Vahe Gregorian: It's time for reeling Royals to look toward 2022

Vahe Gregorian
The Kansas City Star (TNS)
VAHE GREGORIAN

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The night before had been so exhilarating and compelling for the Royals and their fans, who were left to bask in an improbable 7-6 victory over Cincinnati delivered after they'd trailed 6-1 in the eighth inning and perfectly punctuated by Salvador Perez's walk-off RBI single.

That marked the first time in five years they'd overcome a deficit of five runs or more that late in a game. And it was their 21st comeback win of the season, making them one of just five teams with multiple five-run comeback wins this season.

It wasn't the sort of stuff just any team creates, especially not one that stood 35-49 entering that game. And it was enough to make you (or at least gullible me) wonder if the afterglow might have at least a flicker of staying power.

At least for a day or so, if not along the lines of the way those momentous comebacks against Texas in the first two games seemed to fuel what became the best record in baseball over the first month of the season.

But ... nah.

Instead, Tuesday night was just another sparkler fizzling out on an increasingly exasperating and underperforming season for the Royals, who were the epitome of a streaky team that could go either way until a grim 7-20 June.

On Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium, they flubbed a 2-0 lead and wasted a reassuring outing by young pitcher Brady Singer (one run in six innings) in a 5-2 loss to end a 3-3 homestand and fall to 36-50.

Consistent with the "if it's not one thing, it's another" theme of the season, this one came with the twist of reliever Scott Barlow surrendering three runs after being the Royals pitcher of the month in both May and June.

Then they headed to Cleveland (against which they are 1-5 this season) for four games on into the All-Star break.

And then what?

For one theory on that, let's turn to hotshot prospect Bobby Witt Jr.

Not to bring him up from Class AA Arkansas just yet, but for some of his wit and wisdom:

"You either win or you learn, I think," he said a few weeks ago in Springdale.

He was speaking in the context of his own development, which we imagine has him on trajectory to be with the parent club by early September if not before. But it has a broader application here.

The Royals aren't winning. And until proven otherwise, it's hard to foresee them flipping the script after the break unless Adalberto Mondesi finally returns and stays healthy and Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier return from the Twilight Zone and the starting rotation establishes some reliability.

So what will they be learning the rest of the season?

There's no one answer, and maybe no obvious answers at all. And the point isn't that they should surrender or tank or force-feed prospects, etc. Maybe there are some fine moments ahead and even some decent streaks to be salvaged.

But they're also in a strange limbo right now, stranded in a season that once had the earmarks of being their first meaningful steps forward since back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons before the COVID-warped 2020.

And that means the focus ought now to be primarily on 2022 and whatever the best portal toward that can be.

Among plenty of other things, that means staring down hard internal questions about who truly represents essential parts of the foundation going forward, what's to be done about those who aren't to make way for cultivating those who are, and re-examining the delicate balance of accelerating development of prospects without over-exposing players who aren't ready.

Again, there's no one answer and infinite questions. But the Royals need to be honest with themselves and drill deeper on what's gone awry and why, because they were supposed to be beyond rebuilding by now.

To borrow from Whit Merrifield as the Royals lost a fifth game in a row earlier in the season, we knew it wouldn't be "peaches and roses all year." But to borrow from a friend, we didn't expect so many pits and thorns, either.