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Deconstructing The Process

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It all happened so fast.

Let’s rewind ourselves just a bit. The first five and a half innings were blueprint Royals baseball. They led 2-1. Their runs scored on an Alex Gordon bomb and an Erik Kratz sacrifice fly. Danny Duffy was looking good. He got two quick outs to start the bottom of the sixth. Nolan Arenado swung at the first pitch he saw and hit a routine grounder to Christian Colon at third. Colon throws off target and in the dirt, Billy Butler can’t grab it on the bounce, and Arenado is safe. Willin Rosario singles on the next pitch and Duffy walks Corey Dickerson on four pitches.

Then, the dagger. Matt McBride crushes a 95 mph belt-high fastball and sends it just over the fence in left.

Grand slam. Ballgame.

That was it. Seven pitches. An error, a single, a walk, and a home run. Duffy spun 102 pitches on the evening. Yet seven stinking pitches define the game.

Duffy really pitched a good game. He threw 76 fastballs, 14 change-ups and 12 curves. It’s a pitching mix that’s notable because he’s throwing curves about 23 percent of the time and usually throws more curves than changes. I’m guessing it was a Mile High game plan to move away from the curve. It seemed to work for most of the game. Duffy couldn’t put hitters away in the first and the Rockies featured a couple extended plate appearances, but he settled in and managed his pitch count well.

Hey, they can’t win them all. It only feels like it when they get on a serious roll.

A couple of other notes from the game:

— The error in the sixth is on Colon. Entirely. Sure, Butler had the opportunity to grab the throw on the bounce and he didn’t. But that’s a throw that has to be made. Billy has played what I would term “more than acceptable” defense at first. In the past, when I watched him play in the field, the thing that stood out was his footwork. It looked like he had a peg leg. (Insert your own “Hey, that’s why he’s so slow” quote here. Or if you’re creative, something about how he’s a pirate.) Anyway, he could field with slightly below average range and he could catch the ball. He just didn’t look comfortable around the bag. Now though, that’s changed. I’m not going to nominate him for the Eric Hosmer Gold Glove for The Most Amazing Defensive Excellence You’ve Ever Seen At First Base, but I will say that I don’t notice the poor footwork. Which probably means it’s gone.

Billy takes a ton of grief from a segment of the Royals fan base. While his offensive production early in the year certainly deserved criticism, he’s capable of playing an all around game.

Besides, we’ve seen Hosmer fail to come up with a few of those exaggerated scoops of his in the past. It’s not an easy play for a first baseman. Especially on the backhand.

— Salvador Perez was a late scratch which was termed as a “precautionary” measure by the Royals. Ummmm… Who’s worried. Perez, you will recall, left Monday’s game after straining his right knee while running the bases. Ned Yost had him in the lineup on Tuesday. Ho-hum, nothing to see here. Sadly, this is Royals business as usual. I know their training staff gets accolades, but why on earth would you play your catcher, a guy who has already seen action behind the plate in 112 of the Royals 125 games, the day after he left the game with a knee issue? Give him a full day to see how it feels. He could probably use another day off anyway. But the Royals send him back out there and he’s unable to go on Wednesday.

Then late word comes that Perez will have a “precautionary” MRI on his knee tomorrow.

Stay tuned.

— Speaking of Royals doing Royals things, Josh Willingham saw action in right field for the first time since 2009. And he made a couple of catches. He didn’t look comfortable out there, but he made the plays. I understand what Yost was doing by loading his lineup with right-handed hitters against the lefty Jorge de la Rosa and there’s no DH in the National League park.

I’m just relieved it worked out.

— And finally, that set lineup that Yost insists on using is starting to slowly drive me to insanity. Alex Gordon hitting fifth? Omar Infante second? I continue to maintain that if the Royals fail to make the playoffs, we will be able to trace it to the obstinance of Yost as it comes to the lineup. Sure, weird things happen like Infante hitting three doubles in a game, but the fact is he’s been an abysmal offensive performer for most of the season. Move him down. Move your best hitter (and MVP candidate) up in the lineup where he can bat more than three times in a game.

It’s not rocket science, but Yost does everything he can to make it so.

On Monday, Royals backup catcher entered the game as a replacement for starter Salvador Perez in the seventh inning. (Perez exited with right knee soreness. More on that in a moment.)

