Friday, August 22, 2008


If it’s late August, then I’m probably stuck at work – every kid in the Midwest apparently has to have their acne cleared before they go back to school. So I’ve been too busy, thank God, to spend any time watching the Royals endure what has probably been their worst week of a season filled with bad ones. After getting swept in Chicago to start this road trip – by the combined score of 22 to 2 – the Royals won the opener at Yankee Stadium because Mariano Rivera allowed the go-ahead run to score on a wild pitch and Joakim Soria picked off Justin Christian, who had just come into the game as a pinch-runner. That’s right: the Royals have Rivera to thank for the fact that they’re not on a nine-game losing streak.

The Royals aren’t just losing – they’re getting abused, both literally and figuratively. The team’s last three victories have all been one-run squeakers; they haven’t won a game by more than a single run since August 3rd. Here’s the last five games in detail:

1) Saturday: lost a 13-inning affair to the Yankees on Saturday because of a total team meltdown – at the plate, in the field, on the bases, and in the manager’s chair.

After battering Sidney Ponson for all of seven hits and two runs in 6.1 innings, the Royals managed a total of one hit against six different relievers. Even so, they scored two early runs and should have scored at least one or two more, except with the bases loaded in the seventh and one out, David DeJesus was doubled off second when Jose Guillen’s liner was caught, then Mitch Maier was put in motion with DeJesus batting in the ninth, resulting in a strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out double play, then Mark Teahen was thrown out trying to steal to end the top of the 13th.

Even so, those two runs could have held up had Alex Gordon not committed a double error on A-Rod’s grounder to start the 7th. Rodriguez would score on Robinson Cano’s triple; Cano would score on a two-out wild pitch from Greinke. Not that it would have mattered, since Tony Pena followed that with an error of his own.

Even with all that, the Royals still might have held on long enough to score had Trey Hillman not stubbornly refused to use Joakim Soria in a tie game. After a brilliant performance by Robinson Tejeda, Hillman elected to go with Joel Peralta to start the 11th inning instead of Soria. Peralta threw two scoreless innings. In the bottom of the 13th inning, in a tie game at Yankee Stadium, Hillman calls on…Jeff Fulchino.

I’ve written far too many words on the ridiculous conventional wisdom that permeates the game regarding the usage of closers, a CW that Hillman has shown no inclination to challenge. So I’m not going to belabor the point here. True, Soria had thrown 25 pitches the night before – but it was the first time he had pitched in five days. Monday was an off-day, so at that point Hillman knew he could use Soria on either Saturday or Sunday, but not both. He decided that it was safer to hold Soria back for an imaginary save situation that might never (and did not) materialize, rather than use him in the extra-inning tie game that was right in front of him. I can hear the argument: there’s no guarantee that the Royals would score anyway, and even if they did, Soria would have to pitch at least two innings to close out the game.

Addressing the first argument: that’s right, there’s no guarantee that the Royals would score, although given that the Yankees were already down to using somebody named David Robertson, the odds were pretty good that even the Royals could break through eventually. But so what? You can’t save your best pitcher to pitch only in games that you are guaranteed to have a lead. It’s possible that Cliff Lee might pitch a brilliant game but the Indians might still lose because they don’t score any runs – this has actually happened once or twice this year – but he still pitches every fifth day, doesn’t he? This notion that closers should only pitch when you have the lead is a crutch. The Yankees pitched Mariano Rivera for two innings in this game, even though the game was tied, and guess what? While Rivera wasn’t credited with either a win or a save, the Yankees would not have won the game without him.

(In Rivera’s case, he was used because since the Yankees were the home team, once the game went extra-innings it was impossible for a save situation to develop for them. Hillman did the same thing with Soria on August 10th, when he used Soria for the 9th in 10th of a tie game when the Royals were at home; the Royals won in 12 innings. Amazing how, once you take the absurd save statistic out of the equation, managers actually make decisions that maximize their team’s chance of winning, not their closer’s chance of picking up a save.)

