Royals Rewind: 4/26-5/2

Well there was some great starting pitching this week. How great? Great enough to get the Royals a 3-4 record in two series at home against Seattle and on the road at Tampa Bay.

4/26: Felix Hernandez vs. Kyle Davies – Davies vs. Goliath
Going up against the runner-up to the AL Cy Young award isn’t exactly how you want to start a series, especially when your fifth starter is taking him on. But then, there’s also that phrase “they don’t play games on paper.”

So far, I have been totally wrong about Kyle Davies. Before the season started, I thought Robinson Tejeda should have been the fifth starter to open the year with Davies taking a shot at the bullpen.

Whoops.

On a night when the only effective Royals reliever was unavailable, Davies stepped up, outdueling Felix Hernandez and going 5.1 innings before giving up his first hit, a cheap swinging bunt single by Ichiro. Davies showed the kind of stuff that made him a top prospect for the Braves so many years ago, and while he wasn’t efficient with his pitches (108 over 6 IP), he only allowed that one weak hit.

The Royals took advantage of an error in the first to jump ahead and stayed there. Billy Butler crushed a Hernandez pitch, driving it over 400 feet on a night when nothing was carrying.

But Joakim Soria was unavailable, so the impending sense of doom came into play as the Royals took a 3-0 lead into the ninth inning. Kyle Farnsworth worked the eighth inning and returned for the ninth, getting two outs but gave up a double, a walk and a single for a run, and came out with two runners on and Ichiro coming up. Bruce Chen came on to finish the game and avert the crisis, giving the Royals a surprise win over Hernandez.

Davies game had a game score of 72. For comparison, Ubaldo Jimenez’s no-hitter earlier in the year had a game score of 88, so a solid and encouraging outing for Davies, who so far is performing far beyond anyone’s expectations.

4/27: Ian Snell vs. Zack Greinke – Continuing themes
In the bottom of the first inning, the Royals had the bases loaded and nobody out with Jose Guillen at the plate. He struck out swinging, chasing a slider down and away. Alberto Callaspo fouled out. Jason Kendall hit a dribbling grounder and the Royals came up with no runs.

From 1999-2002 with the bases loaded and no outs, a team should expect to score 2.417 runs before the end of the inning (that’s according to Tom Tango’s The Book). The Royals scored none.

The Royals stranded runners in the second and third innings, as well. In the fourth, Mitch Maier drove in Jason Kendall for the first run. The next inning, Callaspo drove in Billy Butler with a triple of his own.

Greinke was commanding all night, surrendering only six hits in seven innings pitched with no walks. But at 119 pitches, he gave way to Josh Rupe in the eighth. He struck out Jack Wilson for the first out.

And it went to crap from there. Ichiro reached on a bunt single and Chone Figgins walked (on four pitches). Franklin Gutierrez singled in Ichiro. Robinson Tejeda came in and induced a comebacker from Jose Lopez, but with the Royals’ luck, it went off his glove instead of to a perfectly positioned Callaspo. It’s possible the Royals would have turned a double play and gotten out of the inning. Instead, Figgins came around to score and as the ball rolled to right field, Lopez took second. Tejeda walked Ken Griffey Jr to load the bases. Bruce Chen came in to face Milton Bradley. And walked him, the second time this year a reliever has walked in the lead run (thank you Juan Cruz).

All in all, this game epitomized the Royals. No timely hitting, blown saves, defensive mistakes. And Zack Greinke’s great start goes to waste.

4/28: Ryan Rowland-Smith vs. Gil Meche
David DeJesus led off the bottom of the first with a homerun, but after that Rowland-Smith settled in, working quickly and taking advantage of the Royals’ impatience. Up until two outs in the bottom of the sixth, he was cruising but was chased after giving up four runs in the inning at the hands of a couple of clutch hits from Jason Kendall and Mitch Maier.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Gil Meche still struggled with control, walking three and giving up eight hits. He gave up three runs in the fifth after a leadoff walk, a single, double and triple. He toughened up and got the last three outs. The Mariners added a run on a sacrifice fly the next inning. Another sacrifice fly in the eighth inning gave the Mariners a one run advantage which turned out to be enough.

A couple observations in this one: first, the top of the order (DeJesus, Podsednik, Butler, Guillen) went 2-14. That’s just not going to work.

Second, an odd decision by Trey Hillman severely limited the Royals ability to stage a comeback in the bottom of the eighth. With two outs, Callaspo singled and Trey Hillman…pinch ran Alex Gordon for him. I haven’t heard any reports of Callaspo being injured in anyway, and by all reports, the speed differential between Gordon and Callaspo is negligible – neither would be likely to score unless the Royals strung together a couple hits or got a very well-placed double. I can’t imagine any benefit to the move at all.

