Sunday, May 3, 2009

Week 4 in Review

After Week 4, the Royals are 14-11. That's good for first place in the AL Central, a half-game ahead of Detroit. This is the Royals' latest appearance atop the division since 2003, and the latest they have been three games over .500 since the end of the 2003 season. For comparison's sake, in 2006 it took the Royals until JUNE 4(!) to get 14 wins.

Game 19: Monday, April 27
KC 7, Toronto 1

Another good outing from Brian Bannister, although it was a bit odd. Banny only gave up one hit in seven innings, but walked six. He said the rainy conditions made the baseball slippery and harder to control, but that put a different spin on the ball and apparently made it harder to hit. Obviously, I wouldn't recommend Banny or any other pitcher walk six guys in seven innings, but in this case it worked out. The Royals used two homers from Jose Guillen and a three-run blast from Miguel Olivo to cruise to victory.

Game 20: Tuesday, April 28
Toronto 8, KC 1

Gil Meche struggled from the start of this one, and eventually left in the fourth inning with lower back stiffness. By then, the Blue Jays had a 5-0 lead and the Royals' offense was back in hibernation. Kind of embarrassing, since Toronto starter Scott Richmond is a 29-year-old rookie who spent three years pitching in the independent leagues (just like the Kansas City T-Bones!). Baseball is a funny game, indeed.

The thought of Meche missing time with an injury is concerning, but he turned out to be well enough to start Sunday's game against the Twins. The Royals will have to hope Meche can keep going out there every fifth day. At the beginning of the season, it looked like the Royals had three pitchers they could not afford to lose for any amount of time: Meche, Zack Greinke and Joakim Soria. Soria is already fighting a sore shoulder and hasn't pitched in almost two weeks.

Game 21: Wednesday, April 29
KC 11, Toronto 3

The offense bounced back in a big way, and Zack Greinke gave up his first earned run of the season. Billy Butler had a game to remember, belting two homers and adding a single and a double. Five other Royals had two hits each, while Greinke cruised after giving up a run in the first and another in the third. The Royals blew the game open with two runs in the fourth and four more in the fifth, which is plenty of runs with Greinke pitching like he is right now.

Game 22: Thursday, April 30
KC 8, Toronto 6

This was a crazy game. John Buck hit two triples. The Royals turned six double plays a week after a game in which they hit into six double plays. And the Royals won the four-game series against the AL East leaders. Kyle Davies struggled again, but he did show a knack for getting ground balls when he needed them. The Royals led 8-2 after the fifth inning, and then held on through some shaky bullpen work. The Jays scored one run in the sixth, another in the seventh and two in the eighth before Juan Cruz picked up his first save of the season. It was the first save for a Royal not named "Joakim Soria" since last September 4 (Ramon Ramirez got that one). On an optimistic note, Cruz's appearance in the ninth inning makes me think Trey Hillman at least has figured out Cruz is his second-best relief pitcher.

Game 23: Friday, May 1
Minnesota 7, KC 5

Let's hope this will be the end of the Sidney Ponson experience. Look, he's had a couple of nice starts. But he's also had two lousy ones and a mediocre one. His ERA is 7.16 after this debacle, where he gave up nine hits and seven runs in 4 1/3 innings. And I can't ignore the fact that the Royals are 0-5 when he starts, but 12-6 when anyone else starts. There's a reason he was a free agent during spring training. But for some reason--OK, it's keeping him from reaching arbitration after this year--the Royals refuse to bring up Luke Hochevar to take Ponson's spot.

Even more frustrating than the continued employment of Sir Sidney, the Royals managed to get some offense against usual nemesis Kevin Slowey (4-0 lifetime record against KC with a 2.16 ERA before this game). Yet because Ponson couldn't hold the 2-1 lead and 5-5 tie he was given, it didn't matter. I also don't understand why Hillman let Ponson pitch to Justin Morneau with the game tied in the fifth. The Twins thoughtfully set up their lineup with three lefties in a row (Joe Mauer, Morneau and Jason Kubel. Yet, after the Royals battled back to tie the score at 5-5, Hillman let Ponson face all three of them in the bottom of the fifth. He walked Mauer, gave up a homer to Morneau and a single to Kubel. I'd like to know what made Hillman think Ponson had a chance of getting any of those guys out. I am not fond of the Royals' lefty bullpen options, but at least play the percentages, man. It may not have mattered, as the Twins bullpen dominated the last four innings.

Game 24: Saturday, May 2
KC 10, Minnesota 7 (11 innings)

As crazy as the Thursday game against Toronto was, this one probably topped it for sheer oddity. The teams combined for four errors, and the Royals had three wild pitches and a passed ball. Willie Bloomquist hit his first homer in almost two years. Miguel Olivo had a triple. The normally solid Twins bullpen walked four hitters in the decisive 11th inning, including the winning run. Which means the Royals actually walked four times in one inning. Soria came into the game in the middle of an inning, saved the game by getting out of a man-on-second, one-out situation, and then closed things down. The Royals overcame deficits of 3-2, 4-3, and 6-5 managed to hold on after giving up a 7-6 lead. This is precisely the kind of game the Royals used to lose all the time. Maybe it's a good sign they won this one.

Game 25: Sunday, May 3
KC 7, Minnesota 5

Here's another kind of game the Royals used to lose all the game at the end of a road trip, tough game the night before, Royal-killer on the mound. In this case the Royal killer was Scott Baker, who nearly threw a perfect game against the Royals in 2007. Baker came into this game with a 5-2 record, 2.60 ERA and tidy 52-7 strikeout-walk ratio in his career against the Royals. And he was his usual self in this game. Through six innings, Baker did not allow a hit and had only given up one walk, to Guillen. Meanwhile, the Twins had scored four runs against Meche, although a couple of errors had helped them.

But in the seventh inning, everything changed. Bloomquist broke up the no-hitter, Mark Teahen singled, and Guillen homered. The Royals kept up the momentum with singles by Mike Jacobs and David DeJesus, followed by a double by Alberto Callaspo for a 5-4 Royals lead.

It seems like I pick on Hillman's decisions a lot. I suppose that's because the ones he screws up are more noticeable. It does seem like those usually involve the bullpen somehow, meaning they are more game-changing. I don't really have a problem with most of his lineups or how he doles out playing time, although I do wish Buck would catch a little more often. Overall, I would say Hillman does an average job--maybe a C+ or B- grade. This digression leads me to praising his bullpen usage in this game and even the previous one. Note that these were both close games and Kyle Farnsworth did not see action in either. This is progress. Also note that Soria came into last night's game in a high-leverage situation (winning run on second) even though it was not a save situation. And even though he threw 19 pitches last night, Hillman did not hesitate to let him close this game. But even before that, I liked the fact he used Horacio Ramirez in the seventh to face the lower part of the Twins' order and then the lefty thumpers in the middle. Ramirez gave up two hits, but did not allow a run. Then Jamey Wright pitched a perfect eighth inning; rather than use Cruz (who struggled in the previous game), Hillman used Wright, who has been a pleasant surprise so far. The Royals added some insurance runs, and Soria closed out the game and series win.

The Week Ahead

Well, after I was worried headed into last week, I feel a little more confident about this week. It should be an interesting one, with a four-game homestand before the start of a West Coast road trip. Two games against the White Sox to start, and then two with Seattle and three in Anaheim. Obviously, the first two games of the week are big, with the White Sox one of the teams in the AL Central dogfight. The Mariners are having a good year so far, leading the AL West. The Angels are struggling but are still a talented team. If the offense can keep up the good work (41 runs in the last five games), this could be another good week.

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