Talk about tough losses. Look at what happened to the Kansas City Royals last Saturday night. In dropping a 15-inning, four-hour-and-13-minute pitchers' duel 2-1 to the Chicago White Sox. the Royals went 1 for 13 with runners in scoring position; lost to a 29-year-old rookie pitcher, Jeff Schwarz, who had never won a major league game; lost consecutive games for the first time since May 4; and had their streak of victories in one-run games stopped at 10. Moments after the game ended, K.C. manager Hal McRae strode into his office, sat down, slapped his hands down on his desk and....
No, he didn't fire a tape recorder across the room, kick his TV or scream obscenities for three minutes while brandishing a bottle of vodka. He smiled and said, in all sincerity, "Best game of the year. Memorable game. We don't lose any momentum losing a game like that. I would have paid to see a game like that. I can sleep tonight. We played a brave game."
Whew! How times have changed in Kansas City, where the Royals, who through Sunday had won 13 of their last 19 games, are now raving about losses. Back on April 26 the Royals were 7-12, McRae supposedly was in danger of losing his job, and anyone who witnessed the fury he unleashed in his office after a particularly frustrating 5-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers was in danger—period.
But last Saturday night, there was McRae saying, "How can you hang your head over a game like this? Now, if we had been playing bad baseball, you could probably classify this one as an agonizing loss. But we're still playing good baseball. We're still in first place."
First place? Who would have thought the Royals, a team that lost its first five games of the season and nine of its first 11, would be in first place by 1½ games in the American League West in mid-June? Even in this weak division, a disastrous start could have buried Kansas City for the second year in a row. (Its 1-16 start in '92 set the stage for a 72-90 season.)
But this time the Royals have turned their season around, and the reasons were clear in Saturday night's marathon. The heart of the upgraded Kansas City defense—shortstop Greg Gagne, a free-agent signee, and second baseman Jose Lind, acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates—made four fabulous plays against Chicago. The reliable rotation contributed a 7⅓-inning stint by crafty No. 5 starter Chris Haney (3-0). The solid, veteran bullpen allowed one run in 7⅔ innings, including three perfect frames by the best closer in the American League this year, Jeff Montgomery, who threw 20 strikes in 25 pitches. The Royals' only run came in the seventh inning in typical fashion: bloop double, sacrifice bunt, two-out single. K.C. didn't make an error, and its five pitchers walked only one batter—on an intentional pass. In other words, the Royals, as usual, didn't beat themselves.
In fact, they bounced back on Sunday and defeated the White Sox 5-4 in another extra-inning test, with 40-year-old designated hitter George Brett putting on an offensive show. His two RBI singles helped stake K.C. starter Kevin Appier to a 4-0 lead after three innings. Then, with one out in the 10th, Brett stroked what appeared to be a routine single to left center—his fourth hit of the game—and he ran it into a double. Two batters later Kevin McReynolds drilled a single to left, scoring Brett with the winning run. It was the Royals' 20th one-run victory of the year, tops in the major leagues.
"It was fun touching home and seeing everyone run out of the dugout," Brett said. "It was like the good old days. And it's been like the good old days around here for the last month and a half."
Yes, Kansas City, which spent much of the late 1970s and early '80s ruling its division, is getting the timely hit, making the big play in the field and getting dependable pitching again. No, the Royals are not winning solely because McRae trashed his office two months ago. As centerfielder Brian McRae, Hal's son, says, "We were ready to explode at that time anyway." But while Hal's outburst didn't make anyone play better, it did establish him, for the first time, as a man ready to take charge of his team.
"Hal was miserable and frustrated, and we weren't responding to being 2-9," says pitcher David Cone. "He told us, if the worst thing that happens is I get fired, I'm O.K. To hell with everyone else.' There was a lot of anger there. He needed to vent it. When he did, we thought, He really does have some fire. It's the old Mac."