Fall Surprises: 2016 Playoff Notes

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Here we are again, on the verge of another World Series. As much as I love Spring and the beginning of the baseball season, October is still the best time to be a fan of the sport. Like most ‘seamheads’, I have been spending the last few weeks enjoying postseason baseball and all the intrigue and drama that surrounds it. Since I’ve been fairly silent this month (mostly due to other responsibilities), I thought I would pass along some of my thoughts from the playoffs so far, as we get ready for one long-standing streak to fall once the Fall Classic is over, as either the Chicago Cubs or Cleveland Indians eviscerate a drought that has been going on before even some of our parents were born. So what’s been on my mind this October? All of what is to follow and more…

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays

  • Weeks later and I still have a hard time figuring out how Buck Showalter went the entire American League Wild Card game without bringing in stud closer Zach Britton. Look, I get that most managers like to wait (especially on the road) till the very end of the game to bring in their closer, but when the playoffs are involved, you don’t chance it the way Buck did. There has been a movement for managers to use their closers in a different manner than most are accustomed to; not waiting for a save situation and using your best pitcher in the most high leverage situation possible. Showalter, who I consider to be one of the best managers in the game and one who isn’t shackled to conventional thinking, seemed to fall back into a frame of mind that is actually fairly normal in today’s game and it might have cost his team the chance to advance to the ALDS. The hope is that Showalter’s mistake (and yes, it was a mistake) might shine a light on reliever usage and force managers to use their closers in better situations than just the 9th inning.

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  • On the other end of that spectrum is Terry Francona’s use of Andrew Miller this postseason. Miller, the ALCS MVP, has been used as early as the 5th inning during the playoffs, many times for multiple innings. It might be considered unorthodox by some, but it has done nothing but garner success for Francona and the Indians. One has to wonder if teams will be on the lookout for relievers like Miller, someone with electrifying stuff and the ability to be used for more than just one inning at a time. While the argument could be made that you can’t use your bullpen during the regular season the way most teams do in October (and there is at least some truth to that), it doesn’t mean that you won’t see more managers trash the old, antiquated system and start using some relievers the way Miller is used. While Showalter was the example of what not to do with your closer, Francona is the example that managers around the game should be trying to copy when 2017 rolls around.

USP MLB: ALDS-TORONTO BLUE JAYS AT TEXAS RANGERS S BBA USA TX

  • The Texas Rangers collapse in pitching took me by surprise this month. I figured with the front two of Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish and a bullpen that had been racking up a 35 inning plus scoreless streak, this team could be a dangerous one in the playoffs. Instead, Rangers pitching gave up 22 runs in three games and the team from Arlington limped out of the playoffs. While some of the credit should go to Toronto’s offense, the Rangers pitching should get more of the credit for the Blue Jay’s sweep than anything else. One would have to think that Texas will spend the offseason fortifying the rotation and making sure it is stronger headed into the next season.

APTOPIX ALCS Indians Blue Jays Baseball

  • Speaking of the Blue Jays, their exit from the playoffs couldn’t have come in a more appropriate manner. For a baseball fan outside Toronto, this is a hard team to like. While they are not short on talent, over the last few years we have seen the Blue Jays main hitters continuously whine and complain about one thing or another. Front and center has been Jose Bautista, a man who will never be confused with a golden gloves boxer. Bautista claimed that Toronto were victims of “circumstances” in this series and that was why their offense had gone south. Edwin Encarnacion also had to be escorted away from the home plate umpire one game, with Toronto just hopeful he wouldn’t be ejected. While there were a few pitches called strikes against the Blue Jays that might have been balls, that is a fairly common aspect of today’s game and not really something worth blaming their four games to one loss in the ALCS. In fact, Cleveland only scored 12 runs in the five games, with Toronto posting 8 runs. All the way around, it was a low scoring series. The real “circumstances” that Bautista talked about was Cleveland’s pitching  and their dominance against Toronto’s bats. Kluber, Merritt, and Tomlin all silenced the Blue Jays and when you tack on their lockdown bullpen, it was easy to see why Cleveland is headed to the World Series. A big part of Toronto’s issues lie in their leadership and their tendency to make excuses rather than owning up to their own struggles. The Blue Jays temperament just isn’t one of a championship team, and it showed in the ALCS.

MLB: NLDS-Los Angeles Dodgers at Washington Nationals

  • Has there been a more disappointing team in the postseason the last few years than the Washington Nationals? The sky seemed the limit a few years back with their blend of youngsters and veterans and two of the most intriguing players in the game (Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg). Instead, since 2012 the Nationals have lost in the NLDS three times. What very well could have been a dynasty has left this organization with more questions than answers. If you are Washington’s braintrust, what should you think? If you saw a team with Harper, Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner and Tanner Roark, you would have to think at the least they would have made the NLCS at least once. Instead, this team now has to regroup and wonder what the missing piece is. Last year, the belief was getting rid of Matt Williams and hiring Dusty Baker would fill that needed puzzle piece. Is it the manager? Does the team need another bat? Another stud starter? Or do they need a clubhouse veteran to be this team’s glue? It will be an interesting offseason in Washington and one that might define this team’s immediate and long-term future.

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  • There is no better story in the playoffs this year than the Chicago Cubs. You’ve all heard the numbers on the years of futility; their last world championship was 1908, last trip to the World Series was in 1945. Last month I mentioned I was rooting for the Cubs but even if I didn’t have the emotional connection from my youth, I would probably still want to see the Cubbies rack up their first world title of the century. It’s not just the years of bad luck and bad teams, not just the old lovable stadium or long history of the franchise in general. It is a change in the culture in Chicago, brought forth by both Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon. Maddon might be one of the great motivating managers of the last 30 years, if for no reason than how loose he keeps that clubhouse. Add in the mix of exciting youngsters and grizzled veterans and you have a recipe for not only a championship but also possibly a dynasty. I found it ironic that Chicago bounced the Dodgers from the playoffs, since the Cubs should probably thank Los Angeles for putting them in this position in the first place. If not for LA prying Andrew Friedman from the Rays, the Cubs would not have been able to get Maddon to manage this team. Maddon had a clause in his contract that allowed him to “look elsewhere for employment” if Friedman left the organization, which he took advantage of when Andrew left Tampa for Los Angeles. The Cubs swooped in, procured the services of Maddon and as they say, “the rest is history”. There are many a reason to root for Cleveland as well (The Revenge of Willie Mays Hayes?), but more than anything, this Cubs team just feels like a team of destiny. I know there will be Chicago fans who will be waiting for the other shoe to drop but…but what if there is no other shoe?