Kratz saw three pitches.

Kratz hit two home runs.

Let’s just let Gameday illustrate.

Plate appearance number one:

Kratz HR1

Plate appearance number two:

Kratz HR2

Kratz has a little bit of pop – he hit 18 home runs in limited action for the Phillies in 2011 and 2012 – but to enter the game in the seventh inning and launch not one, but two home runs? Ned Yost is playing with house money. That’s not to give Yost credit. Perez left the game with an injury. Just to say Yost – and the Royals – are living right. One of their key players exits and the backup answers the bell. Get on board. Seriously. Get on board now.

The Kratz bombs gave Ned Yost the luxury of holding Greg Holland back for a single out. Before the inevitable Aaron Crow implosion that created a save situation. The final cushion of two runs was provided by Mr. Kratz.

As I said, if you weren’t on the bandwagon before, you best get your butt on board.

The Royals are 14 games above .500 for the first time since August 9, 1994. They have a two game lead on Detroit. They are two and a half games behind Baltimore for the second seed in the playoffs. Man, I don’t know. This is some rare air.

The Kratz Cameo may get in the way of the other storyline – the dominance of Jason Vargas. Seriously, this guy is pitching lights out.  Seven innings, three hits, a walk and three strikeouts. The only blemish was the Oswaldo Arcia home run in the seventh. Vargas mixed his four and two-seam fastballs with a lethal change-up. He threw 35 change-ups and got seven swings and misses. It was an irresistible pitch as the Twins offered at 21 of those. The only hit they collected on the change was the aforementioned home run to Arcia. It was a change inner-half. Arcia waited, kept his hands in, and barreled the ball. Crushed it was more like it. But if Vargas is going to be so nasty with that pitch, we can forgive a moment where a hitter turns on one.

Arcia HR

It’s a tip your cap kind of thing.

The change has always been Vargas’s best pitch. It’s been effective again for him this year. His walk and home run rates are down, and he’s dropped his xFIP to a career-low 4.05. The interesting thing is he’s throwing fewer pitches in the zone. He’s throwing just 40 percent of his pitches in the zone, but hitters are chasing 34 percent of his pitches that are outside the strike zone. That’s keeping them off balance and preventing hitters from barreling the ball. Otherwise, they’re making contact, but he’s content with letting the Royals defense do the heavy lifting. You really can’t argue with that recipe. It feels like he should be able to keep rolling. Maybe not as good as he has been since returning from his appendectomy. But good enough to keep his team in any game he starts.

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As I mentioned before, Perez left the game with a sore right knee. Ned Yost said he tweaked it running the bases in the fifth and termed him “day to day.” Under normal circumstances, I’d mock Yost and any diagnosis he would give. But I’m not stupid. I’m not betting against Ned Yost.

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If you frequent Fangraphs, you may have noticed the WAR leaderboard on Monday morning:

Alex Gordon – 5.7
Mike Trout – 5.6
Giancarlo Stanton – 5.1
Josh Donaldson – 5.1
Robinson Cano – 5.0

The leaderboard only confirms what we in Kansas City have known since Gordon exploded in 2011: Alex Gordon is one of the most complete players in baseball. He hits, he fields, he throws, he runs. He does it all.

The “Five Tool Player” is romanticized. I mean, there’s only one Willie Mays. Or Mickey Mantle. In the modern game, it’s Mike Trout. But I’ll submit that Gordon is a five-tool player in his own right. He may not lead the league in home runs or stolen bases, but he will give you enough power and speed to go along with his spectacular defense that he’s one of the few five-tool players in baseball today. And Ned Yost continues to hit him fifth. Ok.

In 2011, Gordon had the seventh best fWAR in the AL and somehow netted just three votes for MVP. All were 10th place votes. (Shame on the KC chapter of the BBWAA for that one. Not a good look.) This year, I suspect he will do a little better.

Gordon is simply one of the best, most complete players in the game.

Well, today is exactly why Dayton Moore traded for James Shields.

There has been a good deal of snark directed at Shields’ nickname, some of it with a firm foundation in fact, but when you trade your best hitting prospect (by a mile at the time) and one of the best prospects in the game, one is pretty much expecting James Shields to take the mound late in the summer with first place on the line.   And one is pretty much expecting that James live up to his nickname.

