Pennant primer: Royals finally hit the power switch

Alex Gordon's two-run home run against the Texas Rangers keyed another crucial Royals win.

The Kansas City Royals had grown accustomed to living without power, but if they’re to remain in control of the American League Central race, it’s becoming apparent how much a factor home runs can be.

Alex Gordon home runs, at least.

The left fielder’s two-run homer Wednesday broke a scoreless tie in the fourth inning, sparked a 4-1 victory over Texas and put the Royals a game and a half ahead of Detroit.

That’s 10 of Gordon’s 19 homers since Aug. 7, when Kansas City was 3 ½ behind the Tigers and not even in a wild-card spot.

Thirteen of his homers have either put the Royals ahead or tied a game. He had a two-run walkoff against Twins All-Star closer Glen Perkins last week to reverse what looked like a 1-0 loss. Remarkably, Kansas City has just three walkoff wins of any kind all year.

Homers are nearly as rare. Gordon’s on Wednesday was the team’s 88th this season, easily last in the majors and on pace to fall nine short of last year’s 112, which placed the Royals last in the AL but a mere 28th in the majors.

Their first-place standing isn’t smoke and mirrors. Kansas City leads the AL in stolen bases and is second in hits. But this is the best chance yet to prove their playoff-race mettle.

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The Royals came out of last season with a powerless feeling because their AL-best record in the second half still left them short of a playoff spot. But that was nothing compared to the outage early this season.

They hit 11 homers in April – that’s one more than Jose Abreu of the White Sox. It took eight games to hit their first and they had just that one through 11 games — by, of course, Gordon.

He’s not going to come close to a home run title this year, even in the suddenly scaled-down long-ball game that’s taken over the majors (there’s an outside chance this season will be the first since 1982 without anyone hitting 40).

Gordon could eye a higher finish in the MVP race, especially if the Royals pull off a playoff spot. Yet, even if KC wins and the obligatory “Who’s their guy?” Search lands on Gordon, this year in the AL remains all about runners-up as Mike Trout of the Angels does nothing to allay the “he’s got one (or maybe six) coming” sentiment around the game.

Gordon is the Royals savior, exactly as planned, just not on the accelerated schedule neither he nor the franchise’s development process was ready to meet. He’s not George Brett yet – even had to move off Brett’s old third base spot to become one of the game’s premier defensive left fielders.

But when he came to the Royals as the second overall pick in the draft from right up the road in Lincoln, Neb., He was going to lead the franchise back to glory days it hadn’t seen since Brett’s heyday.

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OK, so all those expectations proved unfair and at least premature.

He hit a composite .244 over his first four seasons after arriving as a 23-year-old. In the four since, he’s hit .286 with two All-Star selections and three Gold Gloves.

Yes, believe it or not, Gordon is 30 now and in his eighth season. He’s carrying a huge responsibility for ending the franchise’s 20-year stretch of not finishing any closer than seven games to first place.

Ready or not, here comes September.


Days left in season: 24.

Wednesday’s big mover: The rest of the world might be looking at upcoming matchups, games behind and odds of making the playoffs. The Atlanta Braves just wanted to score a run. After scoring once in four games – including a no-hitter against them – and somewhat miraculously going 1-3 in that stretch, the Braves broke out for a 7-4 victory against Philadelphia. That’s one more than they scored in the previous five games combined. Through all that, the Braves still are just of half-game out of a wild-card spot. As for greater aspirations, Atlanta still has six games remaining with NL East leading Washington, which is seven games up. But don’t forget the Braves are 25-10 against the Nationals since Sept. 2012.

Wednesday’s big loser: Justin Verlander’s week isn’t getting any better. The Tigers pitcher allowed all the runs in a 7-0 loss at Cleveland, the most he’s given up since rolling sevens in back-to-back June starts. So, did the nude photos of Verlander and girlfriend Kate Upton leaked earlier in the week create a distraction? How can we tell? At a time when the Tigers traditionally pull away in the AL Central – the past three seasons at least – by beating up on division challengers, they’re letting the Indians build hope of last year’s mad rush to a wild-card spot. Verlander is looking for his first start without allowing a run since last year’s division series. At 12-12, he’s in danger of his first losing record. That’s the same year he posted a 4.84 ERA, his worst since he became a full-timer in ’06. His current ERA is 4.80.

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Today’s can’t-miss game: Cardinals at Brewers. Managers love to tell us momentum is only as good as your next starting pitcher. The first of four crucial NL Central matchups will put that theory to the test. The Brewers need something to change quickly as they begin an 11-game homestand three games behind the first-place Cardinals, who were as much as 6 ½ games back in July. Eight losses in a row, sloppy play – we could list the Milwaukee issues but manager Ron Roenicke was succinct enough: “We can’t keep playing like this.” As for the pitching part of the momentum, St. Louis’ three-game sweep of Pittsburgh will only be compounded by today’s return of 2013 rookie sensation Michael Wacha. He hasn’t pitched since mid-June because of a shoulder issue but he moves into the rotation in place of Justin Masterson, one of the guys the Cardinals traded for at the end of July in their own search for momentum. Milwaukee’s starter is Wily Peralta, who has allowed 14 runs in eight innings over his last two starts.

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