MLB: SEP 19 Pirates at Dodgers

  • Finally, one has to feel for Los Angeles’ Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw, easily the best pitcher in baseball, was the victim of Chicago’s clinching win on Saturday night in Game 6 of the NLCS and because of it the narrative will be pushed again that Kershaw is not a “big game” pitcher. The funny thing is while Kershaw has had a couple of clunkers over the years (I’m looking at you, Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS), he hasn’t been nearly as bad as some would have you believe. In his 14 playoff starts, Kershaw has 8 quality starts while he has five starts of giving up 5 runs or more. Just looking at the last two years, Kershaw has thrown 38 playoff innings, compiling a 3.79 ERA while striking out 48 and allowing a .218 batting average over that span. Sure, he isn’t Madison Bumgarner or Curt Schilling in the postseason, but he isn’t worthless in the playoffs either. Even with that being said, this year in particular should not be a determining factor on how Kershaw performs in October. He would return from a back injury that kept him out for over two months on September 9th and would allow 4 earned runs the rest of the year. So obviously Kershaw was putting up Kershaw numbers, but was he 100% healthy? I didn’t feel like he was at all this October and apparently I wasn’t alone:

That comment was from Saturday after the Dodgers loss to the Cubs to wrap up the NLCS. This also tells me that even 80-85% of Kershaw is probably better than most pitchers alive today. So the narrative for him will live on in some minds, but it probably shouldn’t. Clayton Kershaw is still the same pitcher in October that he is the other months of the year; he’s just not perfect like some would expect from him.

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So here we are, just a day away from the World Series. It is also our reminder that at the most, we have only seven games left in this 2016 season before baseball takes a few months off (at least on the field). It has once again been a fun October, even without my Royals in the playoffs. In fact, it has been stress-free without my team to cheer on in the playoffs. No matter the outcome of the World Series, one team will slay a beast of a streak, one that sits at 68 years while the other one sits at 108 years. It should be a fun series, as we should see some stellar pitching and some clutch hitting. I always hope for a seven game series, so we get not only the greatest amount of baseball but also some high drama. We should get both and yes, I do believe this series could go all seven. So my prediction? The Cubs in seven. Sure, they won’t be able to clinch at Wrigley Field, but a win is a win. I look forward to the next week of action and what will ensue. No matter what, we the fans are the true winners. Thank you, baseball.

Minnesota Love

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It’s a tough time to be a Minnesota Twins fan. After an unexpected second place finish in the American League Central in 2015(and competing for a playoff spot into the last week of the season), the belief was that the Twins would take another step forward in 2016. Minnesota was expected to grow from last year’s success, especially with the addition of some top-level prospects being around all year(Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton) and the addition of Korean slugger Byung Ho Park, so it appeared that second year manager Paul Molitor had a contender on his hands. I definitely had bought in, as I expected the Twins to garnish a playoff spot this year, with my belief being that they had a great mix of veterans, youngsters and a great leader in Molitor. Instead this year has felt like a horror show, as they are 14.5 games out of first in the Central, 13 games below .500. But this isn’t a brow beating on this year’s Twins team as much as it’s a look back at my fondness for a team that was a big part of my childhood.

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Now, I am a devoted Kansas City Royals fan and have been since I was 7 years old; that will never change. But in 1987 I couldn’t help but root for a fun Minnesota Twins team that would go on and win the World Series that year. What really started my ‘Minnesota Love’ was Kirby Puckett. Puckett was everything great about baseball; a cherubic center fielder who could hit, run and play defense and had elevated himself to be one of the great players in the game. I loved watching Puckett run around the outfield, then step to the plate and rack up hit after hit. He fit in perfectly in the 1980’s, an era of contact hitters like Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs and Don Mattingly. Puckett also seemed to have a child-like grin on his face at all times, leaving the impression that he was having as much fun playing the game as we did watching him. Puckett was a perennial All-Star, a guy who averaged 192 hits a season throughout his 12 year career, multiple time Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner and was voted in the top ten of the American League MVP ballots 7 of his 12 major league seasons. I know some have questioned whether or not he should have been a Hall of Famer, but in my eyes there was never a question. Puckett was one of the best throughout his career and one can only imagine what his final numbers would have been had glaucoma not taken his sight. There were some less than flattering moments for Puckett post-career but Puckett the ballplayer was a joy to watch play.

New York Yankees v Minnesota Twins
(Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Once you looked at the rest of the roster, there was a nice group of players who were easy to root for. Kent Hrbek was the lovable, goofy first baseman with power. Dan Gladden, current Twins radio broadcaster, played like his hair was on fire and was the spark plug at the top of the lineup. Frank Viola was the left-handed ace who had elevated himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball. Bert Blyleven was nearing the end of his career but still fun to watch. I also can’t forget Juan Berenguer, a guy who did not fit the normal physique of a major league ballplayer but was a pivotal part of the Minnesota bullpen. Even the 1991 World Series team was easy to root for, with Puckett, Hrbek, Gladden and pitchers like Scott Erickson and Kevin Tapani holding down the rotation and Rick Aguilera closing out of the pen. The Twins had players who were fun to watch and it always appeared as if Tom Kelly led teams played more as a team and weren’t as focused on individual numbers. As the Royals have shown these last few years, if you play as a team there is a good chance that winning is part of the formula.

