Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Royals Today: 4/5/11.

The Royals began the 2000 season with a respectable 4-3 record, and then things got crazy. In the last game of a four-game set with the Twins, the Royals held a 5-3 lead going into the ninth. This was back in the days when the Royals thought that closers were born, not made, and so they had paid real U.S. legal tender to Ricky Bottalico to be their closer. On this day, naturally, Bottalico blew the two-run lead in the ninth. (The Royals learned their lesson so well that after the season, they made Roberto Hernandez the focal point of the trade return they got for Johnny Damon.)

But then something funny happened. Damon led off the bottom of the ninth with a home run, and the Royals won, 6-5. The next night, the Orioles came to town; the Royals erased a 5-2 lead with three runs in the eighth, and after both teams struggled to score a putaway run, the Royals finally broke through in the bottom of the 12th, when with one out and Joe Randa on first base, backup catcher Brian Johnson went deep.

And then the next night, the Orioles held a 6-0 lead going into the bottom of the seventh, when the Royals broke through for four runs. The score remained 6-4 until the bottom of the ninth, when Gregg Zaun walked, Mark Quinn doubled to put two runners in scoring position…and Rey Sanchez lofted a flyball that snuck inside the fair pole in left field, prompting Denny Mathews to semi-famously exclaim “What is going on?” The Royals had won three straight games on a walk-off homer. In fact, these three games – I’m not making this up – are what brought the phrase “walk-off” into the national baseball lexicon. The term had been around for years – Dennis Eckersley originated it, I believe, calling it “a walk-off piece” when Kirk Gibson hit a particular home run off of him – but after these three games, ESPN.com started using the term to describe what the Royals had done, and the term has been with us ever since.

The next night, after Bottalico blew another save in the ninth, the Royals didn’t end it with a homer. No, with two out and one on in the bottom of the inning, Carlos Beltran ended the game with a lousy single. Four straight walk-off wins, three on a homer, and the Royals were 8-3 and tied for first place. They were the talk of baseball as they headed out on a nine-game road trip.

They lost all nine games.

They would eventually recover enough to finish with a respectable 77-85 record, but they fell 10.5 games back of the White Sox by June 18, and their deficit was in double digits the rest of the season. Which is to say, it was a pretty typical Royals campaign.

By all means, enjoy the series win against the Angels. Just don’t imbue it with undue meaning. Maybe it’s best Alex Gordon’s slice went foul on Opening Day, because if it hadn’t, the Royals would have swept a series against the Angels with three walk-off homers and a two-run rally in the eighth inning, and far too many people would be putting far too much emphasis on the first one-fortieth of the season.

Winning three games in the fashion that the Royals did might be the sign of a plucky team, a gritty team, a never-say-die team. But it’s not the sign of a great team. The discerning mark of a great team isn’t winning games in its final at-bat – it’s bludgeoning the opponents so that the outcome of the game isn’t in doubt by the time their final at-bat comes around. If the Royals had won these games by the score of 10-3, 7-0, and 12-2, we might want to consider recalibrating our opinion of the Royals a little. But the way they won these games says less about the Royals than it does about the Angels.

As I said before the season on our podcast (please listen!) – while making the case for the Angels as (ahem) my pick to win the AL West – the worry for the Angels was that their bullpen had one quality reliever in Jordan Walden. Walden was dominant in the series; the other Angel relievers would have fit right in with the Royals’ bullpen from a decade ago. The Angels led three of the four games in the middle of the eighth, and were tied in the fourth game – and they came within a few feet of getting swept.

Right now, the Royals are pretty much what we thought they were – a team capable of keeping games close, a team that might have a really good bullpen, but not a team that’s going to win the AL Central.

That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the fact that we’re leading the AL Central at the moment. Let’s just keep some perspective.

- Speaking of Alex Gordon…I tried my best to remain philosophical after his drive for a walk-off homer on Opening Day went just foul, capping an 0-for-5, three-strikeout game that already had people writing off his performance in Arizona as another spring tease.

I didn’t want to place any great meaning on that one at-bat either way, because let’s face it, there have been moments in the past when Gordon hit dramatic home runs that made you want to think he was finally ready to bust out…and nothing happened. Last year, on April 21, Gordon hit a two-out game-winning home run off a left-hander in the tenth inning in Toronto. He was so affected by this that he went 4 for his next 21, and was then optioned to Omaha.

