The Kansas City Royals are playing meaningful August baseball for the first time in a decade and, let’s best honest about it, the baseball wasn’t THAT meaningful a decade ago. That was 2003, when the Royals got off to a ridiculously good start (16-3 after 19 games) and held a share of first place as late as August 29. It was fun, absolutely it was fun, but it was make-believe. That team was clearly made up of pixie dust and luck. Nobody, not even the Royals themselves, understood how they kept winning.
During one critical stretch, their starting pitchers included - a 35-year-old Paul Abbott recently dumped on them by Arizona, Darrell May who they found in Japan, a 35-year-old Kevin Appier who had been recently released, a 21-year-old Jimmy Gobble just called up, the team’s “ace,” Runelvys Hernandez, who was just a little bit off, and Jose Lima, who was more than a little bit off and who had signed out of an independent league. It was more like a goofy Disney movie than a contending team, and in the heat of a Midwestern September, they predictably wilted and Minnesota steadied, and the Royals finished third.
Before that, you have to back another 15 or so years to find a legit Royals contender.
So, absolutely, this Royals team has been a joy. They are not yet an excellent baseball team, but they can put together stretches of excellent baseball, and for the first time in a quarter century it’s no mystery how they do it. They have three legitimate starting pitchers in James Shields, Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie. They have a bullpen overloaded with insane arms -- the entire bullpen is averaging more than one strikeout per inning.
They have a legitimately awesome defense -- this is worth discussing for a moment. The Royals, through the terrible seasons, would often talk about having an outstanding defense while the advanced defensive numbers would show them actually to be disastrous defensively. The Royals stance was simple and to the point: The numbers were wrong. I think this is one of the things that drove me craziest about following the Royals -- they would rather debate reality than face it. Advanced numbers are not perfect, not close to perfect, but in 2009, for instance, when the Dewan “Runs Saved” statistic showed the Royals to be by far the worst defensive team in the league -- having allowed ONE HUNDRED more runs than an average defensive team would -- the Royals dedicated much of their public relations efforts to win left fielder David DeJesus a Gold Glove because he didn’t make an error (he didn’t win the Gold Glove, nor deserve to). The feeling that just kept emerging was: How in the heck will the Royals ever fix the problem when they don’t even RECOGNIZE the problem?
Now? That same “runs saved” statistic shows the Royals to be, far and away, the best defensive team in the American League, having saved 71 runs (42 more than any other team in the AL). See, statistics like this work just fine when you actually play good defense.
Anyway, decent starting pitching, good bullpen work, fantastic defense … and a struggling offense. That’s the 2013 Royals. It makes them a good team that can frustrate the heck out of you. And it makes them a frustrating team that can do spectacular things. This team lost 19 of 24 at one point. This team won 17 of 20 at one point. This team leads the AL in ERA and has hit 25 fewer homers than anyone.This is really all any Royals fan could have asked from 2013, all anyone could have realistically hoped from a developing team that lost 90-plus games eight of the previous nine seasons. My realistic dream for this team is to be in some kind of contention on Sept. 6 when the Tigers come in for three games. That would be the most meaningful baseball series in Kansas City in decades. I’d come back for that.
Anyway, it’s fun. But it’s not ALL fun. I was watching with interest Saturday night -- the Royals showed all sorts of pluck in their game against the Tigers. Detroit is the most talented team in the American League now, and I’m not sure anyone else is close. They are second in ERA though Justin Verlander is having a sort of eh season by his standards. They are second in runs scored though Prince Fielder is having a pretty dreadful season. They have the best hitter in the world and a 17-1 pitcher leading best five-man rotation in the American League. The Royals (and my childhood team Cleveland, who is showing some moxie) are outgunned.
But the Royals swept Detroit in a doubleheader Friday, and Saturday they came back from a 3-0 deficit with a walk and three straight singles (pretty much the only way the Royals can score these days -- lots of good little things chained together). They came back from 4-3, came back again from 5-4, and actually had a chance to take the lead in the eighth when they had runners on second and third with nobody out. A popout, lineout and groundout later, the score was still tied.
Which brings us to the ninth. Everybody in Detroit and Kansas City knew that Miguel Cabrera was leading off the bottom of the ninth inning --I can tell you that little nugget of information was tucked into the back of the mind of every Royals fan. That’s because 18,374 times in the last 16 years, the Royals have gone into the final inning tied, come close to scoring a run in the top of the inning, not scored, and then lost in the bottom on a walk-off homer. OK, it probably has not happened quite 18,374 times, but it seems that way -- heck Paul Konerko alone seems to have done it 9,000 times, not to mention Justin Morneau and Jim Thome and Carlos Pena.
