KC Royals: Leadoff spot and other twinbill takeaways

The KC Royals wasted little time Friday putting an end to questions about how long their losing streak might end. Brad Keller gave them an excellent start, the bullpen was unyielding, and homers by Salvador Perez and Michael Taylor provided all the offense the club needed to beat the White Sox 6-2 and end the skid at 11.

Unfortunately, the answer to the next question—could KC put together a winning streak—came just as quickly when the Royals dropped the second game of their doubleheader with the White Sox 3-1.

The reasons underlying both results were obvious. The Royals pitched and hit well in the opener but, excepting Carlos Santana’s seventh home run of the season, didn’t hit at all in the nightcap. The causes needn’t be belabored further.

Instead, there are things other than the basic “Whys” to be taken from Friday’s events in Chicago, and questions to be asked.

Should Whit Merrifield still be hitting in the leadoff spot for the KC Royals?

But for the month of May, this is a question many might find silly. May, however, is being unkind not only to the Royals, but also to their usually reliable leadoff hitter. While Kansas City has only two wins this month, Whit Merrifield is hitting just .224 for the month (.257 for the season) after going 1-for-6 Friday. He hit .239 during the 11-game losing streak.

Is Merrifield becoming another Alcides Escobar, who retired manager Ned Yost insisted on leaving in the leadoff spot despite metrics strongly suggesting Escobar had no business there?

Hardly. Escobar, presently playing at Omaha in case the Royals need him, owns a career .249 leadoff average and .281 leadoff OBP. Merrifield’s leadoff average is .292, his OBP .337.

And Merrifield is the type of established excellent batter Escobar isn’t, and has a pair of major league hit titles to prove it. He’s simply slumping, not adhering to any career tendency, and has actually raised his OBP in May to .325, seven points higher than it was at April’s end.

Who would hit first if Merrifield didn’t? Andrew Benintendi, the hottest bat in the KC Royals’ lineup, is the logical choice, but he’s better suited for the three-spot.

At least for now, then, Merrifield should stay where he is. He’ll hit, and probably sooner rather than later. But he could probably use a day or two off.

Improving Brad Keller is a major reason the KC Royals’ losing streak ended.

Before Friday’s first game, the White Sox had scored seven runs in 9.1innings off KC starter Brad Keller this season and beaten him twice. But Keller, 2-4 with a 7.31 ERA coming into the contest and, for much of this young season just a shadow of the hurler who’s won two team Pitcher of the Year awards, kept Chicago relatively quiet. He struck out seven and gave up only two runs in five solid innings; other than the five runs Salvador Perez and Michael A. Taylor combined for on a home run apiece, he’s the main reason Kansas City’s losing skid ended.

Keller’s performance wasn’t that surprising. He’s been getting better: over his last three most recent starts before Friday, he posted a 3.86 ERA and pitched through the sixth inning twice, while he had a 12.00 ERA in his first four starts and made it past the fourth inning only once. And although he’s never been a big strikeout pitcher, Keller’s 16 strikeouts over his last three appearances—including Friday’s season-high seven—exceed the 13 he managed in his first five games combined.

KC Royals manager Mike Matheny took no pitching chances in the nightcap.

Mike Matheny succeeded White Sox manager Tony La Russa as the Cardinals’ skipper after the 2011 season and led St. Louis to four straight postseason berths. In Friday’s second game, the way he managed his pitchers resembled an all-hands-on-deck bit of playoff strategy.

Jakob Junis, making his first start since Daniel Lynch’s promotion earlier this month relegated him to the bullpen (Lynch was optioned to Omaha Friday, by the way), had a quiet first inning; only one runner reached base, and he didn’t score.

The second frame was a bit different for Junis, but not catastrophic. Adam Eaton led off with a double and Andrew Vaughn followed with a homer to make it 2-0. Zack Collins doubled but former Royal Billy Hamilton lined out.

Although it was early, Matheny pulled Junis for Tyler Zuber, who immediately walked Danny Mendick; third baseman Hanser Alberto then misplayed Nick Madrigal’s liner and, after Zuber struck out Leury Garcia, Matheny replaced him with Jake Brentz. Brentz walked Yoan Moncada to force in Chicago’s third run but struck out Yermin Mercedes to end the frame.

Wade Davis, Greg Holland, and Ervin Santana, pitchers Matheny obviously trusts to provide shutdown work in close games, followed with one scoreless inning each.

The trouble Zuber was having made lifting him wise. But yanking Junis when Matheny did suggests the KC Royals’ skipper placed extra importance on the nightcap and wasn’t inclined to take chances. Sweeping the doubleheader, and assuring at least a split of this road series with the American League Central leader, could have been uplifting for a club emerging from an 11-game losing streak.

Are some roles becoming a bit more clear for the KC Royals’ relievers?

Speaking of Mike Matheny and Tyler Zuber, and despite Matheny’s clear preference to use the reliever who best matches up in a particular situation, specific roles may be developing for the Kansas City relief corps.

Take Zuber, for example, who now seems to be Matheny’s top choice as first-up when a Royal starter gets into early trouble. In his last four appearances, Zuber relieved starters Daniel Lynch in the first inning, Brady Singer in the fourth, Lynch in the third, and Jakob Junis in the second. He’s allowed one inherited runner to score in that span.

At the other end of the bullpen spectrum is Josh Staumont, who’s entered seven of his 16 games in the ninth, and three others in the eighth. He’s tied with Greg Holland and Jesse Hahn in save opportunities with three, and is the only one of that trio who’s successfully converted all his chances. He’s also struck out 20 in 17.2 innings and has a 2.55 ERA. For now, Staumont appears to have supplanted Holland as the club closer.

The Royals take on the White Sox again tonight. Game time in Chicago is set for 6:10 p.m.