Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Promised Land.

“You know, it’s very strange – I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.” – Inigo Montoya’s final line in The Princess Bride

Playoff Odds: 100%

I’ve waited for tonight for twenty-nine years. My entire adult life and nearly half my childhood, I’ve been waiting for the day that the Royals clinched a playoff spot.

And from the moment last year when the 2014 schedule was released and it was revealed that the Royals, for the second straight season, would finish the season in Chicago, I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to watch them clinch a playoff spot in person. Waiting skeptically, perhaps, but waiting nonetheless.

At some point in the last month, that possibility went from abstract to very, very real. At some point in the last week, it started to feel like an inevitability. The Royals were going to clinch a playoff spot. It was going to happen here in Chicago. And damned if I wasn’t going to watch it in person.

Seattle’s victory on Thursday ended the possibility of clinching that night, and when the Royals were down 3-1 after four innings the doubt started creeping in like an alien creature in a B-movie. James Shields never looked comfortable on the mound, the Royals stranded a leadoff double in the fourth without moving the runner, and after Salvador Perez led off the fifth with a triple, Omar Infante and Mike Moustakas both struck out.

But then Alcides Escobar singled him home with two outs. Then Eric Hosmer homered to tie the game in the sixth. And then Shields turned the ball over to Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis and Greg Holland. And then Billy Butler hit a tailor-made double play ball to shortstop with men on first and third and one out in the eighth, only Alexei Ramirez’s relay throw to first bounced, and Jose Abreu couldn’t come up with it, and the Royals had the lead. And then Terrance Gore pinch-ran for Butler and created a run with his speed, and then in the ninth Jarrod Dyson walked with two outs and created a run with his speed.

The Royals won, 6-3, and their magic number dropped to one, and not only did they all but make themselves a playoff team Thursday night, you could see the outline of a team that deserves to be a playoff team – good starting pitching, a dominant bullpen, a lineup that puts the ball in play and runs with abandon.

And we had a blast. I attended Thursday night’s game alone, but some of you dropped by early on and took advantage of the White Sox’s gracious hospitality – empty seats all over the place behind the first base dugout – to sit down and enjoy the game with me. We slapped hands after every run scored and every scoreless inning from HDH; we yelled ourselves half-hoarse chanting “LET’S GO ROYALS” for the last three innings. I’ve never seen U.S. Cellular Field with so many Royals fans, and we congregated near their dugout, and the shared communal experience of hundreds of long-suffering fans in sight of the promised land huddled together in a hostile ballpark made the game somehow more and less meaningful at the same time. More meaningful because we all knew what a win would mean to all of us, and yet less meaningful because sharing in the experience together, win or lose, is what makes being a fan so fulfilling in the first place.

Now take that experience, jack it up a degree or ten, and you had tonight.

My brother Roukan came with me tonight; he was nearly as rabid a Royals fan as I was from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s, but at some point the losing broke him, and he’s only now finding his way back. We again sat in the box seats behind the Royals dugout, in the 31st row. By gametime I saw and greeted half a dozen fellow Royals fans from the night before like old buddies. We moved up to the 23rd row before the first pitch. And tonight the Royals took the drama away early, scoring two runs in the game’s first six pitches and three runs before the top of the first was over.

They would sprinkle a little drama back in as the game progressed, as they were unable to put Hector Noesi away. They had two on in the second and Aoki – who continues to channel Peak Ichiro – hit a hard line drive that was flagged down by the left fielder. In the third, Gordon hit a bomb to right field that was betrayed by the cool temps and a breeze that went still, and died at the wall. Between Infante’s single in the fourth and Butler’s single in the ninth, 14 straight Royals failed to reach base.

And it didn’t matter, because Jeremy Guthrie reminded us that the strength of this team is that there are so many guys who can contribute in so many ways. He was fantastic tonight; the White Sox will be seeing his curveball in their sleep before awaking in a cold sweat. By the fifth inning we were counting outs, like Denny Matthews on an October night so many years ago.

By the time Wade Davis came in for the eighth, we had moved down to Row 15; Davis got scratched for a run, yielding the most tense moment of the game, when he faced Jose Abreu representing the tying run. But Davis struck out Abreu swinging, and then Conor Gillaspie swinging, and complete strangers were exchanging knowing nods and thumbs up and high fives. Even with a much larger Friday night crowd that wanted to acknowledge the retiring Paul Konerko, the “LET’S GO ROYALS” chant broke out so many times that White Sox fans had no choice but to respond, leading to what sounded like “LET’S GO ROYSOX” reverberating throughout the stadium.