But it became costly in the bottom of the ninth. Because the Royals only had three bench players (thank you eight man bullpen), when Willie Bloomquist came up, the only options available to pinch-hit for him were an injured Rick Ankiel (out since leaving the game on 4/25 with a quad strain) and catcher Brayan Pena. Ankiel still hasn’t gotten a start, so at this point, he was definitely unavailable, and Pena wouldn’t have been able to play any other position in the field after hitting for the starting second baseman. Bloomquist lined out and Yuniesky Betancourt struck out, swinging at ball four.

4/29 Luke Hochevar vs. Matt Garza – Ick
I would love to give some in-depth analysis here. But this was ugly. Hochevar got rocked, giving up five runs in the bottom of the second after getting the first two outs. For whatever reason, Jose Guillen got the start in right field over David DeJesus and the Rays ripped three straight hits his way as they batted around. Hochevar followed that up by surrendering four more runs before leaving after only 2.2 innings. Newly recalled Victor Marte went 2.1 innings in mop-up duty, having joined the team from Omaha as John Parrish went on the DL.

It’s the kind of outing Hochevar has been prone to. Prior to the start, he’d been effective, but the knock has been inconsistency and he looked like the same old Hochevar. The Royals did him no favors, as they only scored once on six hits, striking out 11 times. Jose Guillen had four of those.

4/30: Brian Bannister vs. Jeff Niemann
Before the game, Chris Getz was activated from the disabled list, sending Victor Marte back to Omaha after his one appearance the day before. The move sent Alex Gordon to the bench and Callaspo back to third base.

The Royals never really figured out Jeff Niemann, scoring only one run against him as he completed 7.1 innings on 88 pitches. Thankfully, the Rays couldn’t figure out Brian Bannister either as he flipped the flyball worries from his first few starts and got 13 groundball outs as opposed to four flyouts. If not for a homer by Evan Longoria, Bannister would have thrown seven scoreless innings, but his line of two hits and two walks in those seven innings is sufficient.

He left the game with the score tied, so he didn’t get the win, but Josh Rupe came in and pitched one scoreless inning. The bullpen woes went across the diamond to the other dugout for a change, as the Royals put up two runs in the top of the ninth to take the lead (they should have had a shot at more but Dave Owen thought Jose Guilen could score from second base – yet another out on the basepaths at the hands of Dave Owen). Joakim Soria, who’d pitched the day before in mop-up duty, came in to get the save, but it wasn’t without some drama.

After a leadoff strikeout, Soria couldn’t bring in a sharp grounder right back at him from Carl Crawford and it made it to center field for a single. Soria walked Ben Zobrist while Crawford took second and third on fielder’s indifference bringing up Evan Longoria.

Longoria took the first pitch from Soria and launched it to left field. Off the bat it looked like another bullpen meltdown, this time from the least expected source. But it hung up in the air and Scott Podsednik was able to get under it at the wall, making a leaping catch. Rather than a game winning homerun, it merely scored Crawford on a sacrifice fly. One foot deeper or a couple feet to the left and the game’s over – game of inches indeed. The inning wasn’t over, though, as Soria walked Carlos Pena – only his third walk of the year but second in the inning – putting Zobrist on second as the tying run. With two strikes, B.J. Upton blooped a shot off the end of his bat that just held up for Mitch Maier to get in front of to end the game.

Later after the game, I tweeted that this one was as close to a playoff atmosphere as I can imagine experiencing as a Royals fan.

5/1 Kyle Davies vs. David Price – May day! May day!
Another day, another tough matchup on paper for Kyle Davies. No problem!
Though his control wasn’t sharp, Davies limited the damage in his six innings of work. While he walked five, he only gave up three hits and two runs. The bullpen came in and worked solid innings, led by Robinson Tejeda with three dominant innings where he threw 19 of 25 pitches for strikes, giving up no hits and no walks and striking out three. It’s the kind of outing that can make you crazy, as he’ll follow this up by walking four in .2 innings next time, I’m sure.

The Royals anemic offense managed to scratch out two runs in the top of the 11th, showing rare patience against Lance Cormier. With two outs, Scott Podsednik singled and stole second while Alex Gordon, who’d pinch-ran earlier for Billy Butler, worked a walk. Jose Guillen followed him by walking as well, loading the bases for Alberto Callaspo, who ripped a double past Carlos Pena at first to bring in Podsednik and Gordon.

Joakim Soria came in for his third straight day of work and worked around two singles to start the inning by striking out the side and earning the save. Had this one been on TV, I’m sure it would have had a similar playoff feel to it. These are the kind of games a young, developing team needs to learn to win so it can carry on later when the talent level improves around them. Your fifth starter goes out and matches a first overall pick pitch for pitch on the road against the best team in the league. The bullpen puts up five scoreless innings while your lineup takes advantage of the baserunners they get in front of them. A very good win.

