Royals back at the bottom of standings

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Royals can hit, just not at the right times. The starting pitching has been occasionally good, mostly middling.

Defending AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke hasn't been as sharp to start this season, yet still should have at least one win. The bullpen, somehow, is on pace to be even worse than last season's train wreck.

This was the year the Royals hoped to take a step forward from 25 mostly sorry years. Instead, it's been another backpedal to the bottom of the standings.

"If you had told me at this point that we'd be 10 games under .500, I never would have believed it," Royals manager Trey Hillman said.

The Royals have been baseball's masters of mediocrity since their only World Series title in 1985, failing to reach the playoffs since and posting a winning record just once in the past 15 years.

That changed a year ago, when Kansas City bathed in the euphoria of Zack-mania, the combination of Greinke's exhilarating start, the Royals' run to the top of the AL Central and good-just-got-better renovations to Kauffman Stadium waking up a once-dormant baseball town for the first time since George Brett's uniform was still dirty.

A slew of injuries hurt the Royals down the stretch, leading to another losing record, though with a hint of optimism.

But the Royals got off to a slow start and the downward spiral has picked up steam, taking the bats and starting pitchers with it.

Kansas City stumbled through April, then clunked its way through a dismal, season's-longest road trip that ended Sunday, closing it out with a four-game sweep at Texas to finish 3-8.

At 11-21, the Royals are at the bottom of the AL Central, already 10 games back of Minnesota.

At least they got Monday off.

"We need to reflect on just how bad this road trip has been," Hillman said.

It wasn't just the trip. The Royals were in trouble before the season's first week was over, thanks to their bullpen.

Last year's bunch was one of the worst in baseball, blowing 22 saves and allowing 45 percent of inherited runners to score on the way to a majors-worst 5.02 ERA.

This year's crew has been just as bad, opening the season with three straight blown saves and turning nearly every game into an edge-of-the-seat affair for Royals fans.

Kansas City's brass shook up the 'pen, shuffling players around like a game of three-card Monte, and that didn't work either. The Royals entered Tuesday with eight blown saves, worst in baseball, and a bullpen ERA of 5.02, second-worst in the AL.

Making matters worse, Kansas City's starters actually have a higher ERA than the bullpen: 5.15.

Gil Meche is winless with an ERA more than 8, Brian Bannister has allowed six or more earned runs twice in six starts and Luke Hochevar has a 5.65 ERA despite a 3-1 record.

Even Greinke hasn't been as sharp.

After grabbing the nation's attention with his string of zeros and arsenal of nastiness a year ago, the attention-shy ace has yet to win in seven starts (0-4). Greinke's ERA is a respectable 2.51 and he's again been hurt by a lack of run support, but the right-hander hasn't been nearly as dominant, allowing three earned runs twice already after allowing two runs total in April a year ago.

Combined, Kansas City's staff has an AL-worst 5.12 ERA and has issued 139 walks, second-most in baseball.

"You can't take 10, 11, 12 guys off the pitching staff. You can't bring in 10, 11, 12 new guys," Hillman said. "All of them have the ability. We've got to pitch to our defense and throw more strikes. Then things will fall into place."

Well, maybe.

Kansas City has baseball's seventh-best team average at .273, but is slowly falling after being the best in baseball. The Royals also are middle of the pack in scoring, averaging 4.1 runs per game, and have again been at their worst when Greinke has the ball, scoring just 18 runs in his seven starts.

The defense hasn't been as bad as last year, but there have been lapses, including shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt's fine-inducing botched popup on Friday and the entire team's failure to notice Josh Hamilton didn't tag up on a flyball in Sunday's trip-ending 6-4 loss.

"We're just getting beat right now," Greinke said.