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Speaking of Kansas City, there is a deep connection between those late 1980’s/early 1990’s Twins team and the Royals. Many of the Twins who helped Minnesota win those two World Series’ would eventually spend time in Kansas City. Gary Gaetti, the Twins third baseman for both championship teams, would eventually move onto the Royals and would even hit 35 home runs for Kansas City in 1995. Greg Gagne was a pivotal part of those Minnesota teams and he would go on to play three seasons in Kansas City at shortstop; his offense wasn’t anything to write home about, but his defense got him 4.8 dWAR during that period. Chuck Knoblauch would play his last major league season for the Royals, producing a -0.7 bWAR in just 80 games. Chili Davis would end up in Kansas City in 1997, hitting 30 home runs and posting 2.4 bWAR. As if that wasn’t enough, Berenguer pitched for the Royals earlier in his career, while backup catcher Sal Butera’s son, Drew, would later play for the Twins and is the current backup receiver in Kansas City. So in a roundabout way, I got to see a few of the bigger pieces of those championship Twins team’s contribute in a Royals uniform.

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But it wasn’t just the players or the style of baseball they played that made me intrigued by the Twins. As a kid, I was enamored with the Metrodome, warts and all. Here was this domed stadium that had character and didn’t have the feel of cookie cutter stadiums like Three Rivers or Veterans Stadium. Minnesota had the “baggie” out in right field(which is now a handbag), and a roof that looked spectacular but was easy for fielders to lose a pop fly in. The crowd always seemed raucous and during the playoffs the fans would wave their “Homer Hanky” to get the team going. There seemed to be a whole atmosphere to that stadium that I wanted to be a part of  and that lured me into wanting this team to succeed. Sure, I had heard stories about the stadium being broken down, cold, drab and being nothing but a big slab of concrete, but that didn’t seem to matter to me much. It just seemed like a fun place to watch a baseball game from. I still get goosebumps when I think back to Game 163 of the 2009 season, when the Twins and Tigers battled it out in the dome for the Central Division title. Here was a stadium that being replaced the next season but it was going to get one more thrilling, iconic moment before it was gone. The Metrodome might not have had the beauty of Kauffman Stadium(yes, biased), the legend of a Wrigley Field or the visual classicism of a Camden Yards, but it had its own nuances that would grow on you. I never got to attend a game at the Metrodome, which saddens me, but I was able to be at Target Field a few years back. While I liked Target Field and think it is a solid replacement for the Metrodome, I have a feeling it won’t match up when it comes to the character of that old dome.

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You would think that with the Twins being in the same division as my Royals I would loathe them and wish for them to just go away, but I don’t. I have very fond memories of the Twins and most years wish them the best. Well, I always hope they don’t do as good as Kansas City, but otherwise I want them to have success. It blows my mind sometimes when I think back and remember there was a period where baseball considered contracting the Twins. This is an organization with rich history and the idea of a baseball team not being up in Minnesota is unfathomable. When I go back and think about baseball highlights in my life that I will play over and over in my head, there are a number of Twins highlights that will live on forever. Puckett’s catch, Larkin’s single, Morris’s pitching and Casilla’s single; all are memories etched in my head forever. For that, I thank Minnesota. Thank you for making my childhood brighter and my adulthood memorable. I still kinda love ya.

 

Ray of Sunshine: Royals Beat Tampa Bay

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In the old days, you would play all the teams in your designated league the same amount of times. It didn’t matter whether you were a Central division team or an East team, you play each other the same amount of times as the teams within your own division. That was changed a few years ago and teams now play the teams within your division the majority of the time. That means a team like the Kansas City Royals only play the teams in the “other” division twice per year(one at home, one on the road). So this series with the Tampa Bay Rays wrapped up the two teams time together this year, as the Royals won the previous series at Kauffman Stadium. That series saw the Royals sweep Tampa Bay; this one saw the Royals take two of three. This put the Royals at 80 wins with 32 games remaining and leads to a number of varying topics coming out of this series at ‘The Trop’.

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Series MVP: Lorenzo Cain  

This section felt like it could be a toss-up, with both Kendrys Morales and Mike Moustakas getting heavy consideration. But the more consistent hitter in this series was Lorenzo Cain, who went 3 for 9 with 2 runs, 2 RBI’s, 4 walks and 2 stolen bases. Cain did what he has done for most of this year, which is basically a little bit of everything. I decided to take a deeper look into just how good Cain has been and I have had a hard time finding something that Cain has done worse this year than last. Walk percentage? Up. Strikeout percentage? Down. Slugging and On Base percentage are both up as is his wRC+ and WAR. He is hitting the ball harder and hitting the ball more consistently to all fields than ever before in his career. Literally the only thing that is down from last year is Cain’s BAbip, which is at .357 from last year’s .380. But the argument there can even be made that this is due almost entirely to his increased home run numbers. There has been a lot of discussion about what the Royals will do once Alex Gordon is activated and just how the lineup will shake out. I’m pretty sure that no matter the changes in the batting order, Cain will remain in the third spot, his home for this entire 2015 campaign. It’s even conceivable at this point that Cain will end up in the top five of the voting for the American League MVP race, as he should:

It has been a marquee season for a player who at one time we just worried he wouldn’t be able to stay healthy, let along put up numbers that would put him into consideration for the highest honor in the league.

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Pitching Performance of the Series: Edinson Volquez

When the season wraps up, I am going to go back and check just how many times Volquez got this honor, since it seems to happen quite frequently. Volquez spun another good game on Friday night, going 6.2 innings, giving up 6 hits and 2 runs(1 earned) while walking 2 and striking out 5. It was another quality start for ‘Easy Eddie’ and gave him a game score of 59. At this point Volquez is probably in line to be the #2 or #3 starter in the rotation in the playoffs and has earned that right this year. I’ve asked the question before ‘which Dayton Moore signing has been more important this offseason, Kendrys Morales or Volquez?’ and as great of an impact as Morales has had on the Royals lineup(and it has been a big impact), I tend to lean toward Volquez. Earlier in the season(before the Johnny Cueto trade), Volquez was the only consistent starter in the rotation as Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy and Jeremy Guthrie all struggled. Volquez has been the stopper for this rotation, a guy who holds the other team in check and allows his team to win, thwarting off any threats or long losing streaks. Without Volquez being a steady force in the rotation, I’m not sure the Royals sit here right before September with the biggest division lead in the league. Without Volquez, this very well could be a much tighter race that what lingers in front of them.