After a rough three start stretch at the end of June (14 runs allowed in 19 innings), Shields has been – dare we say it? – a number one starter.  He has gone seven innings or more in five of seven starts and allowed two runs or less in six of those seven starts.  That includes going eight innings on August 3rd while allowing just four hits, no walks and two runs and going the distance in a four-hit shutout on August 9th.

The Royals have gone 3-1 in Shields’ last four starts, despite scoring a combined total of just 12 runs.

Yeah, this is pretty much the guy you want out there when facing the Oakland A’s and Jeff Samardjiza on a Thursday afternoon with your team holding a half game lead in the A.L. Central.

We can debate whether Shields is really ‘Big Game James’, but I don’t believe you can debate that today’s non-televised businessman’s special is indeed a Big Game.  The Royals need Shields to be his nickname…or at least do a Jason Vargas impersonation.

You can’t win them all.

That’s how the cliche goes. Allegedly.

The Royals were dropped by the A’s by a score of 11-3 on Tuesday, ending their eight-game winning streak.

It’s a game that, were you able to extrapolate the entire season, from beginning to end, to examine the pitching match ups, you would have circled on your calendar as an obvious loss. Jeremy Guthrie versus Jon Lester. That loss is as guaranteed as the Royals not removing a poor bullpen arm from their roster because they’re frightened they would lose him to waivers. That’s how guaranteed this loss was on paper.

But they don’t play these games on paper. At least that’s what I’m told. No, they play on the field and that’s where the Royals have been invincible the last couple of weeks. So, what the hell. Play the game. Because as Joaquin Andujar once said, “Youneverknow.”

Sadly, it went about as expected.

The Royals rotation has been pretty good this summer. Really good. But don’t let anyone tell you Guthrie has been anything but the weak link. Yes, he’s thrown some gems. He was especially sharp his last two outings. But he is the Royals least effective starter as ranked by fWAR and his peripherals are pretty lousy. Just for fun, here’s the Royals rotation as ranked by fWAR:

James Shields – 2.6
Yordano Ventura – 2.0
Jason Vargas – 1.9
Danny Duffy – 1.8
Jeremy Guthrie – 0.9

Guthrie is the guy you’re nervous about every time he takes the mound. Sure, he can give you a game like he did against the Diamondbacks last week, but he’s a few more times as likely to throw one like Tuesday. And that’s one of the continuing underlying issues with this team. Guthrie seems like a decent guy. He originally signed for $11 million for 2014, but restructured his contract to knock $3 million off that sum. But he will collect it – with interest – should his mutual option for 2016 not be picked up by either party. According to Fangraphs, Guthrie has been worth around $5 million this year. With eight to nine starts left on his season, there’s no way he’s going to provide value for his contract. Hey, not everyone signed to a contract will. However, I’ve always argued that the Royals, given their market, must be smart enough to avoid those kinds of expensive mistakes.

I’m not trying to be a downer. The Royals are in first place, after all. It’s an exciting time to be a fan. But as Clark wrote last week, it’s fine to be a fan and disagree with the front office on how they value certain players. It’s why, while I’m hopeful the Royals can win the division (or the Wild Card), I remain wary of this team for the future. There are too many bad decisions that happen. Guthrie just happened to remind me of one last night.

(And I’m not even going to mention Bruce Chen. Wait, I just did. To pay that guy $4.25 million is… Unwise. But you probably knew that. Shame Dayton Moore and the Royals brain trust didn’t know that. Could have had some payroll flexibility at the deadline.)

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I haven’t done much reading about the game, but I wonder if the narrative will circle around about how the Royals always seem to have this “moment” to capture the fans, but can’t capitalize.

I’ve seen this theory before. It goes something like, “The Royals play well enough to get people on the bandwagon. They finally go to the game. Fill the stadium. Then they put up a stinker in front of 25,000+ and lose 11-3.”

If that happens, please don’t buy into that narrative.

We’ve discussed this before, but the Royals are one helluva streaky team. And streaks end. Sometimes bad baseball will be played. Last night, the Royals announced an attendance of greater than 27,000 with walkup sales of over 9,000. That’s impressive. That’s a signal that the fan base is buying what you’re selling. And lord knows, the Royals need that kind of support and they need to hold on to it tightly. Yes, last night was disappointing. But a game like that was going to happen sooner or later.