And then Greg Holland came out for the ninth, and we spotted some vacated seats in Row 5, and we moved down as Royals fans from all over the stadium started streaming into the section. Konerko tried to give the other fans something to cheer for, but his line drive was snagged by Gordon. Jordan Danks struck out swinging. We stepped out of the row and down the steps as far as we could go; my brother snuck around an usher and leaned on the dugout itself.

And we all had a fantastic view when Michael Taylor stepped in, and skied the first pitch straight up, a perfect white sphere on a perfect black background, and Perez stared up into the sky and positioned himself under it, and then we all heard the ball land in Perez’s glove with a cathartic thud, and then we all lost it.

I don’t know that I’ll remember everything that happened afterwards, but what I do remember will probably remain a memory for a long, long time. We screamed. We gave high fives until our palms tingled. We continued yelling “LET’S GO ROYALS!” at the top of our lungs while the team congregated on the infield. We introduced ourselves to each other, the Royals fans who like me happened to live in Chicago, the fans who had driven up from Kansas City or from Nebraska or who flew in from Cleveland or Minnesota or elsewhere, all with the singular intention to be there for that moment. I found Curt Nelson, the Director of the Royals’ Hall of Fame, who had driven up from Kansas City early in the morning to be at this game, and Dave Webster, a.k.a. KayCee, who drove up as well after his flight was cancelled by the fire at O’Hare this morning and made it just in time for the first pitch. He was in full work attire, with his 1880s baseball uniform and his big blue “W” in tow.

The players disappeared into the dugout and didn’t emerge for a while; I imagine you all saw them celebrating in the clubhouse. But we didn’t go anywhere. Friday night is Fireworks Night, and we watched the fireworks and assumed they were for us, and who’s to say they weren’t? And then the fireworks ended and we waited, and screamed, and chanted some more.

And then Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer came out first, goggles on the top of their heads like flip-down sunglasses, huge goofy grins on their faces, and they started spraying champagne into the crowd. Then Raul Ibanez popped his head out. “RA-OOOOL!” The rest of the team soon emerged, turning to the crowd and cheering us on. The players came around the dugout to high five the fans; I slapped hands with Tim Collins and Wade Davis. Alex Gordon emerged from the dugout carrying his child, and he was as emotional as I’ve ever seen him – he was smiling – and we started chanting, “AL-EX GOR-DON! AL-EX GOR-DON!” until he smiled even more.

Camera crews came by and stared interviewing the fans in the front lines, stopping only when one of them was asked how he was feeling and he replied with questionable sobriety, “I’M F***ING GREAT!” (You’ll have to tell me whether they were broadcasting live or not. I kind of hope they were.)

And then Perez looked into the crowd and started pointing at someone, and telling them to come closer. I figured that maybe his girlfriend had made the trip or something, until I realized that he was pointing at Webster, and insisting that he come down on the field. So KayCee climbed up on top of the dugout, and then Perez helped him down, and KayCee held up the big blue “W” for everyone to see, and we all screamed at the top of our lungs again.

And then someone yelled out “NORI!” to a contingent of Japanese reporters that had surrounded a player, and Aoki beamed, and we started chanting “NORI! NORI! NORI!”, and he came over with his hands raised exultantly, and he threw his cap in the crowd. Johnny Giavotella threw a shirt into the crowd and was greeted with roars. If you were a Royal, we loved you. I caught a glimpse of a beaming Ned Yost before he trotted into the dugout and screamed out "NED!" like he was Terry Francona and Joe Maddon wrapped into one. I’m pretty sure in that moment I would have kissed Aaron Crow.

And before we were done the fans insisted on giving one player what might be his last hurrah, chanting “BILL-Y BUT-LER! BILL-Y BUT-LER!” until he separated from a pack of reporters and acknowledged his adoring fans. Tonight wasn’t just about this season, but about an entire generation of fandom that came before it, and we weren’t going to simply ignore one of the best Royals hitters of that generation just because he was having a tough year.

And then the players slowly drifted back into the dugout, and we said our goodbyes, and we slowly headed to the exits, losers no more.

There will be time to analyze soon enough, to talk about these last few games (Hosmer’s heating up!), and the games to come (should Guthrie bump Vargas from the playoff rotation? Is Yost really serious about starting Shields on short rest on Monday?). There may even be a long apology posted that I need to start writing. But right now, I just want to enjoy the moment. I want to enjoy this moment. The moment I’ve been waiting for since I was ten years old.

