Saturday, September 13, 2008

Part II: If I Could Only Turn Back The Clock when God and her were born.
(From "Shelter From The Storm," Blood On The Tracks)

As I explained in the previous post, this is a month-by-month account of the rather disappointing 2008 season our boys in blue put together. At the end of April, KC was 12-15, but only two games out of first place. Now, we look at May, and how the Royals managed to make sure any optimism that was generated in April was destroyed...

Recap: The Royals scuffled at the start of the month, dropping six of the first nine games. This was mostly thanks to an offense that totalled 29 runs in those games (KC gave up 34 runs in that stretch). But then things turned around! On a gorgeous May afternoon, Brian Bannister shut out Baltimore. Then the Royals swept Detroit again, leaving the poor Tigers in the odd position of wondering how to beat KC. Interleague play began with the Royals winning two of three against the NL East-leading Florida Marlins. At 9-7 in May, the Royals flew to Boston with a 21-22 record, good for third in the AL Central and only 1.5 games out of first. Royal fans were perhaps starting to dream a little about not finishing last, flirting with a .500 record, and possibly competing for a division title in a division where everyone was struggling.

Then came the turning point of the entire season.

For years, Royal fans had looked at their team's weak offenses and expected to be no-hit at almost any time. Cy Young candidates like C.C. Sabathia, Justin Verlander, and Johan Santana lurked in the Royals' division, getting multiple starts against KC each year. And hey, they were due--they hadn't been no-hit since Nolan Ryan did it in 1973.

So it was a surprise and yet not a surprise when Boston's Jon Lester completely befuddled the Royals on May 19. A 5-run third inning, built largely on a dropped popup, gave Lester the cushion he needed. And when Lester struck out Tony Pena Jr. (and I still don't know why there was no pinch-hitter for Pena--perhaps Trey Hillman wanted to see a no-hitter), he had done it. For the first time in 35 years, KC was on the wrong end of a no-no.

It seems this put the Royals into a funk. KC dropped the next three games in Boston, including a sterling performance in the finale, when Bannister gave up a grand slam to J.D. Drew and Hillman left Jimmy Gobble in the game to face Mike Lowell with the bases loaded, resulting in the second grand slam of the game.

The Royals would end up with a 12-game losing streak, barely putting up a fight in four losses in Toronto, then returning home to lose a pair of extra-inning games to Minnesota, then one to Cleveland before snapping the streak on May 31.

Highlight: Zack Greinke's excellent outing on the 18th against the Marlins. Zack pitched six solid innings in the heat, struck out five and gave up only three runs. He even had two hits, including a double, lifting KC to that 21-22 mark that was the calm before the storm.

Lowlight: Oddly enough, I don't think it was the no-hitter. Rather, I look at the 10th loss of the losing streak, at home against the Twins. On this pleasant evening, Greinke pitched like the ace we hope he will be someday. He held Minnesota to three runs in his eight innings, with eight strikeouts and two walks. The Royals went to the ninth inning with an 8-3 lead, and the streak seemed over for sure.

Nope, instead it was meltdown time for the Royals' bullpen and manager Trey Hillman. First, Hillman moved his favorite first baseman, Ross Gload, to right field, leaving Mark Teahen at first base, where the Royals had been experimenting with him. This was a dumb move. Then Hillman brought in Ramon Ramirez, who had been solid as a setup man, in to pitch. This was a good move--you know, shut them down, end the streak, etc. Ramirez sandwiched two strikeouts around a ground ball single. One out to go for a win. Ramirez threw a wild pitch and gave up a single, making the score 8-4. Still two out, still only one runner on. No need to panic.

Minnesota's Brendan Harris lofted a fly ball to short right field. Gload charged, charged, charged and then pulled up, letting it fall for a single while the faster, more experienced right fielder still playing first base could only watch helplessly. Now with the tying run on deck, it would be a good time to warm up your closer, right Trey? Just in case, right? Nope. Joakim Soria had pitched the previous two nights, throwing a total of 46 pitches. There is no way he could be expected to face even one hitter, apparently.

Another Twins single made the score 8-5 and brought the tying run to the plate. Now might be a good time to see if Soria can just get one out. Just one. Instead, Hillman brought in the homer-prone Joel Peralta to face free-swinging Craig Monroe, the exact kind of hitter Soria's pinpoint control and devastating curveball should carve up.

Predictably, Monroe belted one into the construction area behind the left field wall to tie the game. Peralta managed to get the third out, but Hillman unbelievably let him start the 10th, where he gave up another homer, this time to Justin Morneau. That was the difference, and the Royals would extend the losing streak two more games.

This game also inspired Jose Guillen's first rant of the season, as he exploded after the game, memorably saying, "We've got too many babies here."

MVP: Miguel Olivo, playing a lot of DH when he wasn't catching, hit .333 for the month, with an OPS of .939 in 20 games. He had three homers, 14 RBI and even a couple of stolen bases.

Cy Young: Joakim Soria was his usual unhittable self: 11 games, 3 runs, 13 Ks, a .163 batting average against. The Royals won 10 games in May; Soria saved six of them.

LVP: Tony Pena Jr. Again. In 26 games, he had a rather astounding 12 hits. Perhaps he could get on base by having good strike zone judgement? Nope, 15 strikeouts and only two walks. Two walks in 79 plate appearances! At least this finally convinced the Royals that Pena couldn't hit, and they called up Mike Aviles.

Cy Yuk: Lots of candidates, but let's give this to Brett Tomko. In six games (five starts), he couldn't even total 30 innings for the month. That's probably because his ERA was 6.37 and his WHIP was 1.25 for the month.

Reasons we should see an awesome summer ahead: Hey, the Marlins are a first-place team and we won a series at their place! And we swept the Tigers again!

Reasons we should have seen last place coming: Well, it takes a lousy team to lose 12 in a row. Especially when that team already lost seven in a row last month. Also, the manager obviously has no idea how to use a bullpen.

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