So, what to write about Opening Day that hasn’t been written before – like, say, last year? What did we see from the Royals yesterday (with one big exception) that we didn’t see a hundred times last season? Yes, it’s just one game, and yes, maybe fans take Opening Day a little too seriously. But there’s a reason why so many Royals fans are putting so much meaning into one game. We’ve seen this movie before, way too many times. I think most of us have accepted that the Royals will suck again this season – but is it too much to ask that they suck creatively? Can’t they suck in a different way than they did last year? Evidently not.
- All those new veteran players brought in to impart a winning attitude to the team, all that time spent on fundamentals again this spring, and the Royals can’t get through the top of the first inning of the season without making a play that belongs on the team’s end-of-season blooper reel.
I don’t know who’s at fault for letting Carlos Guillen’s infield pop-up drop, and I don’t care. All I know is that six men looked up into the sky and swirling wind, and not one of them took charge to make the play. Greinke is exempt from criticism, both because he’s Zack Greinke and because pitchers never have responsibility on infield pop-ups. But the reality is that when he’s on the mound, he’s easily the best defensive player on the infield. At some point, he ought to just say f**k it, and make every play he can himself.
- It’s somehow appropriate that the first run Greinke gives up this season should be an unearned run. He gave up nine unearned runs each of the last two seasons, even though his pitching style should lead to very few unearned runs (as I documented here two years ago). Yesterday was a perfect example of this: with two men on, Greinke induces a pop-up, a ball in play which should almost never lead to an error – unless you’re asking the Royals to catch it.
- I’m not going to rag on Willie Bloomquist too much for taking the error, because that really was a team effort, and he did make a fine play later in the game that might have saved Greinke a run.
Besides, it’s not Bloomquist’s fault that he was the Opening Day third baseman. Yes, it took a perfect storm of injuries for that to happen, with Alex Gordon’s broken thumb and Alberto Callaspo’s tweaked oblique. (Tweaked Oblique sounds like a good name for a band, if anyone’s looking for ideas…) But it still doesn’t explain why Bloomquist started over Mike Aviles.
Actually, I do know why – because Trey Hillman doesn’t feel that Aviles is ready to play third base yet. This is perfectly reasonable – as quickly as he returned from his injury, and as well as he played this spring, we can’t forget that Aviles had Tommy John surgery less than 10 months ago, his arm strength still isn’t 100%, and it may still be a few weeks before Aviles can be safely trusted to play full-out.
I just have one question to ask, if I may: if Aviles isn’t yet ready to start at third base, WHY THE HELL IS HE ON THE ROSTER?
Aviles was a revelation in 2008, not just offensively but defensively, as he played an above-average shortstop while hitting .325 as a rookie. Last year was a lost season, obviously, and after not playing in a game in 10 months, Aviles has a lot to prove. But he certainly has the ability to upgrade the Royals considerably at shortstop, where the Royals have a starter who – as you may know – leaves a lot to be desired in both facets of his game.
So the obvious solution here is to send Aviles to Omaha on a rehab assignment, which allows him to get reps at the plate every day, and allows him to progress defensively from second base to third base to shortstop as his arm strength returns. A month or six weeks from now, Aviles ought to be ready to step in at any position the Royals might need him. In particular, should Yuniesky Betancourt struggle as he did after the trade last season, the Royals will have a viable option to replace him.
Instead, the Royals were so impressed with Aviles’ performance that they brought him north with the team…only to stash him on the bench, where he won’t get the chance to continue his hot hitting, where he won’t be able to work on his arm strength in game situations, and where he’s evidently so fragile that the Royals don’t feel confident that they can use him at all.
Yesterday, the Spork went 0-for-3 with 2 strikeouts in his first three times up. In the bottom of the eighth, Bloomquist was due up again with two outs, nobody on, and the 100 mph-throwing Ryan Perry on the mound. Seems like a good chance to get Aviles up in a low-pressure situation, then let him take the field for the last inning. Instead, Bloomquist batted, and struck out again.
If you’re not going to use Aviles off the bench in a tailor-made situation, then why have him on the bench to begin with? Two months from now, if not sooner, Aviles might be the best shortstop the Royals have. If the Royals were actively trying to prevent Aviles from regaining his previous form, they couldn’t have made a better decision than the one they have.
- Speaking of Betancourt, props to him for one of the most impressive plate appearances I’ve ever seen from him. Granted, that’s damning with faint praise. Still, I should point out that as stunning as it was to see him drive a Justin Verlander fastball 380-plus feet to left-center field, the most impressive part of the at-bat was that his home run came on a full-count. In particular, the pitch immediately before the homer was a 2-2 fastball about three inches off the outside corner, and Betancourt spit on it.
It was one at-bat. And if the 2-2 pitch had been a slider, Betancourt probably would have swung no matter where it was placed. But I have to give credit where credit’s due, and I plan to watch Yuni’s pitch selection a little more closely in the coming weeks.
