Sunday, April 26, 2009

Week 3 In Review

After Week 3, the Royals are 9-9. That ties them for second place in the AL Central with Chicago, one game behind Detroit.

Game 13: Tuesday, April 21
Cleveland 8, KC 7

This game was a bummer from the beginning, at least until the Royals mounted a furious comeback that fell short. Sidney Ponson was ineffective, allowing six runs in only 3 1/3 innings. Ponson walked four and gave up eight hits. Meanwhile, the offense could do little against Indians starter Aaron Laffey. For the second time in a week, a pitcher who was in AAA at the start of the season while his major league club gave up 64 runs in eight games absolutely owned the Royals. Laffey gave up seven hits in seven innings, but the Royals grounded into a club-record six double plays. It wasn't until the Indians went to their bullpen that the offense woke up, scoring four runs in the 8th to pull within one run, 6-5. The sixth double play of the night ended that rally, and then Juan Cruz gave up his first runs of the season, a two-run homer by Victor Martinez. That meant David DeJesus' two-run homer in the top of the ninth did not give the Royals a lead, but only brought them back to within one.

This was a discouraging game, as the Royals did not do any of the fundamental stuff they had been doing well so far this season. The offense looked impatient (four walks, but that was because Billy Butler and Willie Bloomquist walked twice each), and Royal pitchers walked nine Indian hitters. Still, I suppose the encouraging thing is that the Royals did not roll over and die; they did make a spirited comeback.

Game 14: Wednesday, April 22
KC 2, Cleveland 0

Banny's back! Recalled from Omaha when Doug Waechter was put on the DL with an elbow strain, Brian Bannister saved Royal Nation from the indignity of another Horacio Ramirez start. Instead of the 2 2/3 inning, 7-run performance I would have expected from HoRam, we got six shutout innings from Bannister. The offense struggled against last year's Cy Young winner, Clif Lee. No surprise there, Lee was 5-0 against the Royals last year. But KC was able to scratch out a couple of runs (I have a feeling I will type that a lot this year). Excellent relief pitching by Jamey Wright (two scoreless innings) and then that Joakim Soria fellow finished it off, although he was a little rusty. I wonder why.

Game 15: Thursday, April 23
Cleveland 5, KC 2

Another frustrating afternoon game. The Royals wasted yet another outstanding effort by Gil Meche, as the offense went 1 for 10 with runners in scoring position, including an epic fail in the fourth inning, when KC loaded the bases with no one out and failed to score. Meche tired in the eighth inning, and Ron Mahay was ineffective in relief. Grady Sizemore capped the inning with a three-run homer for the final margin.

As Mark Teahen told the Star, "This was a team loss." I suppose you could quibble with the decision to let Meche start the eighth inning, but he had been dominant to that point, retiring 16 consecutive hitters. Perhaps he was left in a little too long in the inning, but he still left with the score tied. A couple of errors hurt, and of course the inability to score runs was a killer.

The game result was frustrating, but the fact the Royals could have had a winning road trip is worse. Instead, KC headed home with a 3-3 record on this trip. Also frustrating: another game given away to a divisional opponent. And yet one more frustration: the Royals are now 6-3 when leading after seven innings. With an All-Star closer, this is inexcusable to me; it's even worse given that the bullpen was supposed to be a strength for this team. We all know about Kyle Farnsworth's struggles, and perhaps Hillman has figured out not to use him in close games (he didn't pitch in the last two games in Cleveland, but was in late in the game Tuesday when the Royals were losing 6-1). More worrisome is Mahay's ineffectiveness this season. It seems like he hasn't recovered from the plantar fasciitis that plagued him last year. The Royals need to figure out something quick--they seemingly have two dependable late-inning guys, and Hillman apparently will not use one of them unless he has a lead in the ninth inning.