There’s still so much uncertainty left in the regular season. With just two days left, it’s still possible that the Royals could have to fly to Oakland for the Wild Card game Tuesday night; it’s possible that the Royals will host the A’s (or the Mariners) at Kauffman Stadium that night; it’s possible that they’ll play in Detroit on Monday for the AL Central tiebreaker, and then play again in Kansas City the next day if they lose; it’s even possible that they could win the AL Central outright and enjoy a three-day rest before opening the ALDS in Baltimore on Thursday.

But one thing is certain. The Royals are a playoff team again. The longest postseason drought in North American sports is over.

I have been in the business of waiting for the Royals to make the playoffs for so long that, like Inigo Montoya, I need a little time to process the news that the quest is over, and it’s time to find a new quest.

But only a little time. Because clinching a playoff spot isn’t the end of a quest; it’s simply the beginning of one. The Royals disguised this for decades, but making the playoffs is the easy part. Ten out of thirty teams (33.3%) make the playoffs, but just one of those ten (10%) wins a championship.

Tonight, the Royals took the first step towards winning a championship. They’ve still got four steps to go. I don’t need to think about what I’m going to do now that the six-fingered man is dead: I’m just going to keep rooting for the Royals to take the next step. And I’m going to enjoy this ride as long as it lasts, all the more so because I get to enjoy it with all of you.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Royals Today: 9/25/14.

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 99.9% (20.6% Division, 79.2% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 99.1% (5.0% Division, 94.1% Wild Card)

The two systems agree on the Royals’ overall playoff odds are over 99%, but vary wildly when it comes to their odds of winning the division. I have to think there’s a bug in the Fangraphs’ system at this point: there’s no way the Royals have a 21% chance to win the division when they’re down two games with four to play. That would imply they have about a one-in-three chance of finishing tied with the Tigers (along with a small chance of winning the division outright), and I don’t know how you make the math work.

Anyway, the Royals’ odds of making the postseason went up yesterday, thanks to Mark Buehrle being a beautiful human being, and the Mariners being kind of a tire fire right now. It is possible that the Royals could end the longest postseason drought in North American sports tonight.

But their path to the postseason is looking more and more like it will have to go through a one-game deathmatch against Oakland, as the Tigers beat Chris Sale (all of the cool teams are doing it now, apparently) to take a two game lead with four to play. With Oakland losing, the Royals and A’s are tied, with the Royals holding the tiebreaker to host that game Tuesday night.

And wouldn’t you know it, Tuesday is James Shields’ day to pitch. What happens that day might not only cement his legacy in Kansas City, it may determine whether I owe Dayton Moore an apology – or whether I need to get down on my knees, kiss his feet, beg for forgiveness, and then commit ritual suicide to restore what little remains of my honor.

But first, Shields pitches tonight, with a chance to take the Royals to the Promised Land after just 29 years. We should know before he takes the mound whether the Royals can clinch or not – the Mariners and Blue Jays play at 3 PM CDT. Either way, I’ll be there – if you’re going to the game, follow me on Twitter if you want to come by and say hello. And maybe, just maybe, celebrate something special together.

- Last night may have been a disappointing loss to the Indians, but if there’s a silver lining here, it’s that it may force the Royals’ hands in keeping both Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy in their playoff rotation.

I thought Soren Petro was being a little melodramatic yesterday morning when he said that Jason Vargas is cooked, but I'm thinking now that he has a point. Vargas was terrible last night. He gave up a three-run homer in the first; he walked three batters and struck out only one. Over his last four starts, he’s allowed 18 runs in 18 innings. (Meanwhile, Phil Hughes threw eight innings of one-run ball yesterday and finished his season with the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in major league history. Come on, people, I haven’t had the best season from a prediction standpoint, but you gotta give me this one! If Hughes were a Royal, pitching in front of this defense, he’d be getting Cy Young votes this year.)

Vargas isn’t this bad, just as he wasn’t as good as he looked at times earlier this year. But he is worse than Ventura and Duffy – assuming Duffy looks as good in his second start back from injury as he did in his first – and the Royals can’t have a playoff rotation that features both Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie, but only one of Ventura or Duffy. Yes, Ventura/Duffy would make for a better piece out of the bullpen than either Vargas or Guthrie – but it’s not like the Royals are hurting for right-handed relievers, and with the emergence of Brandon Finnegan, there isn’t an acute need for a power lefty out of the pen anymore either.

