By Jeff Montgomery
As the Royals closed out August with back-to-back gut-wrenching extra-inning losses, many Royals fans throughout the Midwest were left wondering what the team’s chances are of going back to the playoffs again for a third straight year.
And thought the chances are slim, I feel there is still some life left in this bunch and they may be able to make a final push toward post season. They played excellent baseball during the Month of August. Prior to that stretch I wasn’t sure they had anything left in the tank based on their horrible July when they went 7-19. Things seem different now with the return of a healthy Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon. The way Kendrys Morales has come to life the second-half of the season is another reason to have some hope as well. With these three players producing it creates a similar balance in the lineup that last year produced enough to win a Championship. The move with Alcides Escobar to the bottom of the lineup also helps with the balance.
Another positive has certainly been the pitching staff. Starting with the rotation, it has seemed to solidify itself now that Dillon Gee has at least stabilized the fifth slot. Kennedy, Duffy, and Ventura were all really good in August. Unfortunately, Steady Eddy Volquez has not been the consistent starter we expected based on last season’s performance. The rotation will likely be the biggest key to a strong finish to the season so it looks like the weight will be mostly on their shoulders.
The realigned bullpen featuring unexpected performers like Matt Strahm, Brian Flynn, and Peter Moylan have been fun to watch as they have stepped in nicely to fill the vacancies created by injuries to Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis. Kelvin Herrera was fabulous in August as he converted 10 of 10 save chances. Davis’ expected return is coming at the right time as the arms in the bullpen are a little weary going into September. Expanded rosters for September should help too.
It’s impossible to know how many wins it will take to qualify for the second Wild Card slot but based on history it will take 90 wins. That number is based on the number of wins the second Wild Card has had since the inception of the two Wild Card format in 2012, with the average being 89.75 wins. The range of wins for that slot has been from 93 wins in 2012, to 86 wins last year. The Royals won 89 in 2014 and were the first Wild Card and Oakland won 88 to qualify as the second Wild Card team.
Regardless, it is great to have watched the Royals play well enough for an extended period of time to even be having these frequent discussions about what their record must be from here on out. But, as they enter September with a 69-64 record and three games out for the Wild Card, it looks like they must go 21-8 in the final 29 games. That would mean playing at a .724 clip for almost a month which is not easy to do. During the month of August they went 20-9 for comparison.
By Jeff Montgomery
I remember the ground ball to Terry Shumpert during the 1991 season for the last out of the game when Bret Saberhagen no-hit the Chicago White Sox. A lacquered memento, which displays the final line score and a ticket from the game signed by Sabes still resides in a prominent spot in my trophy case. It is displayed next to a similar memento from George Brett’s historic 3000th hit game in my study.
Those were two of the most memorable games I had a chance to witness as a player in my career. George’s 3,000th capped a 4-hit night for him but had an interesting twist as he was picked-off first immediately following the on field celebration. Saberhagen’s No-No also included an interesting twist as a fly ball to Kirk Gibson that was initially scored a hit was later changed to an error, which kept the no-hitter in tact. To this day Gibby still swears there was no way he should have been charged with an error on the play.
On Monday against the Tampa Bay Rays, Danny Duffy turned in the most dominant pitching performance I can remember watching in person. Although he allowed a leadoff double to Desmond Jennings in the 8th inning, it was still the most dominant game I can remember. The sixteen strikeouts were a testament to how great Duffy was in the game and the reason he is the new single-game strikeout record holder in the Royals record books.
Duffy has been brilliant during the entire season and it has been thrilling to watch him turn into the pitcher everyone expected him to be. Without a doubt he has been the most consistent hurler for the Royals this season.
There have been a handful of games before last night that Duffy has at least made one think that something special (like a no-hitter) might happen but none have been as brilliant as last night’s performance. Danny has progressed in his career to the point where no one will be surprised when he does finish off a no-hitter. In fact, he will likely be the pitcher who breaks the drought and throws the next Royals no-hitter.
More important than knowing that Duffy might turn in more historic starts like he did against the Rays, is knowing that Duffy has turned himself into a reliable top of the rotation starting pitcher the Royals have been missing since Zack Greinke was wearing a Royals uniform.