On July 30, you might recall – I actually called his shot on Twitter, and was the most surprised person in the ballpark when he actually hit it – Gordon went deep in the exact same situation he found himself in this Opening Day – two on, two out in the ninth and the Royals losing. Over his next eight games, he hit .292 and hit three more homers, and you thought maybe, just maybe, this was the Gordon in the catalog. He then hit .215/.324/.323 the rest of the season, with just three more homers in 47 games.

If Gordon is going to fulfill even a fraction of his potential at this late date, it’s not going to happen with one swing, or one series, or even a month of series. It’s going to happen the way life does: one day at a time. After his Opening Day fiasco, he went 6-for-14, and notably with only one strikeout. I’m not a scout, but one swing in particular stood out – his third hit of the game on Sunday. With two strikes on him and facing a left-hander, Gordon took a pitch on the outer half of the plate and didn’t try to pull it, but went with the pitch and sent a two-hopper through the infield up the middle.

Ryan Lefebvre and Frank White made note of the fact that Gordon’s swing was “all hands” – there was very little weight shift in his swing, a swing that was more befitting of Ichiro Suzuki than Jim Thome. I’m not saying it was better or worse – but it was certainly different than the Alex Gordon we’ve grown to have a love-hate relationship with. At this point, I’ll take different. It might be months before we can render a final verdict.

- This means nothing, but I don’t get a chance to say this very often, so humor me: the Royals lead the American League in walks drawn, with 19. Of course, they are also one of only two teams that have played four games, but still: humor me.

Ten of those 19 walks came on Sunday, and eight of those ten came from the ninth inning on. On Opening Day, four of the Royals’ six walks came in the eighth or ninth inning. Which, again, is to say that it’s not clear whether all those walks are a reflection of the Royals’ new-found patience or simply a reflection that the Angels’ bullpen sucks.

- I didn’t really expect the Royals to come back, not down two runs headed into the bottom of the ninth on Sunday. That said, having Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and Kila Ka’aihue due up to start the inning was as good a trio as we’ve seen in a very long time. It’s not simply the caliber of hitter that each one is, but the fact that all three of them are perfectly willing to take a walk to get a rally started.

One of the more maddening aspects of being a Royals fan the last, oh, 20 years or so is that the offense has never been built to take advantage of a closer with command issues. On this day, though, when Fernando Rodney could not find the strike zone, the Royals were more than happy to take advantage. Gordon walked on five pitches. Butler hit a screaming line drive – easily the best-hit ball of the inning – that Maicer Izturis snared with a vertical leap that would have stood out at a scouting combine. Ka’aihue walked on five pitches. Jeff Francoeur walked on five pitches – again, maybe we should be blaming the Angels instead of crediting the Royals.

And then Wilson Betemit, who’s not a free swinger by any means, swung away on the first pitch. After a pitcher has issued multiple walks, it’s not uncommon for him to groove a fastball on the first pitch just to try to get something over, so with the tying run in scoring position, this was a reasonable gamble for a hitter who knows the strike zone. It worked when the ball snuck under Vernon Wells glove for the game-tying double.

It was the second time in the series that Rodney couldn’t find the strike zone, and (for you fantasy players) he’s probably going to lose the closer’s job to Walden by Memorial Day. More than anyone else, he instigated the comeback – but the Royals didn’t turn their noses down at his favor. One of the reasons I’m not down on the 2011 Royals as much as some other people is precisely because the heart of the Royals’ order features three guys who are more than happy to draw walks and let one of their teammates be the hero. Two years ago, the 3-4-5 hitters on any given night might have been Jose Guillen, Mike Jacobs, and Miguel Olivo. If they had stepped in against Rodney on Sunday, the rally might never have gotten started.

- It’s hard to make a judgment about a starting pitcher from just one start, and we didn’t see anything truly surprising in the first spin of the rotation.

Luke Hochevar pitched pretty well on Opening Day, but as usual the results were a little less than you’d expect. He threw strikes (no walks, 5 K’s), and kept the ball down (13 groundball outs), but still gave up two homers – including one to Jeff Mathis – and made a dumb throwing error on a beautiful bunt by Peter Bourjos that directly set up the Angels’ final run.

Kyle Davies, as usual, was passable but not effective (4 runs in 5.1 innings, seven hits and two walks). Bruce Chen was terrible, but there were some extenuating circumstances there – the wind was gusting up to 40 mph, to the point where the Royals had to move their TV cameras out of their usual perch in center field. The environment was tough for any pitcher, but you couldn’t pick a pitcher less suited for a day like Sunday than Chen, one of the most extreme flyball pitchers in baseball. I’d give him a mulligan for that.

