Another Day, Another Walk-Off Win


The recipe seems to be one part shaky starting pitching, one part strong bullpen work and one part clutch hitting.

Jeff Francoeur hit a sacrifice fly to right to drive in Alex Gordon from third base in the bottom of the tenth to give Kansas City their fourth straight win and fifth in walk-off fashion in 2011.  He’d also homered the sixth to tie the score.

The bullpen combined for 4.1 scoreless innings in relief of Jeff Francis.

It gets tougher and tougher to dismiss the success as a fluke of early sampling.  Though there were suggestions that the Royals had one of the easier April schedules in the league, I don’t think anybody really thought they’d be winning at this stage (and seven of those games have been against Cleveland who has the best record in baseball).  Even when they lose, with a few exceptions, they’ve kept it close.

In improving to 16-13, the Royals are just two games behind their oft-referenced 18-11 start in 2009.  The Royals went on the road and lost their next six games.  They rebounded to win three of their next four.  From there, they lost five of seven and the last time they saw .500 was when they were 23-23 on May 26.  They finished the season going 42-74 the rest of the way.

This group has weathered a six game losing streak on the road and responded by bashing the Twins over the weekend and toughing out an extra inning game.  To see them interact, during the game and in post-game celebrations, they seem like a close group who can stay loose.  As the youngest team in baseball, that’s not too surprising.  Maybe they’re naive.

But they’re winning, and as Ned Yost said after the game “they’re having fun.”

This team, so far, is best represented by three entities – Jeff Francoeur, Alex Gordon and the bullpen.  Francoeur is exhibiting the leadership and intangibles that he’s been lauded for, while also producing on the field.  He had a strong April last year, eventually settling into what you’d expect, but tonight, he started to win a few believers.

There’s the game-tying homerun, of course.  He’s hit seven so far, which is almost halfway to the team lead from 2010.  He’d be sitting in fifth place on the 2010 Royals in that category.

After the Royals squandered a first and third opportunity in the bottom of the ninth, but Francoeur’s sacrifice fly redeemed them.  Then, as the team rushed the field – again – Francoeur was battered in the scrum.  It was fitting revenge as he’s supposedly the first one in the pile to land celebratory shots to the game’s hero.  That’s the kind of team we have.

What may go overlooked though is his outfield assist in the top of the fourth.  Derrek Lee led off with a flare to right field and tried for a double, but Francoeur came up firing and threw him out.  Vladimir Guerrero and Adam Jones singled after him and Luke Scott homered.  He’d saved a run.

The winning run was scored by Alex Gordon who’d walked on four pitches leading off the bottom of the tenth.

So much has been written about Gordon’s season so far.  I think a lot of fans are still cautious to believe his success is going to last.  He’s among the league leaders in multiple categories and has played strong defense in the outfield.  He’s the blue-chip, can’t-miss prospect who’s coming back from an early dismissal from relevance.  He’s the cautionary tale about rushing your prospects and a lesson in how there’s more than just the numbers – the player has to be ready for prime time, too.

Now, as we look towards Omaha and Northwest Arkansas for the wave of success, Gordon’s still there, representing some losing teams and standing as the reminder that Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer might struggle.  They might not be MVP candidates as rookies or second year players.

Is he for real?  Who knows?  Just like the Royals, it’s been great so far, but when does the clock strike midnight?  When does the real Alex Gordon come back?

Jeff Francis had a good beginning to his outing, giving up just one hit in the first three innings and being pretty solid with his command.  He was hitting the corners and changing speeds and looked much like he did in the first two starts of the year.  Then he started catching more of the plate, started missing corners.  He gave up five runs in 5.2 innings and came out with a runner on third.  Coming in, he’d walked four batters all year.  He walked four tonight alone.

Blake Wood came in and got a strikeout to end the inning.  He got three ground outs with a single mixed in to get through the seventh.  Aaron Crow worked a scoreless inning (he has 15.1 in a row to start his major league career).  Joakim Soria (the dean of the ‘pen at 26 years and 50 weeks old) ignored a leadoff single to get two strikeouts and a fly out in the ninth and Jeremy Jeffress and Tim Collins combined for a scoreless tenth inning.

The bullpen is comprised of five players who’ve been ranked as top-30 prospects and two Rule 5 picks.  Their average age is 24 years old.  They have a combined 398.1 innings pitched in the majors – of which 67% belong to Joakim Soria.  They’re young, talented and being put into the fire.  They’ve had rough spots but overall they’ve been successful.

These are the first prospects hitting Kansas City.  Simple as that.  Okay, so there’s no Danny Duffy or Mike Montgomery coming out of the bullpen.  It’s not Eric Hosmer ripping his first fastball down the line for a double.  But with the exception of Adcock and Soria, the other young arms in the bullpen have been listed as top 30 prospects by Baseball America in both 2010 and 2011 (well, okay, Wood was a 2010 prospect and not 2011, but he wasn’t a rookie after 2010 and wasn’t under consideration).  These are the pioneers of the Process.  Right now, they’re learning how to win.

Those may be lessons that turn out to be valuable in the next few years.