CLEVELAND -- The Kansas City Royals won a game Tuesday night. There was a time rather recently when that didn't qualify as major news, but the American League Central's central figure has been laboring of late.
Not enough, mind you, to cause real panic that they're going to make history and cough up what was a 13-game division lead going into September. This club's first division title in 30 years remains a foregone conclusion. But with the expectation level set beyond the AL Central and into the realm of "World Series or bust," the Royals' recent malaise -- be it the product of inevitable regression, inescapable fatigue or even a bit of boredom -- is enough to make Kansas Citians uncomfortable.
"Even though we've had a big lead, it hasn't changed our psychology," manager Ned Yost said. "We set out every night to win a baseball game. I don't think anybody has rested on the laurels of a nine- or 10-game lead."
Let's be clear: The Royals still have a lot going for them. If you're finicky about the Johnny Cueto trade at the moment, you've still got to love the as-advertised impact of Ben Zobrist. Alex Gordon is healthy -- something that didn't necessarily look like a likely late-season truth two months ago. The whole defense-and-contact thing should still play well in October, and the best thing is that Kansas City won't have to move heaven and earth in the late innings of a one-and-done AL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser to get there.
But concerns? Yeah. The Royals have a few.
Cueto is become one of the biggest talking points in baseball, and that's not a good thing. Surprisingly, his turn in Kansas City's rotation has become as dreaded as his hair. And nobody really has a reliable explanation for why this is happening. Certainly not Cueto, who looked up to the heavens in the midst of Sunday night's battering in Baltimore as if to ask the baseball gods, "Why have you forsaken me?"
"He's been trying too hard," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said of Cueto. "Putting too much pressure on himself. He needs to just deliver the ball with conviction and trust our defense."
That may well be, but "trying too hard" doesn't always equate to a .417 batting average on balls in play, which is what Cueto's opponents have turned in against him over his past five starts (leading to 48 hits and 28 earned runs in just 26 1/3 innings).
Cueto dealt with minor right elbow issues earlier this year in Cincinnati, and he did pitch 243 2/3 innings last season after just 60 2/3 in an injury-riddled 2013. Maybe there's some lag there. But that explanation would make a lot more sense if there was a notable drop in velocity, and there isn't. Cueto's simply getting knocked around, and it's making Kansas City's rotation alignment decisions for October increasingly intriguing.
Yordano Ventura has made hugely encouraging strides over the past month, but he's also walked eight guys in his past two starts, and you really can't call him an established commodity at the moment. Edinson Volquez has been especially inconsistent of late (5.23 ERA dating back to Aug. 12). Unexpectedly, Danny Duffy might lose an October rotation spot to Kris Medlen.
What I'm saying is the Royals really need to cure this Cueto thing between now and Oct. 8.
The Royals' bullpen is deeper than it was in that rousing run through October last year. Alas, it might not be the bankable strength it was back then.
Closer Greg Holland's alarming decline in fastball spin rate has been the subject of much intellectual discourse, and his save in Tuesday's 2-0 win over the Indians was an adventure, to say the least. And Kelvin Herrera's been lit up a couple times this month, which has been an odd and unfamiliar sight.
If you believe in the law of bullpen averages, then the great Wade Davis himself might also be due for a blip or two between now and year's end. Or maybe the fact that Davis has given up 12 extra-base hits this season qualifies as a "blip" for that dude.
Anyway, it's unrealistic to expect Kansas City's Big Three to string together another 1.33 ERA in a sustained postseason run.
"These guys made history last year," Moore said. "To expect them to improve upon that would be almost impossible to do. But we feel good about where they are. Look, this whole thing is about executing pitches. If you execute pitches and play defense, you're going to get outs."
The Royals had the fewest innings pitched by starters in the AL in the season's first four months. If all that work caught up to the back end of the bullpen in some measure, it's understandable.
The Royals are 5-9 in September. If they finish the month with a losing record, it doesn't really matter in the context of a long-ago-decided division race. But I'm inclined to believe it matters in the bigger picture of the World Series search.
In the Wild Card era, these are the teams that have won the World Series after logging a losing record in the season's final month:
Short list. And though this is unsubstantiated conjecture on my part, I'd argue that having the hotter hand matters even more now than it did as recently as 2006. Talent-wise, teams are much more evenly matched in today's game.
Kansas City has held the top record in the AL since July 5, but this has become a real race with Toronto for the league's top seed. Though the Blue Jays still have to take care of the little matter of winning a division of their own, they've closed to within three games of the Royals in the less-publicized race to No. 1.
Toronto (47-25) and Kansas City (48-27) have two of the league's three best home records, and these two lineups are particularly well-constructed for their home parks. So the specific seeding could be important.
The Royals have been limited to two runs or less in six of their past 11, but you can probably chalk that up to the cycles of the season. There's a lot to like here, actually. Zobrist and Gordon are OBP machines atop the order. There has been absolutely no let-up from Lorenzo Cain, who remains on the fringes of the AL MVP Award discussion, or from Kendrys Morales. Mike Moustakas is finishing the season strong amid trying personal circumstances. And Salvador Perez is giving no indication that he'll be as physically run down as he was last October.
This club has appeared a little flat here lately, but my guess -- and that's all any of this is -- is that the offense will be fine.
Still, you would like to see Eric Hosmer gain some momentum, as he did in the lead-up to October 2014. Hoz's otherwise unremarkable regular season gave way to a .561 slugging percentage (six doubles, three homers) over his final 16 games, and we saw him parlay that run into a .544 SLG on the postseason stage.
This time around, Hosmer has been held homerless in his past 29 games, a span of 120 plate appearances. He has just four doubles in that span.
"He's a guy that when he gets hot, man, he can just bash the ball out of the ballpark anywhere," Yost said. "You're not going to stay hot all year."