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Deconstructing The Process

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With the return of Aaron Crow, Christian Colon and Liam Hendriks from Northwest Arkansas today, plus the introduction of Terrance Gore from there as well, the Royals have a dugout full of players.  More options for the manager who loves to ‘mix and match’.  If that last sentence didn’t make your stomach a little queasy, then you haven’t been watching Ned Yost manage.

That said, here is a quick guide to all the many options now at the fingertips of the Ned.

CATCHER

  • Salvador Perez
  • Eric Kratz
  • Francisco Pena

Yost has played Perez just about as close to everyday as one can for a catcher and there is no reason it won’t continue in September.  Kratz is a nice back-up, who has some quality at-bats from time to time.  The addition of Pena, who hit 27 home runs in Omaha this year  (but also posted a .280 OBP), allows the Royals to pinch-run for the heavy footed Perez and not worry (and listen, Ned does worry) about being down to no back-up catchers on the bench.  Yost could also use Kratz, if so desired to pinch-hit, but just a heads up:  Kratz actually hits right handed pitching better than left.

INFIELD

  • Eric Hosmer (L)
  • Billy Butler
  • Jayson Nix
  • Omar Infante
  • Johnny Giavotella
  • Christian Colon
  • Alcides Escobar
  • Mike Moustakas (L)

Escobar is going to play short everyday and Infante is going to play second most days and bat second, just because.  What happens at first base and designated hitter is going to be interesting.  If you were asking me – and no one has, shockingly – I would play Hosmer at first and Butler at DH against right-handed pitching and Butler at first and Willingham (bad back willing) at DH versus lefties.  My assumption, jaded as it may be, is that Yost will find a myriad of other options to employ as well, many of which are based on a) keeping Eric Hosmer’s dome all rosy and b) a given batter’s performance in five at-bats against the starting pitcher.

One would like to think that with Nix and Colon on the roster that pinch-hitting for Mike Moustakas would become almost a nightly occurrence, but I am skeptical of that as well.  Also, as mentioned above, Omar Infante is going to play most nights, which I don’t hate as I have given up on Johnny Giavotella and not sold on Christian Colon in the heat of a pennant race.  That said, could we please, please, please NOT bat Omar second?!!!!

 

OUTFIELD

  • Alex Gordon (L)
  • Lorenzo Cain
  • Nori Aoki (L)
  • Jarrod Dyson (L)
  • Josh Willingham
  • Raul Ibanez (L)
  • Terrance Gore
  • Lane Adams
  • Carlos Pegeuro (L)

That is a whole bunch of guys, but we already discussed the Ibanez/Willingham situation.  Other than to add that neither should set foot in the outfield grass this month.   It is no secret that Gore was called up exclusively to be a pinch-runner and that is mostly Adams’ role as well.  Pegeuro, who got a start last night, really should not take at-bats away from any of the top four guys on this list.  Pinch-hitting against a right-hander now and then?  Sure, I’ll take a few of those from Pegeuro – he just might ‘Justin Maxwell’ one over the wall, but no more than that.

Gordon, obviously, plays everyday.  The odd and often unpredictable rotation of Dyson, Cain and Aoki is likely to continue and I don’t hate it.   Submitted without further comment:  Aoki’s on-base percentage versus LHP this season is .410, but his OBP versus RHP is just .300.

All these shiny new toys are going to tempt Yost to be extra-creative.  Truthfully, he should settle on a first base/designated hitter rotation and do the same for center and right and limit the creativity to pinch-running for Butler and Perez and pinch-hitting for Moustakas and Infante.   Anything more is likely to do as much harm as it does good.

I have been watching.  I have been cheering.  I have been agonizing.  I just haven’t been written.  I am sure many of your lives were greatly diminished due to my lack of sage input……or not.

There is not much to offer about last night’s game, other than the rather obvious observation that if the Royals continue to win two of every three games, they will make the playoffs.   That said, Ned Yost – always paranoid about being short arms in the bullpen – will now be forever super-ultra paranoid from here on out after finding himself with only Bruce Chen, Scott Downs and an unavailable Wade Davis to start the 10th inning last night.  You watch, Yost and the Royals will break camp in 2015 with a NINE man bullpen coupled with a back-up catcher and Jayson Nix as the only bench players.

