By Jack Moore
On August 12, the Royals capped off one of the most impressive runs baseball has seen this season when a 6-2 win over Miami marked Kansas City's 17th win in 20 games. Royals TV ratings are soaring. The club set new records on a nightly basis throughout the surge.
Only one team has had a better 20-game stretch than the Royals had from July 23 through August 12: the Rays, who won 18 of 20 from June 29 through July 22. Four other teams have pulled a 17-3 stretch over 20 games: the Dodgers, Braves, Tigers and Athletics.
The Braves (14.5 games up in the NL East), Dodgers (7.5 games up in the NL West) and Tigers (6.5 games up in the AL Central) are all but in, with playoff odds of 98 percent or better as of this writing, according to Baseball Prospectus. The Rays and Athletics hold the two Wild Card spots in the American League.
And then there are the Royals. After a pair of excruciating losses to the Marlins -- as are all losses to the Marlins in 2013 -- and a series-opening los to Detroit, Kansas City still finds itself in third place in the American League Central, 8.5 games behind Detroit. The wild card outlook isn't as rosy as one might hope, either. The Royals trail Oakland by just 5.5 games, but they also trail Cleveland and Baltimore and have just a half-game lead on the Yankees.
It all comes out to playoff odds of just 5.3 percent for the Royals. It's a great improvement over the outlook heading into this stretch -- 0.9 percent on July 23 -- but Baseball Prospectus's number-crunching suggests the Royals were in better shape at 21-23 on May 23 than they are following the best baseball they've played in decades.
Blame it on the cruelty of the Detroit Tigers juggernaut. The Tigers went 14-5 through the Royals hot stretch, despite missing Miguel Cabrera for about a week to an abdominal injury. Even Cleveland went 12-9 through this stretch, and they've regained second place in the division in the two games since.
It's either rotten timing or rotten luck. The other five teams made significant headway in their playoff chases or widened a gap already in place with their 17-3 stretches, as the graphic below shows:
The vertical axis shows games over .500 in order to place streaks from May and July on the same scale. Data comes from Baseball-Reference.com's excellent Streak Finder.
The Rays picked up at least 5.5 games on three American League East opponents in surging to the top of the Wild Card standings. Oakland picked up seven games against Texas and held the division lead for 60 days before falling out of first place on Aug. 10; they still hold the second Wild Card slot. Atlanta opened its lead over Washington to 14 games. The Dodgers picked up seven games on Arizona to move into first place in the National League West, and the Tigers picked up 5.5 games on Cleveland in the American League Central.
The Royals? They picked up a meager game and a half on Detroit. As things stand, Kansas City is likely to become just the second team in the past five seasons to miss the playoffs with a 17-3 stretch. The other team is the 2011 Boston Red Sox, a team that only missed the playoffs due to the worst September fathomable. The other 10 teams all at least made the postseason, including the 2009 champion Phillies.
This year's Royals would also become the first in franchise history to miss the playoffs with a 17-3 stretch, even though the previous three to have such a streak -- the 1977, 1978 and 1980 clubs under Whitey Herzog -- were playing without even a single wild card.
It just goes to serve as more ammunition for a personal favorite sports notion: a team cannot guarantee a winning season in the first two months, but it can put itself out of contention. That's exactly what Kansas City did from May 14 through June 4, as seen at right. Neither Detroit or Cleveland were able to distance themselves. Both went under .500 and suffered losing streaks of at least four games. But Kansas City threw it all away and more by going 4-16, including eight consecutive losses. Only Philadelphia (July 20 to Aug. 11), Miami (May 8 to May 30) and San Diego (June 25 to July 19) have endured worse stretches this year, all at 3-17. Kansas City dropped five games on Detroit and 4.5 on Cleveland. By the time the slide was done, the Royals' playoff odds sat at 1.9 percent, with just a 0.1 percent chance of catching Detroit for the division crown.
There is some good news. Kansas City is playing its best baseball of the year. The club is as healthy as a team can hope to be in August -- although center fielder Lorenzo Cain's absence will hurt, he's the only significant player on the disabled list. Most importantly, though, the Royals have eight games left against the Tigers, including the final four of a five-game set starting with a doubleheader on Friday.
If the Royals can continue their run with a series win against Detroit, maybe they can finally give their playoff odds a real boost. A sweep of the remaining games would put the Royals within 4.5 games. Still, it must be distressing for the fans and club alike to see some of the best play in franchise history do so little for their postseason hopes. Unfortunately for Kansas City and the fans waiting for a playoff appearance since 1985, the Royals' futile stretch in May is looking like it will be the more relevant one come October.
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Jack Moore's sports addiction was a lost cause from the moment his older brother mowed a makeshift baseball diamond into his backyard. Now he writes about sports wherever the web will have him. Right now, you can catch him at CBSSports.com, FanGraphs, Advanced NFL Stats, Bucky's 5th Quarter, DisciplesOfUecker.com, RotoWire.com and on Twitter (@jh_moore).