As Royals bullpen tries to bounce back, some key pieces still adjusting to new roles

Royals rookie reliever Richard Lovelady talks about his first outing in Yankee Stadium

Royals reliever Richard Lovelady pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings in a Royals 6-1 win against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on April 18, 2019. He talked about getting through some anxious moments in his fourth appearance in the majors.
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Royals reliever Richard Lovelady pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings in a Royals 6-1 win against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on April 18, 2019. He talked about getting through some anxious moments in his fourth appearance in the majors.

The daily challenge of managing a major-league bullpen doesn’t start nor does it stop with the decision to take the ball from pitcher and hand it to another.

For Royals manager Ned Yost and his staff, there’s a daily balancing act between getting the most out of their bullpen to win games while keeping the long-term goals in perspective and not abusing relief pitchers’ health.

The balance becomes a bit complicated when you factor in that Ian Kennedy, Richard Lovelady and Scott Barlow are making the transition to the bullpen full-time for the first time or, in Lovelady’s case, barely have a handful of appearances in the majors.

“I think I learned that early on watching Bobby (Cox) every day,” Yost said referring to the former Braves manager and Hall of Famer. “His communication was key to his relievers. Even on days when they’d gone back-to-back and you check them and ‘Hey I’m good to go.’ Bobby said you always trust them. They’ll tell you. If they say, ‘Aw man, I need a day.’ Give them a day. If they say they can go, then they can go.

“You still have to be mindful. It’s early in the season, one, and it’s their career you’re talking about. You gotta kind of at times protect them so that you don’t overuse them.”

Through their first eight games, the Royals bullpen collectively posted an 8.10 ERA, walked more batters than it struck out (21 to 19), allowed opponents to hit .309 against it and had blown three of five save opportunities.

Recently, that unit has appeared to stabilize somewhat. Royals relievers have allowed two runs in their last 10 2/3 innings heading into Saturday’s game at Yankee Stadium.

Kennedy, who began his career with the Yankees, continues to grow into a pivotal piece in the bullpen after having been a starter almost his entire career. Prior to this season, his most recent relief appearance came in the 2000s with the Yankees.

At the start of the road trip Monday in Chicago, Kennedy was unavailable out of the bullpen in large part because his body is still adjusting to a relief role.

Kennedy threw two innings April 10 and he didn’t pitch the next day. After the multiple-inning outing and the day off, he threw on back-to-back days for the first time — also his first time throwing three out of four days — the last outing of that stretch came last Saturday.

“Throwing two innings, you’re taking more out of the fuel tank, and you’re slowly starting to get it back,” Kennedy said. “You get a day off, and then you pitch again.”

Kennedy told pitching coach Cal Eldred on Monday that he was still feeling the two innings from the previous week, which was why Yost wouldn’t use Kennedy on Monday night.

“(It’s) just be honest with your pitching coaches and your managers,” Kennedy said. “There’s also some part of it that’s knowing that if you don’t feel very good, it’s going to be all right.”

As a starter, Kennedy normally would throw a bullpen session on the second day after a start, but the bullpen session for a starter is “basically playing catch with the catcher.”

It’s “practice” and in now way comparable to the intensity of coming out of the bullpen in high-leverage situation. Kennedy also admitted that as starter he often wouldn’t feel good for most of the week leading to the day he was scheduled to start. But he’d done it enough to trust he’d bounce back on the fifth day for his start.

“I never felt good on bullpen day,” Kennedy said. “It would slowly come back by day three and four. Never have I felt like, ‘Oh, I could throw a bullpen the day after.’ Never have I felt like that. I don’t care how old I was.

“It’s just totally different (pitching out of the bullpen).”

Wily Peralta made the conversion to the bullpen full time in the middle of the 2017 season. He’s got a better feel for what he can do and how his arm will respond and bounce back.

Yost still opted for a better safe than sorry approach with Peralta on Monday. He’d thrown three out of four days, but told the coaching staff he was available that night.

Yost felt that putting Peralta in Monday’s game would be “pushing it a little bit.” Four out of five and three in a row in April just wasn’t something Yost felt he could pull the trigger on, so he decided Peralta was unavailable.

In the case of Barlow, who has steadily been earning the trust of Yost, the considerations were slightly different when Yost weighed putting him into Wednesday afternoon’s game in a save situation in extra innings.

Barlow made six relief appearances for the Royals last season, but each of them came in April with at least a day between appearances. In the minors last season, 13 of his 16 appearances came as a starter. This spring in Arizona, he’d been stretched out and throwing multiple-inning outings on regular rest as would a potential starting pitcher.

On top of that, Barlow threw 36 pitches in a two-inning outing Monday night. Eldred had given Barlow the go-ahead based on what he’d heard from him earlier in the day.

The first pitch Barlow threw registered at 95 mph on his way to his first save.

“You’ve got to be a little more cautious too, but you’ve got push them too because they don’t understand what they’re capable of doing,” Yost said. “They’ve never done it. They don’t know what it’s like to go two out of three. They can do it, most times, but they’ve got to get through it so they understand what it’s like. It’s a double-edged sword. You want to be careful, but you want to teach them how to do and what it feels like to do it.”

Lovelady had thrown back-to-back outings as a reliever in the minors, but he could usually count on a couple days rest afterward. His first appearance with the Royals this season came the day he was called up from Omaha, and he had thrown in the Triple-A game that night before joining the Royals.

Two days later, Lovelady pitched again, the first time he had thrown three out of four days in his career. He gave up a pair of runs in his next outing, but he remained adamant this week that neither fatigue nor rest were factors.

At the same time, Lovelady said he’s still adapting to the different scenarios he’ll face in order to enjoy big league success.

“Everyone, especially new guys, has got to learn how it’s going to be,” Lovelady said. “Especially here. You know, you’ve got to win all the games you can so if you’ve got to throw today, tomorrow, the next day, that’s the way it’s got to go.”

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Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball for The Star. A native of the Northeast, he’s covered high school, collegiate and professional sports for The Lowell Sun, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Allentown Morning Call and The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s won awards for sports features and sports columns.