Sunday, April 19, 2009

Week 2 In Review

After Week 2, the Royals are 7-5. That's good for a first-place tie in the tightly-bunched AL Central, with the Tigers and White Sox also 7-5. The Twins are 7-7, putting them one game behind.

Game 7: Monday, April 13
KC 4, Cleveland 2

This wasn't Zack Greinke's best start, but he managed to work out of trouble when he needed to, and left the game after only five innings with a 4-0 lead. The bullpen was solid until the 9th, when Ron Mahay gave up two singles to start the inning. Trey Hillman made a very smart move, going to get Joakim Soria before things really got out of hand. A single and a wild pitch scored two runs, but then Soria did what he does best, getting the next three hitters to end the game. The offense put up three runs in the first inning, and added a Mike Jacobs homer (his first as a Royal) in the fourth.

Game 8: Tuesday, April 14
KC 9, Cleveland 3

For 7 innings, this was a nerve-wracking game. The Royals scored two runs in the 3rd, then gave up the lead in the 5th. John Buck led off the bottom of the 5th with a homer to untie the score, and the Royals added one more run that inning. The Indians scored one run in the 6th, and it looked like Soria would be needed to save this one too. Until the bottom of the 8th, when a Jacobs single made the score 5-3. After an Alex Gordon walk, John Buck slammed one into the left-field bullpen for a grand slam and the final margin.

Game 9: Wednesday, April 15
Cleveland 5, KC 4

Since he hadn't done something to make me scratch my head in like, four games, Hillman decided to field a lineup including Willie Bloomquist (hitting second), Tony Pena Jr., and Buck DHing and hitting cleanup. Remember, this was a day game before an off day and a flight to Dallas in the second week of the season, hardly a time when I would want to rest half the starting lineup. I suppose this was a defensive lineup for Sidney Ponson, who tends to get groundballs. Defensively, it worked pretty well. Ponson wasn't great, but he pitched six innings and only allowed two runs, which is an acceptable performance from a number four starter. Unfortunately, this lineup was next to useless offensively, getting only three hits off Indians starter Aaron Laffey, just recalled from AAA. They did manage to tie the game 2-2 in the 6th, thanks to four walks in the inning, including a bases-loaded pass to Gordon. Hillman continued his bad day by bringing in Kyle Farnsworth to pitch the 7th, and it only took three hitters for him to give the lead back. The Indians scored three runs in the 7th. The Royals tried to rally, scoring one run in the 7th to make the score 5-3. But Mark Teahen's baserunning blunder, when he was thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double, really killed the Royals in the 8th. Jacobs followed Teahen's gaffe with an absolute bomb that would have tied the score if Teahen had been on base. Still, there was plenty of blame to go around in this one. This was a frustrating loss, since Ponson pitched so well and the Royals had a chance for a sweep of a division opponent.

Off-day: Thursday, April 16
I throw this day in because it included a major development for the Royals. Late in the afternoon, the word came down: Alex Gordon would be having surgery on his hip and would likely miss two months or so. With Jose Guillen already on the DL and the team's inability to hit in Wednesday's game, things looked grim for this season's prospects. The loss of Gordon means Mark Teahen will move to third base, and we'll probably see a lot more of Alberto Callaspo at second base. Both of these are fine with me. Teahen may be more comfortable at third; even if his career offensive numbers show little difference between his time at third and other positions, perhaps that comfort level will help him concentrate on hitting. Callaspo is hitting a rather unsung .393 this season and has played better defense at second than anyone expected.

Game 10: Friday, April 17
KC 12, Texas 3

So with two of their best hitters on the DL, the Royals offense exploded for 12 runs and 19 hits. KC put up four runs in the 2nd inning, then teed off on the Rangers' bullpen in the late innings. Gil Meche was solid again, working out of a little trouble in the 1st and 3rd innings, then settling in to finish six scoreless innings, with six strikeouts, six hits and two walks. The Rangers scored their runs off Doug Waechter and Horacio Ramirez late in the game, and this one was never in doubt. Teahen was undoubtedly the offensive star, going 5-6 with three runs scored. He kicked off the offensive onslaught with a solo homer in the 2nd. Jacobs was 2-4 with four RBIs.

