena, who is beginning his first full season as a major league manager. "That is where we learned to come together as a team."

Even though they insist they believe in themselves, the Royals know the rest of the world probably does not.

"Other teams are saying we haven't played anybody yet," said veteran third baseman Joe Randa. "They're saying wait 'til they have to go into New York and wait 'til they have to play Boston and Oakland and Seattle.

"Well, we did lose 100 games last year with essentially the same team. I don't think we should worry about playing well against the Yankees and Oakland. We have to worry about playing good every night."

Believing in each other

The main difference between this year's team and the losing teams the Royals have fielded the previous nine years seems to be a belief in each other.

"The family atmosphere on this team right now is incredible," said second-year starter Jeremy Affeldt.

The real test will come with the onset of the first five- or six-game losing streak.

"We know we've got a lot of tough times ahead," said Randa. "We've been getting a lot of breaks. I don't think we'll all throw up our hands and give up when the times get tough.

"But we also know it's not time to just hang up our cleats and say we've got it all figured out."

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