The Royals are 88-63: Get your champagne ready…

The magic number is two. It could happen tonight.

Wouldn’t it be perfect if Johnny Cueto went out tonight and pitched lights out, clinching the Royals’ first ever AL Central division championship? Of course, we also need Minnesota to lose to Cleveland, but I was looking at the Indians’ lines against Twins’ starter Kyle Gibson, and check out these beauties…

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This is from ESPN’s stats page. Mike Aviles 4-6. Yan Gomes 5-9 with 2 HR. Michael Brantley (who, unfortunately, is injured) 4-11. Jason Kipnis is 2-6. Santana only has 1 hit but it was a 2-run HR. As a team they bat .344/.438/.557. No member of the Tribe who has faced Kyle Gibson is hitless against him. So, what I’m saying here is that I like our chances of clinching tonight.

The Johnny-Salvy Pairing

Throw in the fact that the Royals seem to have finally discovered the source of Cueto’s struggles and one could foresee the Royals popping corks in their home dugout about 8 hours from now.

This Johnny Cueto/Salvador Perez dynamic is really interesting to me. Andy McCullough wrote a fascinating piece following Cueto’s last start against Cleveland on how Salvy’s setup behind the plate wasn’t comfortable for his new ace. You can read that article here.

It makes sense. The 3-time All-Star catcher and soul of the team has his way of doing things. The new guy staff ace rental has his way. No one wants to butt heads. They both want to give the other the benefit of the doubt. But it wasn’t working. Finally, Cueto spoke up. We’ll see how things shake out over the next few starts.

Some folks – primarily on Twitter, so let’s not take it all too seriously – have suggested that Cueto pitch to the smaller, lower to the ground Drew Butera down the stretch. That, in the opinion of this fan blogger, would be pretty idiotic. Why would we ever want to get Cueto used to a catcher whose only purpose on the postseason roster will to be a backup catcher in case of injury? We don’t want Butera even touching a bat in a postseason game. No no no. You spend the next two weeks getting Cueto and Salvy on the same page so our best team takes the field in October. Come on, people.

Holland out. Wade in. Finally.

Ned Yost announced yesterday prior to the Royals 4-3 walks win over the Mariners that Greg Holland is out as the Royals closer and Wade Davis is in. Kelvin Herrera slides back an inning and takes over Wade’s 8th inning duties. Ryan Madson slides into the 7th to take over for Herrera. The 6th inning will be a mix/match situation, but I’m hoping Danny Duffy wants the job.

You have to wonder what took the Royals so long to make this move. It’s been very clear for more than a year that the best man in the Royals bullpen was Wade Davis. In fact, Davis has been so historically good that he may have the greatest two-year stretch by any reliever in the history of baseball. Why isn’t your best man pitching your most important inning? It could even be argued that Greg Holland wasn’t even the second best closer on the team. Herrera has been dominant as well. Yet there he was. He’s supposedly been dealing with elbow issues sin the All-Star break. His velocity is down. His control is miserable. He occasionally shows glimpses of his former self, but when a guy can’t command a fastball, he has no business being a closer.

With Holland being a free agent at year’s end, we’ve certainly seen the last of Greg Holland as a closer.

UPDATE: About two hours after this post the Royals announced that Holland has a significant UCL tear and will be shut down for the season. Supposedly he’s had the year since LAST AUGUST and has been pitching through pain. Crazy.

This Royals team isn’t messing around.

The last thing I’ll say here is that the Royals aren’t messing around this year. In the past, the Royals would’ve stuck with guys like Alcides Escobar leading off or Greg Holland closing or Danny Duffy getting more work in the rotation for the future. Not this year. This is 2015 and this – despite what the 2012 slogan maintained – is our time.

The Royals best 6 OBP guys are hitting 1 through 6 in the lineup. The Royals best bullpen arm is closing. Their second best is pitching the 8th. The Royals see that Kris Medlen is pitching much better than Danny Duffy and make the move early to prepare for the postseason. Even if that means Jeremy Guthrie has to get shelled a start or two, that’s okay, because Duffy needs to get used to the bullpen. The Royals aren’t afraid to bench their overpaid second baseman, Omar Infante (who is now going to be out a couple weeks with an oblique injury), or threaten to bench their underperforming and now bearded right fielder, Alex Rios, who has shockingly been our best hitter over the past month.

This team finally gets it. Actually, I probably shouldn’t say “finally” – I think Dayton Moore and Ned Yost have always gotten it, but they’re not playing for next year anymore. They’re finally playing for right now, and they’re making all the right moves to prepare us for the ALDS and hopefully beyond.

-apc.

Should the Royals have sent Alex Gordon? Nope. But what if they’d tried a squeeze bunt?

