KC Royals: Inevitable bullpen trouble finally strikes

KC Royals (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
KC Royals (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

What was bound to happen to the KC Royals happened Sunday when the bullpen collapsed and contributed heavily to a lopsided loss.

Sooner or later, we knew all too well, it was bound to happen. The KC Royals’ bullpen, for the most part refreshingly competent this season after two straight sad campaigns, finally crumbled Sunday.

The Chicago White Sox, in town for the Royals’ first home series of this truncated season, fully exploited the collapse by punishing KC relievers with seven seventh-inning runs en route to a 9-2 win and series sweep.

The bullpen had been generally strong, but signs of real trouble surfaced in Saturday night’s 11-5 loss to the Sox. Although Kevin McCarthy and Kyle Zimmer pitched well after starter Ronald Bolanos spotted Chicago five runs on as many hits in less than two innings, the pen ended up giving Chicago six more runs and 16 more hits.

It was a picture far different than the relievers had painted leading up to Saturday’s contest, a collective eight-day performance enabling them to share little responsibility for the KC Royals’ five losses. But the pen couldn’t escape some of the blame for Saturday.

Sunday’s debacle was predictable. Not because the pen has been terrible, mind you, because it hasn’t; instead, a collapse was inevitable because no bullpen can avoid serious trouble for an entire season, and typically not for long stretches.

The seventh inning disaster overshadowed the decent work of Jakob Junis, who gave up a pair of runs in his 4.1 inning return to the rotation after a positive COVID-19 test delayed the start of his season. Junis left after surrendering a one-out single to Nick Madrigal in the fifth; rookie Tyler Zuber then provided a hint of things to come with three walks, one of which forced in a run to break a 1-1 tie.

The KC Royals tied the game in their half of the inning but Scott Barlow, who pitched a perfect sixth after replacing Zuber, stepped into immediate trouble in the fateful seventh by giving up singles to Chicago’s first two hitters.

Greg Holland, who hadn’t given up a run in five 2020 appearances and came into this one with a win and a save, took over and suffered his first bad outing since securing his Royals comeback roster spot. His was the pen’s most disheartening effort of the day–after retiring the first batter he faced, Holland gave up successive one-run singles to Jose Abreu and Yasmani Grandal before striking out Edwin Encarnacion.  A walk to Eloy Jimenez loaded the bases and Nicky Delmonico’s two-run single made it 6-2 and ended Holland’s day.

The inning seemed mercifully over when Glenn Sparkman induced a weak tap-back from Danny Mendick; Sparkman fielded it cleanly but appeared to let up slightly on his throw and sailed it over Salvador Perez at first. This latest uncharacteristic Kansas City error (the Royals now lead the majors in miscues) scored two and gave the Sox an 8-2 lead.

Sparkman’s one-run single to Madrigal made it 9-2, a deficit from which the weak-hitting Royals couldn’t recover despite the fact they had three more cracks at Sox pitching–they remained mired in the offensive slump that’s consistently plagued their first 10 games.

All in all, the bullpen coughed up seven runs, and 13 total in KC’s Saturday and Sunday losses.

Although the series-ending defeat was the seventh Royals’ loss of the season and the worst of the bullpen’s three–Tyler Zuber surrendered three runs of his own and allowed another inherited run to score in Detroit’s 4-3 victory earlier in the week, and the Tigers nicked Ian Kennedy for one, but the deciding, run the next night–new manager Mike Matheny doesn’t need to push the panic button yet. The relief corps, questionable but more promising than other recent pens coming into this season, has been effective for the most part.

It is, however, a heavily-worked bullpen. Saddled with a rotation riddled with COVID-19 and injury-related absences, Matheny has too often been forced into “bullpen games” and, as he relies on a best matchup strategy rather than committing hurlers to specific invariable roles, has used relievers in situations to which they aren’t necessarily accustomed.

Whether Saturday’s weakening, and Sunday’s breakdown, are products of that heavy workload is a good question: even when they’ve pitched well, KC’s starters have yet to see the sixth inning and only Brady Singer (twice) and Danny Duffy (once) have completed five frames. Matheny may also be reluctant to pitch his starters too long this early in the campaign, especially with doubleheaders sure to come.

Hopefully, the weekend’s performance will prove to be an aberration. The club, already four games under .500 with a sixth of the season gone, can’t afford a bullpen slump–until the rotation fills out (Matt Harvey, anyone?), relievers can count on more frequent work than usual. And there isn’t an off day on the schedule until August 10, when the Royals will have played 17 straight games without a break.

A strong bullpen is, now more than ever, a must.

Next. Inconsistent bats continue to disappoint. dark

The KC Royals’ bullpen broke down Sunday. It needs to bounce back.