Ah, Jayson Nix.  Acquired off waivers yesterday, Nix can pretty much play any position but catcher and has never really hit playing anywhere.  I don’t mind him for a September stretch run when the Royals might well employ two pinch-runners and two pinch-hitters when the rosters expand to 40 in three days.  Since Kansas City is in first place, I will not, for now, wonder if giving Ned Yost multiple options is a good thing.

When Eric Hosmer returns, for better or worse, the Royals will have one of Hosmer, Butler or Josh Willingham on the bench every night, along with Raul Ibanez, Christian Colon and whomever is the fourth outfielder is that night.  There is the thought that speedy Terrance Gore might get a September call-up specifically to be just a pinch-runner and almost certainly Francisco Pena to be a third catcher.  Having a guy like Nix who can field any position allows Yost, whether we trust him or not, to pinch-hit and pinch-run multiple times late in a close game.  Now, if Nix is ever allowed to pick up a bat, then we’ll have something to complain about.

What does the acquisition of Nix mean for a potential playoff roster?  That’s right, I just went there and said it: playoffs.

The rules are pretty simple:  any player on the 25 man active roster OR the disabled list on August 31st is eligible to be on the 25 man post-season roster.  If a player is on the disabled list on August 31st AND still there at the end of the season, he can be replaced by anyone that was in the organization prior to August 31st.

What that means for Kansas City is that Luke Hochevar and Michael Mariot, both on the 60 day disabled list right now, are eligible for the post-season roster and, more importantly, can be replaced by anyone as they won’t be pitching in the post-season.

Eric Hosmer is on the 15 man disabled list and eligible for the post-season as well and, of course, WILL be on the post-season roster.  In the end, Kansas City has 28 post-season roster spots to turn into a 25 man roster, with two of those spots (Hochevar and Mariot) capable of being filled by anyone.

So, when Jayson Nix joins the team today or tomorrow and Christian Colon (as speculated) is sent to the minors, it does not necessarily mean that Nix is your playoff utility guy and Colon is out.  Kansas City could simply elect to put Luke Hochevar on their 25 man post-season roster and then immediately replace him with Colon or Aaron Crow or Tim Collins or Brandon Finnegan or whomever.   Obviously, that would mean that someone on the 25 man active roster on August 31st (kind of looking in your direction Scott Downs and Bruce Chen) won’t be allowed to join in the post-season fun.

In the end, adding Jayson Nix today only makes him eligible for the post-season, not a lock for it.  He’ll be handy to have around in September when one can, if so desired and not dead set on the idea that Mike Moustakas will hit something other than .200 and that Omar Infante is clutch, maximize the flexibility of expanded rosters to get favorable match-ups at the plate and on the basepaths.

Used properly and in conjunction with other players, Jayson Nix is a handy little pick-up and does not have any earth shattering consequences when looking at the post-season composition of the Royals.

 

Another night, another way to win. One day after Alex Gordon clobbered an epic walk off home run, the Royals bats slumbered for seven innings before the great awakening in the eighth.

Twins starter Phil Hughes had the Royals hacking. I mean, he’s a good pitcher, having a good year after signing with the Twins. But, damn if the Royals didn’t help him out. Here are the number of pitches he threw by inning prior to the big eighth:

1st inning – 11 pitches

2nd inning – 11 pitches

3rd inning – 9 pitches

4th inning – 16 pitches

5th inning – 7 pitches

6th inning – 8 pitches

7th inning – 8 pitches

Then, in the eighth, the Royals came alive. Six singles (including a beautiful bunt from Jarrod Dyson), one walk (from Alex Gordon) and a triple (from Salvador Perez!) and the Royals chase Hughes and hang a six spot on the board. Just another night at The K. Just another night in the Baseball Capital of the AL Central.

Should we worry about a flawed process? Should we care the Royals offense goes long stretches where the bats go completely hacktastic? It’s a question I struggle with. Then I just end up shaking my head and signing up for another night.

Sometimes, things just go right. Sometimes, you get the breaks. Two years ago, the Baltimore Orioles made the playoffs for the first time in nearly 15 years when they started winning one-run games at an amazing clip. They were 29-9 in one-run games. And they were 16-2 in extra inning games. Just crazy what they were able to do in close games. Unsustainable, sure, but I don’t think their fans were in a hurry to return their wild card spot.