The pleasant surprise was Jeff Francis, who came into the season with some major questions about his shoulder and his fastball velocity. His shoulder was sturdy enough for him to throw seven outstanding innings, but his velocity has to be a concern. According to Fangraphs, his fastball averaged just 84.8 mph on Friday – he was at 87.2 mph last year, and has never averaged less than 86 mph in a season. His curveball and changeup were also a couple mph below their career norms. It’s just one start, and it might be a park error – last year, fastball readings at Kauffman Stadium were artificially inflated by 1-2 mph. But it bears watching closely.

- Two words: Tim Collins. Three letters and a punctuation mark: OMG!

Seriously, I knew Seabiscuit was going to be good. I just didn’t know he was going to be this good. And I knew he was going to be fun to watch. But I had no idea he’d be so much fun to watch.

I say this with all seriousness: if you don’t love watching Collins throw 92-93 mph from a 5’6” frame, with a wacky delivery that hides the ball so well you’d think he’s throwing from behind a screen, mixing in big-breaking curveballs and a changeup that just disappears – well, you don’t love baseball, my friend. Or America. Or apple pie, you stupid Commie.

Oh, and on Sunday Collins became the first Royal since 2007 to throw at least three innings in relief, with no walks and at least five strikeouts. Not bad for the second appearance of his career. The last Royal reliever to make such an impression on me after just two appearances in the majors was Joakim Soria.

- Speaking of relievers…I still don’t like what the Royals are doing with Aaron Crow, in large part because I’m not sure what they’re doing with Crow. Is he a reliever for good? Is he a candidate to step into the rotation later this year? Next year?

But it would be foolish of me to not acknowledge that he’s looked pretty damn impressive so far. In particular, that slider is just…I’m not sure it’s illegal, but it’s definitely immoral. Crow has faced seven right-handed batters so far. One walked, and another managed to ground out to the shortstop. The other five struck out, including Howie Kendrick, the first batter Crow faced in the majors, with a runner in scoring position, and Torii Hunter twice, once with the bases loaded and one out.

It’s that very dominance which makes me wonder if the Royals aren’t leaving value on the table by moving him to the bullpen. But for now, I’ll concede that he makes the Royals a better team. Starting Crow in the major leagues despite no history of success in the minors was very much a scout-based decision by the Royals. If we’ve learned one thing in the past year, it’s that when it comes to minor leaguers, the Royals do know a thing or two about scouting.

- Are the Royals trying to make Jarrod Dyson into the new Herb Washington? That’s not the worst idea in the world, honestly – he pinch-ran for Brayan Pena after Pena singled in the eighth inning on Sunday, and three pitches later he was standing at third base. He’s appeared in three of the four games – all three times as a pinch-runner, staying in to play defense on one occasion. I’m just curious to see how many games he’ll appear in before he gets his first at-bat.

(Incidentally, despite stealing second and third base with one out, Dyson was stranded and did not score. The Royals have nine steals in 10 attempts – but not one of those nine steals led to a run that wouldn’t have scored anyway. The only benefit they’ve gotten from their running game is that two of the stolen bases may have kept the Royals out of a double play. Stolen bases are nice, but they remain vastly overrated by the Royals.)

- The defense, in general, looks a lot better. Alcides Escobar hasn’t hit worth a damn yet, but he’s made several plays on balls that Yuniesky Betancourt would have waved at like they’re his next-door neighbor. Francoeur nailed a runner at the plate. This still isn’t a great defense, but at least they’re not the embarrassment to baseball that they’ve been in recent years.

Chris Getz has made some fine plays and executed the perfect relay throw that nailed Alberto Callaspo at the plate on Sunday. (Callaspo failed to score from second on a double, which isn’t as bizarre as it sounds. For one, he had to hold up to see if the ball would be caught. For two, the ball ricocheted off the wall directly into Melky Cabrera’s bare hand, allowing him to make a quick throw in. And for three, as we all remember, Callaspo moves so slowly that Bud Selig just appointed him to a committee.)

- This entire series was a vindication of a lot of head-scratching moves the Royals made with their roster. Crow pitched great. Matt Freaking Treanor had a walk-off homer and a game-tying RBI single with two outs in the eighth. Treanor also made two separate plays at the plate, conceding nothing to two baserunners who were barreling in on him but were dead to rights.

Which just goes to show: anything can happen in four games. I’m not saying you should ignore how well the Royals have played so far; on the contrary, this is one of the more likeable rosters the Royals have had in years, and there’s a lot to be excited about for the future. But there’s a difference between “likeable” and “good”. I fully expect the Royals to bridge the gap between those two by the end of the year. Just don’t expect every series between now and then to go as well as this one did.