When Greg Holland first came up to the Royals in 2010, he complained that nobody wanted to talk to middle relievers unless they lost a game. If a middle reliever did his job and handed a lead to the back end of the bullpen, reporters wrote about the starting pitcher and the closer. If a middle reliever blew it, we’d be right there asking questions.
I don’t think Holly’s complaint is completely accurate but, just to be sure, today we’re going to rectify that oversight.
At this point in time the Kansas City Royals have one shutdown reliever — two if you count Drew Butera, he’s the only guy on the staff with an ERA of 0.00. But assuming Butera is not going to become a full-time reliever, right now the one guy who has shown lockdown stuff and is healthy enough to throw it is Kelvin Herrera. So until Wade Davis comes back, Herrera is the closer.
On Tuesday night against the Tampa Bay Rays, the current lack of bullpen depth appeared to be a problem. Yordano Ventura burned up 103 pitches to get through five innings — four walks didn’t help. With the score 2-1 Rays, Kansas City had to find a way to hold the Rays offense down, score at least two runs and then give the ball to Herrera.
Enter middle relievers Chris Young, Matt Strahm and Joakim Soria.
The sixth, seventh and eighth innings
Ventura was done after five innings and Ned Yost called on Chris Young. Young got through the sixth inning just fine; 16 pitches, two strikeouts. But Young was facing the bottom third of the order and two of the Rays hitters had never seen him before. The other batter had only seen Young once.
With a shortage of alternatives, Ned sent Young out to face the top of the Rays order in the seventh. The first batter singled, the second one walked and Young got the third one — Evan Longoria — to pop up. With one out and two on, Ned turned to rookie reliever Matt Strahm.
When a rookie comes up to the big leagues he can have an advantage; nobody’s seen him in person. They can read scouting reports and watch video, but until a hitter stands in the box and sees the pitcher live, there are still unanswered questions.
Strahm is left-handed, has a funky delivery and can run a fastball up to the plate at 97 mph. Strahm struck out both batters he faced and looked great doing it. Eventually the league will catch up to him and outings won’t be this easy. For now, don’t be surprised if Strahm keeps getting the call to pitch in clutch situations. Ned rode a hot hand when Whit Merrifield first came up and he might do the same with Strahm.
Ned let Strahm finish on a high, which is a smart move in the long run (let the kid build confidence), and brought in Joakim Soria to throw the eighth inning. Soria allowed a leadoff double and if you were thinking, “Here we go again” you probably weren’t alone. But Soria got the next three batters and hit 95 on the gun while doing it.
That got the ball to Herrera and his 99 mph fastball, which is almost as amazing as his 90 mph “change-up.” Fourteen pitches later the game was over: Royals 3, Rays 2.
The middle relievers came through and the Royals won the game. So Holly — wherever you are — you can’t say nobody writes about middle relievers who do their job.
P.S. Come home. Everybody misses you.
How “sandwiching” the lefties helped win the game
In the seventh inning, with a 2-1 lead, the Rays sent lefty reliever Xavier Cedeno to the mound; it was a move that would ultimately backfire and cost the Rays the game.
Left-handed hitters hit .214 off Cedeno, but the first batter he faced — left-handed Eric Hosmer — singled. Cedeno then had to face switch-hitting Kendrys Morales and right-handed Salvador Perez before facing another lefty, Alex Gordon.
When managers construct a lineup they often “sandwich” left-handed hitters with a right-hander between them. In this case Ned Yost had a switch hitter and right-handed hitter between two lefties and that made things more difficult for the Rays. If Tampa Bay wanted Cedeno to face both Hosmer and Gordon, he’d have to get through Morales and Perez hitting from the right side.
So when left-handed hitters are separated by right-handed hitters, the opposing manager has to expose his left-handed reliever to the guys hitting from the right side (and right-handed hitters hit .309 and slug .469 off Cedeno) or use three relievers to get through one inning.
The Rays rolled the dice — let Cedeno face two guys hitting from the right side of the plate — and lost.
After Hosmer singled, Cedeno struck out Morales. But the second righty Cedeno faced — Salvador Perez — hit a two-run home run and the Royals had a lead they wouldn’t give up. Sandwiching the lefties paid off ... and it appears I just wrote about a middle reliever who lost a game.
Maybe Greg Holland had a point.