MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Starter kit: KC rides rotation back into contention

Duffy emerges as ace for revitalized defending champs

Starter kit: KC rides rotation back into contention

It's not just that the Kansas City Royals' bullpen may again be the best in baseball. Been there, done that.

Nor is it that the Royals are playing the kind of take-your-breath-away defense that helped get them to the World Series the past two seasons. Kansas City has also done that before.

And it's not just that the Royals have won eight in a row and 13 of 15 to sprint back into contention. In the past two years, they've been baseball's gold standard for winning.

(Since July 22, 2014, Kansas City is 222-159, including the postseason. That's 22 more wins than any other American League club, 10 more than any National League team.)

This time, the Royals have something they didn't have the past two seasons. That would be -- for the moment, at least -- the AL's best starting rotation.

Kansas City's starters are 10-1 with a 2.53 ERA during the turnaround. Only the Cubs have been better.

And an ace has emerged. Left-hander Danny Duffy is a homegrown No. 1 starter who has come up with a devastating curveball to go with a 95-mph fastball.

Duffy has won 10 straight decisions after allowing one earned run in 6 2/3 innings of a 2-1 victory over the Twins on Sunday. He worked out of a bases-loaded, none-out jam in the second inning and extended his record to 11-1 with a 2.66 ERA in a late, emphatic run at the AL Cy Young Award.

Duffy's strong start

This surge wasn't what was predicted for the Royals when they were 51-58 on Aug. 5 and 11 games behind the Indians in the AL Central.

The AL Wild Card race didn't offer a lot of hope either. At the time, the Royals were 9 1/2 games out and had six teams to pass to get the second berth.

We patted them on the back, told them they'd done themselves proud by winning back-to-back AL championships and the World Series last fall.

This season of injuries and inconsistency reminded the world how difficult winning is and how extraordinary Kansas City's accomplishment had been.

What the Royals have done since then speaks volumes about the organization, about its winning culture and resilience.

"It's that time of the year to turn it on again," said Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, who put his team ahead to stay on Sunday with a run-scoring double in the sixth inning.

Hosmer's RBI double

Kansas City didn't have left fielder Alex Gordon for a month after he collided with Mike Moustakas on May 22. Moustakas was lost for the season.

Baseball's best reliever, Wade Davis, has been sidelined for a month with a sore elbow. Another important reliever, Luke Hochevar, has undergone surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome and is gone for the season.

The Royals have filled in here and there, called up some kids and watched things return to normal the past two weeks.

This renaissance is a reminder of how good and deep general manager Dayton Moore's organization is and how good manager Ned Yost is at his job.

"We got everything going for us again," Yost said. "I can't explain it. You just ride it."

No manager does a better job of getting his guys to play hard every single game and to focus on playing one inning at a time.

Sure, that's a cliche.

That's also what the real good teams do, what the real good organizations teach. And Moore and Yost would be the first to point out that it's about the players, about their professionalism and competitive fire and all the rest.

Even though the standings told the Royals there wasn't much hope, they kept showing up for work and playing hard and being accountable.

And then, suddenly, things changed.

Now, Kansas City has a chance. That's all. It may not be a great chance, but the Royals have at least put themselves in position to do something spectacular again.

Kansas City has cut its deficit in the AL Wild Card race from 9 1/2 games to 3 1/2. The Royals still have three teams ahead of them for the second spot, but they have 38 games remaining.

The division championship may be out of reach with the deficit at eight games, but two years ago, Kansas City had to open the postseason by winning the AL Wild Card Game.

This is how the Royals are doing it:

First, their bullpen has a 0.85 ERA, the best in baseball, the past two weeks. Kelvin Herrera has stepped in for Davis to anchor the ninth inning, but it's the relievers in front of him who've been so impressive.

Herrera's seventh save

Journeyman Peter Moylan, 37, has 10 straight scoreless appearances. Joakim Soria has an eight-game scoreless streak. Rookie Matt Strahm and veteran Brian Flynn each has a four-game scoreless streak.

And there are the starters. Ian Kennedy, Yordano Ventura and Dillon Gee have lined up nicely behind Duffy, and if they're able to keep going, the Royals at least have a chance.

Gordon is healthy again and has three doubles, five home runs and a .353 batting average in his past 14 games.

Defense remains the calling card, and the Royals had a string of highlight-reel plays on Sunday, including a couple by rookie third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert and shortstop Alcides Escobar along with sliding catches by Gordon in left field and Lorenzo Cain in right.

Royals' strong defense

"That's the strength of our team," Hosmer said. "When the pitchers are throwing a nice game, we do our best to make a few plays."

The Royals are also doing their best to write a different kind of ending to this season. Yost is right when he says they will ride it as long as it lasts. Based on recent history, that would be awhile.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.