The problem is that there’s a 50/50 chance that the Royals’ playoff rotation will begin and end with Shields. If Ventura pitches on Sunday – and even if a playoff spot is secured and the AL Central is out of reach, it might be worth it to start him in order to guarantee a home playoff game on Tuesday – then neither he nor Shields would be on full rest to start Game 1 of the ALDS. But Duffy would be on normal rest, and I don’t know about you, but I’ll take my chances with Duffy and Ventura in Games 1 and 2, with Shields starting Game 3 at Kauffman again. Any other alignment would be sub-optimal. (Also, the way the off days work, if the ALDS goes to Game 5, you could start Duffy on five days' rest OR Ventura on regular rest.)

The other silver lining here – we hope – is that yesterday might represent the last time Aaron Crow is allowed to pitch in a close game. He entered with the score 5-4 in the sixth, and promptly walked the leadoff batter – Mike Aviles, who we know from intimate experience is a hard man to walk. Aviles stole second, advanced to third on a grounder, which ended Crow’s outing. Francisley Bueno came in and allowed a sacrifice fly to double the Indians’ margin and put the game out of reach.

You may have read this on this blog before, but if you haven’t: AARON CROW ISN’T A GOOD PITCHER. Ned Yost keeps trying to prove otherwise, and he keeps getting burned. I don’t think Crow is one of the 25 best players on this team, and I think you can make a very strong case that he should not be on the Royals’ playoff roster. And I’m damn sure that he has no business in being used in any fashion other than as a mop-up man or as a human victory cigar in a 10-1 game.

- One last time: the Royals could clinch a playoff spot tonight. No, really. And if they do, MLB has to let them in – I checked the rulebook and everything.

The last two months have been a crazy ride, and barring a seismic collapse, the ride won’t end on Sunday. On the contrary, it might just be getting to the good part.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Royals Today: 9/24/14.

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 96.2% (46.0% Division, 50.2% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 87.6% (18.1% Division, 69.4% Wild Card)

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 99.6% (47.9% Division, 51.7% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 98.6% (17.4% Division, 81.2% Wild Card)


There’s a world of pain and suffering in the gap between 99.6% and 100%, and anyone who thinks this race is over needs to brush up on their recent history. Three years ago, the Atlanta Braves were in exactly the same situation the Royals are in right now – up three games on the St. Louis Cardinals with five to go.

The Braves were 89-68 and the Cardinals were 86-71, and that was the last year under the One Wild Card format, so the prize was even higher – a spot in the LDS round. But the Braves then lost their last five games. The Cardinals won a couple of one-run games, 3-2 and 2-1, then lost 5-4 in ten innings to stay one back with two to play. But the Cardinals closed by winning 13-6, and then 8-0, and not only had they beaten the Braves for the Wild Card spot, they did so without even needing a tiebreaker game. The Cardinals, who had less than a 1% chance to even reach the postseason with five days left, went on to win the World Series. The Cardinals are the original wizards of #DevilMagic, which makes sense, because they are evil.

So don’t assume anything, folks. At the same time, know this: if the Royals don’t make the playoffs at this point, it would be one of the biggest last-week collapses in baseball history. At least the Braves had the excuse that they were losing to the Nationals (who finished 80-81) and then got swept by the Phillies, who led the majors with 102 wins. Meanwhile, the Cardinals took two games from the Cubs (71-91) and then two of three from the Astros (56-106).

The Royals don’t have that excuse. They face the Indians today, and then finish with four games against the 72-85 White Sox – without having to face Chris Sale, who conveniently starts against Detroit today. The Mariners still have two games against Toronto (80-77) and then finish with the Angels, who have the best record in baseball, although the Angels may have clinched the #1 seed and have nothing left to play for at that point.

So really, at this point there are no excuses if the Royals don’t end the longest playoff drought in North American sports sometime between now and Sunday. Everything is set up perfectly for them to clinch at some point during their series with the White Sox. I am sorry that they won’t have a chance to clinch at home. I am not sorry that they have a chance to clinch about 25 minutes from my home. (If you’re going to the games this weekend, check my Twitter feed and let’s all meet up.)

And with Sale going today, the AL Central race could be tied by tomorrow, setting up a furious four-game finish and very possibly a tiebreaker game in Detroit Monday night. It’s baseball with everything on the line. I’ve waited for this for so long.

- The Royals are in this position because, after missing three weeks with a sore shoulder that seemed almost certain to end his season, Danny Duffy returned Monday night with six scoreless innings, working out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the first inning; and because Yordano Ventura threw seven scoreless innings last night, his 11th consecutive start of six innings or more allowing no more than three earned runs, the longest streak by a rookie in Royals history.

