Good times in the Royals’ bullpen get serious when the game’s on the line

Royals relief pitcher Joakim Soria warmed up in the bullpen during the third inning of their spring training game against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday.
Royals relief pitcher Joakim Soria warmed up in the bullpen during the third inning of their spring training game against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday. Cronkite News

If the 2015 World Series champs left a lasting mark on baseball, it might be the power of a dominant bullpen.

Usually, it is the performance of the pitchers who come out of that Royals bullpen that is the focus of conversation. And with good reason.

But what, exactly, goes on in the bullpen itself — the place where the pitchers who owned the late innings for the Royals last season await their chance to impact a ballgame?

Often, there is a lot of time to kill out there, and Royals relief pitchers said they do it in a variety of ways.

Kelvin Herrera, the Royals’ seventh-inning guy, said he spends the first few innings in the training room getting stretched or massaged. Then he joins his fellow relievers in keeping the mood light, at least in the early innings.

“We just play around in the bullpen, making fun of anything,” Herrera said. “During the first four or five innings, we’re having fun, but by the fifth inning we’re focused 100 percent.”

Herrera said that out of all the Royals’ relievers, he’s probably the goofiest.

Closer Wade Davis said that Herrera might also be the sleepiest.

“I’ve only been in the bullpen a couple of years, but this group seems to be pretty relaxed. Sometimes I think Kelvin’s sleeping when they call down that it’s time to get in the game,” Davis joked.

Herrera, for his part, denied he’d ever sleep in the bullpen.

“No, I never fall asleep. Maybe Wade,” he said.

In seriousness, Davis said he appreciates the calm vibe.

“I like the atmosphere,” he said. “There’s no panic; everything just seems nonchalant and relaxed and a confident-type of atmosphere.”

Bullpen catcher Cody Clark, who is an integral part of the bullpen but not a member of the relief staff, gets a unique view of the dominant unit.

As unstoppable as the Royals’ relievers were last season, the key to their success apparently was not taking themselves too seriously.

“A couple guys like to pull some pranks,” Clark divulged.

“We have these really heavy bands that people use to stretch with,” Clark elaborated. “Well, you can tie two bands together from our bathroom door onto the bench, and so if somebody’s in the bathroom, they cannot get it open. A lot of people have been locked in the bathroom a couple times. It’s pretty funny.”

Laughs aside, as the game wears on, focus is crucial.

“We try to get ready for the situation,” setup man Joakim Soria said. “You have to kind of read the game, see where you’re at, see if there is a chance to pitch. And if there is a chance to pitch, you have to start focusing and reading some scouting reports, and talk to the guys and see how do they face different hitters.”

The camaraderie of the Royals really comes into play at this point, as the relievers will get together and benefit from each other’s experience and expertise.

“We share ideas,” Herrera said. “Like, ‘Hey, how are you going to pitch that guy?’ (Davis), you can ask him anything and he knows. Like ‘Oh yeah, that guy, he takes the first pitch, then he’ll swing,’ He’s got a good idea. He’s smart.”

Knowledgeable as Davis might be, he’s getting his own help from a pitcher he looks up to.

“I’m picking CY’s Brain if he’s down there,” Davis said of veteran Chris Young.

With such a powerful one-two-three punch covering the seventh inning and beyond, it might be tough for a newcomer to see a place for himself in the Royals’ relief corps.

“All these guys throw gas, so it’s somewhat intimidating, I’m not going to lie,” said non-roster invitee Brian Duensing, who spent the first 10 years of his career in the Twins organization.

“But you know, at the same time, we’re all here for the same reasons. We’re all trying to win. It’s pretty cool, to be honest, to learn and hear some stories from them, and (hear) what it was like last year for them and learn something of my own. It’s fun.”

Duensing, who’s trying to ride a good spring to a spot on the opening day roster, said he hasn’t had a chance to pick the brain of Davis, who happens to be his locker-room neighbor at Surprise Stadium.

But he’s been talking to the other relievers a great deal, about everything from how to get along in the organization, to grips on the baseball, to pointers on how to throw a specific pitch.

“Day One, it was like you’re the new kid in school, trying to make a friend and meet the teachers and stuff like that,” Duensing said. “But so far, they’ve been very welcoming and willing to help.”

Clark knows it’s a special group.

“It’s just been amazing to watch the last few years,” Clark said. “These guys go in every day and just get the job done. Every day. It’s been the best bullpen, maybe, in history, and so those guys are amazing to watch.”

Cuyler Meade is a senior in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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