They say baseball moves slow and in the ways that are most obvious and least important that’s true. Games are longer than ever before, too much time between pitches, commercial breaks, blah, blah, blah.
But in the ways that matter most, in the navigation of a game and a series and a season, the baseball-is-slow thing is laughable. It’s a lie. Fortunes can change in an instant in this sport, based on circumstance and the decisions they force.
The Royals’ rise has been a testament to that, the proof hanging from the Hall of Fame building in left field everyday.
They are chasing that kind of success again, one final time with this group mostly together, and a 3-2 win over the Rockies on Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium was one more night of success following crisis following success following the unknown.
The good: Sal Perez is off the disabled list, with two hits in his return, and Danny Duffy was terrific — seven strikeouts, three walks, one hit and two runs in six innings. That line would’ve been different, and better, had home plate umpire Dan Iassogna not made a horrendous and horrendously timed missed call. But that’s a column for a different day.
The Royals remain 1 1/2 games out in a claustrophobic American League wild-card race, and with 38 left to play every break and every game is potentially the one you’ll remember.
Which makes a three-minute stretch of the ninth inning as comforting as a bed of piranha teeth: Melky Cabrera misplays a ball into a triple, Kelvin Herrera walks the bases loaded, then goes to a 2-0 count on a 91 mph fastball — Herrera probably hasn’t thrown a 91 mph fastball since he was 15 — before walking off the field with the trainer.
“He says he’s fine, but I think he’s hurt,” Perez said, before quoting his teammate. “ ‘I’m tight. I don’t feel my forearm.’ That’s what he told me.”
The worst outcome of the night was avoided when Scott Alexander replaced Herrera, got an easy ground-out on the second of two heavy sinkers, and shook hands after the first save of his big-league career.
Ned Yost, the Royals manager and the man tasked with these decisions, said he’s not ready to think about who his closer will be if Herrera is out for an extended run. When Yost talked to reporters after the game, Herrera was still being checked out. The tightness, Yost said, was in the middle of the forearm and away from the danger points of future surgical patients.
Nobody talked about it out loud, but it was such a Royals thing to happen. This was a good win. A fun win. They scored their runs on a combination of timely hitting and hustle. Duffy deserved better.
He should’ve been out of the sixth with a no-hitter going on 76 pitches, but after the blown call came a two-run homer and he was done after the sixth and 88 pitches. But, still. The bullpen was strong. Whit Merrifield made a tough play coming in on a soft grounder. It was all working, really, until Cabrera dived over a fly ball and Herrera’s forearm went numb.
This is the team that began its last season together 10-20, that followed a four-game winning streak immediately with a five-game losing streak, and a stretch of 10 wins in 11 games immediately with a stretch of 10 losses in 12.
It’s a roster stretched thin by a lack of depth and contingency plans, in part because of an organizational plan to both win and build. There is no margin for error, no easy runs, no overwhelming strength to rely on. That makes every outcome a potential killer, every corner a potential cliff.
The Royals went 6-9 without Perez, at a point in the season they need to be closer to 9-6. They missed his energy and his power but more than anything else his defense. Drew Butera is a good backup, well respected for his mind and commitment, but picked a bad time to have struggles keeping pitches in front of him.
Perez’s return was supposed to make the Royals whole again. One of their greatest strengths has always been their balance, but even those of us who believe Lorenzo Cain is the team’s best all-around player recognize the spirit Perez brings to the lineup.
So it feels a little like a bad practical joke that on the night he returns, he’s the one motioning for the trainers to come get the injured closer.
Herrera hasn’t been as sharp this season as the past. His strikeouts are down, and his walks are up. But he is still the most talented and proven relief pitcher on the roster, the clear-cut closer in a bullpen with precious few set roles for a manager who prioritizes set roles.
He’s had forearm tightness before, and it’s turned out to be nothing. So even fear is probably premature.
But in those moments after what should’ve been an encouraging win, when asked who might replace Herrera, Yost said he wasn’t ready to think about it because he didn’t know if Herrera was injured.
But with the way it looked, and what Perez said, and some of the struggles the bullpen has had, you couldn’t help but think Yost wasn’t ready to think about it because he doesn’t know who’s up for it.