Danny Duffy now has a 2.32 ERA. With Felix Hernandez getting crushed last night, there is one qualifying pitcher in the AL with a better ERA than Duffy – Chris Sale, who for obvious reasons I hope will still have a better ERA than Duffy at the end of today. But Duffy, if he had ten more innings to qualify for the ERA title, could very well have ended up with the second-best ERA in the AL.

There are some enormous caveats there, of course. More than 20% of Duffy’s runs allowed are unearned, which is unusual; with a normal ratio of unearned runs his ERA would be around 2.70 or 2.80. And he’s benefitted from some tremendous BABIP luck this year; his BABIP this year is .238, and his career mark coming into the season was .324. But still: a 2.32 ERA. From a guy who could have wound up spending most of the year in Omaha with command issues and none of us would have blinked. Duffy’s development is the single biggest reason why the Royals are where they are today, and Ventura’s development is probably second.

And to think, six months ago the inability to develop a starting pitcher from within was the biggest black mark on Dayton Moore’s administration. At this point, given the struggles of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, and the resources expended in the draft (four top-five picks used on hitters, just one on pitchers not counting Luke Hochevar), I would argue that at this point, the administration has done a better job of developing pitchers than hitters.

There will be time to talk about how to set up the playoff rotation soon enough; Soren Petro and I broached that subject on 810 WHB today. First off, the Royals need to guarantee themselves more than one playoff game. If the Royals don’t win the division, James Shields is set up to pitch the Wild Card game on regular rest next Tuesday, probably against Jon Lester. The last two words of the last sentence are just one reason why the Royals still need to do everything they can to win the division.

In the event of a tiebreaker game – against the Tigers for the division in Detroit Monday night – it would be Jason Vargas’ turn to pitch. You could bring back Shields on short rest, but that’s an extreme solution to a non-extreme situation. In the event the Royals play in Detroit Monday night, they would only have to win one of their next two games – against Detroit Monday or against Oakland Tuesday – to advance to the next round. The Monday night game is analogous to a Game 6, not a Game 7. In a Game 7, there is no tomorrow, and all hands are on deck. But Monday night there is a tomorrow, and tomorrow might well be an elimination game, so best to hold Shields back to pitch that game on full rest if he’s needed. And if he’s not needed, then he’s fully rested to start Game 1 (and even more important, Game 5) of the ALDS.

Jason Vargas against Detroit with the division on the line wouldn’t be my first choice, but let’s be honest: aside from Jeremy Guthrie, the Royals’ starters are almost indistinguishable in terms of quality. Here are their FIPs: 3.55 (Shields), 3.58 (Ventura), 3.64 (Duffy), and 3.72 (Vargas). What distinguishes the Royals’ rotation this year isn’t one or two aces, but the depth of having four above-average starters and one guy who is blessedly average.

And as it turns out, you need only four starters in the playoffs. We’ll address that issue later, but moving Guthrie to the bullpen is the obvious move to make from an analytic standpoint. However, there are non-analytic issues that have to be addressed as well.

- I can’t end without at least raising the question of why on earth Ned Yost let Ventura throw 117 pitches last night, allowing him to load the bases in the seventh inning of a 7-0 game before striking out the final batter.

Pitch counts have come a long way in a short time, and this doesn’t qualify as abuse under any pre-2005 definition of the term. I brought up the cautionary tale of Mark Prior on the radio today, who was slagged down the stretch in 2003 and then ran out of gas in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the NLCS with his team five outs away from their first World Series in 58 years. (And then, of course, tore his rotator cuff and ended one of the most promising pitching careers of his generation at age 25.)

I realize that comparison is a bit of a stretch; Prior, after all, had pitch counts of 131, 129, 124, 131, 133, and 133 just from September 1st on. Prior had four 130-pitch outings in six weeks in 2003; every pitcher in baseball this year has combined for two 130-pitch outings. This isn’t remotely the same. But still: what was the point? What was to be gained from having Ventura set his career high for pitches in a game that you were leading 7-0?

Ventura is scheduled to start the last game of the season. Hopefully the Royals will still have a shot at the division title going into that day, and his start will be meaningful. But if it isn’t, and Liam Hendricks gets the start today while Ventura – and the entire starting lineup – gets some much-needed rest, well, there might be a silver lining.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Royals Today: 9/22/14.

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 89.0% (34.6% Division, 54.4% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 69.2% (6.6% Division, 62.5% Wild Card)

One day after the Royals’ most painful loss in memory, the ESPN/Fangraphs playoff odds are the highest they’ve been all season, so pretty much the highest they’ve been (if they had been invented) since 1985. Such is the roller coaster ride of September baseball.

