by Kurtis Seaboldt
I remember it as if it was yesterday, even though it was nearly three decades ago. The Kansas City Royals and California Angels – almost sounds strange now, doesn’t it? – were about to begin a four-game series at then-Royals Stadium.
The Angels led the Royals by a game with seven to play but Bret Saberhagen tied things up in Game One, tossing a complete game five-hitter for his 20th win of the season. The Angels bounced back to win Game Two behind Mike Witt and were back up by a game.
Five to play. Still down one.
Bud Black tied it again with a sparkling three-hit shutout in Game Three and Danny Jackson put the Royals in first place to stay in Game Four, allowing one run over eight-plus in a 4-1 win. The Royals clinched a tie for the AL West the next night against Oakland and won it Saturday night when Willie Wilson’s line drive off Jay Howell’s glove brought KC back from a 4-0 deficit and put them, as the late Fred White so eloquently said, “in the throne room”.
But, even though the clincher came against the A’s, the biggest games were won against the Angels. The Royals faced down their main challenger and defeated them decisively.
The Royals will play a very similar series this weekend as the Detroit Tigers bring a half-game lead in the AL Central – let’s just call it a one-game lead and hope for the best – into Kauffman Stadium for the biggest series the Royals have played since I was a senior in high school.
Conventional wisdom says the Royals have to sweep, even though a mere series win would send them into the final week a half-game up. Or tied. Let’s say tied. A series sweep would also go a long way towards ridding the Royals of that feeling that the Tigers own them.
Detroit is 11-5 against the Royals this season. Since 2002, when teams resumed the unbalanced schedule, only three of 72 division winners won fewer than eight games against their closest pursuer. The 2010 Reds (6-12 against the Cardinals), the 2010 Giants (6-12 against the Padres) and the 2003 A’s (7-12 against the Mariners) pulled it off.
To this point of the season, the Tigers have been the Royals’ Daddy. This weekend the Royals can disown them. And perhaps own the AL Central.
by Kurtis Seaboldt
It’s known to anyone who follows sports even they only follow it a little bit. There is no other position in sports more important than quarterback. It’s been born out in the awards, especially in recent years.
Thirty-seven of 58 NFL MVP’s have been quarterbacks, including 10 of the last 13. Eighteen of the last 25 Heisman Trophy winners have been quarterbacks, including 12 of the last 14.
As a general rule, when your quarterback is playing well, you’re team is playing well. And when he isn’t, well, you know. Few teams have been more illustrative of that notion than the Missouri Tigers under Gary Pinkel. And few teams have had more consistent quarterback play over an extended period of time. It really is kind of amazing how good they’ve been at that position over the last decade.
Pinkel didn’t win right away when he arrived in Columbia but the one thing he did do was find a quarterback. Once enough other players caught up to the skill level of Brad Smith, the Tigers were winners and bowl game participants.
Pinkel found another winner in Chase Daniel, who benefitted from some late-season experience in his freshman year. The next year, Daniel had Mizzou in a bowl game. In his junior year, he had the Tigers one win away from a national title game. He was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
Tigers were good again in Daniel’s senior year before he handed the reigns over to Blaine Gabbert, who also got a little bit of trigger time as a freshman. All Gabbert did in two years was go to a pair of bowl games before becoming the tenth overall pick in the NFL Draft.
In 2011, it was déjà vu all over again as the job was turned over to another promising sophomore who had gotten his feet wet the previous season. This time is was James Franklin, who took Missouri to a bowl win in his first season as a starter.
Things didn’t go as well in 2012.
It was Missouri’s first season in the SEC, a challenge that became even more daunting due to Franklin’s poor health. He started just nine games and the Tigers, with no capable back up, tumbled to their first losing season in eight years.
Last year, Franklin was healthy and the team started hot. Then, in a Week 6 win at Georgia, Franklin went down with a shoulder injury, one that was going to keep him out for several weeks. Their biggest win in years had been pushed below the fold.
But the Tigers would be just fine. Freshman Maty Mauk stepped in and the team barely missed a beat, winning three of four games. Franklin returned and Missouri went on the win the SEC East and then win the Cotton Bowl.
Now, it Mauk’s turn. The Tigers will be his team in 2014, which likely suits him just fine. Seldom will you find a sophomore player with more confidence than Mauk. And, like Daniel, Gabbert and Franklin before him, Mauk has already gotten his feet wet.
