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The Royals are in first place! Can they stay there?

The backflip pretty much said it all.

After catching the final out in Monday’s 3-2 win over the A’s, Royals center fielder Jarrod Dyson channeled his inner Ozzie Smith and did a backflip to celebrate. Never mind that manager Ned Yost and GM Dayton Moore may have freaked out when they saw Dyson flip backward, fearing potential injury. Maybe they focused instead on the joy in Dyson’s expression. That was a happy man.

And why shouldn’t he be? The Royals are in first place! After winning eight in a row, 11 of their past 12, 16 of their past 19, or whatever arbitrary recent grouping of games you choose, Kansas City is playing some amazing baseball right now.

The victory came mere hours after the Royals’ front office finally added what could be the impact bat the lineup needed so badly, getting Josh Willingham from the Twins in exchange for Triple-A pitcher Jason Adam.

Calling Willingham an “impact bat” might be overstating the case. He’s batting .210 with a .747 OPS, and missed 41 games due to a fractured wrist. Since July 1, he’s hitting .170 with an OPS below .600. But Willingham has hit five home runs during that span, and his 12 for the season would be tied for the second-most among Royals everyday players had he been with the team all season.

However, for a team in great need of right-handed power, Willingham should provide some. Even with his diminished performance this season, he could be a significant upgrade at designated hitter over the slap-hitting Norichika Aoki and the increasingly decrepit Raul Ibanez, and also helps cover the loss of Eric Hosmer, who’s out with a broken right hand.

The Royals are showing great timing with their hot streak, as this run has come while the Tigers are taking a steep slide. Detroit has lost three consecutive games, five of its past six, six of its past 10, and 11 of its past 17. Again, pick your random endpoint. The Tigers are trending downward as their closest division competitor is on a major upswing.

Making the Tigers’ fortunes even worse is a sudden rush of injuries. Starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez is expected to miss three to four weeks with a pectoral muscle strain. Reliever Joakim Soria suffered an oblique strain, an injury that’s typically had an uncertain recovery time. But he’ll probably be out for two to three weeks.

Then there was the big blow on Monday. Losing Sanchez from the starting rotation was bad enough. But now, the Tigers might also be without Justin Verlander for an extended period of time.

Verlander pitched only one inning in Detroit’s 11-6 loss to the Pirates on Monday — during which he gave up five runs (four earned), four hits and two walks — before leaving the game with a sore shoulder. He’ll undergo a MRI exam in Detroit on Tuesday, checking an injury that Verlander said has been lingering “for a while.” Perhaps that goes some way toward explaining what’s hardly been a vintage season for the 2011 AL MVP.

Robbie Ray will take Sanchez’s spot in the Tigers rotation and pitch on Tuesday. But Detroit has to dip deep into its farm system to help a staff worn out by Sunday’s 19-inning epic at Toronto. The team is set to call up Buck Farmer from Double-A Erie (where he’s made only two starts) to pitch Wednesday against Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, the Tigers lineup has batted a collective .255 with .681 OPS, and the Tigers suddenly look more vulnerable than they have during the past four seasons. Miguel Cabrera’s numbers are far down from his MVP performances during the previous two seasons. Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler are the only other consistent threats currently in Detroit’s lineup. Starting pitching was supposed to carry Detroit along, but those injuries have compromised that strength significantly.

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Pardon me for writing so much about the Tigers. I’m stumbling into the same trap that could trip up many writers and analysts over the next few weeks. Rather than talk about the Royals’ surge, the tendency might be to focus on the Tigers’ collapse. They were — and still are — expected to be one of the best teams in the American League. With more than six weeks remaining in the regular season, there is plenty of time for Detroit to right itself.

Can the Royals stay in first place? (And for longer than the three days they held the AL Central lead in mid-June?) Well, that partially depends on the Tigers. (See, there I go again.) Yet Kansas City’s schedule for the rest of the season looks more favorable. And maybe Moore isn’t finished adding pieces either. Now that his team is in first place and playing extremely well, could that fuel motivation to perhaps acquire one more starting pitcher and strengthen that part of the roster? It’s not as far-fetched to imagine as it may have been a couple of weeks ago.

If you were among those who believed the Royals could overtake the Tigers in the AL Central this season, or at least win one of the league’s wild-card bids, then this isn’t a surprise to you.

Yet perhaps you are surprised if you looked at the MLB standings at the All-Star break, saw Kansas City 6.5 games behind Detroit, and wrote off its chances of winning the division. The Royals were only 2.5 games back in the wild-card race, but caught in a cluster of four teams within four games of that second playoff spot. (Hell, I began writing this team off in mid-May, which was probably far too early to take anything for certain.)

As of July 21, Kansas City had fallen eight games back in the AL Central, dropping behind the Indians for third place. In the wild-card standings, the Royals were 4.5 games behind, drifting toward the White Sox, Red Sox and Rays at the outer fringes of contention, rather than keeping up with the Blue Jays and Yankees to compete for the postseason.

That was only three weeks ago. But suddenly, being out of contention looks much further back in the distance for the Royals. What are they capable of doing over the next three weeks?

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is an editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing, also covering baseball at The Outside Corner and pop culture for The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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