Royals

Bullpen woes, walks pile up as Royals suffer rare three-game sweep in Minnesota

Kansas City Royals pitcher Jason Hammel delivered a pitch against the Minnesota Twins in the first inning on Thursday, April 6, 2017, in Minneapolis.
Kansas City Royals pitcher Jason Hammel delivered a pitch against the Minnesota Twins in the first inning on Thursday, April 6, 2017, in Minneapolis. AP

In the shadow of another lost afternoon, after a 5-3 loss to the Minnesota Twins on Thursday, after a third bullpen letdown, after the first three-game sweep to begin a season in 16 years, Royals pitcher Jason Hammel stood near his locker and tried to survey the damage.

“I think we had 23 or 24 walks in three games,” he said. “That’s unheard of. That’s just absurd. So we got to throw strikes.”

The precise number, in this case, was 23, which did little to limit the absurdity of the moment. For three games, the command issues infected every corner of the pitching staff, from Danny Duffy to Ian Kennedy to Hammel — to a bullpen which allowed 14 runs in three games. The result was an outcome that few saw coming, three losses in four days against a Minnesota team that finished 4-15 against the Royals in 2016. The result concluded with Hammel, an offseason acquisition making his first career Royals start, offering a succinct remedy for what ails the Kansas City pitching staff.

“I can probably speak for the whole staff in general,” Hammel said. “We got to cut out the walks. That’s becoming a problem. We can’t let that continue. Too much free traffic for them.”

A season cannot be judged in one series, let alone one week or one month. The schedule is too long. Baseball is too fickle. The first week is a splash of water in a 162-gallon pool. Yet an opening week at Target Field offered little in the way of encouraging developments.

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The Royals’ offense produced five runs in three games. The defense was far from perfect. The bullpen, a revamped unit adjusting to life after Wade Davis, hemorrhaged runs at an unsustainable rate.

“It’s not the way you want to start,” said Royals left fielder Alex Gordon, who finished 1 for 12 in the series. “If it’s the middle of the season, maybe the feelings are a little bit different. It’s never easy to take when you get swept, especially to start off a season. It’s frustrating.”

As the Royals packed for Houston, where they will begin a series with the Astros on Friday, the frustration was not confined to one corner of the clubhouse or one part of the club. The Twins, a team that lost 103 games last season, had outplayed the Royals in “all phases of the game,” Gordon said. That alone was disappointing.

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And yet, the bullpen wobbles — and the questions they sparked — shrouded over the week. The tremors included two six-run meltdowns, one on Monday another on Wednesday, and a seventh-inning stumble from Mike Minor on Thursday afternoon.

Minor, a former starter making his transition to the bullpen, came on in the bottom of the seventh, taking the ball in a 3-3 game. In the span of an inning, he surrendered three hits and two runs, including an RBI double to Twins catcher Jason Castro that broke the deadlock.

“It felt good today,” Minor said. “It’s just one of those days where it didn’t work out for me.”

For now, the sample size is still just three games. “We’ll get that sorted out,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.

But the bullpen unit, when measured in power arms and early results, cannot measure up to its predecessors. Two years ago, in the opening month of a season that would end with champagne, the spine of a champion delivered a warning to the rest of the baseball.

The Royals’ bullpen was a menace, a scowling, swaggering, fear-inducing unit that rolled five or six deep. In April, the collection of arms allowed just eight earned runs. On most nights, the formula was doled out using just three initials: HDH.

Two years later, as another baseball season approached, nobody inside the Royals organization believed its 2017 bullpen could approach such dominance. The names have changed, of course. The roster has turned over. The 2015 unit was one of the best ever. A relief corps rehab would require creativity, ingenuity and production from its next generation of arms. But nobody, perhaps, thought it would be this bad, not in the first week at least.

Left hander Matt Strahm was knocked around for six runs in his first two appearances. Travis Wood was struck for two. Minor could not hold the fort on Thursday. The top performers have been Peter Moylan, Joakim Soria and Chris Young. The previous sentence could be viewed as a bright spot — and an indictment of the first week.

“We didn’t have this problem in spring training,” Yost said. “It’ll iron itself out.”

The porous bullpen also obscured a week of meager offense. After producing just two runs in two games, the Royals struck for three against Twins starter Kyle Gibson, a Mizzou product.

The attack was limited to solo homers from Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas and an RBI double from Alcides Escobar. For Moustakas, who tied the game at 3-3 in the sixth, it was his second solo blast in three games. The rest of the offense is waiting to click into gear.