Tampa Bay Rays catcher Rene Rivera, second from right, tags out batter Kansas City Royals' Kendrys Morales (25) after tagging out Royals' Ben Zobrist, right, to complete a double play during the eighth inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 30, 2015, in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Rays won 3-2. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)
                      (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

TOOTBLAN or Foul Ball?

Sure, the Royals won this series. But most of what has been discussed has been a pivotal play in Sunday’s game that Kansas City lost. The Royals are down in the Top of the 8th inning, 3-2, with runners on 1st and 3rd and 1 out. Morales hits a little chopper down the first base line and then…

On first instinct I felt that was a TOOTBLAN(Thrown Out On The Basepaths Like A Nincompoop) on Morales’ part and one of the worst plays I have seen this year. But the more I watch the play I tend to think even though it is bad, there were a number of issues that should be pointed out. First off, the ball appeared to be foul once James Loney grabbed it. In fact I am assuming that is why Morales didn’t run. There was also no definite call from the home plate umpire, who had the best view of that ball. The first base ump called the ball fair, which I believe is what the home plate ump went off of. I should probably point out here that the play is non-reviewable, which is a bigger conundrum for Kansas City. Saying all that, some blame falls on Morales. He had to have seen the first base umpire call the ball fair, which meant he should have run. Even if he didn’t see it, you should assume it is fair unless otherwise called. I get he thought it was foul and in the postgame manager Ned Yost said “we don’t run out foul balls”. That is fine, except in a scenario like that you run and ask questions later. That major flaw is on Morales as he should have ran no matter what. It looks really bad when a rally is snuffed out while you are just standing at home plate, an easy out for the catcher to make. This might not be a TOOTBLAN at the end of the day, but it is still bad fundamental baseball, which is a shock since the Royals don’t make many fundamental errors. This probably cost the Royals at least a chance of tying up the game and maybe even costing them a victory. Hopefully it is remembered and next time the batter runs to first, foul or not.

Kansas City Royals' Mike Moustakas hits a RBI-double off Tampa Bay Rays starter Jake Odorizzi during the fourth inning of a baseball game Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius)
                (AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

It was an exciting three games at Tropicana Field and much more went on than just what is above this line. For more on the Royals and Rays series, read on:

  • The Rays played a tribute video to former Ray and current Royal Ben Zobrist before Friday night’s game. It was a great gesture to a guy who played many years in Tampa and had become just as synonomous to the team as Evan Longoria. The Rays even acknowledged his greatness with some sabermetric love:

It also appears as if Zobrist will be taking over for Omar Infante once Alex Gordon is activated from the disabled list:

One can only hope that Kansas City has made a great impression on Zobrist and makes his decision this offseason a little bit easier. It would help though if Zobrist doesn’t make any enemies:

Don’t cross the Kuntz!

  • A lot of pub has gone Kendrys Morales way as of late due to his ability to drive in runs with 2 outs in an inning:

There is also his ability to hit a home run in the catwalk at ‘The Trop’:

You always hear how each stadium has their own set of quirky rules. Wrigley Field has the ivy, Houston has Tal’s Hill(for now), and Tropicana has those catwalks. Luckily the call went Kansas City’s way and Morales came away with a homer. Folks, that stadium is ugly. Let’s hope they get a new one before MLB decides to ship them up to Montreal.

  • The Royals bullpen as of late feels like the walking wounded. Wade Davis had back issues, Greg Holland has been dealing with a cranky elbow(I have to feel that has been going on most of this season) and now Ryan Madson has a dead arm:

This was to be expected. Madson hadn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2011 and has thrown 51 innings so far this year. Hopefully a little rest will help keep him healthy and available for the playoffs. Now if only the Royals could find a cure for Jeremy Guthrie’s “Longball-itis”.

  • Speaking of Guthrie, he held a little bit of a friendly competition with the Tampa Bay ballboy this weekend:

I often feel like Major League Baseball isn’t always the best at promoting their players and why they are so great. Guthrie might be relegated to long reliever status and might not appear in very many games going forward, but he still managed to have fun and put a smile on that kid’s face. THIS is the stuff you promote about your game. THIS is just one of many examples about what is so great about this game and it’s players.

  • Yet another good series for Mike Moustakas this weekend, as he compiled another accomplishment to his long list of new career hights this season:

Moose has also shown that he can be a tough out when he needs to be:

A lot of praise this season will go to Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer, but Mike Moustakas has put together a season he should be proud of. Lets hope he finishes strong and shows that early season surge was not a fluke.

  • Danny Duffy had some good and some bad in his outing this past Sunday. On the positive, Duffy figured out early that the umpire was calling the low strike and took advantage of it, striking out six in his 5 innings of work. Craig Brown of Royals Authority went into greater detail about Duffy’s outing, and like him I still cringe at Duffy’s pitch count. Duffy threw 99 pitches in those 5 innings when the Royals probably would have preferred he go 6 or 7 innings. The difference in this start was not balls thrown by Duffy but the foul balls. Duffy had 22 pitches fouled off in this game and overall this season batters have fouled off 19% of pitches he throws. I think we all would like to see a more efficient Danny Duffy, but for that to happen he has to limit his pitch count to go deeper into the game. Because of this there is a good chance he could be pitching out of the bullpen come October rather than as a starter. At this point, it would appear Kris Medlen could be taking Duffy’s spot in the rotation come playoff time.
  • Finally, it appears the Platinum Glove Award winner will be returning this week:

Gordon looks like he didn’t miss a beat while playing in AAA Omaha:

The big question now is where will Gordon bat in the lineup upon his return? The 6th spot where he was hitting earlier in the year is now inhabited by Mike Moustakas, who has been hitting lights out as of late. Honestly, the best idea is to bat him leadoff, sending Alcides Escobar down in the lineup, especially considering his hitting throughout August:

Batting Gordon and Zobrist at the top of the lineup makes the most sense, since those are your two best OBP hitters. If the Royals really want to maximize their offense, placing Gordon near the top of the lineup would be the wisest move. I guess we will find out Tuesday what Ned Yost has in mind when it comes to lineup construction going forward.

