Surprising Royals on one huge roll

This year, low-budget Kansas City is for real at 17-4

? They’re 10-0 at home and 17-4 overall heading into today.

The New York Yankees?

Nope, the Kansas City Royals.

“People ask me, ‘Are we really this good?'” manager Tony Pena said. “I say, ‘Yes, we are this good.'”

Not much was expected from the Royals, who went 62-100 last season and cut their payroll to $40.5 million, second-lowest in the major leagues ahead of Tampa Bay.

They had the best winning percentage (.842) in the major leagues and second-best ERA (2.90) behind the Chicago Cubs before Friday night’s 6-5 loss in Toronto.

“I don’t really care if people think we’re for real or not,” outfielder Raul Ibanez said before the trip. “We know we’re for real.”

Kansas City’s 10-0 start at Kauffman Stadium is two short of the most wins at home to start the season, set by the 1911 Detroit Tigers. The Royals’ 16-3 start was the best for the franchise after 19 games.

Not bad for a team that hasn’t finished with a winning record since 1994 and hasn’t appeared in the playoffs since winning the 1985 World Series.

“This winning, this momentum started in spring training,” Pena said. “That is where we learned to come together as a team.”

Kansas City pitcher Runelvys Hernandez enjoys a standing ovation as he leaves the game during the sixth inning Tuesday in Kansas City, Mo. Hernandez, 4-0 with a 1.10 ERA, is part of the resurgence the Royals have enjoyed in 2003. Kansas City is 17-4 and a perfect 10-0 at Kauffman Stadium.

Instead of choosing their opening-day starter based on stats, experience or matchups, the Royals flipped a coin, which determined Runelvys Hernandez would go first followed by Jeremy Affeldt.

Their rotation, which also includes Darrell May, Miguel Asencio and Chris George, began the season with a major-league career record of 21-35. They’re a combined 10-2 thus far.

Rookie closer Mike MacDougal, a tall, skinny right-hander with a whiplash fastball that’s been clocked at 99 mph, is 10-for-10 in save situations and has a 1.80 ERA.

Albie Lopez is 3-1 with a 2.31 ERA after going 1-4 with a 4.37 ERA in 30 appearances last year with the Braves.

Kansas City's Mike Sweeney (29) is congratulated by teammate Raul Ibanez (18) after hitting a home run Thursday against Minnesota in Kansas City, Mo. Sweeney and Ibanez anchor a Royals lineup that has produced a 17-4 record in 2003.

“Other teams are saying we haven’t played anybody yet,” third baseman Joe Randa said. “They’re saying wait ’til they have to go into New York and wait ’til they have to play Boston and Oakland and Seattle.

“Well, we did lose 100 games last year with essentially the same team. I don’t think we should worry about playing well against the Yankees and Oakland. We have to worry about playing good every night.”

The main difference between this year’s team and the losing teams the Royals have fielded the previous eight years seems to be a belief in each other.

“The family atmosphere on this team right now is incredible,” Affeldt said. “We all get along and hang out with each other. Last year we got a little cliquish. But that’s not the way it is this year. And it’s fun. The veteran guys seem to be reaching out to the younger guys.”

The real test will come with the onset of the first losing streak. How will the young Royals respond then?

“We know we’ve got a lot of tough times ahead,” Randa said. “We’ve been getting a lot of breaks. I don’t think we’ll all throw up our hands and give up when the times get tough. But we also know it’s not time to just hang up our cleats and say we’ve got it all figured out.”