Royals produce when it's needed most

They say that football is a game of inches.

It's not. Football is a game of yards.

Now, baseball ... baseball is a game of inches.

An inch here or there can make a huge difference in the standings, and it can also make a huge difference in the mood of a certain baseball writer who flew 2,000 miles to see his beloved Kansas City Royals play their biggest series in a long, long time.

See, Sunday afternoon the Royals had to win.

OK, so they didn't have to win. They could have lost, and they'd still have been in first place and they'd still have had at least a reasonable chance of finishing the season in first place and this particular baseball writer would have realized the world won't explode if his favorite team loses one baseball game in the middle of August.

Still, it seemed pretty important. After the Royals got absolutely blasted in the first two games of the series (9-2 and 14-5) things weren't looking so good, and some of us couldn't help but think of the Boston Massacre, almost exactly 25 years ago. (If you're a Red Sox fan born before 1970, feel free to skip the next paragraph.)

On September 7, 1978, the Red Sox still owned a four-game lead over the Yankees when the two clubs opened a four-game series at Fenway. The Yankees won all four games -- outscoring the Sox 42-9 -- to grab a share of first place. Of course, what's often forgotten is the Red Sox did not just roll over and die; from that point, they went 13-7 down the stretch and forced a playoff game that, but for a few inches, they might well have won.

So the Royals didn't have to win Sunday. It just seemed that way.

Entering the series against the Twins, the Royals were four games ahead of the Twins and two games ahead of the White Sox. Those leads weren't exactly safe, doubly not because the Twins and the White Sox are, by almost any objective measure other than the standings, actually better than the Royals. But if the Royals could somehow sweep the Twins, they'd exit the series with a seven-game lead over the Twins, which at this point in the season is substantial. If the Royals could win just once, they'd still have a three-lead over the Twins, which is perhaps less than substantial but quite a lot better than nothing.

But if the Twins could sweep the Royals ... well, that's a one-game lead and you might as well consider them tied, especially considering the Royals and Twins play virtually the same schedule down the stretch.

And at noon Sunday, when I and 25 other Royals fans entered Kauffman Stadium, a Twins sweep didn't look at all unlikely, because the first two games of the series brought to mind a new massacre: the Kansas City Massacre.

In the first game, Runelvys Hernandez -- once the Royals' ace -- pitched so poorly that Sunday he was dispatched to the Double-A Texas League.

In the second game, Jimmy Gobble -- who was lucky enough to face the Devil Rays in his first two major-league starts -- finally ran up against a good team, and he didn't answer the bell for the fourth round/inning.

So like I said, the third game looked pretty important. And the Royals squeaked out a win, thanks to a couple of home runs, Darrell May's control ... and a few inches here and there. This season the Twins and Royals have played five one-run games and the Royals have won all five of them and that's not skill, that's luck.

But a win's a win, and 5-4 counts the same in the standings as 14-5.

The Royals still have a three-game lead over the Twins, and they've also got a three-game lead over the White Sox, who got massacred in Texas this weekend -- in losing three to the Rangers, the Sox were outscored 29-17 -- and they've lost five straight, seven of their last nine, and 10 of their last 15.

Can the Royals take advantage? Well, two things need to happen. First, they've got to have Carlos Beltran and Mike Sweeney in the lineup together, which hasn't happened often this season. And second, they need to pitch better.

How shaky is the Royals' pitching? Well, consider ...

The Kansas City Royals do not have a 10-game winner on their staff. That's not the be-all and end-all of pitching success; the Giants have only one 10-game winner, and he (Jason Schmidt) has only 12 wins.

But that's not even the half of it.

Chris George leads the Royals with nine wins, which was so impressive that Chris George is now pitching for Triple-A Omaha.

Runelvys Hernandez is tied for second on the Royals with seven wins, which was so impressive that Runelvys Hernandez is now pitching for Double-A Wichita.

Jose Lima is tied with Runelvys Hernandez, which is impressive considering that Lima started this season as one of Rickey Henderson's teammates, pitching for Zero-A Newark. Monday night, Lima comes off the DL to pitch against the Yankees, and there's no telling if his groin will hold up.

And then there's the bullpen. When the season started, the Royals' closer was a rookie named Mike MacDougal, and he was backed up by a guy with a deadly sinker named Jason Grimsley. Well, after Sunday's game -- it was close, so neither of them was actually allowed to pitch -- MacDougal's ERA stands at 4.59, Grimsley's at 4.35. I mean, you want to talk about plans going awry, four months ago these two were considered, in no particular order, the Royals' best relievers. Now, both are somewhere between fourth and seventh on the depth chart. MacDougal, who in the first half of the season saved 24 games while earning an All-Star berth and the nickname "Mac the Ninth," has become "Mac the Sixth," for the simple reason that he can't throw his slider or curve for strikes and his 98-mph fastball isn't enough. Since the All-Star break, MacDougal's numbers include one save and a lovely 13.50 ERA.

Grimsley's a strange one, too. When his sinker's working it's one of the best pitches in the game -- think Kevin Brown --but when it's not, all he's got is a straight mid-90s fastball that, like MacDougal's, lights up the eyes of most major-league hitters.

Anyway, those guys are out of the picture. Sunday afternoon, the Royals "had" to win.

There are people out there, believe it or not, who think managing is easy. That all you have to do is punch the numbers into a computer, and everything will become apparent.

It's not easy. Mike MacDougal pitched well in the first half of the season. He wasn't great and he probably didn't belong on the All-Star team, but he was usually effective and occasionally brilliant. While it's true he's pitched poorly since the break, it's also true we're talking about only nine innings, and almost anybody can pitch poorly over the course of nine innings.

So the manager has to ask himself two things: "Does MacDougals's recent performance actually reflect his skills at this point?" and "If I yank MacDougal from the closer role, will there be a negative psychological impact on him? And will MacDougal's teammates worry about their jobs when they go through a tough stretch?"

Tony Pena is a player's manager, in large part because he shows a great deal of confidence in nearly every player on his roster. But that can take you only so far. If the Royals had beat the Twins Friday night or Saturday afternoon, maybe MacDougal would have been given another chance on Sunday.

But they didn't and he wasn't. With the Royals clinging to a one-run lead after eight innings, in the stands all we could talk about was this: Who would come out for the ninth?

Well, MacDougal remained in the bullpen and watched Curtis Leskanic trot to the mound. Leskanic wasn't perfect, but he was good enough to earn his first save in nearly two years.

The Kansas City Royals aren't very good. But at this moment they're three games better than anybody else in the only place it counts. My head tells me the Royals are more likely to wind up in third place than first place. But my heart tells me baseball's a game of inches, and over the next six weeks the Royals just might get enough of the inches to do something that's never been done before.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.