By Jeff Montgomery
The last time I wrote was about the Rotation being the key to the Royals second half and their ability to compete for the Central Division title. Things have not changed much except there appears to be more consistency in the top four in the rotation with Ian Kennedy, Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura and Edinson Volquez all making very nice starts in their post All-Star Game efforts.
Chris Young has been out of the rotation and will contribute from the bullpen. Dillon Gee has been given five opportunities to start but has failed to nail down the slot and will continue to help the bullpen in long relief situations. And, Kris Medlen is not ready to come back as had been hoped because of shoulder fatigue. Lefty Mike Minor could provide some help but he has not shown with any certainty that his shoulder is ready to carry the burden of the innings necessary to be a legitimate option in the near term.
The aforementioned group of Young, Gee, and Medlen has made 24 starts collectively in the fifth spot in the rotation while compiling a 4-14 record and 7.14 ERA in those starts. As on July 20th, the other starters(Volquez, Kenndy, Duffy, and Ventura) have compiled a 25-23 record with a 4.29 ERA in 68 starts. While those numbers are not near the top in League statistically, they are certainly good enough to allow the Royals to compete for a divisional title as we learned last year if the bullpen returns to its expected level of performance now that Wade Davis is back from the Disabled List.
Brian Flynn was given an opportunity to fill the last slot in the rotation which has proven to be difficult one to fill.Unfortunately, his outing lasted less than three innings and he left behind a 3-0 deficit. It will be surprising if Flynn is given another shot at the fifth spot.
Although the price tag may be too expensive to land a starter at the level of a Johnny Cueto like last July, an acquisition of a solid number five starter may be essential if the Royals plan on making up the deficit in the standings that currently exists. They are not looking for a Cy Young candidate, just need someone who gives them a chance every five days to win a ballgame. Unfortunately, the contributions from their fifth starter through the first one hundred games of the season have come up short on the production side.
By Jeff Montgomery
As baseball moves toward the midway point it is always a good time to take a look at where teams stand and what they may or may not need as the July 31 and August 31 trade deadlines get closer.
Remember, the July 31 trade deadline is one that teams have the best chance of making a deal since there are no waiver wire restrictions. In other words, other teams cannot block a trade that may occur as they don’t want one of the teams involved in the trade to get better.
The August 31 trade deadline is significant as that is the last day which a player can be acquired via a trade and still be eligible for the postseason. The August trades normally are made to help teams get to the playoffs, not help them win in the playoffs.
Barring any more significant injuries, it appears the Royals may be set with their position players as Whit Merrifield and Cheslor Cuthbert have performed at a level that has eliminated any concerns on whether or not they can be long-term fixes at their respective positions and Paulo Orlando has hit well enough to squelch the early season cries for another bat in the outfield. The bench appears to be strong and Brett Eibner was a pleasant surprise during his injury-interrupted stay and could be called up if needed.
Although the bullpen has the league’s lowest ERA, it has been called upon for over 250 innings of work and will need to be monitored during the second half to insure it is not exhausted by season’s end. Ned Yost has done an outstanding job over the past few years in making sure the pen is strong and healthy as he knows its importance to the team’s success.
That pretty much gets us to the starting rotation which has been the least consistent element of the ballclub to this point. The rotation has show signs during a couple of extended stretches of the season that it can be very serviceable. The Royals rotation does not need to be great; it just needs to be consistent. Through the first 75 games of the season, the rotation had pitched the fewest innings in the league and was second-to-last in quality starts. Another alarming stat on the rotations mid-season resume was the amount of home runs allowed which is just over one per game and leads the league in that category while pitching in the most spacious ballpark in baseball.
While it appears that no saviors are looming in the minor leagues, it will be essential for the starters on the current roster to provide more consistent results during the second half of the season. In my opinion, that challenge will need to be answered by the two youngest members of the rotation; Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura. It is easy to be excited about what their contributions might be based on what we have seen from both lately (before Ventura's start vs St. Louis).
With Edinson Volquez and Ian Kennedy being proven innings eaters and consistent performers, the upside lies in the two young guns in Duffy and Ventura. Chris Young will need to return to his 2015 form to be able to continue to take the ball every five days as he has not been able to keep the ball in the ballpark during the majority of his starts. He has also demonstrated the ability to contribute from the bullpen if needed.