Game 11: Saturday, April 18
KC 2, Texas 0

Zack Greinke. Simply amazing. The Rangers had a runner at third with no one out in the 2nd inning and didn't score. They had a runner at third with one out in the 3rd, didn't score. Then Zack took over. The Rangers didn't have a runner reach second until the 9th inning. In the meantime, the Royals' offense managed to scratch out a couple of runs, the first on a Coco Crisp walk, two groundouts and a Billy Butler double. The second run came courtesy of a Miguel Olivo homer. Greinke made those two runs look like 20, at least until the 9th, when the Rangers mounted a two-out threat. With a runner at third, though, Greinke struck out Chris Davis looking to end the game. Greinke has now thrown 20 consecutive scoreless innings this year, and 34 if you go back to last season. He's also leading the league in strikeouts with 26. Right now, signing Greinke to a contract extension looks like the best move Dayton Moore has made as Royals general manager.

Game 12: Sunday, April 19
Texas 6, KC 5

Another series, another chance for a sweep, another game blown by Hillman and Farnsworth. This game started out looking like a Rangers rout, as Kyle Davies had no control in the first inning. Davies walked four hitters, but managed to escape with only a 2-0 deficit. The Royals battled back, both on offense and on the mound. Davies settled down, allowing only one more run as he worked through six innings. The offense got those two runs right back in the 3rd, then put up single runs in the next three innings, taking a 5-3 lead to the 7th. That's when things got dicey. Hillman brought in Juan Cruz to pitch and Tony Pena Jr. as a defensive replacement at shortstop. So far, so good. Cruz sandwiched two strikeouts around a walk. With lefty Josh Hamilton up, Hillman brought in Ron Mahay to pitch. This despite saying back on Opening Day that Mahay was not a left-handed specialist (his rationale for leaving Farnsworth in to face Jim Thome; the resulting 3-run bomb gave the White Sox a win). Mahay did get Hamilton, but surrendered a double to start the 8th. The next hitter, Hank Blalock, hit a grounder to first that Jacobs tried to field with his feet.

Now, first problem. Hillman had seemed to learn quickly that Jacobs is not a good defender. This was Jacobs' first start at first base since last Sunday. If he used a defensive replacement for Mike Aviles, why not use one for Jacobs? Billy Butler was DH in this game, so he was out. But what about Teahen? He could have been moved from third and Willie Bloomquist could have come in to play third. If Hillman had wanted, he could have moved Aviles to third instead of taking him out of the game. If you're going to emphasize defense with a two-run lead in the seventh, then don't leave a man widely considered the worst first baseman in the majors in there, even if it means Pena actually gets an at-bat.

Next came two plays Callaspo couldn't quite make: a slow grounder which only left him with a choice of going to second or first for an out (the first run of the inning scored, making it a 5-4 game) and a grounder up the middle he knocked down but couldn't field cleanly. On the first play, it looked to me like Callaspo fielded the ball after the runner was by him, eliminating the possiblity of a tag. I'm not sure he could have turned all the way around and thrown the man out, either. Callaspo got the out at first, but the tying run was in scoring position. That became large on the second play, when the runner (Blalock) kept running and scored when Callaspo couldn't get a good throw to home plate. It was a tough play, but Alberto had made some very nice plays the previous night. Still, if you're emphasizing defense in the late innings, where was Bloomquist? The Royals spent all offseason and spring training insisting that Willie Ballgame was a better defender than Callaspo.

And of course, the final terrible mistake came when Hillman called on Farnsworth to come into a tie game in the bottom of the 9th. Let's see, homer-prone pitcher facing a homer-hitting team in a homer-hitter's haven with the wind blowing out when one run means a loss. Of course this ended badly. Farnsworth threw two pitches, Michael Young blasted the second one out of the park, and the Royals lost. I'll never understand why Hillman didn't bring in Soria. Joakim had not pitched since last Monday, although he did warm up in the 9th Saturday night. I feel reasonably certain he could have pitched the 9th and 10th, if needed. The Rangers do not have a strong bullpen; why not give your team another chance to score in the 10th?

Bottom line: Hillman's refusal to make defensive substitutions for players who are not good defenders and his bizarre bullpen usage cost the Royals a game.

The Week Ahead

The Royals continue their road trip with three games in Cleveland Tuesday-Thursday before coming home for a weekend series with Detroit. With six divisional games, this week could be pivotal. It's hard to believe two series in April could be very important, but if this division is as tightly bunched as I think it will be (and has been so far), every divisional game matters. After the Royals handed the Indians a gift win last Wednesday, Cleveland has played better, although they did lose Sunday. The Royals will have their hands full with the Indians, especially since Hillman announced this weekend he intends to let Horacio Ramirez start Wednesday's game to give the rest of the rotation an extra day of rest. However, it looks like there is a good chance of rain in Cleveland Tuesday and Wednesday, so this may be a two-game series.

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