It was the All-Star break. Kansas City had just chugged into the finish with a five-game skid that dropped it to 43-49.
Classic Royals, right? The continuation of another long losing streak and a mostly miserable second half was probably around the corner.
Time to see what interest there might be for starting pitcher Ervin Santana, a one-year rental who conveniently is enjoying his best year but is also a free agent at the end of the season. The non-waiver trade deadline of July 31 was looming.
A run toward .500, just the club's second since 1994, wasn't out of the question. Another step forward was likely.
Next year, the potential-filled offense would possibly come into its own complemented by a pitching staff that would obviously need to find a replacement for Santana — but Kansas City has good internal candidates and might be able to bring another one on board in that trade.
Then the Royals won two of three against AL Central leader Detroit. And three of four against playoff contender Baltimore.
Then they went on the road and swept both the White Sox and Minnesota, stretching their winning streak to nine games — the franchise's longest since improbably opening 2003 undefeated through nine — as the trade deadline passed.
They lost to the Mets in extra innings before winning the next two. They came home Monday to thrash the Twins.
Twelve wins in 14 games. A 14-4 record since the All-Star break.
Santana is still there.
And so are the Royals.
The Tigers have won 10 straight games, so Kansas City is still 8 ˝ games out in the division. And Cleveland has been hot too, with a recent eight-game winning streak and a 10-3 record since July 24. If those teams hadn’t kept pace, the Royals might be in first place now instead of third — and if they hadn’t gone 7-0 in one-run games since the break, maybe things wouldn’t look so rosy.
But Kansas City is five games out in the race for the second wild-card spot with 52 games to play.
Suddenly, the question is, are the Royals for real?
This has been several years in the making. Remember two years ago, Kansas City's farm system was ranked as the best in baseball — and perhaps the best ever — by Baseball America, which had nine Royals farmhands in its overall top 100.
Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, both top 100 prospects, started that season in Class AAA Omaha. Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson and David Lough formed perhaps the best outfield, offensively and defensively, that the Pacific Coast League has seen in years for the Storm Chasers.
Salvador Perez passed through Omaha that season, and he likely would have been considered a much better prospect if he hadn't been overshadowed by so many others in the system.
The Chasers won the PCL championship.
Now those six are establishing themselves — apparently for the long term — at the big league level. They've filled in around experienced, but still not that old, All-Star sluggers Alex Gordon and Billy Butler.
Perez, Hosmer and Cain are Gold Glove candidates. Hosmer is blossoming into the next All-Star. Perez already is. Moustakas started slowly but has the sixth-best OPS in the American League since the break.
Based on how they've always been evaluated, it should be no surprise that Hosmer and Moustakas are blossoming. Same goes for Cain and to some degree Dyson and Lough.
Through Monday, the Royals were just 10th in the AL in scoring (4.1 runs per game), eighth in average (.257), 13th in walks (285), 10th in on-base percentage (.313), 13th in slugging (.375), and 12th in OPS (.688). They are last with 73 homers, 20 behind the 14th-place Yankees. But they are tied for second with 84 stolen bases.
They're getting better, though.
Maybe it's a surprise it took this long, and maybe the league makes adjustments and Kansas City's young hitters aren't able to sustain their success. Time will tell.
But you can see the confidence growing, the youthful exuberance, the post-hit celebrations on the bases and in the dugout. You can see the belief spreading.
Of course, baseball's best offensive player since the All-Star break has arguably been Wil Myers. He was also one of those top-100 prospects from 2011 and the minor league player of the year in 2012 while spending most of the season in Omaha.
Kansas City traded Myers to Tampa Bay in the offseason, albeit for two pieces to its starting pitching rotation in James Shields and Wade Davis. Shields hasn't disappointed though Davis, with some exceptions, has.
But the retooled rotation, combined with a lights-out bullpen, has helped the Royals notch a 3.57 ERA — tied for the AL lead.
Greg Holland has become one of the best relievers in the game. Aaron Crow gets out of jams with his wipeout slider. Kelvin Herrera has struggled some, but is one of the hardest throwers in the majors. Luke Hochevar has apparently found what was missing as a starter after moving to the bullpen. And veteran Bruce Chen has moved seamlessly from the bullpen to the rotation when Luis Mendoza faltered. (Holland, Herrera and Mendoza were all Omaha players in 2011).
Meanwhile, Shields (6-8, 3.36 ERA), Santana (8-6, 2.97) and Jeremy Guthrie (12-7, 3.96) — all of whom are new to Kansas City’s rotation (Guthrie re-signed as a free agent after being traded to the Royals last July) — have, as hoped, formed a solid trio at the top of the rotation.
So, yes, the pitching doesn't seem to be a mirage. And with an Omaha staff on pace to set the PCL strikeout record, there seems to be plenty of options available down the stretch, including starter Danny Duffy.
Besides Perez, Hosmer and Cain, the Royals have a two-time Gold Glove winner in Gordon in left field and Alcides Escobar is a wizard at shortstop. Advanced metrics such as UZR (ultimate zone rating) shows Kansas City's defense as the league's best.
Losing Myers is going to sting progressively more, but some solid seasons from Shields and maybe a postseason trip or two might help ease the pain.
Santana seems to be having fun — maybe the Royals could talk him into a hometown discount and re-sign him in the offseason. A postseason trip would help there, too.
Kansas City can't find an answer at second base, but Miguel Tejada seems to have discovered the fountain of youth and is manning the position adequately while providing sage leadership.
There's still a ways to go to get to the playoffs.
And the long-term future of the franchise might have been better served if the Royals had been a trade-deadline seller and gotten one more injection of prospects for Santana.
Instead they were buyers, giving up a decent pitching prospect (Kyle Smith) for an apparently superfluous fifth outfielder in Justin Maxwell. But no one complained when Maxwell hit a game-winning homer in the 12th inning Saturday.
Wild card and West Division contender Texas lost slugger Nelson Cruz to the Biogenesis suspensions. The Tigers lost shortstop Jhonny Peralta for the same reason (but preemptively traded for slick-fielding Jose Iglesias) and have questions defensively and in their bullpen. Tampa Bay's offense wasn't that imposing before Myers got there. Baltimore is 13th in ERA.
Everyone has questions. And so do the Royals.
But they still have Santana.
And they still have a chance.