The Young and the Relentless: Royals at Cards

The St. Louis Cardinals welcome the Kansas City Royals for a midweek interleague series, opening a study in contrasts.

We don't need biblical rains and rivers swollen miles wide to know that there is a gulf yawning between the baseball cities of St. Louis and Kansas City. It's been there for decades.

On one side of the gulf, every calamity can be made into yet another step to climb, another hill to summit. So the St. Louis Cardinals lose their best hitter and two best pitchers in the same week? So they absorb an epic 20-2 blowout at the hands of the surging Phillies, and have their emotional leader's head forcibly planted into the ground by an opposing baserunner?

Where some teams would likewise ostrich their own heads in the sand, the Redbirds' jaws jutted out with all the more obstinance. They managed to win the series, spitting vinegar the whole way.

The roots of fandom are well seated on this side of the gulf, and Cardinal colors spread like weeds. They've been consistently nurtured by deep playoff runs and a fair share of glory.

But where the soil on this side is rich, the other side is poor.

The Royals were not physically uprooted when their benevolent owner Ewing Kauffman passed on, but the hand that feeds the countryside now has something of a black thumb. Investment in new seedlings was cut short, promising new crops were told they couldn't thrive here and were quickly transplanted. So penurious was the new gardener that they would not even invest in the typical amount of manure to spread around.

No, the land here is cold and dry, and those that stick are few, which makes it easy to cast a baleful eye toward this Royals team and its chances to sprout. But in truth, they have a lot more in common with the Milwaukee Brewers of two or three years ago – a team with visible seeds of hope but finding hard purchase for growth – than they do with a truly awful, directionless roster like the woeful Seattle Mariners or San Francisco Giants.

There were early hopes spread as this year's Royals jumped out to a sunny April record, achieving four games above .500 in rapid manner and becoming one of five surprise division leaders into the third week of April. Of these spring surprises, though – Baltimore, Florida, the White Sox, the Cardinals and the A's – only the Royals wilted completely. Each of these other hot starters stands either at .500 or above today.

The curse of the young Brewers of two or three years ago, just as it is the curse of the Royals today, was the long unstoppable losing streak. April ended in Kansas City on a 4-10 bender that included a seven-game skid. Despite pulling back to within one game of .500 in May, the month ended on a stifling 2-13 run that included a 12-game run of losses.

While Zach Greinke (outstanding April) and Gil Meche (good May and June) have shown promise, the team lacks for a consistent "stopper" in the rotation. The only dominating pitcher wearing powder blue is their closer, Joakim Soria, who began the year on a 17-inning scoreless tear, and is among league leaders with 15 saves. But, we give them a point in their favor; they have one dominating pitcher, which is better than any Royals team in recent memory.

And while the lineup is largely punchless, they do have at least a couple young players that could develop and prosper, notably sweet-swinging lefty Alex Gordon (24) and "future batting champion" Billy Butler (22). However, the one player that is the light in the eyes of the few dedicated Royals followers is the career AAA-er that their team called up in the process of sending the struggling young Butler down to the minors.

That man is shortstop Mike Aviles, age 27, and all he has done this year is ring up crooked numbers next to his name in the newspapers. He started his third year in Omaha with ten homers in two months, and finally earned his long-awaited call to Kansas City, where he has hit .341/.372/.659 with eight extra base hits in 11 games.

Aviles is a man who can play three infield positions, including a specialty at shortstop, and who was "blocked" from so much as a September callup by such unnotables as Tony Pena Jr., Angel Berroa, and utility man Esteban German. Given his first taste of the sun, he seems determined to sprout.

As this team crosses the gulf between our neighboring cities, few of their fans are expected to travel with them. It is still a difficult country over there, and one that doesn't spawn many vacationers. However, a team of seedlings like this is always dangerous when exposed to the hothouse of a thriving team like ours.

 

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