Laissez les bons temps rouler. The Royals were nine games behind the Tigers two weeks ago, and today they’re in fourth place. They’re like the 1964 Phillies in reverse.
They’ll be hard pressed to keep it. After beating up on teams like Detroit and Seattle, who gave up on their season months ago, now they’ve got three games against a Twins team that has everything to play for, that’s coming off a dramatic sweep of the White Sox to take over first place, and that’s playing at home, where – as usual – they’re almost unbeatable, having gone 52-26 so far this year. (For all the reasons we should be glad we’re saying goodbye to the Metrodome in a few years, the biggest may be this: it has given the Twins an unfair homefield advantage for all these years. Whether it’s the crowd noise, the baseball-colored roof, the manipulation of wind currents…who knows? But this is a team that’s won two World Series – and has never won a World Series game on the road.)
If the Royals can take two of three in this series, they not only will put a serious dent in the Twins’ playoff hopes, they’ll put an exclamation point on their September surge. Those odds would be a lot higher if Hillman hadn’t shut down Zack Greinke prematurely. I understand the decision intellectually, but emotionally, I was really looking forward to watching The Baseball Jonah close out the season, and missing a Chiefs game voluntarily for the first time in years. (No worries on the latter front; I’m sure I’ll come up with another excuse soon enough.)
I despise the White Sox more than any other team, but I must admit that I feel for them a little; they have to be pissed that we’re starting Duckworth instead of Greinke on the mound on Sunday. And honestly, I’m pulling for the Sox a little. As much as I dislike the team as a concept, I can’t help but be impressed with what Kenny Williams has done for the second time in four years. And I think the Twins need to be punished severely for stupidly leaving Francisco Liriano in the minors for so long.
Meting out the punishment tonight will be Kyle Davies, who’s trying to make me regret calling him nothing more than an adequate fifth starter a few weeks ago. In his last two starts, he’s thrown 15 innings, allowed just 7 hits, whiffed 11, and – most pertinently – walked just one batter.
Davies has struggled for so long in the majors that it’s easy to forget: he just turned 25, and he was a competent major league pitcher when he was 21. And it’s not like he’s a finesse pitcher; he throws four good pitches, just not with any particular command. Here are his walk rates in the majors:
2005: 5.03 BB/9
2006: 4.69 BB/9
2007: 4.63 BB/9
2008: 4.11 BB/9
The control is coming around this year…especially since that number I listed for 2008 is just through August 23rd. In his last six starts, he’s walked just six batters in 30 innings, bringing his seasonal rate down to 3.45 BB/9, or roughly league-average. If that’s a real improvement, and it probably is, then there may be hope for him yet. I’ll say this much: he was worth 8 innings of Octavio Dotel.
His brilliant outing against Seattle – 8 innings, four hits, no walks, 8 Ks – garnered him a Game Score of 82. That ties him for the fifth-best outing of any Royals pitcher since 1998 (i.e. the post-Appier era). Greinke’s two-hit outing against the White Sox last September ranks higher, but then, the other three games were pitched by Brian Anderson, Pat Rapp, and Jeff Suppan. So I’m not sure how meaningful this is.
Aside from Davies, the players most responsible for the team’s success on the mound in September (the team ERA is 3.71 this month, 50 points better than any other month this year) include the usual suspects: Greinke has a 2.18 ERA, and Meche is at 3.96 with 28 Ks in just 25 innings. Soria recovered from his brief August swoon with 9.1 scoreless innings. Ramon Ramirez has allowed one run in 8.2 innings. But aside from them, some other pitchers have fared unusually well:
- Jimmy Gobble returned from Omaha and has delivered 5.2 scoreless innings, enough to lower his ERA more than two runs – all the way down to 9.20. In his defense, he’s thrown 30.1 innings all year – eliminate his July 21st meltdown against the Tigers, when he gave up 10 runs in an inning, and his ERA would be 6.44. Not much of a defense – “but my ERA would be less than six-and-a-half if you took out my worst outing!”
If there’s a reason for optimism here, it’s that Gobble has done his job well this year, if you define his job strictly as “retire left-handed hitters.” They’re 12-for-61 against him, an overall line of .192/.246/.295. The problem is that RHB have hit .388/.523/.687 – Albert Pujols on a tear, basically – all year, and he’s actually faced more RHB (88) than LHB (65). He’s never shown that pronounced a split before, so I’m not sure what to make of it. LOOGY relievers like Gobble are prone to having seasons with stratospheric ERAs, simply because the nature of the job results in small sample sizes. Here’s Alan Embree’s seasonal ERAs from 2003 to 2007: 4.25, 4.13, 7.62, 3.27, 3.97. Gobble’s had a terrible year, but if the Royals want to give him a mulligan, I won’t protest too much.
- Speaking of mulligans…can John Bale get two in a row? Last year he didn’t debut until July 15th, but pitched pretty well the second half (4.05 ERA in 40 innings), enough that the Royals decided to try him as a starter this year. That went, ahem, poorly, and then he missed most of the year with a series of injuries, the first of which was self-inflicted. A month ago he was as good as gone. Only he returned this month and has thrown 10.1 scoreless innings, allowed just four hits and two walks. His two-year contract that he signed while in Japan expires, but he’s still arbitration eligible. Given how little he’s pitched, it’s unlikely an arbitrator will award him a raise from $2 million a year. My feeling is that you keep either Gobble or Bale, but not both, unless something bad happens to Ron Mahay. But I don’t think the Royals need to spend money on a lefty reliever in the market either.
- Leo Nunez came back from his oblique pull in mid-July and was awful for five weeks, allowed 21 hits and 7 walks in 13 innings through August 19th. Since then he’s righted the ship, allowed three runs and eight hits in 12.2 innings, with 7 Ks and just one walk. Nunez’s repertoire is pretty basic: his fastball has very good velocity and he controls it very well, but it’s very straight. He’s the perfect middle reliever, in other words; I’ve been comparing him to Julian Tavarez since he was a rookie, and I won’t stop now. Nunez’s ERA has improved three straight years, and he just turned 25 (he was born in the second half of 1983, like seemingly half the pitching staff.) I don’t know that he’s going to get any better than he is today, but what he is today is pretty good. Especially since he’s only the third-best right-handed reliever on the team.
- I have to mention Brandon Duckworth because of the perception that he’s pitched well since taking over from Luke Hochevar. But he hasn’t. His ERA is 5.06, and he’s lucky it’s that low; he’s got as many walks (15) as strikeouts, and while he’s 3-2, all three wins have come against the Tigers and Mariners. It’s great if you can stash a guy like Duckworth in Triple-A for emergencies. But if you’re breaking the glass before the season even begins, you’re in trouble.
- Yasuhiko Yabuta has allowed one run in 5.1 innings. That’s the sound of crickets you hear.
- Devon Lowery has allowed homers in his last two outings, and has allowed six baserunners in 3.1 innings. But he’s also struck out six batters. The biggest surprise with Lowery is simply that he made it to the majors at all with the Royals; he was a prospect of some note in 2004, but over the next three years his ERAs in the minors were 6.06, 5.73, and 7.94. I believe he had some injury issues, and he pitched pretty well as a full-time reliever in the minors this season, but the most compelling reason to be optimistic about his future is that the Royals never gave up on him despite many reasons to. He’s a candidate for the 6th or 7th spots in the bullpen next year, along with about a dozen other guys.
“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.” Bart Giamatti wrote the truth. The way the Royals have played this month, at least when the games come to a sudden halt on Sunday, we’ll have some pleasant memories – and the hope that September wasn’t an illusion, but a harbinger of things to come – to keep us company through the fall and winter to come.