"What is going on?"

I can’t sum up that quote’s context any better than Rany did today, but I can add my experience during that stretch of the 2000 season.

I was finishing up my freshman year in college and with no real TV package for the Royals that gave them consistent TV coverage, I had Denny Matthews narrating the action.  In that early stretch, homework went by the wayside and on more than one occasion, my roommate at the time – also a Royals fan – and I would jump around our dorm room and holler like the Royals had won the World Series.

That team had Jermaine Dye, Carlos Beltran and Johnny Damon, three stars who are just as notable  for their departures from Kansas City as they are for their tenures here.

So far, with this evening’s walkoff win, there might be a freshman out there who is celebrating the combination of Billy Butler and Alex Gordon.

That team in 2000 was pretty on offense, but the bullpen was miserable.

That’s something that this team – so far – has over the 2000 team.  The bullpen is incredible.

Tonight, they were a key to victory.  After Luke Hochevar left after six innings, the combination of Aaron Crow, Joakim Soria, Robinson Tejeda, Kanekoa Texeira and Jeremy Jeffress shut down the White Sox.  They held Paul Konerko and company scoreless for the last six innings of the game, allowing the offense to catch up.

Tonight started as badly as you could get.  Coming in in first place in the Central, Luke Hochevar gave up a triple to Juan Pierre on a ball that Melky Cabrera failed to cut off (it was a terrible angle to the ball).  Gordon Beckham singled him home, Adam Dunn walked and Paul Konerko hit a no-doubt blast to the Hall of Fame in left field.  Like that, the Royals, coming off three exciting, energizing walk off wins, were down 4-0 with nobody out.

Hochevar battled from there, though.  Beckham singled with two outs in the second inning, but Hochevar didn’t allow a hit until the top of the sixth.  He walked a couple and ended up giving up two more runs on a single, a triple and an error, but escaped with no further damage.

The two runs he gave up almost took the air out of a resilient Royals lineup.  After the four inning first inning, the Royals put up two of their own on a Melky Cabrera single and an Alex Gordon homer off White Sox starter Gavin Floyd.

In the second, the Royals kept the pressure on, leading off with a single and a walk, then a double steal with two outs.  This allowed them to tie the score after Cabrera’s single got through the infield and Alcides Escobar and Matt Treanor scored.

Even after getting down 6-4, the Royals fought back.  Alex Gordon had a great at bat against lefty Chris Sale, taking a pitch on the outside of the plate to left field.  He ran it out into a double.  Shortly after, on a 3-1 count, Billy Butler crushed a pitch, tying the score with a homer that landed in the fountain in left-center.

From there, it went to the bullpen.  Aaron Crow came in and continued his dominance the first time through the league.  He struck out Paul Konerko in the seventh with a 96 mph fastball on the black on the inner half of the plate, then worked around an eighth inning single by A.J. Pierzynski by striking out Alexei Ramirez on a filthy slider, then getting a grounder from Brent Morel that almost became a double play.  Morel made it to first on a fielder’s choice, but with two outs, he was caught stealing by about five feet by Treanor.

I should note that in five innings this season, Crow has seven strikeouts and has given up just one walk.  He looks like the real deal.

The rest of the bullpen was just as tough, though Texeira got in a jam in the 12th inning, giving up a leadoff single to Beckham and after a force out at second on a tough double play ball, walked Konerko.  Jeffress came in with Brent Lillibridge pinch-running for Dunn and picked him off on a play that was almost given away by the umpires.  We saw a rare overturned call on the field as the umps corrected themselves and ruled that Aviles did indeed make the tag with the ball in his glove hand.  After that, Alcides Escobar made a play deep in the whole and a leaping throw across the diamond retired Alexis Rios.

For all the crap I give Chris Getz, he’s been instrumental in the Royals wins so far.  Tonight, he led off the 12th with a single and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Aviles.  Cabrera shot a grounder up the middle and drove in the run for the 7-6 win.

This early stretch has been a microcosm of the primary storylines of the offseason and spring training.

Is Alex Gordon going to turn it around?

Will Billy Butler turn on the power?

Who’s going to be in the bullpen?

Are some of these rookies ready?

What about the Greinke trade?

Well so far, Gordon looks like he’s figured it out, or at least, he’s in the process of doing so.  Maybe it’s wishful thinking or maybe I’m just too much of a doe-eyed optimist, but he looks different at the plate.  Butler is hitting the ball as hard as anyone in the league and has had a couple that were hit right at the shortstop’s glove in the first five games.  His two early homers this season have been big, and he’s seeing the ball well.

As for the bullpen, what can you even say?  Aaron Crow started last season in Double A but command issues got him demoted to High A in July.  Those issues have clearly been taken care of, and he’s looked dominant so far.  Maybe he’s better off long-term starting every fifth day in Northwest Arkansas or Omaha, but his talent is paying off at the big league level.  Also, in his three appearances this season, he’s pitched more than one inning every time.  It’s not crazy to think he’ll be used for those multiple inning stretches to slow down an opposing lineup.  He could be stretched out later for some spot starts or a late season rotation spot.

What’s really impressive about this bullpen is their composure.  They’ve given up four runs.  Total.  That’s over a span of 23 innings.  Heck, two of those runs were off Sean O’Sullivan, so can you really count those against them?

All four wins have been credited to relievers and three of those to rookies following Tim Collins three inning outing on Sunday.  Jeffress came in and became the pitcher of record after shutting down the rally in the twelfth.  Thankfully, he was able to have a shortstop with excellent range behind him, former Brewers teammate Alcides Escobar.  So far, Escobar has been as advertised with the glove.  He’s had one throw that’s gone a bit off line, and it was still in range to be caught, it just required a slight adjustment by Kila Ka’aihue tonight.  Otherwise, he makes all the plays and has made all the throws too.  He’s even hit – a little – and stolen a couple bases.

The early returns show that the Royals got some good players for Zack Greinke – and that’s not even counting Lorenzo Cain or Jake Odorizzi who also came over in December.

The Royals are in first place.

First. Place.

The offense hasn’t been great, but it’s been good enough.  They took advantage of a bad Angels bullpen for some late inning magic, but they still made the plays.  Tonight, they came back against a good White Sox bullpen, eventually getting the win.

Will this run last?  Probably not.  I’d like it to, but the starting pitching will catch up to us, the bullpen will start to regress as teams get more of a book on the rookie pitchers.  Alex Gordon will probably slump at some point.

But still.

First place.

This team might not be the most talented in the division and may not be a fraction as skilled as their potential lineup next year or in 2013, but they’ve got heart and so far, they don’t give up.  It’s a lot of fun to watch and if you aren’t, you should while the hot start lasts.

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Tags: Aaron Crow AL Central Alcides Escobar Alex Gordon Baseball Billy Butler Chicago White Sox Chris Getz Kansas City Royals KC Melky Cabrera MLB Royals

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