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Royals’ rise to first a fitting step after gradual progress

  • Kansas City Royals' Alcides Escobar, left, and Jarrod Dyson celebrate after their baseball game against the Oakland Athletics, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Kansas City, Mo. The Royals won 3-2. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

    Kansas City Royals' Alcides Escobar, left, and Jarrod Dyson celebrate after their baseball game against the Oakland Athletics, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Kansas City, Mo. The Royals won 3-2. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

  • Kansas City Royals' Norichika Aoki, from Japan, celebrates in the dugout after scoring on a single by Alcides Escobar during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Oakland Athletics, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

    Kansas City Royals' Norichika Aoki, from Japan, celebrates in the dugout after scoring on a single by Alcides Escobar during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Oakland Athletics, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

  • Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon catches a fly ball for the out on Oakland Athletics' Jed Lowrie during the second inning of a baseball game Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

    Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon catches a fly ball for the out on Oakland Athletics' Jed Lowrie during the second inning of a baseball game Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

  • Kansas City Royals' James Shields works against the Oakland Athletics in the first inning of a baseball game, Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

    Kansas City Royals' James Shields works against the Oakland Athletics in the first inning of a baseball game, Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

  • Kansas City Royals' Alcides Escobar, left, and Jarrod Dyson celebrate after their baseball game against the Oakland Athletics, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Kansas City, Mo. The Royals won 3-2. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
  • Kansas City Royals' Norichika Aoki, from Japan, celebrates in the dugout after scoring on a single by Alcides Escobar during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Oakland Athletics, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
  • Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon catches a fly ball for the out on Oakland Athletics' Jed Lowrie during the second inning of a baseball game Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
  • Kansas City Royals' James Shields works against the Oakland Athletics in the first inning of a baseball game, Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – When the Royals rolled out of bed yesterday morning and glanced at the standings, they saw something that hadn’t been the case since many of them were in junior high school.

Kansas City was sitting atop the AL Central and the playoffs were closer than opening day.

After they won their eighth straight game Monday night, against AL West-leading Oakland no less, the Royals assumed control of their division at the latest point in a season since 2003.

Perennial powerhouse Detroit had been relegated to second place, at least for a day, and an entire city that has been starved for winning was able to relish the moment.

“I haven’t experienced anything like this, a playoff run,” said outfielder Lorenzo Cain, who was born a year after Kansas City last made the playoffs in 1985. “I did in the minor leagues, but it’s not the same as the big leagues. It’s a lot of fun.”

Indeed, the Royals have been a national laughingstock most of the past 30 years.

They lost at least 100 games four times in a particularly inglorious five-year span, and churned through six managers in a seven-year stretch. Frugal team owner David Glass was vilified by anybody who could recall the days when Kansas City was one of baseball’s model franchises.

It’s been a slow climb back to respectability, too.

While other clubs went on meteoric rises, General Manager Dayton Moore has spent nearly a decade restoring the shine to the Royals. He rebuilt a weak farm system that has begun to spit out major league talent. He made bold trades, shipping away Cy Young winner Zack Greinke a few years ago and top prospect Wil Myers in another deal to acquire starter James Shields.

And while their long-suffering fans remained restless, progress became evident: Since winning 65 games in 2009, the club has surpassed that total each successive season.

Last year was the true watershed, an 86-win campaign that represented their best record since 1989. But the truth was that happened only after a feverish second half, which helped atone for a lousy May but never truly put Kansas City into playoff position.

This year, the Royals are the team that others are chasing.

“They seem to do this once or twice a year, go on a big run, and a lot of times it’s a matter of when you catch them,” A’s Manager Bob Melvin said. “The last couple years they’ve gone on streaks like this, and when you look at their club you can see why.”

Start with the pitching staff, which just might be the best in the majors right now.

While they might not have the names of the A’s or Tigers – Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija, or Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander – they have a bunch of guys who’ve been just as stingy: Shields has pitched to a 1.63 ERA in his last seven starts, Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas have proven to be dependable veterans, and Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy have unleashed their vast potential.

Ventura allowed just two hits in the Royals’ 3-2 victory over Oakland on Monday night, while Duffy is carrying a 2.57 ERA and hasn’t lost in his last five starts.

Their bullpen, anchored by All-Star closer Greg Holland, has likewise been a steel trap.

Then there’s the offense, which has finally started to produce after an ugly first three months. Billy Butler is starting to resemble his All-Star vintage form of a couple years ago, third baseman Mike Moustakas appears to have righted his swing after banishment to the minor leagues, and veterans such as Omar Infante and Alex Gordon have proven to be stabilizing forces.

Throw in the experience that one of the youngest teams in baseball got last year, and all of a sudden these aren’t your daddy’s Royals anymore – they’re your grandpa’s Royals, the club that was always in playoff contention in the 1970s and early ’80s.

“We’re out there playing and having fun,” Butler said. “We’ve kept grinding, and we don’t let anything affect us. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we just play our game.”

Sure, there are still more than 40 games left in the regular season. Sure, it’s possible the Royals will cool off down the stretch. And sure, anything can happen in baseball.

But at least for one sunny morning in Kansas City, the Royals were in first place.

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