- I should apologize for suggesting that the Royals lost this game the same way they lost last season.
On Opening Day last season, the Royals’ starter departed the game with a lead, and in their first inning of work, the bullpen gave up three runs and lost the game. On Opening Day this season, the Royals’ starter departed the game with a lead, and in their first inning of work, the bullpen gave up six runs and lost the game. Also, they lost the game in the 8th inning last season, the 7th inning this year. Big difference.
- There’s not much to say about the bullpen’s seventh-inning meltdown. Roman Colon, Robinson Tejeda, and Juan Cruz faced 10 batters in the inning. Three struck out, one walked, and the other six all got hits. There was some degree of bad luck – the Tigers were 6-for-6 on balls-in-play – but if luck is the residue of design, then bad luck is the residue of a lack of design.
Roman Colon is really the Yuniesky Betancourt of the pitching staff – the Royals promoted him last season, and continue to use him in tight spots, even though he’s never done anything remotely positive at the major league level. But he unveiled a new slider this spring that everyone has raved about, and a new pitch is sometimes all it takes for a pitcher to take a dramatic step forward.
The slider I saw yesterday was hardly new; it was a wide sweeping thing that any hitter could recognize about 30 feet from the plate. (Colon said so as much afterwards: “The slider didn’t work today.”) He lit the fire.
Tejeda, who was terrific last season, is nonetheless the kind of guy I’d feel much more comfortable with to start an inning – he needs some space to clean up his own messes, and coming in with two men on base eliminated that margin for error. He threw the worst pitch in the entire sequence, a 1-2 fastball to Miguel Cabrera that was right down the middle, and hit back up the middle for an RBI single.
Juan Cruz almost looked decent, at least after he iced the game by giving up a two-run double to Brandon Inge – he struck out three of the next four hitters. I still hold out hope that he’ll regain his pre-2009 form. I would just rather he prove that in non-clutch situations first.
Colon, Tejeda, Cruz…if I had just described a game from last July, would any of you know the difference? If you had told me that Greinke pitched a brilliant game despite defensive lapses behind him, but then Colon and Cruz came in and blew the game before Soria could get in, I’d say you were describing this game here that I attended last season. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
If insanity is trying the same thing over and over again, expecting the same result, what level of schizophrenia have the Royals descended to?
- I don’t care what anyone else says: no one can protect a four-run deficit in the ninth inning better than Kyle Farnsworth. No one.
- And finally, what would a Royals’ game be without a dose of insane baserunning?
In the fifth inning, recall, Chris Getz got the Royals rolling with a two-out single off Verlander. He stole second, David DeJesus hit a grounder up the middle that Adam Everett could only keep on the infield, and then Scott Podsednik worked a walk. This set up the perfect situation: Billy Butler at the plate, with the bases loaded in a tie game. Butler has owned Verlander in his career, and while I don’t put much stock in hitter-pitcher matchups (all the statistical evidence says that what a batter has done against a specific pitcher is almost meaningless), the fact is that Butler can catch up to a fastball like few others in the game, even one as fast as Verlander’s. Butler poked a single to right field, plating two baserunners.
Two innings later, after the Tigers had put up their six-spot to take an 8-4 lead, the Royals’ offense once again stirred. Jason Kendall beat out an infield single. Getz singled to left as Kendall pulled up at second. And with one out, Podsednik blooped a single into short center field, giving Billy Butler another chance to bat with the bases loaded, representing the tying run, likely against Ryan Perry, another cooks-with-gas right-hander who provides all the energy Butler needs to go deep if he runs into one…
…WHAT THE HELL?!
Yep, that’s the Royals’ catcher churning around third base, with one out, the Royals’ best hitter about to come to the plate, down four runs in the seventh inning. That’s the Royals’ catcher being thrown out at the plate, with the Royals’ best hitter about to come to the plate, down four runs in the seventh inning.
Yes, it was a terrific throw, and a bang-bang play. But so what? When you’re down four runs in the seventh inning, and you’re about to bring up the tying run at the plate in the form of your #3 hitter, the only excuse to have a runner thrown out trying to score is if he slips and falls down halfway to home, then gets back up only to step on a landmine. Otherwise, it’s a fireable offense.
Dave Owen, the Royals’ third-base coach, was not fired over the winter.
In his defense, though, Kendall’s not going to have the speed he once had before that severe ankle injury in 1999.
- Momentum is tomorrow’s starting pitcher. After the hissy fit we all threw on Opening Day last year, the Royals won their next two games against the White Sox, and suddenly they were 2-1 with three dominant starting pitcher performances under their belt, and they were well on their way to 18-11. So let’s not get too riled up this time around.
I do feel compelled to point out that last year, tomorrow’s starting pitcher was Zack Greinke. This year, tomorrow’s starting pitcher is…Luke Hochevar.
Hope still springs eternal. But spring better show up quick.