They wanted an audition. They did not use that word, but that’s what this was. That’s what it’ll be five days from now, too, because the only thing that matters for the Royals is being the best they can be once the playoffs start.
That’s the benefit of a 12-game division lead as September approaches. You can try things. The rich can invest in high-risk stocks, because they’re rich either way. The Royals can give regular starts to a man coming back from a second Tommy John surgery, because they’ll win the division either way.
Everything the Royals do between now and game one of the Division Series on Oct. 8 is about constructing the strongest playoff team possible, and in that way, Kris Medlen just took a major step in helping the Royals when it matters most.
There is still so much unknown. Better and worse days are coming, but this version of Medlen is good enough to start playoff games.
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In his first start since reconstructive elbow surgery two years ago, Medlen was dazzling and rusty but mostly promising. He gave up five hits and three runs over six innings, striking out six and walking none. The performance was much better in person than it looks in the box score of what became an 8-3 win over the Orioles on Monday.
“I didn’t want this to be, like, a yay-you-did-it sort of thing,” Medlen said. “I expected to come and work and produce. I’ve said this in every interview I’ve done. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to be part of this team.”
The feeling is mutual, particularly as Medlen progresses. The Royals have to pursue this. They need four starting pitchers for the playoffs. Johnny Cueto will start game one, and Edinson Volquez will start game two. That leaves Medlen, Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura for two spots, with Ventura a favorite for one.
The Royals’ best version of themselves is Ventura and Duffy regaining their form from last year, and Medlen lengthening an already strong bullpen.
But they have the better part of six weeks to figure that out. They signed Medlen to a two-year contract with this particular scenario in mind. If they’re honest, Medlen is starting a bit sooner than they expected, but Jeremy Guthrie had thoroughly pitched his way out of the rotation and the Royals see Medlen as a more intriguing possibility than Chris Young.
No decisions were ever going to made after Monday’s start. Among many other things, Medlen needs to build his pitch count up, and the Royals need to see how he bounces back after the increased work load.
But, realistically, Medlen gave them as much as they could’ve expected. He certainly gave them enough to continue the experiment, and enough to give Royals fans something to fantasize about as the countdown to the postseason continues.
Medlen threw 69 pitches. The plan is for him to throw 85 in his next start on Saturday, then up to 100 five days later, and then the reins are completely off.
“He might get a little bit sharper, a little more consistent,” manager Ned Yost said. “Will that tighten up a bit? Yeah, it probably will. The life on his pitches was fantastic. The action on his breaking ball was good. The action on his changeup was good. He’s going to get a little sharper with regular work.”
Medlen gave up a line drive to the wall and a towering shot over the left field fountains for two runs in the first inning, and a line drive into the gap for another run in the fourth. Medlen was hard on himself for the pitch that Adam Jones hit for the home run, saying he needed it to be on the outside part of the plate rather than the inside. But, realistically, that wasn’t a hanger as much as it was Jones being very good.
Either way, the rest of Medlen’s night was terrific. You could see why Yost has taken to calling him “a poor man’s Greg Maddux.” Forty-nine of his 69 pitches were strikes. Most of them were down in the zone, and on or near the corners.
He threw a lot of fastballs early, then more curveballs and changeups later. He got strikeouts on his fastball and curveball. Even in his first start back, there was a confidence befitting a man who pitched 197 innings with a 3.11 ERA in 2013.
Pitchers often come back from Tommy John surgery different than they go in. Danny Duffy, for instance, has shelved his old curveball for a pitch that closer resembles a slider. He couldn’t command the curveball. The slider was his best pitch last year.
Medlen is in the very beginning of this transition. The results have been good — a 3.10 ERA with 20 strikeouts and five walks over 20 1/3 innings — so far, but there is still a ways to go.
His fastball velocity is actually up a bit. He hovered around 92 mph on Monday, after averaging a shade under 90 mph over his career. His secondary stuff is good, but his changeup could be sharper and his curveball more consistent.
That’s entirely normal, of course. What pitchers call “feel” is almost always the last thing to come after surgery. Technology and medicine have changed the procedure, rehab, and long-term prognosis. But this is still about a man learning to throw with a new ligament in his elbow.
But, like most things for the Royals this year, it’s hard to see how it could be better so far.
“It’s one start,” Medlen said. “I don’t think about that. Just go have a beer at the house, show up tomorrow and work my tail off for the next one.”