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Tweets of Royalty

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We now venture into the final month of the regular season and the Royals still have a few items to check off their ‘Want List’:

The beginning of that journey begins on Tuesday, as the Tigers stroll into town for three games at ‘The K’, followed by three against the White Sox. Tuesday night’s game could be fun, as Johnny Cueto faces off against Justin Verlander, who will be making his first start since he almost no-hit the Angels. Tuesday should also be fun, as it looks to be the return of Alex Gordon. The Royals are in the driver’s seat as the playoffs loom and it is the pole position we have all yearned to be in this spot for the last 30 years. Buckle up, kiddos; we are getting ready to go on a fantastic ride.

 

 

Royals Take Over Wrigley: Royals Split Series with Cubs

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Wrigley Field is a very special ballpark. It’s one of the last standing parks where stadiums were built to have their own personality and give their team a bit of a home field advantage. Since the Chicago Cubs are in the National League, the Kansas City Royals only visit Wrigley once every 6 years. This year, a number of Royals fans made the trek to the ‘Windy City’ to take in their Royals playing the Cubs and to visit their iconic ballpark. The Royals were also looking to bounce back from a rough series in New York and were looking to gain some ground in the American League Central. One of those items were kind of accomplished, one was not. Onto a look back at a special 2 game set.

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Series MVP: Alex Gordon

If there is one thing you can say about Alex Gordon, it is that he is a streaky hitter. The last few weeks Gordon has occasionally added production, but nothing consistent to make him really stand out. That changed in this series, as Gordon would go 4 for 8, including a 3 hit game on Sunday(with a walk). Gordon seemed to be in on all the action this weekend, starting with his home run on Friday, and then knocking in the first run of the game on Sunday in the 7th inning:

It normally goes without saying as well that Gordon contributed defensively, throwing out Dexter Fowler at home(thanks to a nice play from Salvador Perez) in the bottom of the 11th inning on Sunday. It appears as if Alex might be hitting a hot streak right now, and if that is so it’s not the worst idea in the world to move him up in the order. Alcides Escobar has been struggling a bit at the top of the order and Gordon has a history of performing well in the leadoff spot. With the Royals runs per game dipping in May, it might not be a horrible idea to shake things up.

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Pitching Performance of the Series: Yordano Ventura

A large chunk of the success on this season hinders on the performance of young starters Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura. Duffy currently is inhabiting the disabled list, while Ventura seems to have found his groove. Ventura had his second best game score of the season on Sunday against Chicago, going 7 innings giving up 4 hits and 1 run while walking 1 and striking out 6. Ventura did all that in less than ideal weather conditions and if not for his lone walk in the 7th inning, one wonders if he would have left the game without giving up a run. One also wonders how Chris Coghlan was able to hit Ventura, since no one else on the Cubs had a clue. The best part of the game for Ventura is that he has gone 7 innings in 4 straight starts while keeping his walk total down. Starts like these make it easier to see why he is the ace of this staff and why baseball in general is so high on this young flamethrower.

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I’m Going for a Walk… 

Walks can kill a pitcher. I mean, they are called ‘free passes’ for a reason. This was none more evident than on Sunday, as walks given up by Royals pitchers in both the 7th and 11th innings would come back and bite them in the arse. In the 7th, Ventura would walk Cubs catcher Miguel Montero, and following a wild pitch and single to center by Coghlan, the Cubs would spoil Ace’s shutout, tying the game up at 1. With the score still tied in the 11th inning, Royals reliever Ryan Madson would walk the only two batters he faced, Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant, which would lead to his exit and Jason Frasor to come in. Frasor would intentionally walk Starlin Castro after Fowler would be thrown out at home plate, but then David Ross would get the game winning hit falling in between Gordon and Escobar in left field(which was almost caught over the shoulder by Escobar).

The 2 walks by Madson killed the Royals and goes to show you just can’t allow the other team to have extra base runners on the base paths. The Royals are normally applauded for their defense and stingy bullpen. The pen loses that credit when the walks start flowing. It also goes to show why some of us(myself included) put such a heavy emphasis on having the offense take bases on balls.

Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar can't make the catch on a single by Chicago Cubs' David Ross during the 11th inning of a baseball game, Sunday, May 31, 2015, in Chicago. The Cubs won 2-1. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Now, lets proceed to look at some news and notes from this shortened series:

  • Alex Rios was activated from the disabled list on Saturday and would return to the lineup on Sunday:

Rios has been out since the third series of the season in Minnesota. Rios was hitting well before getting hit on the hand, so hopefully he can return to that form on his return.

  • Rios being activated meant that someone had to be sent down and Paulo Orlando unfortunately drew that card. Orlando had been playing good, despite him slumping at the plate a bit as of late(.174 over the last 2 weeks):

Personally, I would prefer one less reliever on the roster and have the extra outfielder. In fact, Orlando has been much more valuable to manager Ned Yost this year than Jarrod Dyson has. I have a feeling we will see Orlando again soon, possibly even within the next month.

  • Mother Nature won again on Saturday, as the contest between the 2 teams was rained out. I don’t know what it is, but it appears the last 3 times the Royals were scheduled for a nationally broadcasted game, they have been hit hard by the rain bug. The Royals will travel back to Chicago and make up the missed game on September 28.
  • Danny Duffy threw a couple of bullpen sessions this weekend:

Nothing major to report, other than the stiffness in his shoulder was still there. I tend to think he will make a couple of rehab starts in Omaha before he returns to the main roster. Also, the beard is gone. A city mourns.