Saturday, my viewing experience went like so:
-- Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez fell behind Detroit closer Joaquin Benoit 0-2 but worked a walk. That was a good at-bat for Perez, who is not exactly known for his plate discipline. He has 16 walks all year. But of the many things I love about Perez, one is that there’s a sort of awareness he has that is rare. He seems to understand intuitively what is needed in any given moment and he makes a clear and plain effort to achieve it. That’s not to say he doesn’t have terrible at-bats or fail often, but when you watch a lot of baseball you see a lot of moments where you wonder, “What they heck was he trying to do there?” You don’t usually do that with Perez.
Unfortunately, the next three batters for Kansas City were: Jamey Carroll (.219/.272/.249 -- zero for 10 as a Royal), Emilio Bonaficio (.220/.264.325 -- recently dumped by Toronto) and Chris Getz (.229/.299/.291). This is important to say I’ve played enough Strat-o-Matic to know the math does not add up. No manager, not Stengel, not Weaver, not anyone can make the law firm of Carroll, Bonaficio and Getz into a run-scoring threat. The Royals did not have much on the bench -- their most likely pinch-hitter, Justin Maxwell, was on bereavement -- so what was to follow was clearly not going to be pretty.
That said: What followed was uglier than it had to be.
-- Jamey Carroll sacrifice bunted Perez to second. There’s the by-the-book move. And I hate it. HATE IT. When you have Carroll, Bonaficio and Getz coming up, you are already -- by the very nature of the players’ talents -- giving away outs. So, at least let them give away their own outs. Why would you give away an out to set up Bonaficio and Getz? Let all of them swing the bat. Sure, a double play’s a possibility, but so what? Maybe somebody bloops a ball over someone’s head or cracks a ground ball that gets by the Tigers’ rather weak corner defense. Carroll dropped a very good bunt and came reasonably close to beating it out, but it was a net-loss. The Royals had less chance scoring a run after the bunt than before.
-- Emilio Bonaficio already had two hits in the game so he was the opposite of “due.” He had a reasonably feisty at-bat before grounding meekly Fielder. Two outs.
-- And then it was Chris Getz. There has been a lot of contention around Chris Getz this year, much of it not his fault. It is just that he’s the sort of player the Royals featured during the lousy years, a hard-working player who has a little bit of speed, can play decent defense, hustles a lot, seems to have an outstanding attitude, and simply isn’t good enough to play every day in the Major Leagues. The Royals have jammed these sorts of likable but infuriating players down the fans throats for 20-plus years until, finally, fans found themselves longing for players who don’t work hard and have terrible attitudes but at least have some talent*.
*Fortunately, the Royals have given their fans these kinds of players too,
Getz came up and it seems to me he had several opportunities to help the Royals win the game. He obviously could get the hit that would score the run. Or he could put the ball in play and hope for a defensive miscue -- he’s got some speed so it was not impossible. Or he could stay up at the plate, fight off a bunch of pitches, maybe spur Benoit into throwing a wild pitch -- Benoit has thrown two this year. Point is, what the Royals really needed there was a gritty and dogged at-bat, something Chris Getz should be able to provide since he is a gritty and dogged player.
Instead, he started looking around the infield. “He might be looking to lay down a bunt here,” the Royals announcer said excitedly.
First pitch, he turned like he was going to try a drag bunt.
He drag bunted toward first base, where Prince Fielder easily scooped it up and tagged him out.
“What a good idea,” the Royals announcer said, at which point I was screaming -- SCREAMING -- at the television. Good idea? Yeah, like Michael Bolton remaking “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay” was a good idea. LIke making “Grown Ups 2” was a good idea. The Royals had a runner on first with three outs and they GAVE AWAY TWO OF THEM. I realize that Getz wasn’t trying to give away an out, but he did -- you telling me his chances of beating out a bunt there (and there isn’t exactly the element of surprise if the Royals announcer saw it coming first) was as good as is chances of punching a ball through the defense? And on the first pitch. He didn’t even give the at-bat a chance to develop, didn’t put any pressure on Benoit at all. It was awful to watch.
And at that point I turned off the television.
“Did the Royals lose?” my wife asked me.
“About to,” I said.
I watching Miguel Cabrera’s walk-off homer on my minii-iPad while lying in bed. Then I turned it off and read a book.