The Royals didn’t “choke” in front of a large crowd last night. They didn’t feel “pressure” and they didn’t fail to come through in the “clutch.” They lost. To a better pitcher and a better lineup. That’s baseball.

The beauty is, the Tigers lost last night, too. The Royals are still in first. And the beat goes on.

 

You read that headline right.   Although to be fair, it should continue to include ‘and his Tommy John surgery’.

Despite some rumblings to the contrary in the early stages of spring training, the Royals had pretty firmly decided to make Luke Hochevar their eighth inning guy.   While using a former number one overall pick as a set-up reliever is not the ideal end result, many/most of us were expecting good things from Luke in his new role.

I strongly doubt, however, that anyone would have willing to predict that Hochevar would strike out over 13 batters per nine innings or only allow a hit every other inning or allow ONE extra base hit (only a double at that) in his first 51 innings of work.  That would have been crazy talk.  No one does that.

No one except Wade Davis.

Within a day of the Royals discovering that Hochevar was lost for the season, they abandoned all thought of Wade Davis as a starter.  What happened and is happening since that point in time has been a spectacular success.  You can apply and debate the value of a pitcher who only pitches the eighth inning when his team has a lead, but I do not know that you can debate that Wade Davis is better in that role than anyone else in baseball this year.

Now, I’ve been jaded by years of organizational stubbornness when it comes to ‘their’ players. It took the Royals five years to allow themselves to use Hochevar out of the pen.  It took them just this side of forever to give up on Kyle Davies.  You do the math:  if Luke Hochevar is healthy in 2014, does Wade Davis take up space in the starting rotation?

In 2013, the Royals were 10-13 in games started by Davis.  In 2014, Kansas City is 12-10 in games started by Yordano Ventura and 9-9 in those started by Danny Duffy.    We don’t know and they don’t know, either, what the Royals would have done with regard to Davis with a healthy Hochevar in the picture, but I have a sense that he’s in the rotation to at least start the year.

Assuming Davis was, he might well have taken Bruce Chen’s spot and quite possibly have been roughly equal in effectiveness.  Does that really sound like something Dayton Moore and Ned Yost would have done in April?  After their team has surged back into first place, maybe we should give them the benefit of the doubt, but you almost have to believe that there was a better than even shot that Chen would stick in the rotation with Davis taking the spot of Yordano Ventura.

Anybody want to trade Ventura’s five April starts (the Royals went 3-2 in those) for five Wade Davis starts?  Anyone?  Bueller?

Carry it a bit further.  When Bruce Chen went on the disabled list in late April, that might well have triggered a Ventura promotion, but then when would Danny Duffy have been granted his first start?   Instead of May 3rd, where would Kansas City be if Duffy did not get the nod until mid-June?

Complete and total speculation on my part with regard to 97.3% of everything above. It is quite possible that the Royals would have broken camp with the exact rotation they did, called up Duffy exactly when they did, and done so even with Hochevar AND Davis in the pen.  It might have happened that way.

I wish no ill will on Luke Hochevar.  I was looking forward to him being an effective, if overpriced, weapon out of the bullpen this season.  However, I am not sure a healthy Hochevar would have equaled a better team record for the reasons listed above.

It is August 12th and the Kansas City Royals are in first place.  Tough break, Luke, but I’m digging this reality.

 

 

 

 

“We can’t get caught up in what Detroit’s doing. Or whoever’s behind us.”
– Jarrod Dyson

Forgive me if this is a bit stream-of-consciousness. This is being written immediately following my return from The K, where I watched the Royals defeat the Oakland A’s 3-2. With the win and the Tigers loss to Pittsburgh, the Royals have moved into first place in the AL Central by a half a game.

What?

The Ned Yost Baseballing Strategy again worked to perfection. A couple of timely hits by the evening’s offensive hero in Alcides Escobar. Six gritty innings from Yordano Ventura. Solid defense by Alex Gordon in left and Mike Moustakas at third. And the lockdown triumvirate of Kelvin Herrera, The Wade Davis Experience, and Greg Holland. Boom. Boom. BOOM!

First place.