  •  Alex Gordon chalked up another achievement on Sunday:

I’ve said it a million times, but if Gordon walks after this season that will be a giant hole to fill within this team. I would love for the team to work out an extension sooner rather than later.

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Tweets of Royalty 

 

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Unfortunately, the loss on Sunday pushed the Royals back to 2nd place in the American League Central, half a game behind Minnesota. Yep, the Twins are in first. Baseball truly is a crazy sport and it goes to show that anything can happen, no matter how many different ways you crunch the numbers(and that is coming from a stat guy!). The Royals will take Monday off (Sal Rest) and will return to action against Cleveland in Kansas City. This home stretch with Cleveland and Texas coming into town is big and the Royals need to go at least 4-2 during this stretch. The offense seems to be slumping and one wonders if maybe a shuffle of the lineup would do the ballclub some good. Jeremy Guthrie goes for Kansas City on Tuesday(looking to avenge his awful start on Memorial Day) and the Royals will go up against Corey Kluber on Wednesday. I think we can officially say this team is in the midst of a slump, which is fine considering it’s really the first one they’ve had this year. Let’s just not make it a sustained slump, okay guys?

 

 

 

 

New York State of Mind: Royals Swept by Yankees

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My, how a week will change things. About ten days ago the Royals took a series from the New York Yankees in Kansas City, a series where the Royals looked to be playing at a different level than the ‘Bronx Bombers’. Jump forward to this week and there was very little in this series that the Royals did good. The defense was there. The bullpen was pretty solid. The offense…well, it was pretty much M.I.A. The starting pitching? Eek. So with that said, lets take a look at a series that will hopefully be forgotten by the end of the weekend.

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Series MVP: Mike Moustakas

Honestly, a part of me just wanted to leave this spot blank. No one really stood out in this series as the offense basically took a powder in this series. Alcides Escobar and Kendrys Morales both got 4 hits in this series but didn’t provide much in the form of runs. Moustakas went 3 for 11, including his 5th home run of the year on Wednesday afternoon:

Moustakas has been one of the ‘feel good’ stories of the year so far and nothing says ‘improvement’ like a spray chart:

It almost feels like every week Moose will fly by some other accomplishment that surpasses his dreadful 2014 season:

Look, we all scoffed when manager Ned Yost said he was going to bat Moustakas second in the order to start the year. What started out as Yost trolling us(hey, it felt that way) turned into motivation for Mike and it has paid off in spades. Unfortunately, this series saw very little offense from the Royals despite the efforts of Moustakas, Escobar and Morales.

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(Worst) Pitching Performance of the Series: Jeremy Guthrie

Look, I’m not happy about picking on Guthrie here, but Monday’s start was so bad for Jeremy that it felt like it should get it’s own section. Since no one else really went out there and stood out(besides one reliever who I will discuss in just a bit) I figured we would point out how monumentally bad Guthrie performed. The numbers in just a moment; first, take a look at the destruction:

Alright, that was just as painful as the first time. It was obvious early on that Guthrie was going to be left out there to take the beating, although apparently 11 runs was all the bleeding Yost could muster watching(I was done after the first 8 runs). 1+ inning, 9 hits and 11 runs while walking 3, hitting a batter and striking out 1. Oh, and 4 home runs given up. Hey, at the least there were some eye popping stats that came out of his outing:

Just an ugly performance all the way around. Guthrie has long been an anomaly; a pitcher who allows a lot of baserunners yet allows very few to score. That has not been the case this year and honestly he hasn’t put up numbers this bad since his short stay in Colorado. Before this start it had seemed like maybe he had gotten behind some of his struggles but Monday it appeared as if he was leaving the ball out over the middle of the plate and the Yankees made him pay for it. The numbers right now are staggering: An FIP of 6.01, ERA+ of 61(lowest total since 2006 for Cleveland, where he appeared in 9 games), he is allowing 11.9 hits per 9 innings, and 3 walks per 9. Most of the numbers so far are very comparable to his stay with the Rockies, where he was rescued by Kansas City for infamous space-waster Jonathan Sanchez. I still feel like Jeremy has value and still feel like he can bounce back from this. But the longer it goes on, the more you ask two questions: ‘how long can the Royals continue to throw him out there?’ and ‘when is Kris Medlen expected back?’. Hopefully Guthrie chooses to rise like the Phoenix.

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All-Star Dominance

There was some good news that came out this week in the form of the the All-Star balloting being announced and it looks like the Royals have something else they are leading in; votes! There are 5 Royals leading their respective positions and so far Salvador Perez is the overall vote-getter. I’m sure there will be some talk about Royals fans stuffing the online ballots, but like many others, I could care less:

If anything else, this is happening for one reason; the Royals are winning. Winning does this, especially for a fanbase that has been dormant for a number of years:

Look, I would be happy with one Royal starting in the All-Star game. Five Royals? That would just be awesome. I have reasons to cheer for each of the five guys who are leading but a start for Alex Gordon would mean a lot, especially considering how his tenure as a Royal has been over the years. Escobar also seems to be cherishing the idea of being in his first ‘Midsummer Classic’:

So Royals fans, if you have not yet voted, what are you waiting for? Go vote here and let your voice heard. I also have yet to vote; just wait until I get my 35 votes in for all 8 of my e-mail accounts! I can’t wait to vote for Gordon 280 times!

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Now onto the news and notes section of this series:

  • I mentioned earlier how there was one stellar pitching performance in this series and that was the outing Brandon Finnegan had on Monday following Guthrie’s awful tribute to Memorial Day. Finnegan came into the game in the 2nd inning and threw 3 shutout innings, allowing zero hits, 1 walk and 1 strikeouts. It was exactly what the Royals needed and lowered Finnegan’s ERA below 2.00 on the year. For a guy who has been bounced around this year, between the rotation and the pen, between the minors and the majors, he has managed to excel in the situations the Royals put him in. Now if the team could decide on a role for him and stick with it…
  • Finnegan had been recalled earlier in the day as Danny Duffy headed to the disabled list. I had actually mentioned this after the last series against the Cardinals and how it wasn’t a bad thing for this to happen:

There are a lot of theories out there about what is wrong with Duffy and it could be the shoulder stiffness that landed him on the DL, or it could be overthrowing or it could be him overthinking. Actually, I tend to lean toward all 3 to be honest with you. I’ve heard he could get up to 5 starts down in Omaha before coming back, so I wouldn’t expect to see him anytime soon, unless he is needed before then.

