Royals Rewind: 4/19-4/25

So…things could have been worse. The Royals snuck out of the third week of the season with a 2-4 record that could have been 0-6 (but should have been 4-2). They lost both a series at Toronto and back at home to Minnesota. But again, it could have been worse.

4/19: Brian Bannister vs. Brandon Morrow – Where’d the hits go?
Brian Bannister pitched alright early, but in the end only got through 5.1 innings on 99 pitches. He evened out his groundball to flyball ratio a little, inducing five groundouts to six flyouts, but he still gave up two homeruns, one of them that would still be in orbit off the bat of Jose Bautista if not for the second deck at the Rogers Centre. After the game, Bannister had surrendered 3 homeruns to 30 flyball outs, pretty close to the average rate of HR/FB (10%), which underscores his own concern over the frequency of flyballs.

Brayan Pena got his first start of the year, allowing two steals and getting a catcher’s interference. So expect more Jason Kendall down the line.

The bullpen didn’t get much of a chance to blow anything, as the Royals never got the bats going. Brandon Morrow walked David DeJesus to lead off the game, then didn’t surrender another baserunner until Alex Gordon walked in the sixth. After a Mitch Maier groundout, Yuniesky Betancourt broke up the no-hitter, but the Royals were never in this one. The Royals made it easy on Toronto, seeing only 118 pitches. Amazingly, even with a walk, DeJesus saw 10 pitches in four appearances.

4/20: Kyle Davies vs. Dana Eveland – Same old Royals
This one started off much better, as the Royals put up three runs in the first three innings.

Unfortunately, that’s all they put up all game despite 11 hits. The Royals only had one extra base hit, which really limits production. Willie Bloomquist, of all people, was the offensive star, going 3-4 with a walk, and reached on an error, as well.

Kyle Davies pitched efficiently, but ran into trouble late. In six-plus innings, he threw 86 pitches and only walked two. But he faced four batters in the seventh and retired none of them. He’d only thrown 75 pitches through six innings, so there’s no reason he shouldn’t have gone out for one more, and for the game, he started 17 of 25 batters with a strike, so it’s encouraging to see him getting ahead of batters. Two of the Blue Jays’ runs in the seventh came from infield singles, too, so there was some bad luck. Still, three runs usually isn’t going to win a game, so the offense really failed Davies.

Oh, but Jason Kendall continued his hitting streak.

4/21: Zack Greinke vs. Shaun Marcum – He’s Baaa-aack
Phew.
Zack Greinke surrendered only two hits and walked one while striking out eight over seven innings. That’s more like it. He made one mistake, giving up a homerun to Alex Gonzalez after beaning Fred Lewis. After his last start against Minnesota, this was the best response by Greinke. If he can get back into 2009 form, the rest of the team will benefit. He still didn’t get the win, though, as the Royals again only got three runs in nine innings. Josh Rupe came on in the eighth and faced three batters, giving up two hits and the tying run. The only out he recorded was given to him by the Blue Jays.

Still, the bullpen otherwise was strong, including an eight pitch ninth inning from Robinson Tejeda that included two strikeouts and a weak groundout. The usually wild Tejeda threw all eight pitches for strikes.

And thanks to Alex Gordon, Tejeda picked up the win for his efforts. Gordon hit a 10th inning homer off lefty Scott Downs to put the Royals ahead, after which, Joakim Soria pitched a perfect inning for the save.

The Royals tried to run as they have through most of April, but got caught twice by Jose Molina and Alberto Callaspo got picked off of first. Jose Guillen continued his hot hitting, going 2-4 including a three-run homer in the first inning. And Jason Kendall continued his hitting streak.

Rick Ankiel came in 0-15 with eight strikeouts since his two homerun game at Minnesota and four for his last 34 at bats and struck out another two times. David DeJesus came in one for his last twelve as the singles that were dropping early started finding defenders instead.