I think I’ve written this before, but I don’t really believe in “celebrating” being in first place on August 11. But you cannot deny there is something going on here. On May 20, the Royals were in third place in the AL Central, seven games out of first. By June 17, they were in first. That stay was short lived. Again, the Royals stumbled. One month later, on July 12 they lost at Detroit and fell to 7.5 games behind the leaders. And now, on August 12 they are back in first place. Do you see what’s going on here? They have rallied from seven games back not once, but twice. To accomplish that once in a season is impressive. Twice? Oh, my.

So I’ll celebrate. Just a little. One eye on the standings. Another on the calendar.

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The Royals made a trade on Monday, acquiring Josh Willingham from the Minnesota Twins. (I really need to get around to updating my Dayton Moore database. Sorry.)

Willingham gives the Royals the right-handed bat they had been so desperately seeking. In many ways, he’s an anti-Royal. For starters, he walks. His career walk rate is 12 percent. He’s actually outperformed his career average in each of his three seasons with the Twins. Second, he strikes out a bit. Like in more than a quarter of his plate appearances. Third, he has a high OBP. His current .345 OBP ranks second on the Royals. Finally, he has some power. His career-high for home runs is 35, set a couple seasons ago. That’s impressive. (Remember, this is a Royals blog. Our idea about impressive home run totals is skewed by Steve Balboni and ballplayers wearing stirrups.) He’s kind of a Three True Outcomes Lite kind of guy. Sort of a poor man’s Adam Dunn. Which on a month and a half rental, is just fine.

Defensively, you don’t want him to have a glove. He’s played in left field for the Twins. We know that’s not going to happen here. He last played right field in 2009 for the Nationals. Ned Yost says he’ll move him around, but if Ned is smart (don’t answer that) Willingham is the DH. In 2011 and 2012, the right-handed hitting Willingham hit for a better average against right-handed pitchers, but hit everyone for power. In 2013 and this year, he’s reverted to the old fashioned platoon split. He’s been miserable against right-handers and passable against lefties. But he’s still hitting for more power versus the righties.

Even with his anti-platoon struggles, he’s still an above average offensive player. A nifty combination of on base-ability and power give him a 111 wRC+. He needs to be in the lineup as the everyday DH.

A nice piece of business from Dayton Moore to fill a big hole in the lineup.

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Being at The K on Monday was one of the more memorable experiences I’ve had there as a fan in the last 20-plus years. The crowd was Kansas City subdued, but there was a buzz in the stands. Kind of percolating, waiting for something big to happen. We didn’t get an Alex Gordon moon shot or a three-run Billy Bomb. The offense was kind of classic Royals. A couple of hits, another god-awful outfield throwing error and a double play led to the first run. Three singles created the second. And the third scored following a walk, a fielder’s choice, another weak grounder to second and a single from Escobar. Nothing sexy. Workman-like. And enough to secure the win.

The crowd obviously responded to the runs, but they seemed to save their energy for the bullpen. By the time Herrera entered the game, there was this odd sense that this team was in control. In control. How often have we used those words to describe a Royals team? Herrera throws straight gas and gets a flyable out on a nice play by Cain who had to run a long way, and then punches out Jed Lowrie on 101 mph petrol and follows that up with a whiff of John Jaso. Herrera yields to Davis who picks up a pair of strikeouts before ending the inning on a fly ball to left. The buzz is building the whole time through the seventh and eighth. It’s as if the fans know this is the appetizer. But it’s damn good. And then Holland. The place erupts. Saveman. He wobbles. A single. A wild pitch. A walk. Trouble. Yet the buzz continues to build. We’re on our feet. The chants. The cheers. And Holland comes through. He gets a ground ball double play and a fly out to center.

At the end, it was as loud and joyous a crowd I can remember at The K. We know what’s happening. We are aware. Everyone knows what the Tigers are up to. Everyone knows the stakes. It was a special, special evening.

It wasn’t a playoff-type of atmosphere. But 21,000+ made it a damn fine dress rehearsal.

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I don’t go for memorabilia, but I do have a few things. Odds and ends that are special to me. I have a bunch of ticket stubs. Playoff tickets dating back to 1976. World Series tickets. Random games from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. I haven’t kept much lately. I’m keeping that ticket.

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Finally, a couple of images from Monday.

 

 

It’s a damn crazy season. Buckle up.

 

It is August 10th, or if you went to be early, you are waking up on August 11th and the Kansas City Royals are a game and one-half in front of the pack for the second wild card berth.  Even more, they find themselves just one-half game behind the injured riddled Detroit Tigers.

