When Wade Davis went down, the Royals’ bullpen started dominating again

Kansas City Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera has taken over the closer’s role and recorded three saves during the team’s eight-game winning streak.
Kansas City Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera has taken over the closer’s role and recorded three saves during the team’s eight-game winning streak.

The day was July 31, the hours after the Royals placed closer Wade Davis on the disabled list. Manager Ned Yost sat inside an office at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, on a Sunday morning and sifted through the damage.

In the span of 48 hours, his club had lost reliever Luke Hochevar for the season — a rare case of thoracic outlet syndrome — and Davis for an undetermined length of time. On the field, the news was not much better.

Reliever Joakim Soria, one of the marquee signings of the offseason, was turning into a human propane tank. And nearly half of the Kansas City relief corps consisted of right-handers — Chris Young, Peter Moylan and Chien-Ming Wang — who were on the wrong side of 35.

For more than three years, the Royals’ bullpen had been the steely spine of a contender. But as Yost pondered the latest injury, the aura had seemingly been punctured.

“When we lost Wade and Hoch,” Yost says now. “I was like, ‘Man, we’re in trouble.’ ”

But here is the strangest part, the part that nobody could see coming, the part that aligns with this unpredictable 2016 season. On July 31, the Royals lost one of the best relievers in baseball to a forearm injury. And then the bullpen started dominating again.

“The other guys stepped up,” Yost says.

In the month of August, the Royals bullpen has allowed just 10 earned runs in 55  1/3 innings, helping the team storm back into contention. As the Royals (64-60) prepared to open a three-game series against the Miami Marlins on Tuesday night, the Kansas City relief corps owned a 29-inning scoreless streak.

Reliever Kelvin Herrera has taken over the closer’s role and notched three saves during an eight-game winning streak. Joakim Soria has recorded eight straight scoreless appearances and retired 15 consecutive batters. Rookie left-hander Matt Strahm has filled a power void at the back end of the pen.

And then there are Young and Moylan, who have combined to throw 15  1/3 scoreless innings in August.

“I don’t think it was a feeling (that we needed to step up),” Moylan said. “It’s more of a necessity. When you lose somebody like Wade and Hoch, for most teams that would be the end of the season, but these guys — Strahmy, C.Y., Wanger — the guys you wouldn’t have read about to start the year, they’ve stepped up and had a good run.”

On Sunday, Moylan, Soria and Herrera combined to throw 2  1/3 clean frames in a 2-1 victory over the Twins. When the afternoon was over, the bullpen ERA was lowered to 3.19, once again the best in the American League. In all, the Kansas City relievers have stranded 79.4 percent of base runners, which also ranks first in the league.

“(Young) has really picked us up down there in a lot of crucial situations,” Yost said. “Strahm has been a huge addition. Flynn and Moylan have done a great job.”

As Yost finishes doling out praise, there is one name left out: His own. In some ways, the loss of Davis and Hochevar has forced him to be more creative in deploying his relief arms, and the situation has required a delicate balance. For years, the Royals’ bullpen operated with mostly rigid roles. On most nights, Yost hoped his starter could give him six innings. If that happened, the formula in the seventh, eighth and ninth was mostly set.

With Davis out, Yost has penciled in Soria as the eighth inning guy and Herrera as the closer. On some nights, that leaves one or two innings to piece together.

“My mindset has been to try to push the starter as far as we possibly can, try to keep everybody healthy down there,” Yost said. “Don’t over-use anybody.”

In that respect, the bullpen has also been helped by a starting rotation that is having its best month in recent franchise history. In August, the Royals' rotation ranks first in the American League with 129  2/3 innings pitched. With left-hander Danny Duffy and right-hander Ian Kennedy pitching deep into games, that benefits somebody like Strahm, a 24-year-old who has been restricted from pitching on back-to-back days.

The Royals remain hopeful that Davis is close to returning. He spent the weekend in Surprise, Ariz., throwing live batting practice as part of his rehab. His timetable for a return is fluid, but Yost has expressed optimism that he will be back before September. For now, though, the club is content to wait.

For nearly two weeks, the formula has worked. The Royals’ bullpen has not buckled since Aug. 10, when Wang allowed a single run in the 11th inning to the Chicago White Sox. The Royals, of course, would win that game anyway, rallying to tie before walking off in the bottom of the 14th.

In some ways, it’s been that kind of month.

“As soon as the fifth inning starts, we just stay focused on each hitter and share ideas,” Herrera said. “And that’s how we know how to pitch in each situation. It’s been working.”