That was fast.

From my second-half preview of the American League on July 21:

“Despite their large lead, I’m inclined to believe that [the Royals] won’t sustain their overachievement on offense, and lacking a pitching staff that can support such a slump, will end the season under .500.”

Last night, the White Sox moved into a virtual tie with the Royals for first place, waxing the Mariners 12-1 at Safeco while the Royals were getting pounded by the Devil Rays, 9-6. Since July 17, the Sox are 13-1, the Royals 5-9. (For the sake of completeness, the Twins are 9-5 in that time, and stand 3 1/2 games out.) The boys in blue haven’t fallen under .500 yet, but at 57-50, are as close to that mark as they’ve been in weeks.

How did this happen? After beating the Mariners 7-1 in their first game after the break, the Royals had a 7 1/2 game lead in the division. Their edge was eight games over the Sox. While I didn’t think they’d hold on until October, I certainly thought they’d make it to August 11, when they begin a key two-week stretch against the Yankees and the Twins, 13 games I’d pegged as the key to their hopes.

The Royals have been lousy across the board. Over the past 14 games, they’ve have scored 62 runs and allowed 87. While their offense is off by 17%–down from 5.3 runs a game to 4.4–the real collapse has occurred on the mound, where they’re allowing more than six runs a game. [I will now write perhaps the most incongruous sentence of my career.] If not for Jose Lima, who has thrown 10 1/3 innings, struck out nine and allowed just one run in two starts, both Royals wins, they’d be in even worse shape. Jeremy Affeldt (2.13 ERA) and Darrell May (4.22 ERA) have also been reasonably effective. In fact, it’s not the rotation that’s been the problem.

No, the Royals have been getting killed by their bullpen. Stats since the All-Star break for eveyone who’s made at least two relief appeareances:

Pitcher               IP       ERA
Curtis Leskanic      6.0      0.00
Kris Wilson          6.2      0.00
D.J. Carrasco        7.2      3.52
Nate Field           7.2      5.87
Jason Grimsley       6.0      7.50
Sean Lowe            7.1     13.50
Mike MacDougal       5.0     16.20
Graeme Lloyd         1.0     36.00

The Royals keep losing winnable games because half their pen can’t get an out. They’ve blown two games in which they held late leads, and lost three others when the pen couldn’t hold a tie game late. Jason Grimsley looks like he needs a month in Maui, and there’s no one else in that pen, save perhaps Curtis Leskanic, who should be pitching high-leverage innings in a pennant race.

Meanwhile, the White Sox are beating the crap out of the ball, scoring 109 runs in their last 14 games. Their pitching has been good in that stretch as well, allowing just 52 runs, but it’s the offense that is the story. The bottom of their lineup, which just killed them in the season’s first half, has come alive in the second:

                     Pre-ASG              Post-ASG
Player           AVG   OBP   SLG      AVG   OBP   SLG
Paul Konerko    .197  .267  .300     .357  .383  .714
Joe Crede       .225  .277  .348     .296  .367  .500
Miguel Olivo    .220  .272  .356     .333  .385  .444

Magglio Ordonez (1358 OPS) and Carlos Lee (1154 OPS) have gone nuts as well. It’s a total team effort, and it has them set to take control of the division. What’s interesting is that the push hasn’t really been about the July trade acquisitions. Roberto Alomar has contributed a .429 OBP in the leadoff spot, but has no extra-base hits since the All-Star break. Carl Everett, even after last night’s home run, is just at .239/.340/.370 in the second half.

As I see it, there are two questions that have to be answered:

  1. While the White Sox won’t carry a 968 OPS through the second half, can they be the 5.5-runs a game offense they looked to be in March?
  2. Are the Royals done?

The latter is easy: yes. The Royals never had the talent base to contend, and are only in the race now because of some fluky performances by Lima and Aaron Guiel. I can see scenarios where they hang around, but they all involve aggressive moves and positive outcomes: getting Juan Gonzalez and having him go Will Clark 2000 on the league, or promoting Zack Greinke and watching him be the AL’s Dontrelle Willis. As currently constituted, the Royals are a 77-win team moving inexorably towards 77 wins.

As to the former, I think the White Sox can win this division by just getting expected performances from everyone on the roster. They had the best team of the three at the start of the year, they’ve improved it more than the other two have, and they’re tied for first with two months to go. Not only will I be surprised if they don’t win; I’ll be surprised if they don’t have the opportunity to use the last weekend of the season to set their playoff rotation.

As for the Twins, I’m not optimistic. Their mediocre rotation puts a ton of pressure on their offense and bullpen, and neither seems up to the challenge. LaTroy Hawkins, who was awesome last year and excellent so far in this one, appears tired to me. The Twins have no one who seems likely to take his place if he falters, and the faltering is upon us. The Twins, like the Royals, need to import some talent or have the players they have perform at the upper limits of their ability.

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