What the hell is going on here?!!

Weird things happen when a team with a great bullpen gets good starting pitching at the same time Billy Butler and Alex Gordon hit.  Baseball things happen.

Winners of 14 of their last 17, the Royals have benefited greatly from the fact that Billy Buter (by chance or by because he is getting to play in the field) has 11 extra base hits over that span.  A third of Butler’s extra base hits have come in the last three weeks while his fellow hold-over from the Allard Baird era (Alex Gordon) has hit seven more extra base hits and walked eight times.

That combination makes baseball seem easy.   It won’t always be that way.

I’ve done some statistical analysis and have come to the conclusion that the Kansas City Royals, nor any other team, is going to maintain a 14-3 pace for the rest of the season.  I know, who would have thought?

That said, the Royals control their own destiny with just 47 games left to play in the regular season.  They have a real chance to overtake Detroit and win the Central Division.  They have a very good chance of hanging onto that second wild-card spot.  They should make their chances even better.

This playoff race almost certainly seems to be headed to a final week conclusion, the margin to get into post-season might well be one game.  Dayton Moore (and David Glass) should do whatever possible to find one or two more wins.  Sure, you can look forward to the return of Eric Hosmer, but that is likely three weeks away at least and I just don’t think teams routinely get to the playoffs by playing Raul Ibanez at designated hitter…not with Mike Moustakas playing third (he’s surged ALL the way to .200!).

Three weeks is a long time: long enough for Toronto or New York or Detroit or Seattle to get just as hot as the Royals are.  It is also long enough for the Royals to endure some tough luck or revert to the team that not very long ago could not score any runs.

Adam Dunn.

He does things the Royals don’t really understand, like take walks, and he also does things they are only a little familiar with, like hit home runs.  He strikes out a ton and doesn’t hit much of anything else besides home runs, but he is a tremendously more effective hitter than Raul Ibanez or Eric Kratz.

Who do you want to be your designated hitter for the next 21 days?   Who would you have more faith in helping to continue this freakishly fun ride?

I have a hard time imagining you have to give up a ton for seven weeks of Adam Dunn, certainly not any of your top five prospects and probably not even your top ten.  I have not heard that Dunn has cleared waivers and it would seem possible that he might not, but it certainly is something worth exploring if you are the Royals.

The Royals may find that Dunn is unavailable or that the White Sox don’t want to be reasonable in a trade (although it would seem odd they wouldn’t take something) and if that is the case then they should be ‘aggressively pursuing the waiver-trade market’ as they claimed they would do on July 31st.

Winning baseball games should not have changed that mindset.  In fact, it should only make the Royals’ organization more intent on improving this team.

Even if the improvement is just one game.

I don’t normally write blog posts on the weekend. This isn’t a normal weekend.

The Royals dropped the Giants 5-0 on Saturday. James Shields pitched a complete game shutout. Alex Gordon homered. Sung Woo was there. Just another Saturday night at The K.

That’s really all you need to know. This week has been so improbable, I feel at a loss for words. This team has so many flaws; many of them on display during this six game winning streak. Yet for one week, they have consistently overcome those flaws and have won. The Royals have captured 13 of their last 17 and are still, officially, the hottest team in baseball. Flaws be damned.

Shields was brilliant on Saturday. He allowed only two Giant base runners to advance to second base. One on a wild pitch, another on a double. Both times, the runner was stranded. The most pitches he threw in any one inning was 16. He threw 109 pitches total, yet got only four swings and misses. Such is how the Giants offense is rolling these days. Which is really fine with me. A win is a win. They’re all important, but as the calendar advances, they certainly seem to grow in importance. They say baseball is a game without a clock, but the season is certainly finite. There are 162 games. Win enough and you get to the playoffs. April wins mean as much as August wins, but with fewer opportunities available, the August wins come with a little more passion.

As the numbers have grown in this stretch, I find myself thinking of Dayton Moore and his proclamation last summer that his team was capable of winning 15 of 20. I mocked Moore for making such a statement. (Actually, I called for his firing.) And damned if they didn’t rip off 19 wins in 24 games. That was the first time a Royals team got that hot since April of 2003. Seriously, it took the Royals 10 years to get hot enough to win 15 of 20. And now, with 13 wins in their last 17 games, they’re on the cusp of doing it again.

