x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

MLB: Pirates and Royals flying high after another optimistic April

The frugile Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates are always loaded with young talent so the begining of each season brings plenty of excitment but it's usually short-lived, writes Gregg Patton.

Alex Gordon, right, is one player that has Kansas City fans believing this could be their year. Ed Zurga / Getty Images
Alex Gordon, right, is one player that has Kansas City fans believing this could be their year. Ed Zurga / Getty Images

Small-market status does not have to sentence a baseball team to perennial trips to the bottom of the standings: teams in Oakland, Tampa Bay and Miami have overcome the odds.

However, the two franchises most frequently cited as proof that the little guys are set up to fail, Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals, have been stuck on a treadmill to nowhere.

Pittsburgh is working on a Major League Baseball-record streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons. Kansas City has posted a winning record once (2003) in 17 years.

Of course, hope is eternal, even in these bastions of futility. Once again, the sport's worst franchises of the past two decades have started well, suggesting that this, yes, this, might be the year the chains of defeat are broken.

After five weeks, the Pirates were challenging St Louis for the lead in the National League Central and the Royals were a hair back of Detroit in the American League Central.

"It's a matter of getting in that Michael Jordan-type mentality," Pittsburgh's brightest young star, Andrew McCutchen, told MLB.com. "You start thinking you can out-do the next guy."

Kansas City was feeling it, too.

"We've got a great team over here," said the Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas. "We're having a lot of fun and I'm having a blast."

As is usually the case, these budget-conscious teams must rely in large part on young talent, rising stars and prospects who have not yet reached free-agent status, when their price tags are likely to outstrip the Pirates' and Royals' willingness to pay.

Baseball observers have been waiting for the loaded Royals system to produce a winner for several years.

So far this year, the young guys, led by the outfielder Alex Gordon (.321 average, 18 runs batted in), and a mix of veterans such as the reliable run-producer Billy Butler, and newly acquired pitchers James Shields and Ervin Santana, have gelled nicely. So far.

"It's not a big deal," said Butler, urging caution. "We've had good Aprils in the past."

Three times in five years Kansas City have had successful first months. Pittsburgh know false hope, too. The Pirates were winners into mid-summer in 2011 and 2012, only to nosedive each time.

Not discouraged, the Pirates are back at it. The offence hopes for big years from youngsters McCutchen and outfielder/leadoff hitter Starling Marte, who feature similar power-and-speed tools.

But it is their pitchers, led by the journeyman right-hander AJ Burnett and the young lefty Jeff Locke (both under 3.00 earned-run averages), and the first-year closer Jason Grilli (11 saves in 11 opportunities), who are providing the spring boost this time.

"That's one month," said Grilli, also urging calm. "We've got five to go."

In Pittsburgh and Kansas City, don't they know it.


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