Friday, September 19, 2014

Royals Today: 9/19/14.

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 71.2% (30.7% Division, 40.5% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 64.8% (14.4% Division, 50.4% Wild Card)

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 84.9% (46.5% Division, 38.5% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 77.9% (24.2% Division, 53.7% Wild Card)

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 82.2% (45.9% Division, 36.3% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 73.7% (24.9% Division, 48.8% Wild Card)

We’ve entered uncharted territory, friends. As the penultimate weekend of the regular season begins, the Royals are holding onto a playoff spot. Last year at this time, the Royals were 3 games out of the second wild card spot and had just the eighth-best record in the AL…and that was considered a roaring success, the Royals’ best playoff run in a generation, to actually have a mathematical shot at contention with ten games to go.

And because we hadn’t experienced anything better, we responded like it was the real thing – witness the reaction to Justin Maxwell’s walk-off grand slam that Sunday, that brought the Royals to within, uh, 3.5 games with…sheesh…seven games to go? Last year was naugahyde; this year is genuine leather. Tonight, the Royals begin their final home series of the year, against the Detroit Tigers, and saying that this is the biggest series for the team in 29 years isn’t just not an exaggeration, it would actually be ridiculous to assert otherwise. Name one that comes close. You can’t. Because there isn’t one.

The three sets of odds listed above are as of Wednesday morning, yesterday morning, and this morning, and it gives you a sense of just how chaotic a pennant race can be that they’ve moved around this much. Wednesday could literally not have gone better for the Royals; not only did they beat Chris Sale soundly – it was Sale’s worst start of the season – they did so on a day the Tigers, Mariners, and A’s all lost. The Royals’ odds of not making the playoffs dropped by about 40%.

The Royals’ playoff odds dropped a fair amount on Thursday even though the Royals didn’t play, and even though the A’s continue what would arguably be the worst sustained collapse in baseball history, getting swept by the Rangers – THE RANGERS – at home. The Royals’ playoff odds dropped because Seattle won – although it took the Mariners until the ninth inning to score against an Angels team that was playing a spring training contingent the day after they clinched the AL West. The numbers say that the A’s are still favored to make the playoffs – they still have four more games against Texas – and so the Mariners are the team that the Royals need to keep in their rear-view mirror above all.

So little time left, and there’s still so little that we know. The Royals could control the AL Central race if they sweep Detroit. They could be practically eliminated from the division crown if they get swept, and they could find their playoff hopes on life support entirely if the A’s rebound against the Phillies and Seattle takes care of business in Houston. And that’s just what could happen between now and Sunday. With so few games left, variance swamps everything, and predicting or analyzing the matchups is a fool’s errand. Now’s not the time to predict the future. Now’s simply the time to savor it.

Sam Mellinger wrote a nice article about how the 1985 Royals were in very much the same situation that the Royals are in now, and saved their season with a huge series win against the Angels in the final week of the season. Sam focuses on certain moments, like Jim Sundberg’s game-winning home run, and good or bad, there will be moments this weekend that we will all remember for a long time to come. But the Royals didn’t win that series, and win the AL West, because of Jim Sundberg. They won because of George Howard Brett.

On Monday, the opener of that huge Angels series, with the Royals down a game in the standings, Brett homered in the fourth to tie the game, 1-1. After Sundberg’s homer gave them the lead in the seventh, Brett drove in an insurance run in the eighth on a sacrifice fly.

On Tuesday, Brett singled to cap a two-run rally in the eighth with two outs, bringing the tying run to the plate, but the Royals wouldn’t score again and lost, 4-2.

On Wednesday, Brett batted in the first inning with two aboard and went deep, making the score 3-0 Kansas City. They won, 4-0.

On Thursday, Brett walked in the first inning and scored on Frank White’s two-run homer. In the fifth, with the Royals leading 3-0, Brett homered again to make it 4-0. They would win, 4-1, giving the Royals sole possession of first place for the first time in over two weeks.

On Friday, Oakland came to town. In the fourth inning, with the Royals ahead 2-0, Brett singled with the bases loaded to drive in a run. The A’s would cut the lead to 3-2, but in the bottom of the seventh, Brett led off with a home run. The Royals won, 4-2, to clinch a tie for the AL West.

On Saturday, the Royals fell behind, 4-0, in the middle of the sixth inning. With one out, Willie Wilson singled, and Brett homered again, cutting the lead in half. In the seventh, he batted with a man aboard and two outs, and walked, coming around to score the tying run when White and Steve Balboni singled. The Royals would win on a walk-off single from Wilson in the tenth that clinched the division.

In six must-win games, Brett homered five times. The Royals won five times. They beat their biggest division rival three out of four, a two-game swing in the standings. They won the division by a single game.

There is no George Brett on this roster. But there are players capable of heroics, and there are even players capable of sustained heroics. Alex Gordon has done it already this season; he could do it again. If Salvador Perez can reverse his season-long slide and stop swinging at pitches on the other side of State Line Road, he could too. Someone unexpected could alter the narrative of their season, if not their career, with a huge final kick. Billy Butler. Eric Hosmer. Mike Moustakas could pop a couple of well-timed home runs and etch his name into franchise lore for something other than being just a top draft pick and top prospect. Jarrod Dyson might tag up from first base and score. On a pop-up.

The point is, there is no shortage of potential heroes. But potential is a dirty word in a pennant race. Someone needs to step up. And there is no better time than right now, in this series, in front of these fans, against this opponent.

- Not much original to say about the last two games. Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar provided moments of their own, shocking everyone by taking Sale deep. (Escobar homering is always shocking; Cain’s home run was the first one Sale had ever allowed on an 0-2 count.) Yordano Ventura once again relieved my concerns about his arm, his innings total, and his build. He was at his best on Wednesday, with a fastball that averaged 98 mph, about as hard as he’s thrown all season long. Danny Duffy’s injury makes this a moot point, but it’s almost unfathomable that the Royals would take Ventura out of a playoff rotation.

- Tuesday’s game was a huge disappointment, as the Royals let the White Sox off the hook for starting someone named Chris Bassitt (career innings above A-bal before Tuesday night: 48.) Bassitt allowed six hits and four walks in 3.2 innings, but only three runs. The White Sox never should have been in position to come back at all.

They did, though, and did so off Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis in the seventh, ending both relievers’ 30+ scoreless innings streaks in the process. Ned Yost was true to his word, bringing in Herrera with two outs in the sixth, and going to Davis in the seventh when Herrera got into some trouble.

Sometimes you just get beat. Sometimes, you give up a run, even if you’re Wade Davis and you have an ERA under one. Davis would pitch the eighth on Wednesday and give up another run, because he is in fact Wade Davis and not Kal-El, son of Jor-El. There might be a correlation between Herrera and Davis not being at their best and being asked to pitch in a different situation than they normally do. Then again, there might not, and even if there is, the situation mandated that the Royals go to them, because even Herrera or Davis at 90% of their best is better than the Royals’ other options (or 90% of the other relievers in baseball.)

Sometimes the right button is pushed and leads to the wrong outcome. The Royals lost on Tuesday because two players who had come through every time the bell was rung for three months straight both had an off night. Sometimes it’s not the manager’s fault. Yes, even when that manager is Ned Yost. As long as Yost continues to manage these last 10 games – and hopefully more games beyond them – with an appropriate sense of urgency, I’ll take my chances with the outcomes that occur when the Royals have their best players on the field.

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