If there is a cause for concern, it is the team around Mauk. No more Henry Josey. No L’Damian Washington. No DGB. No Marcus Lucas. But the cupboard isn’t completely empty. Marcus Murphy is poised to become a superstar. Russell Hansbrough is back, as is Jimmie Hunt and Bud Sasser.
The schedule is no peach with road games against South Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M and Tennessee but they get Georgia at home and there’s no Alabama, Auburn or LSU.
Gary Pinkel has been pumping plenty of players into the NFL so he has gotten used to having to reload. But the team he put together last season should have removed any thought that the 2007 group was just a one-time thing.
Missouri fans should have every confidence that this program is poised for sustained success as long as he is there. And the biggest reason for that confidence is the talented and cocky young man who will line up under potential All-SEC center Evan Boehm.
Maty Mauk, the team – the stage, for that matter – is yours.
by Kurtis Seaboldt
I don’t know what year it began – I can’t find a single mention of it anywhere on the internet – but, at some point, Major League Baseball decided that every team must have at least one representative in the All-Star Game.
That meant little to Royals fans of my generation; the Mid-Summer Classic was a showcase for our team. Four times in the 1970’s the Royals sent four players to the game.
And our guys played, too. From 1975 through 1982, 24 players played in the All-Star Game. George Brett was usually the only starter but the Royals had guys in the game, not just at the game.
But, starting in the late 1990’s, that quaint little clause that said every team gets a player was the only thing that kept Kansas City from being shutout entirely. From 1997 through 2012, the Royals had one representative in the game 14 times in 16 years. Five times in that span, the Royals’ rep never made it past the pre-game introductions.
The last two years have been a different story. For the second year in a row, the Royals have placed three players in the All-Star Game. The last time the Royals sent three players to consecutive All-Star Games? How about 1987 and 1988?
Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon and Greg Holland will make up that trio as they did a year ago. Perez will start at catcher – vote-winner Matt Wieters of Baltimore is injured – becoming the first Royals catcher to start in an All-Star Game since the late Darrell Porter in 1979. He will be just the third Royal ever to play in two All-Star Games before his 25th birthday.
Not only is Gordon the first Royals’ outfielder to go in back-to-back seasons since Willie Wilson, he’s the first since Wilson to make two appearances, period. Amos Otis is the only other Royals outfielder to make multiple All-Star Games. Holland got into last year’s game and could be the first KC closer to pitch in consecutive All-Star Games since Jeff Montgomery in 1992 and 1993.
The Royals are no longer an afterthought in Major League Baseball. They are contenders, and baseball has taken notice.
by Kurtis Seaboldt
Coming off of a three-game home sweep at the hands of the worst team in the American League, winning five of their next nine was an eye-opener for fans of the Kansas City Royals, especially since four of the wins were on the road against quality opposition in Toronto and St. Louis.
But that was nothing compared to what happened next. A ten-game winning streak, the Royals longest in twenty years, vaulted them into the national spotlight and into first place in the AL Central. Suddenly, fans who were about to bail on the season were in the unexpected spot of pondering a playoff run.
The Royals responded by losing four straight and falling out of first but, with Monday’s win over the Dodgers, they are just two out with five more home games left on this stand. They are a legitimate division title contender.
The pitching is clearly there. They are the only AL team with five starters sporting ERA’s under 3.90. The Dodgers are the only other team in the majors that can say that. They are almost unbeatable when they lead after seven, though Greg Holland may want to stop grooving inside fastballs to left-handed hitters.
The problem, of course, is the offense. Even though the Royals have greatly improved in 24 games under Dale Sveum, they still don’t have what virtually every division champion in the last ten years has had.
An MVP candidate.
In the last ten seasons, 55 of 60 division winners had at least one position player finish in the top ten of that year’s MVP voting. Twenty had at least two. Thirty-seven of 60 had at least one position player finish in the top five. Now, how many players on this Royals roster do you think are capable of finishing in the top five?
Not a single Royal is on pace for 20 homers. Not one is on pace for 90 RBI. Not one is on pace for 100 runs scored. They have one player – Lorenzo Cain – hitting over .300.
There pitching may be lights out. But, until at least one guy in that lineup takes off in a big way, they don’t seem to have what it takes for post-season.
by Kurtis Seaboldt
It was one of the hottest questions of the young Royals season: Would the Royals send down slumping third baseman Mike Moustakas and when? The answer finally came on May 22, when Moustakas and his .152 batting average were sent up I-29 to Omaha.