The difference is, this stretch comes when other flawed teams are actually losing (or not winning as much.) So the Royals have been able to push to the front of what really is a mediocre pack and place their grip on the second Wild Card. And now, with the Detroit bullpen doing Detroit bullpen things, the Royals have somehow closed the gap between first and second in the AL Central to a mere 1.5 games. And that’s why this year feels different. Last summer when the Royals got hot, they couldn’t get closer than 6.5 games back of Detroit.

On Saturday, the Royals won their 62nd game of the year. Their record is 62-53. Last year, at a similar point, their record was 62-54. The difference? The standings. Last year at this time, the Royals were 6.5 games behind Detroit in the Central. And they were four games out of the Wild Card. This year, they are in place in the second Wild Card and they are making life extremely uncomfortable for the Detroit Tigers. Funny how that happens.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

This may have been one of the more improbable wins of the season.

Jeremy Guthrie opens the game for the Royals, and as Jeremy Guthrie is apt to do, he allowed some baserunners in the early going. Like a lot of baserunners.

In his first three innings of work, Guthrie threw 54 pitches. He allowed seven hits, all singles, and two runs. Jeremy Baserunner Guthrie, indeed.

Then… The turnaround.

For the final six innings, Guthrie threw 55 pitches. And he was masterful, retiring his final 19 hitters. He mixed a four-seam fastball with his change, cutter and slider, throwing all four pitches almost equally. He generated only six swing and misses, but this is the Diamondbacks. When not throwing at opposing hitters, they’re busy waving the white flag. But that’s OK, because these games count for the Royals just as much as any games against the Tigers.

Once Guthrie found that groove, the Diamondbacks were helpless. He was actually throwing pitches down the heart of the plate, but Arizona couldn’t do any damage.

Screen Shot 2014-08-08 at 12.09.46 AM

Fouls, called strikes and in play, out(s). The Diamondbacks were powerless against the wizardry of Guthrie.

On the offensive side of the ledger, Alex Gordon muscled up on a belt-high fastball and the Royals parlayed a Nori Aoki single, an Omar Infante single, a double steal and a Sal Perez single (all aboard the Single Train!) into a pair of runs in the fourth. It was all Guthrie would need.

The Ned Yost Baseballing Formula worked for another night. Quality starting pitching, a couple of key hits, and a manufactured run or two. Thursday, he didn’t need to go to his bullpen. How perfect was that. Let the man shine on.

The game wasn’t without some old Royal moments. Alcides Escobar was picked off/caught stealing in the fourth for his team-high 10th TOOTBLAN this season. In the last week and a half, he’s been picked off twice and doubled off first. Speaking of TOOTBLAN moments, in the eighth, Mike MoustakAZ was thrown out on a play at the plate where it was clear that he would have been safe had he bothered to slide. In the same inning, Guthrie was hit by a pitch and then went first to third on an Aoki single that featured one of the most awkward slides I’ve seen since Chris Getz face-planted into second base last year. I’ll excuse the Guthrie transgression since he’s a pitcher and all that, but the MoustakAZ gaffe is another indication that the guy just doesn’t seem to get it. He’s happy with his double. He’s happy the team is winning by three runs late. And he just doesn’t seem to understand that every run is important. Every out is precious. I’m singling out MoustakAZ, but this is a Royals problem. Winning hides the unpleasant, but this is a problem that percolates just under the surface. Nearly everything went right for the Royals on this roadtrip. Carelessness or a sense of entitlement can change all that in an instant. And these mistakes won’t look so good during a three-game losing streak.

I don’t mean to be a downer. I’m on the bandwagon after all. The Royals wrap up a six game road trip with five wins. That’s pretty huge. They won a game 1-0 (another Guthrie masterpiece) and they won a game 12-2. And they won games in between. They have won 12 of their last 15. Just a month ago, we mocked Yost and Moore for the “second half team” comments. Yeah…

When Thursday ended, the Royals were atop the Wild Card Number Two standings. One-half game ahead of the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Mariners. Quite the logjam. While it’s great the Royals hold the advantage for the second Wild Card, I’m not going to celebrate that. It’s August 8, for crying out loud. Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely outstanding the team has shoved their way to the front of the line. It’s great they are in the pole position. In a way, they control their own destiny from this point forward. Win more games than the other three teams in the mix and it’s October baseball. But still… There’s a lot of baseball to be played. Like more than seven weeks of games. We’ve seen this team. They rip off a few wins and just as quickly take a dip in the tank. Or we’ll write them off and they’ll charge back. Yeah, I’m buying in. Don’t worry about me. I’m just saying I refuse to get too high about the standings at this point in the season. Just like I’m going to try to avoid the lows if the team gets swept by the Giants this weekend. (Like that’s going to happen. We have Sung Woo on our side.)