The Royals scored 4.1 runs per game before the All-Star Break when they were two games over .500. They are scoring 4.2 per game after the All-Star Break and their record is 26-12. I don’t know what to tell you other than strange things are happening.

Back to my original question about the flawed process. Which is kind of foolish because I don’t know the answer. If the Royals make the postseason, then Dayton Moore’s Process will be validated. Sure it took eight-plus years but in this case playoffs equals validation. But here’s a secret: Dayton Moore was never going to change his style anyway. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but he’s kind of stubborn dude. It’s not like he was ever going to wake up and decide he was employing the wrong hitters or that his player development system is flawed. Never going to happen. So in that case, any on field success really changes nothing. Moore is who he is.

Second, there’s a portion of the fan base that wants Moore gone. The fear is this team has somehow overcome it’s shortcomings that Moore fails to see and he’s going to get rewarded with a contract extension and the Royals will slowly slide back into irrelevance. This is akin to worrying about the fourth year of Omar Infante’s contract. Man, I don’t even know what’s going to happen in one week, so I don’t know that I can get all worked up about a hypothetical contract extension. Yeah, it will probably happen. And yeah, I’m not sure Moore can figure out how to recapture success that on the surface boggles the mind. I’d like to see what would happen if the Royals could find a true visionary GM. But I also know David Glass is loyal to his people and if things keep going the way they are, a contract extension is all but inevitable.

If the Royals somehow pull this off, don’t we have to give Moore some credit? Even though I still don’t like him as a General Manager, I’ll absolutely tip my cap to him if the Royals are playing in October. Not to acknowledge his role in this or to say the Royals won despite Moore seems a little vindictive. You can’t dispute things are going his way, too. Look at the close to the deadline deal of Danny Valencia for Erik Kratz and Liam Hendriks. All Kratz does is come off the bench and hit two bombs to give the Royals a win. Then Hendriks throws seven incredible innings in his Royals debut, allowing just four base runners and one run in an emergency start in place of Yordano Ventura.

One seemingly minor trade. Two wins. The Royals lead the division by 2.5 games.

No matter how many questions you may ask, sometimes there’s just no explanation.

In a season of signature wins, the Royals just recorded the best of the bunch. If you’re Ned Yost, what do you do?

You talk about the fans.

Here’s the entire Yost comment as excerpted from Mellinger’s column:

“We’re in a pennant race, yeah. We’ve been working on trying to build this team for the last three or four years to put ourselves in a position where we can contend for a championship. And not only the division, but we want to contend for a world championship. It’s really, really important we have our fans behind us at the stadium.

“I know it’s a school night. But I’ve been through this before in Atlanta (when the Braves first made the playoffs) in ‘91, where it didn’t matter what night it was, that place was packed at the end of August and September. The fans really got into it.

“I know there’s different things you can do. You can watch it on the Internet. You can watch it on TV. But there’s a real need for our fans to be a part of this. We had a great crowd last night, and I was kind of hoping we’d have another great crowd tonight, and we really didn’t.

“They’re a big part of our success, especially at home. Because the electricity they provide, the energy they provide, helps you get through games like this. You know? We’ve been working hard to make our fans happy and make our fans proud for a lot of years, and we’d like them out here to enjoy a night like this with us. Because this was a special night. This was a fun night. I just wish there could’ve been more out here to enjoy it with us.”