4/22: No game but…
The Royals were off, traveling from Toronto back home to KC, but a couple hours south, Mike Moustakas, 2nd-overall pick of the 2007 draft, was making his season debut at AA Northwest Arkansas. He made an immediate impact, going 3-4 with two homers and a walk, scoring three times. Two days later he’d go 4-5 with another homer. After last night’s action he’s hitting .471 with eight RBI and three homeruns. While that pace is unsustainable, it’s good to see him hit right away at a new level after last season’s disappointing results. His performance, along with Eric Hosmer’s in High-A Wilmington (batting .426 on the year), are definite bright spots early on.

4/23: Carl Pavano vs. Gil Meche – Uh oh.
Last time against Pavano, the Royals roughed him up for seven runs in 3.1 innings. This time out, Pavano was a lot better.

The Royals could only work out four hits against Pavano and didn’t draw a walk against him. David DeJesus broke out of his slump going 2-3 including a homerun (that did leave the park but was ruled inside-the-park – and thankfully DeJesus was running out of the gates because almost anyone else on the Royals would have ended up on third or maybe second rather than making it around).

Before the game, the Royals shocked nobody by designating Luis Mendoza for assignment and surprised a few by releasing Juan Cruz. The pitching problems weren’t solved immediately, though, as Gil Meche struggled over 3.1 innings, giving up four runs and walking five. He labored all night, throwing only 43 strikes of his 84 pitches. Through three starts, he has an 11.37 ERA and has only made it past the fifth inning in one of those. There’s concern here…

One of the key plays that could have limited the damage for Meche came in the first inning. After a one-out single by Orlando Hudson, Joe Mauer grounded out, which moved Hudson to second base with two outs. Meche got Justin Morneau to swing at a pitch that was way inside, sending a soft jam popup towards second base. Alberto Callaspo just missed making an over the shoulder catch, with the ball bouncing off his glove and to the ground while Hudson came around to score.

If Callaspo catches the ball, the inning is over. Instead, Michael Cuddyer doubled, scoring Morneau. The drop cost the Royals two runs. Now, if the ball is hit a foot deeper or a foot more to the left, it’s only an issue of Callaspo’s range, but he got his glove on the ball on the play, and while it wasn’t an easy play, it’s one that needs to be made, especially against the Twins. Chris Getz, currently on the DL, probably makes that play.

The bullpen, for good measure, gave up four more runs, including Tejeda following up his dominant effort at Toronto with two runs allowed in the ninth inning. This was pretty much the typical Twins/Royals matchup, with the Twins combining strong pitching and defense with timely hitting while taking advantage of mistakes, while the Royals walked batters, allowed three steals and only took one walk.

4/24: Nick Blackburn vs. Luke Hochevar – Jekyll and Hyde
The Royals jumped on Blackburn in their first meeting and did so again on Saturday, getting out to leads of 4-0 and 5-1. Luke Hochevar was working quickly and efficiently.

And then the Twins adjusted. In the top of the fourth inning, Morneau doubled to center on a first pitch fastball. Cuddyer followed with another double on another first pitch fastball, scoring Morneau. Jason Kubel also hit the first pitch deep into the left field corner which Scott Podsednik couldn’t catch. The Twins scored two runs in the inning, but could have scored more if not for a great play by Rick Ankiel to double up Kubel at second on a line drive out to center.

Still, Hochevar left after 6.2 innings with a 6-4 lead after making some adjustments himself and after a 100 pitch day which saw 67 strikes and 20/30 first pitch strikes. He also continued with increased velocity, hitting up to 96mph. So all was well.

Oh wait, the bullpen.

John Parrish came in to face Justin Morneau with one on. He threw one pitch to Morneau and it went about 420 feet to tie the score. That’s where, as a Royals fan, the wind leaves your sails, the momentum swings, and you feel like tossing the TV out the window.

The Twins scored in the 11th inning, but the Royals answered, only to give up two more runs in the 12th. The Royals had a shot to get the go-ahead run to the plate in the person of Brayan Pena as Willie Bloomquist hit a chopper to J.J. Hardy at short, who dropped the ball on the transfer, making a late toss to second attempting to force out Scott Podsednik. The umpire called him out anyway. It was an awful call, but the Royals lost this one on their own. Three errors, six walks, and lack of scoring from the fifth inning until the eleventh will do that. This one was frustrating all around, though, as they spoiled a decent start by Hochevar and production from the top of the order (DeJesus 3-5, Butler 4-6, Guillen 2-6).

