By DAVE SKRETTA
(KANSAS CITY, Mo., AP) — James Shields thinks back to last year, thoughtfully piecing together what was missing from the Kansas City Royals as they made a late push for the postseason.
The pitching was strong. The offense was coming around. The defense was sublime.
He finally settled on experience.
“These guys that didn’t realize or have never been to September, when you’re fighting for a playoff spot, now you have that experience,” Shields said. “And I think that was one of the things we were lacking last season, the experience. You tend to put too much on your shoulders. And I think the second half we definitely relaxed and put all that aside and had fun and played the game the way we know how to play, and it showed.
“I think with the experience factor now,” Shields concluded, “we’re ready to go.”
After finishing 86-76 a year ago, and contending into September for the first time in a decade, the Royals have their sets sight squarely on their first playoff appearance since 1985 this year.
Anything less would be a disappointment. Anything less would be a failure.
“Last year was a blast. When the end of the season came in Chicago, nobody wanted to leave,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “They knew how close we were. We were right there. And it left a good taste in everyone’s mouth going into the offseason, knowing how good everyone can be.”
Indeed, the Royals return most of their key players from a year ago, signing left-hander Jason Vargas to replace their only significant loss, starting pitcher Ervin Santana. They also upgraded at their weakest spots, trading for Norichika Aoki to play right field and bat leadoff and signing Omar Infante to settle a second base position that has been a black hole for years.
All of which left the notoriously frugal franchise with a record-setting payroll.
Royals manager Ned Yost hopes all those moves will pay off for a rotation that was among the league’s best last year, and an offense that was among the league’s worst.
“It’s going to be a lineup that has offensive sequence from one to nine. You’re not going to have any dead spots,” Yost said. “You’re not going to get something going and then bam, run into a wall and have to get going again. At least, I hope not. I don’t think so.”
So with more experience and an upgraded lineup, Kansas City enters its season opener Sunday at Detroit with boundless enthusiasm. But if the Royals are finally to break that postseason drought, here are five story lines to watch:
ACE VENTURA, A STAR: Flame-throwing right-hander Yordano Ventura won a job in the rotation in spring training, and the Royals hope he can become an ace. He certainly has the potential. With a 100 mph fastball and improving off-speed stuff, he’s been dominant in spring training.
“I’ve learned a lot,” said Ventura, who had a 3.52 ERA in three starts with the Royals last September. “It’s not how hard you throw, it’s how you locate and how you keep guys off balance.”
MOOSE GETS LOOSE: Third baseman Mike Moustakas has long been considered a cornerstone of the future. The Royals need him to play like it. He hit just .233 with 12 homers and 42 RBIs a year ago, but was raking in spring training after heading to Venezuela for winter ball.
“You know he’s taking his job serious and that’s all you want,” Hosmer said. “You want to play with guys who take their jobs as seriously as you do.”
AN APPLE A DAY: The Royals stayed reasonably healthy last season. This spring has been another story. Setup man Luke Hochevar has already undergone Tommy John surgery, and Infante and shortstop Alicdes Escobar have each missed significant time with lingering ailments.
BULLPEN BLITZ: Kansas City had the best bullpen in baseball last season, anchored by All-Star closer Greg Holland. Just about all of its pieces return, but the question is whether those guys can live up to the same lofty standard.
“The bullpen is going to be great again,” reliever Aaron Crow said. “In my opinion, we’ve had the best bullpen in baseball the last few years, and I just think we can keep getting better.”
FOCUS ON THE NOW: Forget about the future. The Royals know their window for winning is squarely in the present. Shields is a free agent after the season and it is unlikely Kansas City will be able to keep him. Other young players such as Hosmer will also be hitting free agency soon.
“We have the pieces to do it,” Hosmer said. “We just have to let it all happen.”