Now, because I’ve been told that hearing Yost comments is just as important, here’s the audio.
I don’t know I needed to read and hear the quote. It comes across the same to me either way I consume it. It’s a measured response to a question Yost begged to be asked. And make no mistake. Yost wanted that question asked. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have opened his press conference with a “casual” remark about the fans who were there.
We can parse Yost’s statements a thousand different ways. They’ve been trying to “build this team for the last three or four years?” Hilariously tone deaf to what’s happened the last three decades. The Atlanta attendance comparison? Laughable. The team feeds off electricity? Eh, maybe I can give you that one.
An analogy: You have a restaurant in your neighborhood. It’s been there for a long time. It used to be known for fine dining. You used to eat their weekly. But over the last thirty years, it’s gone downhill. Yet, it’s a neighborhood establishment and you really want to like it, so you keep going back – just not as often – even though the food is a little bit shit. So you find other ways to spend your money. Other diversions. Then, one night, you have a great meal. Like once in the last 30 years great. Now you have a quandary. Is the restaurant back? Does one great meal erase decades of poor meals? You’ve been going a couple times a year. Now, do you go a couple of times a week? Just based on one great meal?
OK. Maybe I’m not the best at analogies, but I don’t think you talk attendance when you have a fan base that has gone through what Royals fans have experienced the last 29 years. This team has spent the last three decades specializing in shit. And someone wants to talk attendance just weeks after the team has become relevant for the first time in that span? Come on. Trust doesn’t happen on the back of two good months of baseball. Not after what we’ve seen as Royals fans. Not after what we’ve collectively gone through.
Crowds are going to build through the rest of the season. Attendance is going to be crazy this weekend. After this home stand, there’s one home stand left. That will be crazy, too. Especially with the Tigers coming for the final home series of the year. Make no mistake, The K is going to start rocking. In fact, it has been rocking. The fans have responded. Just like we knew they would. To ignore that support and focus on a Tuesday in late August is selling the fans a bit short. Especially after the last 29 years and all that.
My take: You never question the motivation of the fans. Like ever. If they don’t show up for your game, look at yourself and your performance as manager. Maybe they want to see Alex Gordon hit higher than third. Maybe they don’t like seeing Mike Moustakas. Maybe they’ve seen this story before and are worried about being burned again. The point is, everyone has different motivation and feelings about the situation. I didn’t go to the game last night. I had other stuff going on that I had to deal with. Does that mean I’m a bad fan? Disclosure: I don’t own a Royals jersey. Because I’m too old to play the game and I think wearing a jersey is kind of dumb. But you may own and wear a jersey. Even though I may feel a certain way, I don’t judge. Fans celebrate their teams all different ways. Some guys wear a costume and go to every game. Others listen to the radio while they enjoy an adult beverage in their garage. No fan is better than the other. I firmly believe that. We’re fans together. It’s a collective. That’s why it’s so great. Television ratings are through the roof. I bet radio ratings are similarly on the uptick. My unscientific finding shows I see more fans wearing Royals shirts and hats around town. Fans are tuned in to this team and this season. Despite not turning out on Tuesday.
Yost didn’t rip the fans. That’s just a convenient headline. But he did give a measured response to something that was obviously on his mind. I don’t think he owes an apology for speaking his mind. I just think he should be more careful about what he says about his team’s support going forward. His team is in a pennant race. His words will come with a little more scrutiny. It’s added pressure. Hopefully, he can handle it better than he did last night.
It’s too bad this happened. Last night, several amazing things happened.
– Danny Duffy pitched really well, flashing what Denny called, “no-hit stuff.”
– Billy Butler made a great catch, running with his back to the plate.
– Butler made the catch and then fell over Christian Colon. And then didn’t help Colon to his feet. (I don’t know why, but that seems like a very Butler thing to do. Which made me laugh.)
– Alcides Escobar made an amazing play deep in the hole at shortstop in the seventh. A huge play as it came with no outs, a runner on first and a run already across. You cannot underestimate this. It was massive.
– And of course the Alex Gordon walk off.
I’d rather talk about any of these over the attendance. So consider this my final word on this subject.
Until you rotten fans do something rotten again.

These Royals. Man.

Offensively impotent for eight innings. Then a Alcides Escobar single and an Alex Gordon home run. Everyone goes home happy.

Just wow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game like that from the Royals. With the stakes so high. That’s what makes these games Must-See TV. Anything can happen. And in this season, there’s a better than average chance it probably will.

Let’s rewind ourselves.

Let’s start with the oft-discussed lineup.

I added the “getting there…” at the end because I felt (and feel) this is probably the most optimal lineup we will see from Ned Yost. He’s always going to hit a middle infielder second because dammit, that’s where a middle infielder has to hit. Just like the speed guys goes number one. But what I liked about this lineup was the Gordon/Butler/Perez/Willingham middle. Sure, stacking three right-handed batters may not be ideal for the later innings, but these guys need to be in the middle of the lineup. Obviously, you could drop Perez, but with this offense, who do you put in his place? Anyway, this is probably my favorite Yost lineup of the year. The game started and there was not much offense. In fact, our man Danny Duffy was doing some good pitching things.

