KANSAS CITY— Good as the Royals were, general manager Dayton Moore knew they could better.
Yes, they went all the way to the final out of the seventh game of the World Series a year ago before their season came to an end. And yes, they had every reason to feel that even with the loss of James Shields to free agency they were going to be better this year thanks to the experience of what they went through a year ago in ending the franchise’s 29-year postseason drought.
Better, however, wasn’t good enough, and Moore knew that.
He had cut his baseball front office teeth in Atlanta, working with Braves general manager John Schuerholz, who mixed and matched the pieces for a roster that produced a professional sports record 14 consecutive first-place finishes.
And he learned his lesson well, which was underscored in the Royals’ 4-0 victory against the four-time defending American League Central champion Tigers.
Ben Zobrist, the versatile position player landed in the days leading up to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, had his second three-hit effort in the 10 games he has played as the replacement for injured left fielder Alex Gordon.
More importantly, Johnny Cueto was, well, Johnny Cueto.
He pitched a four-hit shutout -- the sixth shutout of his career -- and did not walk a batter in his Kauffman Stadium debut in a Royals uniform, with his first victory for his new team.
Acquired from Cincinnati before the Deadline for three quality arms, Cueto saw the Royals lose his first two starts for them, both on the road. There was a 5-3 lead he turned over in Toronto, which the bullpen couldn’t protect, and then a 2-1 loss in Detroit last Thursday.
“He gave us a chance to win both games,” Moore said.
Cueto took no chances on Monday night. From his first pitch to his 116th and final pitch, Cueto was dominating. He struck out eight and allowed only one runner to get past first base -- J.D. Martinez doubled with one out in the second but never advanced.
And it came at a time where the bullpen needed a break. As if Wade Davis being sidelined with back tightness the last five games wasn’t enough, the rest of the relievers had been called upon for 14 innings of work the four previous days.
“It’s a confidence boost every time Johnny steps on the mound,” said manager Ned Yost. “You know you have an ace out there. You know you have a good chance to win a game.”
And Moore knew all along that an ace is what the Royals needed to fill out their staff.
“We left spring training and felt it was going to be important to us be in a position this season through scouting judgement to make an impact deal,” he said.
And he didn’t lose sight of that goal during the season, even as the Royals established themselves early as the team to beat in the AL Central, having taken over the top spot for keeps back on June 9. They were never more than one game out of first, and on Monday night expanded their current lead to 12 games over the Twins and 13 1/2 in front of the Tigers.
“I told [Royals owner] Mr. [David] Glass, leading up to the Deadline that it was important we move aggressively and acquire a top end talent for the rotation,” Moore said. “Everybody who thinks they have a chance is going to work to get better, and we had to make sure we accomplished that.”
“Remember how I was raised in the game,” Moore said. “John made so many great trades to strengthen the big league team.”
In Atlanta, he did.
With the Royals, where Schuerholz began his front office career, impact trades in the midst of a season were never part of the package. There weren’t any headline grabbers even back in that decade of 1976-1985 when the Royals advanced to the postseason seven times, played in the World Series twice and won it in 1985.
They picked up Andy Hassler to slip into the rotation, but he was 0-6 when the Royals picked him up on July 5, 1976, and was in such a demand that they gave the Angles money, not even a player, in return. And they added left fielder Lonnie Smith in May, 1985, in exchange for John Morris, but Smith, at the time, had lost his starting job with the Cardinals to Vince Coleman.
Back then, though, it was easier to keep the core of a team together, particularly for the Royals, who were at the forefront in the early days of free agency in regularly signing extensions with their key players to keep their salaries below eventual market levels.
It doesn’t work like that anymore.
There is a limited life expectancy to the core of a team, and Moore wasn’t about to let this team’s chances to win a World Series championship expire without him doing everything possible to fill the voids.
“We have our goal to get this group of players the talent [needed] to win together,” he said. “We have to do what we can to support them.”
So far, so good for Moore and the Royals.