Game 16: Friday, April 24
KC 6, Detroit 1

Here's something I hope I'll be typing a lot this season: more dominance from ZacK Greinke. I really don't know what else to say about him this year, and it's only April. The run he gave up in this game was his first of the year, and it was unearned. His ERA is still 0.00. Unreal. It's just a joy to watch him pitch now, and I feel certain every time he takes the mound the Royals will win. It's a feeling I don't think I've had since, I dunno, Kevin Appier or David Cone in 1993? Maybe Bret Saberhagen in 1989? Anyway, Zack was as good in this start as he's ever been: another complete game, only three hits and one walk against 10 strikeouts. On offense the Royals were led by Teahen and Coco Crisp, and did a nice job of responding with two runs after the Tigers got the unearned one in the fifth to make the score 3-1.

The win was a nice counterpoint to the bad news of the day: Soria's sore shoulder. The Royals announced that their relief ace was suffering from soreness in his right shoulder and would not pitch for a few days, although they did not put him on the DL. The whole episode seemed odd to me; the Royals admitted Soria had been dealing with this problem since last Saturday in Texas, but did not want to give opposing teams the knowledge that Soria was unavailable. They also claimed this was why Soria did not pitch in that Sunday game in Texas when the Royals blew a 5-3 lead and lost. Yet Soria pitched and saved the game in Cleveland Wednesday.

I love a good conspiracy theory, but I can't convince myself the Royals are trying to cover up Hillman's bullpen misuse by announcing Soria's injury. First off, even if Soria was not available in that Texas game, there was no excuse for bringing Kyle Farnsworth into the game in that situation. Second, I don't doubt Soria has some stiffness--he missed time in spring training for the World Baseball Classic and may not be in complete game shape (I'm not doubting that Soria is a hard worker and takes care of himself, just saying he didn't get as many spring training game innings as he normally would).

I don't like the plan to use a "closer by committee" approach until Soria returns. Juan Cruz is pretty clearly the second-best reliever the Royals have right now; it should be his job for the time being. And if Farnsworth comes into the game in a save situation, I plan to simply turn off the TV and walk away.

Game 17: Saturday, April 25
Detroit 9, KC 1

The Royals were never really in this game. Kyle Davies gave up a two-run homer in the second and another in the fourth, and once again the Royals could not hit Detroit pitcher Zach Miner. If the Tigers' bullpen could have kept an inherited runner from scoring, Miner would now be approaching 30 consecutive scoreless innings in Kauffman Stadium. Perhaps Dayton Moore could swing a trade for this guy. Or perhaps the Royals could develop a better offense. To be fair, they did get five walks and six hits, but it never felt like KC was part of this game. At least they didn't make Hillman decide who to use in a save situation.

Game 18: Sunday, April 26
Detroit 3, KC 2

This game was even more frustrating than the previous one. I think every Royals fan feels good about their chances when Meche, Greinke or Davies start. But when someone else starts (in this case, Ponson) and gives a great effort, the Royals need to get wins in those games. Ponson was very solid in this game, pitching eight innings, striking out seven and walking no one. But the Royals' offense was once again asleep, getting only four hits in the game and doing little with the six walks they were given.

The Week Ahead

The Royals have a full week ahead, with four games at home against Toronto before playing three games in Minnesota. I have to admit, I'm very nervous about this week and what it means to the Royals season. Think back to last May, when the Royals were 21-22 and 1.5 games out of first. Then, they went to Boston, were no-hit, and proceeded to lose 10 games in a row to effectively end the season. Now, they've lost five of seven, and will be facing a Toronto team that is playing very good baseball. After that, they go to Minnesota, where the Royals have struggled in recent years. Perhaps years and years of losing have beaten the optimism out of me, but this feels like another long losing streak in the making. I think the Royals can hang around in the AL Central race if they can avoid these long losing streaks, but I'm afraid this offense is too inconsistent to keep those from happening. I can easily imagine Meche and Greinke losing a couple of games where they pitch well, and the rest of the rotation struggling. A week from today, we'll know a lot about whether this summer will be interesting or just another disappointment.

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