That would be Denny Matthews on the radio, speaking in the third inning. Of course, the Duff Man didn’t throw a no-hitter, but he was sharp. Throwing fastball, curve and change, he went 6.2 innings, gave up four hits, two walks and struck out four. Duffy’s trouble came in the seventh when he allowed a leadoff double to Brian Dozier and a single to Joe Mauer. I don’t think Duffy was tired at that point – he was still throwing 94 mph – but he didn’t locate as well in those plate appearances as he did earlier in the game, leaving both pitches up in the zone.

Yost pulled Duffy after 95 pitches and two outs in the seventh. It was the right call. Bring in Kelvin Herrera to face the right-handed batter. Let Herrera throw his 100 mph smoke. Then, I liked Yost sticking with Herrera in the eighth before going to Wade Davis in the ninth. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This was the first attendance tweet I saw. It quickly devolved into the Kansas City media calling out Royals fans.

Stop. And really, don’t ever. For starters, you get to go to games for free. As part of your job. How dare you call out fans for not showing up on a late August Tuesday night game against the Twins. Would I have liked to seen more? Sure. But I understand. Tickets are expensive. School is back in session. Fall activities are in full swing. And while the Royals are in the thick of a pennant race, can you blame the fans for being a little hesitant to embrace this team? We haven’t really been in this situation recently. We come by our skepticism naturally, built up over the last 29 years. If we want to take our time to get fully on board, who are you to try to speed up our process. I’m guessing the Labor Day weekend games will be packed. And the remaining home stands will be equally boisterous if the Royals can maintain their position.

I’m sure there are studies out there, but it seems to be the true attendance bump comes the year following the initial success. That’s when you grow your season ticket base and when you become the “it” thing to do. String together three or four successful seasons and you have 40,000-plus on a regular basis. (Well, not in Kansas City. Maybe 35,000 after the renovations. But you know what I mean.) If you want a comparable look, turn to Pittsburg last year. They were drawing in the low 20s on September weekdays while they were in the hunt for the wild card. That is what happens when you get into a pennant chase after 20 years of losing seasons. Fans are slow to come around. But if you give them a reason, they will.

Plus, these games aren’t inexpensive. It blows my mind how much it costs to take a family of four to a baseball game. I’m not even talking about those Cost of Fan Index things the business mags do at the beginning of the year. I’m just talking about spending on four tickets, parking and some random snacks. With 162 games, you have to pick your spots. Do you want to go on a Tuesday night against the Twins? Or are you going to try to hit a weekend with a promotional giveaway? Where’s the best value?

My former bossman at SB Nation asked “When is it a good time to question the attendance?” I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know to question a fan base that has suffered through 29 years of some pretty lousy baseball is bad form.

As the attendance talk was evolving and as I was getting set to post some snarky comment about the Royals offense, something happened.

That’s it. That’s all I could muster. Alex Gordon gets a belt-high fastball and barely gets it over the wall. Walk off. Royals win.

Gordon_Walkoff

 

I mean, that’s just beautiful. I hit rewind at least 30 times. After I post this, I’ll watch it at least 10 more times before I go to bed.

It’s just another moment in a season that has been amazing.

There are a lot of flaws with this team. We saw them on display tonight when the Royals could only muster three hits off Ricky Nolasco. This offense has the nasty ability to hit the “off” switch a little too frequently for my liking. Before the Gordon home run, they had scored just two runs in their last 26 innings. This is a problem that’s not going away. Walk off home runs tend to obscure the issues I suppose. Some of you will be angry with me for even bringing it up at this point.

I’ve written this before, but I have no idea how this next month is going to play out for the Royals. They’re either going to win the division and go to the playoffs for the first time in almost three decades, or they’re going to flame out and miss everything. I’m not ignoring the flaws. I acknowledge them. But flawed teams win in baseball all the time. With 31 games remaining, the Royals are in a great position.

Whatever happens, I’m going to enjoy the hell out of this.

The Royals lost back to back games for the first time since the end of July. That’s an amazing factoid that only underscores how hot this team has been. They’ve been surface of the sun hot.

Games like Monday underscore the fragility of the offense. If Alex Gordon and Billy Butler aren’t contributing – they were two for eight on the night – the bats aren’t going to get it done. That’s probably not factually accurate, but it’s how is seems things are going. By the way, did you catch this nugget from our fearless leader?

“We’re still capable of playing way better than we are — I mean that,” he said. “We’re doing the things necessary to win, and that’s a great sign. But we really don’t have anyone who is really hot offensively right now. That’s why I say we can be better, and I fully believe we will be even better down the stretch.”