4/25: Kevin Slowey vs. Brian Bannister – KC gets a few breaks
Brian Bannister gave up two runs in the second inning, and it looked like it might be another long day. And then he adjusted, bringing back a sinking no-seam fastball to get a “that’s more like it” 12 groundball outs. Considering he didn’t get any strikeouts on the day, that’s a lucky break. Usually the more balls put in play, the greater chance bad things can happen, especially with this Royals infield.

The Royals got nine hits and made them count, hitting five for extra bases. They even equaled the Twins in walks for a change. They still only scored four runs, but two came with two outs, and one came when Mitch Maier tripled, scoring Alex Gordon who’d led off with a walk.

The bullpen held up, as Dusty Hughes and Josh Rupe combined for 1.2 scoreless innings, though Josh Rupe made it interesting, walking the bases loaded in the eighth with two outs. Joakim Soria came in despite pitching two innings the night before (though only 23 pitches) and gave up a run, but struck out Michael Cuddyer and Jim Thome, stranding Justin Morneau on second.

The Royals infield made some errors, including a misfire by Yuniesky Betancourt attempting a double play and a dropped foul popup by Jason Kendall. Also Scott Podsednik misplayed a flyball in the corner – again – that skipped by him but it was ruled a hit. All in all, the Royals committed six errors against the Twins in the series. That’s two innings worth of outs, which, against the Twins, explains why the Royals only win about four games a year against them.

The Verdict
The Royals offense cooled down collectively, as they only scored 22 runs in six games. Thanks to some strong to decent starting pitching (other than Meche), the Royals were in four of those games. Either defense or the bullpen or poor timely hitting changed two of those potential wins into losses.

Jose Guillen continues to rake, and it’s interesting to know how long he can continue to hit. He’s swinging hard enough to drill into the ground like a Bugs Bunny cartoon, so at some point, he’ll stop making contact and start pressing. I’m sure of it. I hope not, though, as Guillen could look like a nice trade chip about mid-June.

Another surprise is Yuniesky Betancourt who’s making better contact up the middle and to right field. He may still be trying to pull the ball too much, resulting in a lot of weak groundouts but an adjustment in approach is paying off so far. Of his 23 hits, 18 have been to center or right. That could be luck, but seeing the hits, he’s generally made more solid contact and driving the ball better.

Luke Hochevar looks to be putting last season’s 6.55 ERA behind him, pitching with better poise. Zack Greinke looks to be back to form. Joakim Soria is lights out, and Josh Rupe has at least held up better than the rest of the bullpen.

Rick Ankiel is leveling back to his norm, making poor contact and showing impatience and Alex Gordon hasn’t had a lot of hits yet in his early season, but has walked a few times and shows good patience, though he’s committed three errors in a week. Yuck.

The numbers
Batting average/On-base percentage/Slugging percentage/OPS
.269/.322/.401/.733
4 Homeruns
22 runs scored
1/5 SB/Attempts

Team ERA: 5.30
K/BB ratio: 44/26
2 blown saves
9 home runs against
1 Quality Start

Starters ERA: 5.71
Bullpen ERA: 4.64

Batting Average on balls in play: .310 – about 10% more than average, which is at least more sustainable than the .367 the Royals had been going at.

Tags: AL Central Alberto Callaspo Alex Gordon Baseball Brandon Morrow Brian Bannister David DeJesus Dusty Hughes Gil Meche Jason Kendall Joakim Soria Joe Mauer Jose Guillen Josh Rupe Juan Cruz Justin Morneau Kansas City Royals KC Kyle Davies Luke Hochevar Michael Cuddyer Mike Moustakas Minnesota Twins Mitch Maier MLB Rick Ankiel Robinson Tejeda Rogers Centre Royals Toronto Blue Jays Willie Bloomquist Yuniesky Betancourt Zack Greinke

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