KC Royals: This pitcher is now a key bullpen piece

(Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)
(Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports) /

What happened in Tampa Bay Tuesday night isn’t something the KC Royals would have considered doing two years ago, and didn’t do last season. The timing, and the performance of the principal actor, were never right at the same moment.

Things are different now, though, and Tuesday’s move made sense when manager Mike Matheny didn’t summon Josh Staumont, the club’s de facto, if not absolutely official, closer to wrap up a Kansas City win in a close game.

Instead, Matheny went with Kyle Zimmer, who successfully converted just the second save opportunity of his career. Both those chances have come this season.

What’s important, other than the save and KC win, is Matheny entrusted Zimmer with protecting a precarious 2-1 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning against a powerful Rays team trying for its 12th straight win and fighting to preserve a slim one-half game lead in the American League East. And while the immediate stakes for the Royals might not have been as high, they were just as important to them—a Kansas City win meant a .500 record, the practical prerequisite to relevance in the AL Central.

Zimmer, up to the task, made quick work of the Rays. His third pitch induced a groundout by Joey Wendle. He walked pinch-hitter Randy Arozarena, but coaxed a double play from Francisco Mejia to end the game, and give the KC Royals their seventh win in 10 contests and Brad Keller, who pitched well again, his fourth victory of the season.

Tuesday’s KC Royals’ situation wasn’t for Kyle Zimmer until this season.

Zimmer wouldn’t have been Kansas City’s choice for Tuesday night’s save situation had it occurred in 2019, his rough rookie season, or even last year when he broke through and pitched the way the Royals believed he could when they made picked him in the first round of the 2012 amateur draft.

The rugged path Zimmer took to his 2019 big league debut all but foretold the disappointing season he’d have. He began as a starter, then became a reliever when losing came more often than winning. Injuries (including a handful of surgeries) nagged him throughout the minor leagues. The Royals even designated him for assignment in 2018, then released him only to re-sign him a few days later; he spent most of the season away from the club working on his game. The 3-3, 2.04 ERA he posted in his first professional season remains his best minor league record.

He finally made it to Kansas City in 2019, but without good results. He went 0-1, 10.80, and gave up 22 runs in 18.1 innings. He struck out 18 but walked 19, and his WHIP was 2.564. There were no good key metrics.

Last season was so, so different. Zimmer blossomed. He appeared in 14 games, gave up only four runs (1.57 ERA) and struck out 26 in 23 innings, and lowered his WHIP to 1.043.

Still, Zimmer wasn’t the hurler Matheny called on to save a win—ever. No save opportunities came his way.

That, though, was then, and this is now. Although he missed time with another injury, and pitched a bit in a minor league rehabilitation assignment, Zimmer’s 2021 has been just as good as his 2020.

Through Tuesday night’s contest, Zimmer is 3-0 with a pair of saves. His ERA is 2.65 but, on closer inspection could, but for one game, be significantly lower. The same Rays he shut down in the ninth inning Tuesday knocked him around for four runs on five hits April 20; remove that one frame from the equation, and Zimmer’s ERA would be 0.56. That’s because other than those four runs, he’s been nicked for only one other in 14 appearances.

And not to be forgotten, of course, is the non-save but critical situation Zimmer found himself in Sunday, two days before he saved Tuesday’s victory. Matheny gave him the eighth with Detroit ahead 2-1, and he retired the Tigers in order (including two strikeouts), then did it again in the ninth. Carlos Santana’s walk off homer gave Zimmer, and the Royals, the win.

Zimmer’s performance this season strongly suggests 2020 was no outlier, no flash in the proverbial pan, and explains why Mike Matheny can now look his way with a game on the line.

dark. Next. 2 KC prospects are Olympic hopefuls

Kyle Zimmer used to struggle. Now, he’s a key piece of the KC Royals’ bullpen.