  • Finnegan was sent back down to the minors after Monday’s game to make room for Jason Vargas’ return from the disabled list. Vargas was on a strict 75 pitch limit(which was apparently not relayed to Steve Physioc in the Royals radio booth) and struggled out of the gate in his return. Vargas threw 4 innings, giving up 4 hits and 2 runs while walking 1 and striking out 6:

Vargas had a rough 1st inning but settled down and it would have been interesting to see how he did if he hadn’t reached the pitch limit imposed on him. The Royals need Vargas to pitch closer to his performance in 2014 than what we have seen so far this year and hopefully this was the first step toward that.

  • I mentioned a moment ago about Physioc not knowing about Vargas’ pitch limit on Tuesday night and it was just one of many miscues he made on air that night. Maybe it was because I was following the broadcast closer than normal, but Physioc was atrocious that night and he seemed to not do any homework at all. I’ve never been a fan of his work, but this series really highlighted how bad Physioc is as a broadcaster. I’m sure he is a nice guy, but nice guys don’t always make good on air talent.
  • Speaking of the broadcasters, if I had to hear them say ‘well that wouldn’t have been a home run at Kauffman Stadium’ one more time in this series I was ready to pull my hair out. Yes, Yankee Stadium has smaller dimensions than ‘The K’; but these games weren’t played in Kansas City so it didn’t matter. The Royals had the same advantage the Yankees had in this series, so comparing the two stadiums is ignoring the fact that the Yankees took more of an advantage of the shorter porch in right field. It came across as sour grapes.
  • Paulo Orlando hit his first career major league home run on Tuesday. Orlando has seen a lot of playing time this year thanks to Alex Rios’ injury, and while his average has slipped the last few weeks, he is still one of the best feel good stories of the year. Even if he never hits another one over the fence, he will always have his one at Yankee Stadium.

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Tweets of Royalty

 

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As far as I am concerned the best thing to do about this series is forget about it and move on. The Royals will venture to Chicago this weekend for 3 games at Wrigley Field against the Cubs. I am pretty excited for this series, since I grew up watching tons of Cubs games on WGN(as did a lot of people my age) and have a deep fondness for Wrigley and the ballclub. I am also looking forward to seeing some of Chicago’s young talent, guys like Jorge Soler, Addison Russel and Kris Bryant; I’m looking forward to seeing them, even if I don’t want them to do very good in this series. The Royals will be throwing Yordano Ventura, Edinson Volquez and Jeremy Guthrie in this set and hopefully the pitching and offense can put forth some solid effort. It is only May folks, so I am not worried at all. We knew a slump would happen; the question is just how long it will last, especially with Minnesota playing so good. It’s going to be a fun 3 games and my plan is to just enjoy the Royals being at Wrigley, since this only happens about once every six years. I can’t imagine this series will be worse than what we just saw…

 

The Beauty of a Ballpark

 

(Writer’s Note: I originally wrote this a couple of years ago for a weekly feature I do during the baseball season for 14 KVOE Emporia.  I stumbled across it today(ie. I cleaned my desk) and wanted to share it with everyone)

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This past week Boston’s Fenway Park celebrated it’s 100th anniversary, a feat that seems inconceivable for the batch of today’s baseball stadiums. With the influx of new stadiums over the past few years, teams have figured out that a good way to get more fans out to the old ballpark is to build a new stadium. Nothing makes the turnstiles move more than a new place to watch their favorite team play. Other than maybe Wrigley Field, it will be awhile before we see a park reach the triple digit mark.

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With Marlins Park opening this year in Miami, the number of stadiums that have opened in the past twenty years almost averages out to one a year: twenty one new ballparks have graced Major League Baseball in that span.

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With all that said, it is amazing that almost forty years later Kauffman Stadium is one of the most beautiful ballparks in baseball. A couple years ago renovations were made to the stadium and it went from being a good looking park to one of the best in the game to witness baseball. Sure, all these new parks have those extra special touches that make them unique and keep fans coming back for more.

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Whether it’s Boog Powell’s barbeque at Camden Yards in Baltimore or the monuments at the new Yankee Stadium, these ballparks give fans an extra incentive to make a trip to a ball game. Some are flashy, while some are more subtle and Kauffman could be classified as subtle.

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The fountains are still in the outfield and you can now walk out there before the game and feel the water on your skin, which is nice on a warm summer day.

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If you go out to left field, there is the Royals Hall of Fame, which takes a look at the history of not only the Royals but also baseball in Kansas City. Just make sure you get there early, as a long line forms pretty quickly out there.  There is also the Little K back behind the outfield, a place for the kids to play at and includes a small baseball field and putt putt course just name a few.

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Out in right field is the Pepsi Party Porch for the adults, a place to relax and enjoy the game out by the fountains. On top of that, the seating in the renovated “K” makes you see the game from a more level playing field. This all from a stadium that is close to 40 years old. Sure, the Royals are off to a rough start to this new season but the losses are softened if you get the chance to be at the game. It’s hard to imagine that Kauffman Stadium could reach 100 in another sixty years, but if the stadium is kept up it could be one of the ballparks to stand the test of time.

These are Just Some of My Favorite(Baseball) Things–Of All Time

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The other day I talked about some of my favorite things in baseball that get me excited in the current game. But going through all those exciting players made me think of all my favorites from when I was younger. So it seemed only appropriate to visit the past and go through those players I’ve enjoyed over the years. Much like my friend Chuck Samples took a look earlier this year at his favorite starting nine, I’m about to take a look at what a lot of my baseball youth was surrounded by. So here we go–back to the late 80’s/early 90’s for the best of the best(at least in young Sean’s mind).