He did not stay long.
Just ten days later, Moustakas was recalled and inserted into the Royals’ lineup for the final game of a three-game series in Toronto. The reason? The placement of his replacement, Danny Valencia, on the disabled list with a wrist injury. Ned Yost insisted that Moustakas wasn’t going to be down long, regardless of Valencia’s status.
“He just needed a break,” Yost said. “He got it.”
But another factor was likely in play. The Royals minor league system contains no player who is ready to step in and play third base, even for a short time. It highlights one of the biggest problems with this team’s progress from laughing stock to legitimate contender. Their farm system, one that has been referred to in recent years as “the best in baseball”, is dry. It is especially true when it comes to position players.
The Royals will make their first round draft pick tonight, the seventeenth pick overall. It will be the eighth first round pick made by Dayton Moore – I’ll go ahead and allow him to escape the Luke Hochevar thing. The Royals have gotten very little from Moore’s first round picks to date.
Mike Moustakas was the top pick in 2007 and, well, we just talked about him. Eric Hosmer was the top pick in 2008. The two have combined for just 91 home runs in 3400 at bats. By comparison, one player from each of those drafts has more home runs by himself. Matt Weiters (2007) has 92; Pedro Alvarez (2008) has 97.
But how about since then? Well, the average MLB team has gotten about 236 hits, 28 home runs, 108 RBI and 124 runs scored from players they drafted in the years 2009 through 2013. Seattle and Arizona have done the best. The Mariners have gotten 1103 hits, 119 home runs, 487 RBI, 551 runs scored from their draftees in that span. Arizona also has gotten over 100 homers and 400 RBI.
Sadly, the Royals have not been quite as productive. They have combined for 0 hits, 0 homers, 0 RBI and 0 runs scored. Not only have they not gotten a hit from a player drafted in that span, they’ve only gotten one at bat. Do you know who got it?
He struck out in the ninth inning of a 16-8 win at Colorado on July 3, 2011. The Kansas City Royals have not gotten a single game played from a position player drafted from 2009 to now. Amazingly, the Royals are not the only team to which that applies. The Los Angeles Dodgers have come up empty as well. It should be pointed out that they do have a little more cash to spend on established talent and players like Yasiel Puig.
The Royals have some players who could break that cycle but there isn’t one that you can look at and say, “Yeah, he’s going to contribute”. It’s a trend that has to be reversed soon. When a relief pitcher is your most productive hitter, you have a major problem.
by Kurtis Seaboldt
In the bygone era known as “Twenty Years Ago”, headlines used to jump off the page. Now, more often than not, they jump off the screen. One that certainly did that was the column written by Fox Sports.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan this past Friday.
“Royals’ Grifol: If we’re in playoffs, no one will care if we don’t hit homers.”
In the column, Royals hitting coach Pedro Grifol tries very hard to convince Flanagan and – by proxy – readers that the team’s notable lack of home runs this season isn’t really that big of a deal. “I don't think -- and anyone can correct me if I'm wrong -- anyone is going to complain if we're in the playoffs and we're worst in the league in home runs”, Grifol told Flanagan.
But there is one slight problem with that scenario. It never happens. In the history of the American League, just three teams have made the playoffs while being last in home runs. In reverse order, they are the 1959 White Sox, the 1924 Senators and the 1906 White Sox. Since the Wild Card format began in 1995, there have been 78 teams make the American League playoffs. Only three have ranked as low as tenth.
The Royals will not make the playoffs if they are last in the league in home runs. And if American League history doesn’t show us that, Sunday’s game against Baltimore should.
There were the Royals, being stifled for the third game in a row by Baltimore pitching. They had “scratched” – another comment from Grifol in that column – for a pair of runs by their usual manner – singles and ground balls – but were trailing, 3-2. In the fifth, a walk and a single had the tying run at second. For the third time in the game, the Royals were going to need three base runners to score a single lousy run.
Then Alex Gordon did something amazing. He hit the baseball over that fence they have in right field. One swing turned a 3-2 deficit into a 5-3 lead. Two innings later, he did it again. Another three-run shot and the score was 8-3 and now the bullpen had some wiggle room, which they surely needed as Aaron Crow was touched for three runs in the ninth.
But that was okay because, you see, the Royals offense had pounded their way to a big lead. The way good teams do. The way playoff teams do.