The Royals have had a rough stretch lately, dropping seven of their last nine, getting outscored 64-39 over that period. Their grip on home field advantage now seems tenuous with the red-hot Blue Jays charging and now trailing by just 2.5 games while holding the tie-breaker. The Royals seem to be playing their worst baseball at the worst possible time, with playoff baseball scheduled to start in just three weeks. The reaction from fans has ranged from concern to outright panic.
There is reason for concern. We saw three teams look like world beaters last season for much of the year only to collapse in the second half - the Tigers, Athletics, and Brewers. The Tigers had to scratch and claw to win the division by a game over the Royals, the A's went from the best team in the league to playing the Wild Card game on the road, and the Brewers went from having the best record in the league to not making the playoffs at all.
There was another team last year that had a huge division lead, only to see it melt away with poor baseball in the second half. This team dropped eight of eleven in September, including a sweep at the hands of a losing team, and a pair of awful blowout losses to a bitter division rival. That team was the San Francisco Giants.
The Giants had a 10 game lead on the West in June, but had a terrible stretch that month, fueled in part by some awful starts by their ace pitcher who gave up 20 runs in 24.1 innings. That pitcher? Madison Bumgarner.
The problems for the Giants carried over into September where they had to watch the Dodgers blow them out 9-1 to clinch the Western Division, their eighth loss in eleven tries. The Giants had once been shooting for home field advantage, and now would have to play on the road for the Wild Card game.
I don't think the Giants deserve to go the playoffs, they suck.— 2015 nl mvp (@fifthstarter) September 21, 2014
But you know how that story ended.
Of course, the Giants had Madison Bumgarner, but they are far from the only team to have some struggles in September only to have post-season success. The 1980 Royals had a disastrous September, dropping 18 of 26 games only to finally defeat the Yankees in the ALCS and win their first pennant. The '97 World Champion Marlins dropped seven of their last nine to end the year, part a losing month of September. The 2000 Yankees dropped 13 of their last 15 games but still managed to bring home another championship. The 2006 Cardinals dropped 9 of their last 12 and had a losing record in the second half but still won the World Series.
The point is, momentum is a thing until it isn't anymore. Baseball is a marathon with teams looking great one week, and terrible the next, then back to looking unbeatable. The important thing is the Royals are playing bad baseball in September, not October. There is still time for them to start looking good again.
Is there room for concern? Absolutely. Home field advantage is still up for grabs. The offense has been inconsistent. The bullpen is showing warts. Johnny Cueto looks awful. But playing poor baseball for a week and a half is no reason to panic. Good teams can play bad baseball. It happens.
But boy is it hard to watch.