After the game, the Royals announced that they’d traded AAA reliever Carlos Rosa (KC’s #13 prospect in Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook) to Arizona for High-A shortstop Reynaldo Navarro (Arizona’s #12 prospect in BA’s Prospect Handbook). With the bullpen carousel so far, there was questioning why Rosa wasn’t getting called up, and apparently the Royals had soured on his talent level. Navarro has some doubles power and might steal bases while providing good range on defense and probably takes over as the Royals top shortstop prospect with Jeff Bianchi out for the year after elbow surgery.

5/2 Zack Greinke vs. Wade Davis – Good Grief
Any concerns about Zack Greinke following up his 2009 Cy Young season can be put to rest. After five walks at Minnesota, he’s only surrendered one base on balls in his last 22 innings pitched. Other than one too many curveballs to Evan Longoria, Greinke was nearly flawless.

Here’s a reason why Greinke is either the best pitcher in the game or in the top two: the Rays came out aggressive, going after the first pitch in the early innings. Greinke’s stuff was electric and other than the Longoria homer and a sharp single, they didn’t hit anything hard all afternoon. Later, when the Rays got a little more patient towards the sixth inning, Greinke pounded the strike zone. The first four innings saw Greinke strike out only one batter. In his final four innings, Greinke struck out five batters – three of those were caught looking. Of his six strikeouts, five of them came with the count 0-2. The sixth came on a 1-2 pitch. In total, Greinke threw only 87 pitches in eight innings, and 65 of those were strikes. Utterly dominant.

Wade Davis was equally as good, on paper, though the Royals didn’t do much to help themselves, gathering only three hits all day while going 0-9 with runners in scoring position. Greinke deserved better.

Other than Greinke, perhaps the only other bright spot would be Jose Guillen taking a walk in the ninth inning after taking a walk in yesterday’s ballgame in the top of the 11th as well. Guillen in the last week is 3-25 with 11 strikeouts, so to take a walk when you know he just wants to swing for the fences is a step in the right direction…right?

The Verdict
Well, it’s another week where the Royals let a couple wins get away. If the Royals score any kind of runs in either of Greinke’s starts, they’d have gone 5-2 for the week, instead, they go 3-4.

After Sunday’s game, Alex Gordon was optioned back to Omaha to play everyday, while Mike Aviles was recalled, hopefully to give Betancourt some time off, as he’s 3 for his last 26. Jason Kendall is 5 for his last 23, which isn’t as awful for a slump, especially relative to Guillen and Betancourt’s recent struggles. But he’s been batting sixth in the lineup for some reason, so that .217 average in that span has come up in key spots. Looking at all of that, it’s no wonder the Royals scored 18 runs total all week. How these lollygaggers managed to win the three is a miracle in itself.

Oh, remember how Scott Podsednik was leading the league in hitting? Well he’s 5-27 in the last seven games, so that’s not the case anymore. He’s only walked twice during that time, too.

Also, remember that increased attention to the running game from the first two weeks? Check this out:
4/5-4/14: 17 steals in 19 attempts
4/15-4/29: 2 steals in 5 attempts
4/30-5/2: 2 steals in 3 attempts

Interestingly, before he went on the disabled list, Chris Getz’s last game was on 4/14. He returned on 4/30. Maybe Trey Hillman finds the lineup construction with Getz batting ninth while DeJesus and Podsednik more palatable to attempting a steal, or it may just be a coincidence. Also a factor is the slumping Podsednik. He’s been on base less in the past two weeks than he was in the first two weeks, so his opportunities to steal are limited by that, plus Getz can’t steal a base when he’s not in the game. Early on, both former White Sox seemed to have a green light. If they both start to get on base more often in the future, their attempts – successful or otherwise – will increase as well.

The Numbers
Batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage/OPS (4/26-5/2)
.207/.278/.303/.581
Just awful.
18 runs scored (less than 3 per game)
.242 BABIP – so the Royals had some bad luck hitting wise but they didn’t make a lot of solid contact either

Team ERA (4/26-5/2): 3.71 – not bad
Starters ERA: 3.80
Bullpen ERA: 3.54
Hochevar/Meche combined ERA (2 starts): 14.53
Davies(2)/Greinke(2)/Bannister ERA (5 starts): 1.06
Royals record in those 5 starts : 3-2

Let’s hope the bats reawaken in the next week…these stellar starts aren’t going to last forever.

Topics: AL Central, Alberto Callaspo, Alex Gordon, Baseball, Billy Butler, Brayan Pena, Brian Bannister, Bruce Chen, Carlos Rosa, Chris Getz, David DeJesus, Dayton Moore, Gil Meche, Jason Kendall, Joakim Soria, Jose Guillen, Josh Rupe, Kansas City Royals, KC, Kyle Davies, Luke Hochevar, Mike Aviles, Mitch Maier, MLB, Reynaldo Navarro, Robinson Tejeda, Royals, Scott Podsednik, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays, Trey Hillman, Victor Marte, Willie Bloomquist, Yuniesky Betancourt, Zack Greinke

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