Now, having said that, I will absolutely engage in scoreboard watching. It’s a lost art among Royals fans. During the game on Thursday, I propped up my iPad with the Mariners game, just to keep tabs on another team in the hunt. I am concerned about the standings and they absolutely do matter. The wins are meaningful and the losses are going to sting just a little more than usual. It’s just this is unfamiliar territory for us. The roller coaster is about to get just a little more extreme.

But I’m still excited. Oh, yes. I’m still excited.

This is happening, isn’t it?

A quick recap of my most recent emotional roller coaster:

— At the All-Star Break, I wrote the Royals needed to make a move in the first 13 games of the second half.

— The Royals went 7-6 in those games and lost ground in the Wild Card chase.

— I wrote the Royals should sell.

— Dayton Moore made me angry when he didn’t.

— The Royals have won four of their five games in August. That’s 11-3 in their last 14.

— They currently stand 3.5 games behind Detroit in the Central and just a half game back of the Blue Jays. They are solidly in second place in both races. There are no teams to leapfrog. They’re not in pole position, but they’re pretty damn close.

This season. This team. Bananas.

The patented Ned Yost Baseballing Formula worked on Wednesday. Get six innings from your starter. One or two big hits. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland. Chalk up a win.

The hero was Mike Moustakas. A two-run home run, a run-scoring single and a run-scoring fielders choice. The guy drove in all four runs. When he hits free agency, the dude needs to make sure the Diamondbacks are bidding. MoustakAZ is clearly the king of Arizona. The guy crushes in Surprise every March and that’s just carried over to the desert in August.

His home run plate appearance was interesting. Josh Collmenter started him with three pitches away. He came down Main Street on 3-0 and MoustakAZ swung. This drives me crazy and I’m sure I’m not alone. MoustakAZ has seen 27 3-0 counts this season and has swung four times. I know, I know… It’s not a lot. But still. Exactly what has he done to deserve the option to swing 3-0? He doesn’t have a base hit in that situation, missing (or fouling off the pitch) twice and making a pair of outs. Please, just stop. I don’t care if it’s Collmenter offering an 84 mph cutter. You’ll still have a favorable hitting count 3-1.

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Speaking of 3-1, the next pitch was down, but MoustakAZ dropped the barrel and whacked it out of the park on a line drive. A flawed process with a good final swing that was rewarded with two runs. It’s the Royals. It’s how they roll.

Yordano Ventura threw fire, wasn’t exactly sharp, but managed to whiff seven and routinely get out of trouble. And that’s all the Royals ask of their starters these days. The bullpen was a touch wobbly, but they were able to hang on and power through. Hey, you’re not always going to get nine consecutive outs from the Big Three. You just ask for those outs as rapid as possible, please. And thank you very much for allowing just the single run.

So we’re at this point in the season. I don’t know when the last time was the Royals were this close in mid-August. I want to go “all in” with the club, but I’ve seen too much and been burned far too often. I do know this… What I said last month is still valid. All the teams in the Wild Card hunt have some serious flaws. The winner will be the team that doesn’t necessarily overcome those flaw, but it will be the team that is able to gloss over them effectively over the last seven weeks of the season. The Royals have as good a chance as any team to grab that second Wild Card. Are the Blue Jays, Yankees, Mariners, and Indians appreciably better? Does any one of the five teams in the mix have a marked advantage over the other four. The answer to both of those questions is, “I don’t think so.”

I guess it’s time to soak it all in. Yeah, we can get hurt all over again. But that pain subsided for me a long time ago. Another season without October? Yeah, I can deal with that. Because I’ve dealt with that for almost three decades. Missing out on a potentially joyous ride of my adult life with a baseball team I’ve pulled for for almost 40 years? That’s not happening. I’m here. You’re here. Let’s do this together.

Royals baseball, man.

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