The goal here is to make it through the next few hundred words without the disclaimer about this only being one game, because you are clearly a discerning reader who understands this Royals season is now just 0.6 percent complete.
So even if I actually just failed that goal in the first paragraph, it will not be lost on anyone that the Royals lost their season opener to the Twins 7-1 here on Monday in what vaguely mirrored the organization’s biggest collective concern about this season:
The bullpen didn’t have it.
And, really, that doesn’t do it justice. Danny Duffy, the Royals’ new ace and proud owner of a $65 million contract, went six innings and gave up six base runners and one run. You are a discerning reader and will agree that’s pretty good. The three relievers who followed him combined for one inning, eight base runners, and six runs. You are a discerning reader and will agree:
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“We still have a good bullpen,” Duffy said. “We still have a really good bullpen. Just one bad game. We have 161 left. Our bullpen is great, and I have ultimate confidence in them.”
Duffy is demonstrably correct about this just being one bad game, with 161 left. He is undoubtedly sincere about his confidence in the bullpen, too, and he may even be right about the most important point here — that the Royals bullpen in this post-HDH world is “good,” or “really good,” or perhaps even “great.”
But we don’t know that, and if you polled Royals officials and coaches about their greatest worry for the 2017 season, the bullpen would be the runaway winner. This won’t help.
The offense was 13th in the American League in runs last year, and should be better in 2017, but on Monday produced just three hits and one run on Mike Moustakas’ homer. So, no. This particular game was not just about the bullpen. But it was a lot about the bullpen.
This was, almost without a doubt, an implosion so bad it’s fluky. In 21 games last year, Matt Strahm gave up two or fewer base runners 19 times. Twice, he gave up three base runners. He was charged with more than one run exactly zero times.
Against the Twins — and a lefty-heavy part of the order the coaches specifically wanted him to face — he gave up four base runners (including an intentional walk) and was charged with four runs.
“I went back and looked at the video,” Strahm said. “Just spinning off, not staying on top of the ball. I need to be better.”
Travis Wood, who has walked fewer than one in 11 batters he’s faced in an eight-year career, walked two of five. Two of the other three got hits.
Together, Strahm and Wood walked three batters with the bases loaded. All of last season, the Royals only did that seven times.
“I didn’t anticipate that,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “Maybe one. But anticipating three? No.”
This is not a push-button bullpen. Yost has been clear about that. The days of Kelvin Herrera in the seventh, Wade Davis in the eighth, and Greg Holland in the ninth live on in YouTube highlights.
But here in the real world, Yost has to figure out how to make it work. Herrera is the closer, and the Royals think the rotation is as strong and deep as it’s been in years. But in the middle, Yost will try to make it work with feel and numbers and educated guesses.
Which, if we’re being honest, makes this just a tick — a tick — more concerning. Because Yost had the matchups he wanted.
The seventh inning began with the bottom of the Twins’ order, which meant the switch-hitting Jorge Polanco, followed by lefties Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario for the lefty Strahm. If he did his job, the Twins’ lineup would’ve flipped to more righty-heavy for the righty Joakim Soria.
Instead, it unraveled in a hurry. A soft single to center, a sacrifice bunt that turned into a single because Strahm was slow off the mound, and eventually the bases loaded with one out after an intentional walk. Peter Moylan came in to face the righty Byron Buxton, then Wood entered as the lineup flipped back to lefties: RBI walk, RBI walk, two-RBI single, RBI single, then finally the end of the inning.
“That was unacceptable, what happened,” Wood said.
This doesn’t have to be a big deal. The highest level of baseball is the longest grind in American sports, 162 games that can feel like forever, and this one will find its rhythm. Royals GM Dayton Moore is among the baseball people who believe you need at least 40 games to have any credible feeling about what a particular team has or doesn’t, and the Royals won’t hit that mark until May 17.
But the Royals will also be hyperconscious about preventing this from being a theme. The organization that changed the meaning of “process” several times in Kansas City may be quicker to try different solutions to this particular challenge.
Maybe that means flipping the target hitters for Strahm and Soria, since both had reverse splits last year. Maybe it means more aggressively using Herrera against trouble, no matter the inning. Maybe that means opportunities in the seventh and eighth innings for others, including prospects Josh Staumont and Kevin McCarthy.
Maybe it means some combination of the above, or better solutions.
For now, it doesn’t mean anything. This is just one game. If it happened in June or August, you might not have noticed. For now, the Royals enjoy a day off and play more baseball on Wednesday. This is a talented, confident bunch, and that includes the bullpen.
But this is something to watch.