CHICAGO — This is what a good big-league starting pitcher looks like. Remember?
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
Its been a while for Royals fans. Probably since Zack Greinke pouted his way out of Kansas City. This is new, the idea that it doesnt have to be the other team with the good pitcher every game. Not anymore, not with the proven commodity that is James Shields leading the most anticipated Royals season in a generation.
So, OK. The Royals lost their season opener here, 1-0, because the White Sox had the better pitcher on Monday. And you cant help but think how different the Royals would be had they not passed over that pitcher, Chris Sale, in the first round of the draft three years ago.
But, man. A year ago, Bruce Chen started the season opener. Then it was Luke Hochevar and Jonathan Sanchez. This year, Shields is followed by Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie. Big difference, and we saw the first of it Monday when Shields gave up just one run in six innings.
Thats exactly what I expected, you know? Royals manager Ned Yost said. Thats pretty much, I think, what well get to see in the majority of his starts.
This is no longer spring training, so the only thing that really matters is winning. This is the first Royals season in a while that can be fully judged on wins and losses, and toward that end the postgame clubhouse had the feel of an in-school suspension room at school.
And while Sale was singularly terrific this is a legitimate Cy Young candidate the Royals offense is on alert. The rotation was so atrocious last year that it overshadowed the team finishing third-to-last in the league in runs.
Their best chance came in the third, with the bases loaded and one out, but Billy Butler struck out on a change-up and Mike Moustakas flied out to shallow right. Jeff Francoeur (two hits) and Eric Hosmer (three strong plate appearances out of four) are as important as any starting pitcher and showed positive signs. There is no shame in losing to Sale. Its just that this is a trend worth keeping an eye on.
For now, though, pitching remains the biggest reason to believe this might be a different kind of summer in Kansas City. This is probably the Royals best rotation since 1994, and its no coincidence that this is probably their best team since the same year.
Shields is the centerpiece of that, and Yost is right what he did on Monday is a good reflection of what he provides.
His best pitch is a change-up, so he wont often overpower teams like Greinke at his best. But Shields throws all four of his pitches (fastball, cutter and curveball are the others) with enough command and consistency to give his teammates a certain extra swagger every fifth game.
By his standards, Shields wasnt terrific needed 102 pitches for six innings which underlines the point. Any pitcher good enough to be in a big-league rotation can do well on his best day. Pitchers who deserve opening day starts can get through on the other days, too.
This was a professional performance from Shields, occasionally working out of trouble (two on and one out in the second) and occasionally dominating (struck out four of five batters during a stretch of the third and fourth innings). His one mistake was a bum change-up to Tyler Flowers, who turned it into his 13th career home run.
Really, it was just the one pitch, designated hitter Billy Butler says. The rest of them, he threw great pitches.
Again, we pause here to acknowledge that the offense has to be better. Hosmer has to play into his talent and Francoeur needs to be more of his 2011 self than 2012 or the rest of this likely becomes footnotes to another season that doesnt meet expectations.
But for now, at least, the most encouraging part of the most encouraging Royals season in years is that what Shields did felt more normal than exceptional. Nobody talked about an extra bite on any of his pitches. Nobody talked about him being particularly locked in. Nobody said wow .
Shields was casually terrific, in other words. The Royals havent had this in a starting pitcher since Greinke. Thats the biggest reason they havent had a season this promising since before that.