KANSAS CITY, Missouri (AP) -- The Kansas City Royals earned a reputation for being a scrappy bunch last year, when they stole bases and dazzled on defense and used old-school small ball to reach Game 7 of the World Series.
They've taken that intensity up a notch this season.
And they were at it again late Thursday in Chicago.
Kansas City pitcher Yordano Ventura snagged a grounder from Chicago White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton, and the pair appeared to exchange words before Ventura threw to first to end the inning. After the play, players from both dugouts and bullpens ran onto the field. Several punches were thrown and Kansas City's Ventura, Lorenzo Cain and Edinson Volquez were ejected along with Chicago's Chris Sale and Jeff Samardzija.
During the bottom of the fourth, Ventura hit Jose Abreu in the left arm with a pitch. In the top of the fifth, Sale hit Mike Moustakas, leading to warnings for both benches.
The Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics also have taken umbrage with the way Kansas City plays, a devil-may-care attitude that borders on cavalier. If someone slides into one of the Royals spikes-up, like the A's Brett Lawrie over the weekend, better watch out for a 100 mph (160kph) fastball zinging past your head.
"We're a team that's going to grind it out, and we're a tough team that's going to stick together," first baseman Eric Hosmer said. "We're going to give you everything we've got."
That throwback approach made them the feel-good story of last autumn. But these days, they're starting to tread a fine line between playing the game in an endearingly hard way, and playing it downright dirty.
In that three-game series against Oakland, the Royals and A's cleared their benches each day. Nearly as many people were hit by pitches as hit home runs. And five players and coaches were ultimately thrown out of the finale, when things boiled over.
Among those tossed was reliever Kelvin Herrera, who threw that fastball behind the head of Lawrie, then pointed to his own head in a threatening manner. Herrera was suspended for five games for it pending an appeal, a punishment that could have easily been stiffer.
"We've got to have each other's backs," outfielder Jarrod Dyson explained. "If you come at us, we're not going to back down. We're going to keep playing the game our way."
In the eyes of the Royals, it was Lawrie who instigated everything anyway, when he wiped out shortstop Alcides Escobar with a reckless slide in the opener. From there, the teams simply engaged in a dangerous game of retribution, neither one backing down.
It was noticed throughout Major League Baseball, and opinions began to form.
"We just care about what goes on in here," Hosmer countered. "Obviously there's going to be perspectives, an outside point of view. But we stick together as a team, and we realize if we got everyone on the same page, we're a tough team to beat."
That part is undeniable. After beating the White Sox in 13 innings, the Royals have the American League's best record at 12-4.
Royals manager Ned Yost believes winning the American League pennant last year in their first playoffs since 1985 may be contributing to these intense early games. Opponents are trying to knock the Royals off their pedestal.
Even literally. Royals players have been hit 15 times in their first 15 games. Manager Ned Yost accepted some of the blame for them occasionally taking things too far.
This is still a team full of 20-somethings at key positions, and many are experiencing what it's like to be the hunted for the first time. Yost said it falls on his shoulders to help them understand when they're playing hard and when they're taking things too far.
"That's the beauty of a major league season, to see what teams can keep it up and what teams can't," Hosmer said. "We're a team that's gone through some downs together and we're a team that's gone through a lot of good times together. We know what it takes."