They don’t have anyone who is “really hot offensively right now.” This quote is Exhibit A (or Royals Fan Evidence Number 1,673,874) as to why Dayton Moore isn’t a good general manager. Check these numbers.

Royals_30

Ummm… There seem to be two hitters who have been kind of hot over the last 30 days. I like to call them “The Baird Boys.” Because, you know… They’re holdovers from the previous regime.

I don’t understand why Dayton says some of the things he does. I used to think it was this bizarre paranoia brought on by constant losing. But hey, he says crazy, nonsensical things even when the team is winning.

The other thing about that Flanagan post that left me scratching my head was his insistence the Royals can play better. This team has been playing wonderful baseball (ignore the last couple of games) and at one point they won 24 out of 30. That’s an amazing stretch of baseball. And the GM thinks they can be better? Damn. It’s almost as if he hasn’t checked the standings or he hasn’t taking particular notice of the last month.

While I dispute that the Royals can be better, the table above does give me pause as the Royals march down the road to the AL Central title. Salvador Perez and Omar Infante have been stinking up the lineup. And Ned Yost stubbornly continues to hit them third and second, respectively. Well, that’s not entirely true as he’s shuffled the lineup a bit the last couple of games, dropping Perez to fifth on Monday. But still, the Royals are giving away far too many plate appearances to hitters who aren’t pulling their weight. Mike Moustakas is Mike Moustakas. He’ll run into one every few weeks and park it over the fence, but the guy is an out machine.

One guy who isn’t represented on the table is newcomer Josh Willingham. In 39 plate appearances since joining the Royals, he’s hit .324/.410/.618. Damn. Now, let’s be a little realistic. There’s no way he keeps that production up over an entire season. But there’s 32 games left. I don’t know… The guy seems like he’s swinging a hot bat. If I were the manager, I’d get him into the lineup at every opportunity. They’re not really using him in a platoon. Who knows why Yost didn’t have him in the lineup the last two games. All we know is the Royals lost both, scoring two runs in the process. Put Willingham in the middle of the order and this team is immediately better offensively. At least I like their chances better than with Raul Ibanez in there.

Besides, who knows how much longer Willingham will be an option. Reports are Eric Hosmer is taking “dry swings” meaning he’s doing what I do in my office to relieve the occasional stress – he’s swinging a bat at air. On Friday, he will hit off a tee. Should everything progress, the Royals may send him on a minor league rehab assignment to get a few games under his belt before he joins the pennant race. Remember, when Hosmer left the Royals were just three games over .500, were four back of Detroit in the Central and 3.5 back of Toronto for the second Wild Card. Since then, the Royals are 17-6, the best record in the AL in that span.

The Royals are expecting Hosmer to return sometime after Labor Day. I would imagine he goes straight back to first base and probably the third spot in the lineup. Yost will grumble something about how Hosmer was really beginning to hit just before his injury as justification. A Hosmer return pushes either Butler or Willingham to the bench. But the way Butler has been raking, you absolutely cannot justify sitting him down more than once a week. And at this point in the season, I have much more faith in Willingham than I do Hosmer.

In my mind, this is how it ends. An inflexible manager reinserts a subpar hitter into a key spot in the lineup and bounces two hot hitters in and out so they lose their groove. The offense sputters down the stretch and the Royals don’t make October. You can see it, can’t you? Sorry to be a bit pessimistic, but the last 29 years haven’t exactly been the stuff of optimism. I hope I’m wrong, though. I hope Yost figures out how to balance his hitters.

This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you what I would do if I were in the manager’s shoes. And right now, I haven’t a clue. I suppose I would bring Hosmer along slowly, and drop him in the order. I’d make damn sure Butler played at least 30 of the remaining games. And I’d try to get Willingham in 20 to 25. If that makes Hosmer the odd man out, then so be it. This team proved they can win with him on the sidelines. They’ve been so hot for so long they’re bound to cool down a bit, but I think you run the risk of glaciers forming around the lineup should you remove Butler and/or Willingham. And for god’s sake, leave Ibanez on the bench.

As much as I dread what’s going to happen when Hosmer returns, I’m looking forward to the next couple of weeks. This is still shaping up to be one helluva ride.

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.

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