Barry Larkin roaming the infield

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I was more than overjoyed when Barry Larkin was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I had always felt he wasn’t as appreciated by some because he wasn’t the biggest, wasn’t the flashiest and wasn’t playing in a big market. What he was? A great, complete hitter, a clubhouse leader and a great defender. In fact, if I had to choose one thing I loved the most about Larkin, it was his defense. He was so smooth with the glove. He did it all, as this video bio shows:

Sure, Cal Ripken, Jr. was The Man at shortstop during this period. But Larkin could do more than Ripken, in all honesty. That was why I loved watching Larkin. He was a five tool infielder who made the Reds better because of it.

Lee Smith closing out a game at Wrigley Field

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Growing up, I watched a lot of Cubs games. I mean A LOT! With WGN showing the Cubs almost every day, and them playing mostly day games, I got to witness Lee Smith in his prime. It wasn’t just the fastball that popped in the catcher’s mitt. It wasn’t just the stoic, cold stare that Smith would give every batter. No, what really made Smith fun to watch was a batter stepping in with Smith on the mound at Wrigley Field–with the shadows around home plate. Like it wasn’t bad enough facing this big guy with the ridiculous fastball. No, let’s make it even harder by trying to see all this through the shadows! To say it was scary would be an understatement. All those things added up to another Cubs win…and a ‘Holy Cow’ from Harry Caray!

Bo Being Bo

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When Bo Jackson debuted back in 1986, we had never seen an athlete quite like him. Since then, we still haven’t seen a player who compares to Bo and we might never see such a player. He was a once in a lifetime athlete that I feel fortunate was on my favorite team. Bo would hit home runs farther than anyone else. Bo would run like an Olympic racer. Bo could throw a runner out at home from the deepest parts of the Kingdome. Bo could do practically anything.

Bo’s ability was unlimited, and one wonders just what he could have accomplished if not for the hip injury. I start dreaming about what the Royals would have been AS he got even better…seriously guys, goosebumps. Bo Jackson was so fun to watch and to this day I get giddy just talking about him. We were lucky to get to see him play, even if it was for such a short time.

‘Young’ Barry Bonds

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Before 1999, Barry Bonds was the best player in the game. Not only the best player in the game, but one who could do everything: hit, hit for power, run, and play great defense. He was as close to a well rounded baseball player as I have ever seen. I loved watching Barry make the game seem simple and doing everything on the field. Hell, he stole bases at a higher rate than his home runs at one point! He was what every player wanted to be on the field.

But we all know how this ends. Bonds, after watching Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa steal the spotlight in 1998, decides he can do what they did and Bonds bulked up. He bulked up to the point that he was hardly recognizable. He bulked up so much his defense suffered, he quit stealing bases, and became a home run hitter. Sure, he became the best home run hitter EVER, but everything I loved about watching Barry Bonds went away and I was bored with him. The younger version of Bonds? Loved. The older one? Dull and predictable. But at one point, he was a blast to watch.

Van Slyke’s Hustle

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Andy Van Slyke was never a big star. Hell, he wasn’t even the best player on his own team(hello, Barry Lamar)! But Van Slyke busted his butt out on the field, and I loved watching him do it. Offensively, you would have thought every at bat was his last. Defensively, you would have thought his hair was on fire. He worked for everything he achieved, trust me.

Van Slyke’s career was over by 1995, and injuries took a toll on his body. But those great Pirates teams of the early 90’s wouldn’t have gotten there without him. He was just as important a cog as Bonilla, Drabek and Bonds. It’s too bad he isn’t remembered as fondly as I remember him.

Sabes Shining

Kansas City Royals v Oakland Athletics

The first time my heart was broken was when the Royals released Bo Jackson. The second was when they traded Bret Saberhagen to the Mets in the winter before the 1992 season. He was the Royals ace, the winner of two Cy Young awards, and a no-hitter against the White Sox back in 1991.

Saberhagen was almost unhittable when he was on–which was normally in odd years. Seriously his stats in odd years were great, while they were ‘eh’ in even years. Don’t believe me? Click here. Most importantly, he was OUR ace. He was the guy on the mound when the Royals won the World Series. He was that generation’s Busby, or Leonard, or Splittorff. To me, Saberhagen was just as important as White, or Wilson, or Quisenberry. To me, he will always be a Royal.

Brett: The Best

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George Brett was and will always be my favorite player. George was everything good about the game. He was a great hitter, become an above average defender, and was as clutch as clutch gets. The 1985 ALCS was proof of that.

Brett WAS the Kansas City Royals. Sure, I loved Bo, I loved Sabes, and loved Frank. But George…George was the heart of this team. It wasn’t until I got a bit older that I realized despite me watching the latter part of his career, I still saw a guy who went out there and killed himself despite his body falling apart. I have so many great memories of Brett, so here are just a few.

and that’s just what I could find! I remember him sliding into the St. Louis dugout trying to make a catch in the 1985 World Series. I remember his 3000th hit, which happened late at night in Anaheim. It was off Tim Fortugno(I still remember this, like it was yesterday), and capped off a 4 for 5 night for Brett. In fact, I can close my eyes and picture the hit. I was staying at my Grandma Thornton’s that night, and remember being so excited that he finally got it. I also remember the batting title he won in 1990(his third career), which most didn’t expect, as he had an awful first half of the season, but bounced back to claim the title in the second half of the season. I remember betting my PE teacher that he would win it, and of course I won. Brett IS Kansas City Royals baseball. Sure, I’ve heard the stories about him being a jerk, and of him getting drunk and being less than friendly to fans. I’ve heard the Vegas story. But…I still loved watching him play. Maybe the best I will ever see, but I am heavily biased. To me, George Brett is simply the best…and he gave us this.

So there you go, a peak into my youth. I would love to wait another 20 years and see what my son’s list would be. I can only hope he has as fond memories as I have of the best game on earth, America’s Pastime.

 

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