Another possibility for upside exists in Kris Medlen who appears to be healthy and throwing the ball the way everyone expected him to be able to throw this season which is the reason the Royals inked him to a two year contract following his second elbow surgery.
Remember, they don’t have to be great, just consistent.
By Jeff Montgomery
Although it took Whit Merrifield roughly six years of minor league baseball to make it to the Major Leagues, his path is not extremely different than that of other Big Leaguers who were able to persevere until their opportunity was there.
Merrifield is 27 years old and in a perfect world a player will be in his early twenties when he starts his Major League service, especially if he is a high school draft pick. Whit attended the University of South Carolina which meant he was already older than some phenoms that are drafted as eighteen year-olds and start their professional careers before they know how to do laundry. Although he would have loved to been in the Majors at a much younger age, the extra time in the Minor Leagues will be very helpful in allowing him to stay in the Big Leagues for a long time if he stays healthy. The extra experience he has gained by spending most of six seasons down on the farm has already show me that he is ready for the Majors because he plays the game right.
Fans love the style of play that Whitley demonstrates along with his hustle and never take anything for granted play. When a player has to work extra hard to earn his opportunity he is going to make sure that no one takes it away from him. One way to do that is to play with conviction and control everything that you have the ability to control. His offensive numbers are quite impressive for a new call-up but his swings looks to be very fundamentally sound and one that will not be easy for pitchers to find holes in. He is a career .274 hitter in the Minor Leagues so it is unrealistic to expect him to hit at his current pace of .326 in the Major Leagues over an extended time frame. He could however, be one of those players that hits for a higher average in the Big Leagues because pitchers are around the plate more often.
Merrifield reminds me of a player that could be like Greg Holland. Not because of his pitching ability but because he wasn’t a high round draft pick (Holland was a 10th rounder and Merrifield was a 9th rounder) and is under-sized when compared to most other Major League players. Both Holland and Merrifield play with similar passion and both have Carolina roots. Those type players have to work a little harder and a little longer for their chance to play in the Major Leagues.
Maybe another reason I like Merrifield so much is that I was a 9th rounder too and was undersized and had to spend more time in the Minor Leagues than most. We’ll see how Whit turns out, but I really like his chances.
By Jeff Montgomery
The Royals recent comeback victories had everyone talking about the historic weekend of baseball at Kauffman Stadium. And for good reason, never had a Royals team had as many thrilling come-from-behind wins in team history. One will need to watch a lot of baseball to witness a series of games like the White Sox series to experience as much excitement.
One detail that stands out to me about the come-from-behind wins is the fact that all of the rallies started after the first batter was retired. On the surface, that may not seem too unusual but as a former pitcher I can attest to the fact that getting the first batter out is the most important.
Going back to Friday night’s game against the White Sox, the seventh-inning rally began with Cheslor Cuthbert grounding out to open the frame before Brett Eibner got things going with his first major league hit which was a double. The Royals would go on to score four runs in that inning and win, 7-5, after being down by three runs to start the bottom of the seventh.
Saturday’s game will be the most memorable of all the comeback wins as the Royals were able to score seven runs in the bottom of the ninth for an 8-7 win. That ninth inning started with Sox closer David Robertson retiring Paulo Orlando with a strikeout. What followed was an incredible display of frenzied hitting, capped off by Eibner getting the game-winner with his first career walk-off hit in only his second major league game.
It would have been tough to top Saturday’s win in the series finale, but the Royals still managed to erase a 4-2 deficit in the bottom of the eighth inning for a 5-4 win. And yes, the rally started with Whit Merrifield fouling out to start the inning before Lorenzo Cain started the rally by homering to right.
To keep the one-out rally theme alive, the Royals began a four-run rally in the eighth inning on Memorial Day after Drew Butera grounded out to start the inning after the Rays had tied the game at 2-2 in the top of the eighth. The Royals eventually won, 6-2.
So much of the Royals play over the past two to three weeks reminds most everyone who watches of how different this group is from most other teams. Their ability to come back from seemingly insurmountable deficits seems to be in their DNA.
Let's hope it lasts.
There are no games scheduled for today.