Judging the Royals

Is having a big lead in the standings bad for the Royals?

Royals relief pitcher Franklin Morales walked off the field after being relieved in the eighth inning Friday.
Royals relief pitcher Franklin Morales walked off the field after being relieved in the eighth inning Friday. AP

When people ask me if the Royals are going back to the World Series, here’s what I say: the Royals will almost certainly make the playoffs, but after that, all bets are off. In 2014 the Royals were not the best team in the playoffs; they were the hottest team in the playoffs.

And right now the Royals are anything but hot.

In the month of September the Royals are 3-7. Friday night the bullpen imploded and gave up two grand slams in the same inning — not an easy thing to do. Kansas City still has a 10-game lead over Minnesota with 22 games left to play, so the Royals would have to suffer a major collapse to lose the division, but home-field advantage is slipping away.

And home-field advantage is a big deal; this season the Royals got swept in the smaller parks in Houston and New York and lost three of four in Toronto. If the Royals have to play an extra game in one of those cities, it might be the difference between advancing and going home early.

The Royals still have 22 games left and there is still time to get hot, but they need to make it happen fairly soon. They do not want to go into the postseason playing like this; it’s only my opinion and it’s an opinion I’m not 100 percent sure of, but it looks like the Royals need to get back to their routine.

Why baseball players thrive on routine

When a player or team is going good, nobody knows exactly why they’re going good; so baseball players are very superstitious about their routines. If you’re playing well, don’t change a thing. It’s unlikely that eating chicken for lunch every day has anything to do with your hot streak, but you never know — keep eating chicken for lunch.

When a player or team is going bad, players and teams have a way to break the bad streak: change something up. Get a new pair of batting gloves, stand in a different spot in the batter’s box, drive a different way to the ballpark. Those things probably have little to do with your cold streak, but you never know — change something.

On August 30th, I posted a column asking if the Royals could clinch too soon; clinch too soon and your routine changes; teams that were hot cool off and can’t get hot again.

For a while now people have assumed the Royals will clinch the division and because of that assumption the Royals routines have changed: they’re skipping outside batting practice on a regular basis, starters are being rested and makeshift lineups are being thrown out there as the Royals hold what amounts to open auditions for their playoff roster.

I’ve never managed a big-league ball club — I’m available, but so far the phone hasn’t rung — but I would think sometime in the next 22 games you want to say these are the guys were playing with and this is the way we’re going to play; get back into a good routine before the playoffs start.

Why fans suggestions aren’t taken seriously

There’s always some genius who’s never played an inning of big-league baseball willing to tell a team how to do things (and I just added myself to that list), but those suggestions — pitchers ought to throw one inning each, the closer ought to pitch in the seventh, lineups should be switched around nightly — aren’t taken seriously because most of us don’t understand the realities of the game.

Players thrive on routine and most of our suggestions would take them out of their routines. Just look at Friday night’s game:

Things started getting goofy when Danny Duffy only threw five innings. If Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland are available, a Royals starter only needs to go six innings with a lead and then give the ball to HDH; after that a win is highly likely.

But that routine was disrupted when Wade Davis was given a night off because of either shoulder or biceps stiffness (I’ve heard both). So now Danny needed to go seven innings and he didn’t come close.

Luke Hochevar was brought in to pitch the sixth, but didn’t get an out before the bases were loaded. The home plate umpire had a tight zone all night and that didn’t make Luke’s job any easier — Hochevar walked two.

Managers like to give relievers a clean inning if possible; that way the reliever knows when to warm up, when he’ll come into the game and how long he’ll pitch. Because Hochevar was struggling Ryan Madson had to come into an inning with nobody out and the bases loaded; Ned Yost wanted Hochevar to pitch the sixth and Madson the seventh, but that plan went out the window. Madson did his job and limited the damage, the Orioles scored one run, but the Royals still had a 4-3 lead.

But Ned’s plan for relief pitching was blown up; he now needed a pitcher for the seventh and Chris Young was elected. Young could not complete the seventh or hold the lead and Kelvin Herrera came in to get the final out.

But Herrera was also supposed to pitch the eighth and that meant he had to endure an up-down. That’s when a pitcher pitches, then sits, then pitches again. Herrera usually doesn’t do that and it didn’t go well on Friday, before the eighth inning was over Herrera would give up a grand slam and the ball game. After that it was Franklin Morales and Joba Chamberlain — two guys who usually aren’t throwing at the end of a ballgame — and things didn’t get any better.

Like just about everyone else in the world, baseball players thrive on routine; that’s why Ned Yost said, “You hate taking guys out of their roles.” Friday night the Royals pitchers got out of their routines and the results weren’t pretty. In the month of September the entire team has been out of its routine and once again the results have been dismal.

I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but it sure looks like the Royals need to get back to the same routines that got them a 10-game lead in their division.

And they need to do it before the playoffs start.

To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to ljudge@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @leejudge8.

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