Anyway, Jeff Fulchino pitched exactly as you’d expect a guy who just got called up from Omaha to pitch. Game over.

2) Sunday: scored three first-inning runs against a resurgent Mike Mussina, then watched Brian Bannister craft the second-worst start in franchise history.

Using Bill James’ Game Score formula, Bannister’s start (1 IP, 10 H, 10 R, 10 ER, 3 BB, 0 K) registers as a -10. The only worst start in Royals history was Zack Greinke’s disaster in Arizona back in 2005 (4.1 IP, 15 H, 11 R, 11 ER, 2 BB, 2 K) which scores a -11. But Greinke redeemed himself at least a little that day by hitting a homer. As an overall performance, Bannister had a worse day than any of the roughly 6400 starters that preceded him.

(Incidentally, the third-worst performance by a Royal was Luke Hudson’s 10-run first inning in 2006. Only eight times in Royals history has their starter managed a negative game score, all of them since 1994, and five of them since 2004.)

But hey, at least Joakim Soria was well-rested to watch this game from the bullpen.

3) Tuesday: lost to the Indians, 9-4. Luke Hochevar pitched five okay innings but then somehow managed to bruise his ribcage while throwing a pitch – an injury that seems to violate the laws of biomechanics. With help from the newly-signed Kip Wells, the bullpen gives up five runs in three innings to ice the game.

4) Wednesday: Gil Meche pitches brilliantly again, and the Royals take a 5-3 lead into the eighth after scoring four runs in the fifth – a rally keyed by a pitch that broke Mitch Maier’s face in three places. Maier’s sacrifice goes for naught; in the eighth, their two most reliable relievers, Ramon Ramirez and Soria, give up four runs before the second out of the inning is recorded. The first out came on a sacrifice bunt.

I’m sure it’s just a blip in the road, but Soria has allowed nine of the last 12 batters he’s faced to reach base. Maybe he’s out of practice: in the last 11 days, he’s pitched twice.

5) Thursday: the Indians win again, 10-3. Alex Gordon, who already missed a game with a bad back, has to leave this one with a pulled quad.

They score three runs on a two-out bases-clearing triple by Grady Sizemore in the second inning, with Sizemore batting only because Tony Pena had previously let a pop-up drop because the sunglasses he ordered never arrived. (Seriously, I can’t do justice to this one. Fortunately Joe Posnanski can.) The Indians get another unearned run in the third after Billy Butler airmails a throw to first base. (Hey, it’s a long throw for a first baseman.) Here’s all you need to know about how bad the Royals are playing: in his last two starts, Greinke has allowed six unearned runs. He had previously allowed all of 11 unearned runs in his entire career, and just four in the last two seasons.

Here’s what it’s come down to: the Royals just played a team that has already thrown in the towel on their season, trading away their best pitcher and their starting third baseman (for some really good prospects, by the way) – and they got swept. What’s more, they lost every game by at least 3 runs.

In their last 14 games, the Royals have been outscored by 62 runs. They’ve won two games (both by one run), lost by one run once, lost by three runs twice, by four runs twice, by five runs once, by six runs twice, by seven runs twice, and by nine runs twice. If the Royals had been spotted three runs at the start of each game in that stretch, they’d be 3-9-2. For the season, they’ve been outscored by 124 runs – meaning that half of their season deficit has come in the last 14 games – and they Pythagorean record is 51-76. The Royals are 55-72, in last place by 4.5 games, behind last season’s pace, and by all statistical rights they should be even worse.

But hey, help is on the way. Just not this weekend. Tonight, Bannister takes his 5.96 ERA to the mound. And that’s the highlight of the pitching matchups against Detroit, given that we have the same starting pitcher tomorrow and Sunday. I don’t who this TBA guy is, but I doubt he’s any good. (Especially if “TBA” is just a euphemism for “Brandon Duckworth.”)


too busy to spend any time watching the Royals endure what has probably been their worst week of a season filled w

Well, at least it’s just 16 days until the Chiefs take the field. In New England.