“Put that on us,” Gordon said.

As the Royals sought to fend off the sweep, Hammel allowed three runs over five-plus innings, finishing with two strikeouts and four walks. The command issues elevated his pitch count to 90 after five innings. His day ended after a five-pitch walk to start the sixth.

For Hammel, the afternoon represented his first start since a nightmarish journey through the jaws of free-agency. Last fall, he celebrated a World Series championship with the Chicago Cubs, watched the club’s front office decline his option and prepared to cash in as one of the best available starters on the market.

But as the calendar pushed toward February, Hammel was still at home, wondering when the right deal would come along. It presented itself during the first week of February, a two-year, $16 million deal to reinforce the Royals’ rotation after the death of Yordano Ventura.

On Thursday, he offered a serviceable outing. The performance still frustrated him, he said.

“It wasn’t pretty,” Hammel said.

Neither was the first series.

Right-hander Jason Hammel agreed to a two-year contract with the Kansas City Royals after a successful stint with the Chicago Cubs.

Twins 5, Royals 3

Royals

AB

R

H

BI

W

K

Avg.

Gordon lf

5

0

0

0

0

3

.083

Moustakas 3b

5

1

2

1

0

1

.308

Cain cf

3

0

1

0

2

1

.250

Hosmer 1b

4

0

1

0

0

0

.182

Perez c

4

1

2

1

0

0

.300

Moss dh

3

0

0

0

1

2

.000

Orlando rf

3

1

1

0

1

1

.200

Escobar ss

4

0

1

0

0

0

.100

Mondesi 2b

4

0

1

0

0

2

.100

Totals

35

3

9

2

4

10

 

Twins

AB

R

H

BI

W

K

Avg.

Dozier 2b

5

1

1

0

0

2

.231

Kepler rf

4

0

2

1

1

0

.333

Buxton cf

4

0

0

0

1

1

.071

Mauer 1b

5

0

0

0

0

1

.091

Sano 3b

3

2

2

0

1

0

.444

Castro c

3

2

1

1

1

0

.500

Polanco ss

3

0

2

2

1

0

.667

Rosario dh

2

0

0

1

2

1

.222

Santana lf

4

0

1

0

0

2

.250

Totals

33

5

9

5

7

7

 

Royals

000

021

000

3

9

0

Twins

020

010

20x

5

9

0

LOB: Kansas City 9, Minnesota 11. 2B: Escobar (1), Kepler (1), Castro (1), Polanco (1). HR: Perez (1), off Gibson; Moustakas (2), off Gibson. RBIs: Moustakas (2), Perez (1), Kepler (1), Castro (3), Polanco 2 (3), Rosario (2). SB: Mondesi (1), Dozier (3), Rosario (1).

Runners left in scoring position: Kansas City 6 (Gordon, Hosmer, Escobar 2, Mondesi 2); Minnesota 7 (Dozier, Buxton 2, Sano, Castro, Santana 2). RISP: Kansas City 0 for 9; Minnesota 3 for 15. Runners moved up: Mauer. GIDP: Hosmer. DP: Minnesota 1 (Mauer, Polanco, Gibson).

Royals

I

H

R

ER

W

K

P

ERA

Hammel

5

6

3

3

4

2

95

5.40

Wood

0.1

0

0

0

1

1

12

27.00

Moylan

0.2

0

0

0

1

1

10

0.00

Minor L, 0-1

1

3

2

2

0

1

17

6.00

Soria

1

0

0

0

1

2

20

0.00

Twins

I

H

R

ER

W

K

P

ERA

Gibson

5

5

3

3

2

5

81

5.40

Breslow

0.1

1

0

0

1

0

11

0.00

Pressly

0.2

0

0

0

0

0

7

0.00

Rogers W, 1-0

1

1

0

0

1

2

17

0.00

Belisle

1

2

0

0

0

2

18

0.00

Kintzler S, 1

1

0

0

0

0

1

11

0.00

Gibson pitched to 2 batters in the 6th. Hammel pitched to 1 batter in the 6th.

Hold: Belisle (2). Inherited runners-scored: Wood 1-0, Moylan 2-0, Breslow 1-0, Pressly 3-0. WP: Belisle.

Umpires: Home, Rob Drake; First, Pat Hoberg; Second, Gerry Davis; Third, Tony Randazzo. Time: 3:14. Att: 16,078.

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