Sunday, September 21, 2008

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

We continue our month-by-month recap of the 2008 Royals with a look at their best month, June. It was an especially fun month because it came on the heels of a horrific May that left KC with a 22-34 record and in last place.

Two important events happened to the Royals in June: the interleague schedule gave them a chance to play some teams more their level, and Mike Aviles forced his way into the lineup, boosting the lineup from pathetic to simply below-average (actually, the Royals scored 140 runs in 27 June games, which translates to 840 for a full season, which would be good for second in all of baseball right now).

Of course, this blog also started in June. So for a while there, it looked like a good luck charm of sorts...

Recap: KC struggled the first half of June, getting swept in Chicago, splitting a 4-game series in Yankee Stadium and losing a home series to Texas. After a 1-0 loss at Arizona on June 13, the Royals were 4-8 in the month. Then came the turnaround, as KC scored 20 runs in the next two games in Arizona, swept the Cardinals in St. Louis, won a home series against San Francisco, swept the Rockies and split the last four games. A 16-11 record (that's a 96-win pace)--not too shabby. And this month managed to pull the Royals out of last place.

Highlight: When KC rolled into St. Louis for a 3-game series with their instate rival, the Cardinals were hot on the Cubs' tail in the NL Central, 3.5 games back. Three well-pitched games later, the Cardinals were still 3.5 back, but they had lost a chance to gain ground. Kyle Davies, Brian Bannister, Zack Greinke and Joakim Soria took turns shutting down the Cardinal lineup (it did help that Albert Pujols was injured), while the offense did just enough to win. It was the first time KC swept the Cardinals since 2001.

Lowlight: Being swept by the White Sox in early June. Although the games were close (one went 15 innings), it was still unpleasant.

MVP: With such a good performance by the whole offense, there are plenty of candidates. David DeJesus put up a 1.039 OPS in 26 games. Mike Aviles, once he got in the lineup, hit like crazy (.910 OPS). Mark Teahen and Alex Gordon each socked five homers. But this was the month when the Royals' big offseason acquisition, Jose Guillen, looked like the player Dayton Moore was willing to pay $12 million a year. Guillen followed up his "babies" rant in late May with a sizzling June. A .345 batting average, seven home runs, nine doubles and 25 RBI in the middle of the lineup. On the downside, he only walked twice the whole month, which is a little hard to believe. But this was still an excellent performance, and it made the Royals lineup...dare we say, fearsome.

Cy Young: Gil Meche had a solid month, but I would give this to the three-headed bullpen monster: Ron Mahay, Ramon Ramirez and Joakim Soria. In 40 combined appearances, these three were 3-1 with 10 saves. They struck out 37 and walked 16. Their combined WHIP was an even 1.00. Basically, when the offense got a lead, the Royals got a win thanks to these three.

LVP: Joey Gathright did not have an especially good month at the plate. He hit only .203 in 26 games. His 14 hits were all singles. His on-base percentage was a robust .276. It tells you just how hot the rest of the lineup was that they could put up runs at a pennant-contending pace with a hitter like this getting regular playing time.

Cy Yuk: The guys who put up the worst numbers didn't pitch much, so I suppose this goes to Zack Greinke, even though he wasn't horrible. Looking back, this must be what it's like to root for a good team--when you are casting about to find awful performances, the ones you find aren't too bad. Greinke was 2-2 in six games; his WHIP was rather high at 1.42 and his ERA was an untidy 5.25. But he still struck out 36 batters in 36 innings while only walking 15. So perhaps he was a bit unlucky this month.

Reasons we should see an awesome summer ahead: No matter if the National League competition was not as tough as some of the AL teams who had been beating up on the Royals, a 16-11 record is still a contender's pace.

Reasons we should have seen last place coming: No more National League teams on the schedule.

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.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

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

The cooler weather of September is upon us, and the season is drawing to a merciful conclusion. A season that began with modest hope has become yet another Royal disappointment. Rather than hash out details of the latest griping player, the latest reminder that future glory is far away, or the latest rumbling on Trey Hillman's struggles to command respect, I thought I would start looking back at the season, month-by-month. So, here's the cruelest month, April...

Recap: The Royals started the season strong, in contrast to their normal ineptitude in April (26-67 over the last four Aprils). For the first two weeks, the Royals actually led the division, dropping into second with an April 15th loss in Seattle. KC then went on a seven-game losing streak, dropping into last. They closed out the month with a 3-2 stretch, ending up 12-15 and in last place, but only two games out of first as the rest of the division started slowly.

Highlight: The season-opening sweep of Detroit, back when everyone thought they would run away with the Central Division, was pretty sweet. A comeback win on Opening Day, a Brian Bannister shutout in game two, and an outstanding Zack Greinke outing in game three made us think we had a real actual major league team in Kansas City. Of course, no one knew then the Tigers would stink for much of the season. Honorable mention goes to the home opener, with our first look at the new scoreboard and some of the other improvements to Kauffman Stadium, with the added bonus of a win over the Yankees.

Lowlight: The losing streak was a painful reminder that yes, these were still the Royals. The first four games of the streak were all on the West Coast, so there was some hope that returning home would help halt the streak. Instead, the Royals put forth one of their worst efforts of the year, a 15-1 loss to the Indians. The previously struggling C.C. Sabathia (13.50 ERA before this game) struck out 11 in six shutout innings, while Gil Meche gave up eight runs in four innings, bringing his ERA to an even 8.00, his high-water (or low-water, depending on your point of view) mark of the year. Throw in some outstanding bullpen work by the usual suspects (Joel Peralta, Yasuhiko Yabuta and Jimmy Gobble combined to give up the other seven runs in 4 1/3 innings), and you have a brutal beating. The Royals would lose two more games before ending the losing streak.

MVP: Alex Gordon, who hit .306 and had a .799 OPS. Alex scored 15 runs, although he only drove in nine. He also had two homers and two steals. David DeJesus had an excellent month (.341 average, with a .412 OBP and .477 SLG%), but was injured on Opening Day and only played in 12 games.

Cy Young: Zack Greinke, who was 3-0 with a 1.25 ERA. Zack struck out 19 in five starts and 36 innings.

LVP: Esteban German was barely used, so Tony Pena Jr. wins this one. Playing nearly every day, TPJ put up a solid .153 average, with an almost-unbelievable .173 OBP and an equally mind-boggling .208 slugging pct. He also struck out 15 times in 72 at-bats, great numbers if you're a power hitter, which TPJ certainly is not.

Cy Yuk: Hideo Nomo was terrible, but he only pitched in three games. So this "award" goes to Yasuhiko Yabuta, who celebrated his two-year, $6 million contract by posting an 8.31 ERA in nine games and 13 innings. He also posted a sterling 8/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He gave up at least one hit in every one of those nine appearances. Oh, and he allowed three homers. Other than that, and the fact Trey Hillman was still using him in important situations, he was great.

Reasons we should see an awesome summer ahead: Solid months from Greinke, Gordon, Joakim Soria and Billy Butler. That and not being completely buried in the standings by May 1.

Reasons we should have seen last place coming: Good teams do not normally lose seven games in a row. The middle relief is a wasteland, and the back end of the rotation is not good. And 100 runs in 27 games is good for last place among AL offenses.