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What if?

It’s been nearly three months since Mike Jirschele decided to hold Alex Gordon at third base with two outs in the bottom of the 9th down 3-2 in Game 7 of the World Series. Three months later and we’re still talking about his Decision. But let’s be honest – three months, three years, three decades…it doesn’t matter – Jirschle’s Decision will continue to be debated among Royals fans forever.

Today, Lee Judge of the KC Star posted about that very question: Should Alex Gordon have tried to score? The argument lives on.

A few days ago, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback claimed he’s the sort of guy who would’ve sent Alex Gordon.

I’ll keep my mouth shut regarding Brownback’s opinion on that (and other things), but I’m no different when it comes to theorizing what the Royals’ options were at that moment. Personally, I think Jirschele made the right decision in holding Gordon. Brandon Crawford was already fielding the relay throw while Gordon was rounding third base. It would’ve taken another fumble from Buster Posey or an errant throw in the resulting rundown play for Gordon to score. All of us agree the ball would’ve beaten Gordon home by a substantial margin.

But still…what if?

The conversation typically boils down to odds. Was it more or less likely that Gordon would’ve been safe versus Salvador Perez getting a hit off of Madison Bumgarner? Obviously in hindsight, Perez failed to get a hit to tie the game and the Royals lost 3-2 and stranded Gordon at third.

The odds were not in the Royals’ favor regardless. You can maybe say that Perez had a 20% chance to get a hit in that situation – probably generous – and you might say that Gordon would’ve been safe 1 out of 10 attempts trying to score in that same situation. If you limit the options to just those two possibilities, the odds of Perez getting a hit is about twice as likely as Gordon scoring. In that case, Jirschele’s Decision to hold Gordon was the correct one.

However, there’s another possibility that I think may have put the Royals in the best possible odds of winning the game. After holding Gordon at third, there were a number of moves Ned Yost could’ve made to put the Royals in an better chance to win than simply the 20% chance of Salvy getting a hit off Bumgarner.

Step 1: Pinch run with Terrance Gore.

Step 2: Pinch hit with Jarrod Dyson.

Step 3: Squeeze bunt for a single.

Yes, I know. This is the exact ending of Major League.

Okay fine, Hayes scores from second, but still. Same idea.

Jarrod Dyson had 13 bunt single attempts in 2014 and was successful on 9 of those attempts. In 2013, Dyson attempted 18 times and was successful 10 of those. So over a two-year stretch, Dyson went 19-31 attempting to bunt for a single – a .613 average, or 61.3%. That number is among the best in baseball.

Obviously that number doesn’t tell the entire story. There’s still the possibility that the Giants could go home and tag out Gore at the plate. First of all, I doubt they would’ve tried for Gore – the faster of the two runners and the tougher of the two plays to execute. Second, Gore is so fast, he would likely be across the plate by the time the fielder even gets the ball in his glove. Whether they went home or to first, the odds are still worse with multiple out possibilities.

The most important difference though is the fact that the Giants would’ve likely been playing Dyson to bunt. Corners in, prepared to field the ball quickly. Those 19 successful bunt single attempts are likely all in situations where the infielders are playing back and Dyson saw an opportunity to get tricky and take the base they were giving him. A situation like this would be very different, and his odds of making it to first would decrease significantly.

But would they drop as far as 20% chance? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?

To me, the odds of Gore getting thrown out are minimal. The greater odds are that Dyson’s bunt goes right back to Bumgarner and he tosses him out easily at first. In order to be successful, Dyson’s bunt would probably need to go past a charging third baseman and toward the shortstop. If Dyson could lay it down in the space behind and to the left of the mound, he’d have a good chance of beating the throw and there’s no way there could be a play at home.

Not only that, but it heightens the chances that something goes wrong on the Giants’ part. Maybe a fielder can’t pick the ball up. Maybe there’s an errant throw to first. If the play is at home, maybe Posey drops the ball, or Gore kicks it from his glove. Maybe the throw to first hits Dyson in the back en route to first base. To me, the chances of something happening in a squeeze bunt scenario are much higher than if Jirschele had just sent Gordon home. My hunch is that the odds would be higher than 20% – the chance Perez gets a hit – as well.

At minimum, it forces the Giants to make a play, which was the Royals game plan all season – high contact rate, speed on the bases, make the opponent make a play. Good things happen when you put the ball in play, so the saying goes.

Naysayers will point out that if you pinch hit and pinch run for two of your best hitters, suddenly their bats (and gloves) are out of the lineup for subsequent extra innings. Noted. But that cannot be the thought process when putting your team in the best position to win at that moment. And sure, if the bunt failed we’d all be up in arms about why Yost took the bat out of the hands of the Wild Card hero and the only guy to score a run off Bumgarner the whole postseason (Salvy hit a solo homer late in Game 1).