Those odds are inflated by a couple of factors. The first is that the computers don’t know that the Royals are about 90% likely to lose their first game today, the completion of their August 31st game. The other is that the computers don’t know that while the Mariners – who Fangraphs give just a 13% chance of making the playoffs – finish their season with three games against the team with the best record in baseball, the Angels will be prioritizing keeping their players healthy and fresh for October over actual wins and losses at that point. The Angels with one hand tied behind their back are still a formidable opponent, but not as formidable as the computers might assume.

(Of course, the numbers also don't know that the Indians chose to use Corey Kluber yesterday, keeping him out of the Royals series, and the White Sox are unlikely to start Chris Sale against the Royals in the season-ending series either. That's pretty big. Given that the Royals are the team standing between Cleveland and the playoffs, and given that starting him yesterday won't give Kluber another start this season, I'm really surprised - and, of course, relieved - that they didn't hold him back a day.)

What’s really interesting about these numbers is just how much BP’s playoff odds have diverged from Fangraphs’. BP has always had lower playoff odds for the Royals, because they take a much more dim view of the Royals’ “true” talent level, pegging the team with an expected winning percentage of just .489. It may sound crazy to peg the Royals as a sub-.500 team, and I wonder if their model properly accounts for the Royals’ defense. But it’s not as crazy as it sounds; the Royals have been lucky both on offense and defense this year, in that they’ve played much better with runners in scoring position than otherwise.

But what’s strange is that as the season gets closer to the end, the quality of the teams should start to matter less and their exact position in the standings should matter more. The Royals lead Seattle by 1.5 games in the standings; one game if you account for tonight’s loss. But with seven games left, one game is pretty huge.

And in fact BP doesn’t give the Mariners the bulk of those odds that have been stripped from the Royals. Those odds go to the Indians instead. Fangraphs gives Cleveland just a 3.3% chance of the playoffs; BP gives them a 15.5% chance, an enormous difference. I really don’t know why the two systems would diverge this much this late in the year. The take home point here is that if the Indians sweep this four-game series – which is really a three-game series plus a gimme – they would move a half-game ahead of the Royals. That’s the danger here.

On the other hand, if the Royals take three of four, they are guaranteed to finish ahead of the Indians. (I would say they eliminate the Indians entirely, but it’s possible Oakland and Seattle both collapse.) Splitting the four would require the Indians to sweep their last three and the Royals to lose their last four just to force a tie. Losing three of four would still give the Royals a 1.5 game edge, but would also open the Mariners up to passing them and setting up a wild weekend.

So basically, this series means everything. Duh.

- A quick note on yesterday’s game, and the value of having five starting pitchers that don’t suck. Jeremy Guthrie is not, with all due respect, a great starting pitcher. But he does not suck, and man is that a nice thing to say right now.

A lot of people complained when the Royals re-signed him to a three-year deal that it was too many years and too much money for a pitcher who, at his best, is league average. But – this was shortly before the Shields trade caused me to lose my mind – I endorsed the signing, because I felt like now that he was freed from the AL East and Coors Field, Guthrie would settle in as a league-average starter who provides lots of innings, and that has value.

And that’s basically what he’s been, with the caveat that – according to his peripherals –  he’s been quite lucky to even be league average. Last year he had a 4.04 ERA, good for a 102 ERA+, which is better than league average when you consider starting pitchers have higher ERAs – but remember, he had the benefit of the game’s best defense. This year, he has a 4.28 ERA, below the 3.94 league average for starting pitchers, but at least within range. He was worth 1.1 bWAR last year, and 0.7 bWAR this year. Based on those numbers, he’s been – slightly – overpaid the last two years.

But you can make a strong case that for the Royals, “replacement level” is lower than it is for the industry as a whole, because we’ve seen what happens when someone other than the Big Five starts a game, and it isn’t pretty. This is why Liam Hendricks had value in a trade; he’s not great, and he may not even be mediocre, but he’s better than anyone else the Royals had.

Guthrie wasn’t great on Sunday, but he was good enough, in a game the Royals absolutely had to win. Rick Porcello is a better pitcher in the long run, but in the short run he’s, what, half a run better per start? That’s close enough for variance and the Royals’ bullpen to overcome, and that’s what happened yesterday, in a game the Royals desperately needed.

