It has been so long since Kansas City saw the postseason that it's never too early to look for positive signs.
The Royals just completed a winning road trip that took them to National League East-leading Atlanta, where they went 1-1, and American League East-leading Boston (2-1). And after splitting a rain-shortened series against the division-rival Tigers, the Royals opened a 10-game homestand Friday, sitting atop the AL Central.
Not bad for a team that hasn't seen the postseason since it knocked off St. Louis in seven games in the 1985 World Series, and has had only one winning season since 1994.
"This is a phenomenal road trip for us," said right-hander James Shields, who knows a bit about winning from his days in Tampa Bay. "About August, we're going to look back at this road trip, and it's going to be pretty crucial.''
Shields is part of a revamped rotation that the Royals are building their hopes around. Luis Mendoza is the only holdover from last year's season-opening rotation, and he has been slotted into the No. 5 spot. Because of off-days and postponements, he started only two of the first 19 games. Shields and Wade Davis were acquired in an offseason deal with Tampa, Ervin Santana was an offseason addition from the Angels, and the Royals acquired Jeremy Guthrie last July from Colorado.
• How big a deal was Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler's two-run double off Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel that tied the score in the bottom of the ninth in an eventual 6-5, 12-inning Colorado win on Wednesday? Well, it ended Kimbrel's scoreless streak at 22 1/3 innings over 23 appearances, dating back to his final appearance of August. Kimbrel had not allowed more than two runs in a month last year. And he had gone 73 innings in 75 games without allowing a hitter to drive in two runs against him, dating back to Omar Infante's two-run, game-ending home run at Miami on Sept. 19, 2011.
Kimbrel allowed three hits in that ninth inning. He had given up only three hits in his previous nine appearances and 8 2/3 innings this season. He had not given up three hits in an inning in 129 appearances covering 127 1/3 innings dating back to May 18, 2011, when he allowed four consecutive two-out singles and gave up two runs in the 11th inning of a 4-2 loss at Arizona. Current teammate Justin Upton had the fourth deciding hit and game-ending RBI.
In 170 innings spread over 173 big league appearances, Kimbrel has allowed three or more hits in an inning only three times -- Wednesday at Colorado; May 18, 2011 at Arizona; and May 11, 2011 against Washington. He has allowed only 4.8 hits per nine innings and a .153 batting average in his big league career.
• The big deal is not that seven teams went into the weekend converting 50 percent or fewer of their save opportunities this year, but rather four of those teams were considered contenders coming into the season. The Angels had the worst conversion rate in the Major Leagues at 33 percent (2-for-6), and checking in at 50 percent were the D-backs (7-for-14), Tigers (4-for-8) and Rays (3-for-6). The three others who haven't had late-inning success are the Cubs (5-for-11, 45.5 percent), the Marlins and the Mets, both 2-for-4. Texas, meanwhile, is 8-for-8, and Pittsburgh has converted 10 of 11 opportunities.
There have been only 16 teams since the advent of divisional play in 1969 that failed to convert more than half of their save opportunities. The worst success rate was 41.4 percent by the 1974 Angels, who converted 12 of 29 chances.
In the last 10 seasons, there has been only one team that failed to convert at least half -- the 2002 Cubs, who were 23-for-48 (47.9 percent). And in the last decade, only three other teams managed to convert exactly half -- the 2011 Astros (25-for-50), 2002 Rangers (33-for-66) and 2008 Nationals (28-for-56). All four lost at least 90 games, with the Rangers dropping 90, the Cubs 95, the Nats 102 and the Astros 106.
• Detroit went into the weekend as the only AL team to not have a home run from its designated hitter (Minnesota has one). The fewest home runs hit by a team's DH spot since the advent of the rule is four, done by the Rangers in 1981. Four teams have had only five DH home runs in a season -- the White Sox in 1974, the Twins in 1981 and 1998, and Blue Jays in 1991.
• With the ongoing NFL draft, I wonder how many people know that the only man to pinch-hit for Ted Williams happened to be a third-round draft choice of the San Francisco 49ers in 1955. Carroll Hardy caught 12 passes for the 49ers that season and then opted to play professional baseball.
Hardy was called on to hit for Williams on Sept. 20, 1960, when, in the first inning, Williams fouled a ball off his foot and had to come out of the game. Hardy lined into a double play. Hardy also was the only player to pinch-hit for Williams' left-field replacement in Boston, Carl Yastrzemski, on May 31, 1961, Yastrzemski's rookie season. Hardy was eventually traded by the Red Sox to Houston for outfielder Dick Williams, who eventually managed the Red Sox to the 1967 AL pennant, and also managed Oakland, the California Angels and Seattle en route to being enshrined in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Hardy, who lettered in football, baseball and track at the University of Colorado, hit .225 with 17 home runs and 113 RBIs in 433 big league games. After baseball, he spent 20 years in the front office of the NFL's Denver Broncos.
• Out of left field factoid of the week: In the Yankees' lineup on April 17, DH Ben Francisco hit fifth followed by a player whose first name is the same as his surname, catcher Francisco Cervelli. Stat whiz Diane Firstman figured out this oddity has occurred just 130 times since 1916, with the last time being on April 12, 2011, when Brendan Ryan hit ahead of Ryan Langerhans for the Mariners.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less