But it’s also hard to imagine a more poetic ending for the 2014 Kansas City Royals. If only we could go back.

I imagine we’ll never reach a point where this conversation is exhausted and/or agreed upon. It’s a fun conversation despite its belaboring. It’s all hindsight and “what if” speculation, but on paper, it might’ve provided a better chance of the Royals tying the game than the other two alternatives.

Ultimately, I think we need to accept that we weren’t going to win the game. That’s the reality, and it sucks, but it’s true.

90 feet, man. It was right there.

-apc.

Image cred: KC Star, accessed 1/21/15: LINK.

The Royals are headed to the ALDS.

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Tell me what the headline should be here. I have no idea how to communicate such an insane experience.

The night was an emotionally draining blur and this morning my voice sounds like Frogman from Little Rascals. It is with zero hesitation that I label last night’s 9-8 come-from-behind 12th-inning walkoff Royals Wild Card victory the greatest game I have ever attended.

People will tell you that they never had a doubt, and that they knew the whole time the Royals had it in the bag. Those individuals should not be trusted. Save for a few strong innings when then Royals held a 3-2 lead, there was absolutely every reason to doubt before and throughout last night’s wild card playoff game. I spent the entire day worrying. I’ve never been so nervous in my life. I posted to Twitter yesterday afternoon that I was more nervous about the game than I ever was proposing to my wife. I joked that I was bringing an extra pair of pants to the game too…just in case.

That was a lie, obviously. And I’d also be lying if I said I never had doubt. And if you tell me you never had doubts when we were down 7-3 in the 8th, i question your grasp of reality.

Let’s begin with the end. Oakland had just taken the lead, 8-7 in the 12th. In the bottom half with 1 out, Eric Hosmer – who went 3-4 with 2 walks – lifted a ball to deep right. Sam Fuld and Jonny Gomes both looked like they might have a play on it against the wall. Instead, they collided in midair and the ball caromed off the wall for a standup triple. Christian Colon chopped a swinging bunt single and Hosmer scored from third to tie the game at 8-8. Colon stole second, and Salvador Perez came to the plate.

Again, zero reason to be confident here. Salvy had already come up twice with runners aboard and had failed badly. He continues to chase terrible pitches low and away. Throw him a slider down and out, and he’ll swing every time. For a guy who spends every day framing the strikezone he sure doesn’t seem to have a clue where it is. In the 8th inning, with the tying run on third base, Salvy had struck out on a pitch that wasn’t anywhere close. He looked awful.

Right on cue, he swung at a pitch a foot off the plate outside, and somehow that ball found it’s way between third base and Josh Donaldson’s diving glove. Colon scored from second, and the game was over.

Here’s a look at both pitches by ESPN Stats & Info…
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And with that swing the Royals won their first playoff game since winning it all in 1985.

The game took 4 hours and 45 minutes, and I’m certain I experienced every emotion possible in that span.

Kauffman was absolutely rocking. it felt like Arrowhead, honestly, and that’s no exaggeration. I’ve never been to a baseball game that loud. Not even close. When James Shields took the mound to start the game, the whole place was standing like a college basketball game. Someday I’ll tell my unborn kids for the 800th time how loud it was and they’ll roll their eyes and go, “yeah, yeah, we know dad.”

It was electric at the beginning and the end. But there were quite a few spots in between that were very very dismal.

The place was silent in the first after Brandon Moss hit a 2-run homer to make it 2-0 Oakland early, but sprang back to life when the Royals immediately responded with a run of their own when Billy Butler singled in Nori Aoki in the first. Then went back to bananas when my boy Lorenzo Cain doubled scoring Mike Moustakas and Hosmer singled scoring Cain.

If there was ever a point to “not have any doubts” this was it. The fans were all up in Jon Lester’s dome. The whole place was chanting, “Leeeeees-ter, Leeeeees-terrr,” and the A’s starter actually looked rattled. Going into the last night, Lester had owned the Royals over his career (1.84 ERA, 88 IP). They faced him three times between July 20 and August 12 in the midst of their crazy hot streak in July/August, and they lost all three games badly.

But the Royals finally got to him last night: 7.1 IP, 8 H, 6 R. Yet somehow he left the game in line for another win due to a suspect managerial move by Ned Yost.

With the Royals leading 3-2, Shields got into some trouble in the 6th. Fuld led off with a single and Donaldson walked. Two on, no outs. Shields had thrown 88 pitches, and has cruised through the previous 5 innings with the only blip being Moss’s HR in the first. In a regular season game, your ace pitcher would have the opportunity to work out of it himself. But in a winner-take-all game, Yost opted to pull Shields for – not Kelvin Herrera or Wade Davis, not Jason Frasor or Brandon Finnegan, not even lefty Danny Duffy – but young rookie starter Yordano Ventura.