And oh yeah, when Guthrie hit some trouble in the sixth inning, putting two on with one out, Ned Yost went to Kelvin Herrera. (Although Yost let Guthrie face Nick Castellanos with two on and none out first.) When Herrera got out of the inning, he went back to Herrera for a second inning, then to Wade Davis, then to Greg Holland. The world did not spin off its axis. Herrera was not overwhelmed by being asked to pitch one inning earlier, or two outs more, than normal. Yost managed his bullpen exactly the way he should have, everyone did their jobs, and the Royals got the win.

If the Royals are going to escape into the playoffs this week, if they’re going to make an extended run in the playoffs next month, they need Yost to show he’s capable of learning from his mistakes. The way he used his bullpen yesterday is proof that he is, in fact, capable. Now, about those bunts…

Tonight marks the return of Danny Duffy, who the Royals delayed until today because they wanted two left-handers (Duffy and Jason Vargas) to take the mound against Cleveland. This makes all kinds of sense; for the season, the Indians have hit .256/.322/.405 vs. RHP, but just .251/.311/.359 vs. LHP – the drop in power is particularly striking. They have five left-handed hitters who play almost every day in Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Michael Bourn, David Murphy, and Lonnie Chisenhall. I’m not sure Vargas is ideally suited to face them – he doesn’t have much of a platoon split – but Duffy has been as tough on LHB this season as any starter in the game. If he’s healthy, he gives the Royals a very good chance to at least split tonight’s quasi-doubleheader.

But first up, the Royals get a crack at turning an assumed loss into an unexpected win, as they finally complete the Sunday Night Baseball game from August 31st which was interrupted by torrential downpours right after Greg Holland had coughed up two runs in the top of the tenth inning.

While coming back from two runs down with three outs to go is a long shot, the Royals are aided by a couple of things:

1) Just before the game was postponed, the Indians had pulled Cody Allen – who had surrendered the game-tying homer to Alex Gordon in the ninth – for left-hander Kyle Crockett, who is the pitcher of record. So even though Allen might be rested to pitch tonight, he’s out of the game.

2) While the game started in August with strict 25-man rosters, when the game picks up today, Andy McCullough confirmed for me that the Royals can use everyone – all 37 players – on their current roster, at least those who did not come out of the game originally. While the Royals used Herrera, Davis, and Holland, Holland is still technically the pitcher of record for the Royals; if they were to tie up the game in the tenth, Yost would have the option of going to Holland for one more inning if he so chose.

More importantly, though, the Royals have a raft of bench players available to them that weren’t available the night of the 31st. Josh Willingham was active that day but unavailable with a nagging injury; he’s available. Eric Hosmer was on the DL; he’s available. So is Terrance Gore along with Jarrod Dyson if the Royals need a pinch-runner; so is Jayson Nix and Johnny Giavotella as replacements for whoever Gore or Dyson pinch-ran for. So is Francisco Pena as a third catcher, which is relevant because Erik Kratz started for the Royals behind the plate, and Salvador Perez is in the game as the DH.

3) The Royals have had literally three weeks to plan out their line of attack in the bottom of the tenth inning, so Yost can’t claim to have not had the time to prepare.

Here is the lineup due up to start the tenth inning:

L Mike Moustakas
R Erik Kratz
R Alcides Escobar
L Nori Aoki

I assume Crockett will have to face one batter, as the rules state that a pitcher brought into the game must face one batter. I will admit that I don’t know if that rule is abrogated in this unusual circumstance. But assuming he has to face one batter, Yost’s first decision is clear:

- Pinch-hit for Moustakas with Josh Willingham.

Crockett is a left-handed specialist at this point; he’s a rookie who zoomed to the majors less than a year after he was drafted in the fourth round last year, and has pitched in 40 games for the Indians this year, but has thrown just 28 innings. The Indians have found a way for him to face more LHB (68) than RHB (48) this year, and while LHB have hit just .217/.288/.283 against him, RHB have hit .302/.375/.488. His K/BB ratio against LHB is 18 to 2, and he has not allowed a home run to them; his K/BB ratio against RHB is 7 to 4, and he has allowed two homers.

Moustakas, obviously, bats left-handed. He also has a .271 OBP this year, the lowest of any batter on the team with 100 PA, and the Royals need a baserunner before they can start thinking about tying the game with one swing. If the Indians led by a run you could at least try to make an argument that Moustakas’ power gave him a shot – a dumb argument, but it’s an argument. But in this case, Moustakas might well be the last hitter on the team you’d want batting in this situation. (Well, aside from Raul Ibanez. Let’s not go there.)

