Three times this season the Royals dropped four games in a row. They did not want to lose five consecutive. Not now. Not in September.

Sure, this team is basically on cruise control. Entering Tuesday’s game on a four game skid, the club still held an 11 game lead over the Twins in the Central. Their playoff odds have been at 99 or 100 percent for at least a month. Still, losses incite worry. Worry can lead to panic. Panic… You don’t want to know where panic leads.

While a vocal minority of fans may be worried about the potential for a crash and burn, a four game losing streak isn’t really anything to get bent about. This is baseball. All teams hit lulls at multiple points during the season. The goal is always to minimize those moments and hope like hell they don’t happen in October. And guess what… The Royals have been really, really good at avoiding those during the 2015 season. Truly.

The Royals maintain an image of Zen. They have been through the wars. They know this September is about positioning and preparing for October.

That doesn’t mean they don’t stop working during the regular season. With a relatively healthy team for the first time since early July, they are gearing for the stretch run. On this September night, the Royals came into this game with a plan. Their scouting reports apparently told them that the way to get to Twins starter Kyle Gibson was to attack early in the count. That should be no problem for these Royals, right?

Let’s look at the first inning:

Ben Zobrist – One pitch. Single.

Zobrist_1st

Alex Gordon – One pitch. Single.

Gordon_1st

Lorenzo Cain – Four pitches. Walk.

Cain_1st

Eric Hosmer – Two pitches. A foul and a bases-clearing double.

Hosmer_1st

Kendrys Morales – One pitch. A run-scoring double.

Morales_1st

The carnage: Nine pitches, four hits, one walk, and four runs.

The funny thing about those pitches is that Gibson’s worst pitch – his first one to Hosmer – was fouled. All those other pitches weren’t exactly in a poor location. Yet the Royals hitters at the top of the order were ready for them and put them in play. Until that second pitch to Hosmer, they were all fastballs, between 91 and 89 mph. The Hosmer double came on an 84 mph change-up. The Morales double was on a curve.

The next batter was Mike Moustakas. He, too, swung at the first pitch. He fouled it off and then looked at four straight pitches outside the strike zone.

The Twins quickly got someone going in their bullpen. While the Twins have been effectively eliminated from the Central, they are still very much alive for the second Wild Card. The Royals are resting and figuring ways to prepare for October. The Twins are fighting for their spot. Gibson was fortunate to finally reach the lower third of the Royals lineup, otherwise known as Hack City. Salvador Perez looked at strike one, then saw six pitches out of the zone. He swung at four of them. He finally flew out to center on pitch eight, a slider on the lower outside corner of the zone. Alex Rios, now chicken pox free, after fouling off the first two pitches, grounded into an inning-ending double play.

From there, Gibson made adjustments. The Royals did not. In fact, the only Royal to reach base after the first inning barrage was Gordon, who added a double and a single to his tally.

The way the Royals starting pitching has been going of late, four runs isn’t exactly a magic number to get the win. Yet Edinson Volquez was up to the challenge. He got into a spot of trouble himself in the first inning allowing a leadoff single and then hitting the next batter, but like Gibson, Volquez was able to steady himself and get out of trouble with an inning-ending double play.

Here’s the great thing about baseball: While it’s September, there’s always room for adjustments. According to McCullough’s gamer, Volquez has been working with pitching coach Dave Eiland::

In between starts, Volquez credited Eiland for sharpening some imperfections in his delivery. Eiland shortened up Volquez first step, which improved the tilt on Volquez’s pitches and added downward action on his fastball. Volquez required that quality on a fastball to Trevor Plouffe in the first inning. With two men on and one out, Plouffe hit into a double play.

If you are among the subset of Royals fans prone to panic, the above graph (along with the win) should give you some measure of relief. This team is still working to get better. They see the imperfections and are working to correct them. They won’t always be this successful, but in most cases, it won’t be for lack of effort. Eiland saw something that could improve Volquez’s performance. Volquez listened to his coach. Success. The way it should be.
Volquez wobbled a bit in the third, surrendering two runs, but recovered nicely and kept the Twins off the board for the remainder of his time in the game. Wade Davis did his thing in the eight, which set the stage for the return of Greg Holland in the ninth.
Holland hadn’t thrown a pitch in anger for 11 days. The Royals, who just a month ago asserted that Holland needed regular work to stay sharp, had given their closer extended time off in order to get physically correct. He threw 10 pitches – four fastballs and six sliders. His fastball averaged 91 mph, way off his seasonal fastball average of almost 94 mph. While still troubling, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt after 11 days on the shelf. Who knows how often he threw on the side in between appearances. It’s entirely possible he’s not at 100 percent strength and will need a few games before he can get back to where he was earlier this season. Although, it’s also worth noting that his initial decline in velocity happened around this time last year. There are still plenty of questions surrounding Holland, but he still has the moxie to get the results. A ground ball to short where Escobar made an outstanding play, a tapper back to the mound, and a lineout to center and the ballgame was over.
If your hand was hovering over – or had already hit – the panic button, take a moment and rewind yourself. On Tuesday, you saw the likely October lineup. It wasn’t perfect, but the team managed to put together enough hits, got a good enough performance from their starter, turned to their lock-down bullpen and defense and put a win on the board. And that’s what counts, right?
The Royals magic number is 13.