I get the move. I do. And if it had worked, we’d all be talking about what a genius Ned was to bring in the young flamethrower. Unfortunately, Moss took a 97 mph fastball over the centerfield fence. They would add two more runs in the frame and make it 7-3, bad guys.

At which point, I gave up. The game was over and Ned Yost was going to get raked over the coals for it. Hope was nowhere to be found, and for the second time, the life had been sucked out of Kauffman Stadium. You could here every word coming from the mouth of every A’s fan. Royals fans could do nothing but watch their season slip away.

The song “Don’t Stop Believing” came on between innings, and it was almost comical how depressing things felt. The only ones singing along in my section were two over-served gentlemen down near the front, and two boys in the seats right in front of us.

Someone said something about things looking grim, to which one of the kids responded, “All we need to do is have everyone hit a home run and we’ll win.” The kid clearly didn’t know his 2014 Royals statistics, because no one hits home runs on this team, but he taught me a little about hope in the midst of despair.

It was the 8th inning when the rally began. Alcides Escobar singled and stole second. Cain singled him home. Cain stole second. Hosmer walked and the A’s pulled Lester for Luke Gregorson. Billy Butler singled and scored Cain, and moved Hosmer to third. Terrance Gore ran for Butler and stole second. A wild pitch by Gregorson advanced both runners. Hosmer’s run made it 7-6. Alex Gordon walked and stole second. Perez and Omar Infante struck out with the tying run and fastest guy in the league just 90 feet away.

The Royals had 7 steals in this game, by the way, tying a postseason record. The biggest of them all game in the 9th. Josh Willingham led off with a single and Jarrod Dyson pinch ran for him. Escobar bunted him to second. Then with Aoki batting, Dyson stole third – the biggest steal of the seven – we were 90 feet away. Aoki hit a sacrifice fly to right and Dyson scored to tie the game and send it to extra innings.

The “90 feet away” motif suddenly became a thing as the Royals put a man on third base in 4 consecutive innings – 8th, 9th, 10th & 11th – plating only Dyson.

A look at the three they didn’t score…

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…none of them scored. The Royals did a masterful job doing 3/4 of the manufacturing, but couldn’t get the guy to advance the last 90 feet on three different occasions.

Meanwhile, while the offense is stranding runners at third, the bullpen was doing it’s thing. Wade Davis pitched a scoreless 8th. Greg Holland pitched a scoreless 9th. And 21-year old rookie Brandon Finnegan threw 2.1 innings striking out 3. Gosh, he looks good. Finny was playing ball at TCU in the College World Series just 4 months ago, he was the Royals top draft pick this year and has been stellar out of the bullpen since the rosters expanded in September. He ka another reason the future is bright beyond 2014 in Kansas City.

Then in the 12th, the A’s did what we couldn’t: they moved a base runner 90 more feet. The runner was Josh Reddick, who walked to lead off the inning. Jed Lowrie bunted him to second and Jason Frasor came into the game and promptly threw a wild pitch. With Reddick at third – 90 feet away – former Royal, Alberto Callaspo, singled to make it 8-7.

This was the worst of the worsts for fans at The K. Inning after inning we had runs sitting right there and couldn’t bring them across. And to see Oakland succeed on it’s first try was really frustrating and positively deflating.

But the bottom of the 12th is history. Hosmer’s big triple, Colon’s infield single and steal, and Perez’s grounder down the line, and the Royals came from behind for the third time in the same game to defeat the Athletics 9-8.

And Kauffman Stadium launched into euphoria.

I high fived so many strangers my hand started hurting. I screamed and screamed and screamed. I ripped a set of blue beads I was wearing around my neck and chucked them 100 feet in the air and I have no idea what came of them.

On a night that I fully expected to be heartbroken, I was. Three times, in fact. But the joy in the end is all that matters. It was chaos.

Bring on the Angels. I don’t care how good they are or how impressive their lineup is or how many games the won in the regular season. None of those things matter in the playoffs.

But they have Mike Trout! And Albert Pujols! And Josh Hamilton! And…shut it. None of that matters.

What does matter in the playoffs? Pitching, defense and speed. And the Royals have all of those things.

I can tell you one thing: no one wants to play the Kansas City Royals. Other teams just don’t matchup for a must-win playoff game.

We’ve completed phase two of five. Phase one was to make the playoffs. Phase two was to advance to the ALDS. Three more phases to go. 11 more wins is all it takes.

See you at The K on Sunday.

-apc.