Willingham bats right-handed, and will take a walk, and despite his recent horrible game on Saturday his .349 OBP on the season is just one point behind Aoki’s as the highest on the team. (His .361 OBP since joining the Royals would rank first.) The only reason not to pinch-hit with him is if you want to hold him back to go for the fences if and when a batter reaches base. But I’m not sure who you would go with instead; the only other RHB on the bench are Pena, Giavotella, Nix, Lane Adams, and Terrance Gore. So to me, this seems like an absolute no-brainer.

If Yost lets Moustakas bat against Crockett to start the ninth, with three weeks to prepare, and with a bench full of guys to play third base if the Royals extended the game, it would be as inexcusable as anything he’s done all year. Which is saying something.

Kratz bats second, which is another reason to really hope that the leadoff hitter reaches base. If he does, then Kratz’s power makes him a reasonable choice against Crockett. If Kratz bats with one out and no one on, his lifetime .274 OBP makes it tough to stick with him – except, again, the Royals’ best right-handed alternative off the bench is probably Giavotella. I might actually make that switch, but it’s not an appealing decision either way. This would be the rare time where giving up the platoon advantage while pinch-hitting makes sense, as I suppose you could go to Dyson and hope he can beat out a ground ball to the left side, or go to Eric Hosmer and hope that Hosmer’s innate hitting ability comes through. And having Francisco Pena on the roster means that the Royals can replace Kratz behind the plate after the inning without giving up the DH. (If Pena were to bat later, you'd probably want to pinch-hit for him then, move Perez to DH, and then have your pitcher bat in Pena's spot, but by the time the pitcher's spot would come up you'd be in at least the 15th inning.)

If Crockett is pulled after one batter for a right-handed pitcher, then the Royals’ options become much more palatable. Hosmer or Dyson for hits; Ibanez or Carlos Peguero if the leadoff batter reaches and you want to swing for the fences…but in that case you would just go to Hosmer anyway. It’s hard to imagine that Terry Francona would pull Crockett and open up the Royals’ left-handed hitters off the bench unless the leadoff hitter reaches and Kratz’s power worries him. Which, again, gets back to this fundamental point: the Royals must do everything in their power to maximize the odds their leadoff man reaches. Which means that Mike Moustakas must not be allowed to bat.

(Late edit: it has been pointed out to me that, per rule 4.12(c) of the official MLB Rulebook, Crockett does NOT have to pitch to a batter when the game resumes, although if he doesn’t, he is considered to have pitched in the game and can not come back in. This changes things a little, but only a little. There are two possibilities here:

1) Crockett starts the tenth, but after a pinch-hitter is called for, he is pulled for a right-handed pitcher. This would not surprise me at all.

If that’s the case, you STILL have to go to Willingham, because Willingham vs. a right-handed pitcher would still give you a better chance of getting on base than Moustakas vs. a left-handed pitcher. Basically, if Crockett takes the mound, Moustakas has to come out, and whatever Francona does is up to him.

2) A right-hander starts the tenth instead. In that case the answer isn’t quite as obvious, but I would still pull Moustakas. Again – YOU NEED A BASERUNNER. Moustakas has his skills, but getting on base ranks near the bottom of them. Dyson would give you a much better on-base chance as well as speed on the bases, which Yost loves even if it’s not the tying run, and he still has Gore for that eventuality. Sticking with Moustakas wouldn’t be an error on the same level as if he faces Crockett, but it would still be the wrong move.)

SECOND LATE EDIT: Joel Goldberg informs me that IF Crockett takes the mound to start the inning, THEN he must face one batter, so the Royals would get a free shot with Willingham without having to worry that Francona would pull the ol' rope-a-dope. So again: if Crockett takes the mound, Willingham must bat. If someone else takes the mound, someone other than Moustakas should still probably bat.

THIRD LATE EDIT, BECAUSE THERE HAVEN'T BEEN ENOUGH OF THOSE: Now I'm hearing again that Crockett does NOT have to stay in. Either way, Willingham against any pitcher is better than Moustakas vs. Crockett. So pinch-hit Willingham and work out the details later.

After that comes Escobar and Aoki, a one-two pairing which sounds about 100 times more interesting than it did back when this game started. Infante would bat fifth, and if he bats then the tying runs are at least on base, which means That’s What Speed One or That’s What Speed Deux are on the basepaths. If Crockett is still on the mound, I’d let Infante bat; if a right-hander is in the game at that point, then this would be the perfect place to use Hosmer if you haven’t already.

The point is, the Royals have had three weeks to think about these scenarios, and it’s not like this is rocket science. There’s no excuse for screwing this up. The odds are slim either way, but stealing one victory from the jaws of defeat this week might be the same as stealing one playoff appearance from the jaws of another disappointing season.