Judging the Royals

The 'same old Royals' go to the playoffs

I’ve been covering the Royals for five years now and every time they have stumbled, hit a losing streak or anything bad has happened, someone is sure to say they’re the "same old Royals".

The same old Royals have a very good starting rotation. The same old Royals have one of if not the best bullpen in baseball. The same old Royals have three Gold Glove winners and a couple more guys who should get consideration. The same old Royals have one of the most athletic teams in the game. The same old Royals have won 88 games.

And now the same old Royals are going to the playoffs.

Maybe it’s time to admit these are not the same old Royals.

How’s the Shields/Myers trade look now?

I started covering the team in 2010; I’m now in my fifth year. I’ve watched every game and early on, it wasn’t easy. But as the seasons went by I could see the team improve. But if you came out and said the team was improving, some critics would get their underwear in a bunch.

They’d say they didn’t want to hear about the future; Dayton Moore had been here long enough—they wanted to see results now. But when Dayton Moore made the James Shields/Wil Myers trade, some of those same critics complained Dayton Moore had mortgaged the future.

You can’t have it both ways.

The Royals are going to the playoffs and the players that came over in that trade are a big reason why. Meanwhile, Wil Myers is hitting .218 for Tampa Bay. How’s that trade look now?

But there’s still work to do

It looked the Royals were partying hard after clinching a playoff spot; they should, that ain’t easy to do. But they still have a chance to win the division, so it would be disappointing if Friday night’s partying affected Saturday night’s game.

There’s still work to do.

Friday night’s game

By now, you already know what happened; the Kansas City Royals broke the longest playoff drought in American pro sports history Friday night, beating the White Sox 3-1 and clenching at least a Wild Card spot in the 2014 Postseason. It was a satisfying and deserved accomplishment for a group that has been through so many ups and downs this season, as well as a Kansas City fan base that has been waiting 29 years for their Royals to get back to the playoffs. Here’s how they got there.

The first inning

The Royals came out looking to jump on early fastballs from Sox starter Hector Noesi in the first inning, and they were able to do same early damage. Alcides Escobar swung at the first pitch of the game, a fastball over the plate, and fouled it off, then hooked a slider up and away through the left side of the infield for a leadoff single. Nori Aoki came to bat next and jumped on a 1-0 fastball right down the middle, pulling it hard down the right field line for an RBI triple. Lorenzo Cain took another 1-0 fastball back up the middle for a single, and after six pitches, Noesi and his Sox were down by two runs.

Billy Butler was able to tack on another run with a single up the middle on a 3-2 changeup that stayed up, and the Royals had put up all the runs they would score Friday night in the first inning. By looking to be aggressive and attacking Noesi early before he could settle in, the Royals took a quick advantage that they would never give up in this pivotal game.

Jeremy Guthrie’s performance

After being handed the early lead by his teammates, it was up to Jeremy Guthrie to keep the lead, be aggressive and keep any potential Chicago rally at bay. Over Guthrie’s last few starts, he has been up and down at times – you’re not sure if you will get an ace performance out of him, or if he will struggle. Fortunately for the Royals, on Friday night, they got the ace.

Guthrie was dominant, turning in one of his best performances of the year. He stayed ahead in the count, hit spots inside and out, and kept his pitches low in the zone – which was very helpful to him Friday night, because when he made a mistake, he made it low and unhittable, rather than leaving juicy fastballs and hanging breaking pitches in the zone for the Sox hitters to attack.

Guthrie also did a good job of mixing his pitches and throwing them from the same deceptive arm slot. Guthrie doesn’t have the knockout stuff of a Greg Holland or the dominant velocity of a Yordano Ventura – but what he does have are a number of pitches that come in at different speeds and move at different angles. When he can locate his sinker, cutter, change, and curveball, and especially when he can throw them out of that same over-the-top arm slot, he can keep batters from sitting on any one pitch and confuse them.

Guthrie did a great job on Friday night, recording seven scoreless innings against the White Sox after being handed the 3-0 lead by his teammates in the top of the first. In fact, Guthrie only gave up three hits and one walk – and they were all pretty cheap. In the first, Jose Abreu hit a single back up the middle that Guthrie barely missed knocking down with his foot. In the second, Michael Taylor forced a walk out of a 3-2 count, but the first pitch was a slider that was called a ball but looked like it was in the zone. In the fifth, Taylor hit a soft grounder that just got past Omar Infante by a few inches, and then Marcus Semien got an infield single on a ball that Guthrie knocked down with his bare hand; if he had let it go through, it easily could have been an inning-ending groundout.

That was it. Guthrie didn’t allow another base runner in his seven innings, and the four he did allow all got on with a little luck. In one of the biggest games in Royals history, the team needed Guthrie to come up big and lead them to victory – and Guthrie turned in one of his best performances of the year, handing a 3-0 lead to Kansas City’s elite bullpen.

The bullpen

But before KC could pop the champagne and start celebrating, they had to get through the eighth and ninth innings and the White Sox weren’t about to let them go without a fight. Wade Davis came in to start the eighth against Marcus Semien and immediately pounded in two fastballs to put Semien in an 0-2 hole – it looked like typical Wade domination. But Semien battled back to a 3-2 count before striking out looking on a borderline fastball low and away.

Adam Eaton came to the plate next, and though he has been quiet this season, Eaton killed the Royals in their last series in KC, and is always a dangerous hitter because of his talent and plate approach. Eaton jumped on an 0-1 curve from Wade that stayed out over the plate – not quite a worst-case scenario hanger, but one that hung enough for Eaton to stay on it and drive it to the right-center gap for a triple. Alexei Ramirez then came to bat, and after working to a 1-2 count, pulled a cutter through the left-side gap for an RBI single. Again, it wasn’t quite a "mistake" pitch from Wade – but it got too much of the plate for a fastball in a pitcher’s count, and Ramirez made him pay for it.

Suddenly the celebration was put on hold, and KC had a real game left to win – the lead was cut to 3-1, and with a runner on first and Jose Abreu (and his 35 homers) at the plate, it could easily be a tie game in one swing. Wade started Abreu off with a high cutter for ball one, then apparently decided it was time to go right after Abreu – because he blew two straight fastballs (at 97 and 98-mph) right by him to force the count to 1-2. It was a great "hold your breath" kind of moment – the best reliever in the game backed into a hole against one of the best hitters in the game, and he went right after him with heat. Abreu couldn’t catch up to either one, and after fouling off a third straight fastball, Wade threw him a cutter, down and away, to strike him out.

After getting past Abreu and his dangerous power, Wade struck out the much-less threatening Conor Gillaspie to end the inning. By being aggressive and attacking a dangerous hitter with his back against the wall, Davis got his team out of a hole and was able to hand the lead intact to Greg Holland, who threw a shutdown, 1-2-3 ninth inning. The back end of the bullpen held on and did their jobs, and the Royals clenched their first playoff berth in 29 years.

--Paul Judge