Jumbled by injuries and suspensions that even a year ago would have unraveled the entire operation, the Royals on Wednesday symbolically crossed a threshold indicating they’d weathered the worst of that trend when closer Greg Holland returned from the 15-day disabled list.
It may seem a minor point that this was 24 hours after he was ready and able to come back.
But having the luxury of holding out the best man in his role in the American League the last two-plus seasons (97 saves) an extra day amplifies how the Royals stayed afloat without him (10-6) during a span they also often were without two to four everyday players.
The bullpen is such a phenomenon that the more optimal move for manager Ned Yost wasn’t to have Holland at his disposal as soon as possible but to make sure Chris Young had more rest after his Friday spot-start by keeping Yohan Pino a day longer before optioning him to make room for Holland.
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Even with Holland contributing just four innings this season entering the Royals’ game against Cleveland on Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium, the bullpen leads Major League Baseball with a 1.08 ERA and opponent batting average (.155).
Trouble is, another clear and present danger to its supremacy simultaneously took a step more into the open just as Holland came back.
An off-kilter Danny Duffy extended a seasonlong pattern of volatility in the Royals’ rotation when he was clobbered for four runs on six hits and hit two men without so much as managing an out in the second inning, setting the tone for a 10-3 loss.
Only four runs were charged to Duffy, but the loss also illustrated some of the consequences of an over-extended bullpen.
“I really just didn’t do my job today …,” he said. “I left the bullpen hanging … That’s what I feel most frustrated with, is taxing our bullpen so hard today.”
There are a lot of dynamics at play in the equation that makes the bullpen a revelation.
Some of them are forces of nature like Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera at the back end.
Others are the bridges there, the revived-in-Kansas City likes of Young, Ryan Madson, Jason Frasor and Franklin Morales — who had given up six earned runs in 47 innings before Morales gave up four and Frasor one on Wednesday.
But even with Holland back and Luke Hochevar’s return increasingly imminent, even with ample reason to think this group is capable of historic stuff, a variable is surfacing that could either sabotage the enterprise or render it a lot less relevant.
The bullpen, after all, is only as indestructible as the starting rotation gives it a chance to be.
And the rotation officially can be called wobbly after Wednesday.
While this was an extreme version of the issue, starters failing to stick around for their appointed rounds is much closer to a tendency than an aberration for the Royals right now.
One-and-done is a problem, of course, but obviously a rarity. But “the five-and-dive,” as Duffy called it after going seven last time out against Detroit, is becoming a norm for this staff.
And it’s problematic.
Especially because it’s one of those rare pieces of Kryptonite lying around that if exposed for long to the bullpen will diminish its powers and make it mortal.
The trend hasn’t stretched it out of joint or rhythm yet, and based on past performance there’s no reason to think the rotation can’t stabilize.
The season is young, though, and a battle of attrition to begin with, so if the rotation doesn’t smooth out soon there will be ripples.
The Royals bullpen is deeper and more structured now than it was at this time a year ago.
But it’s not getting the starting foundation that enabled it to have such defined roles — not to mention not be over-taxed or over-exposed — and ultimately flourish as a key component of last year’s romp to game seven of the World Series.
There are a lot of ways to analyze that, but here’s one simple and telling one: Including Duffy’s outing on Wednesday, Royals starters have lasted 151 innings in 27 starts.
That’s an average of 5.6 innings, a stat that’s tilted some by newcomer Edinson Volquez’s 34.1 innings in five starts.
Remove that and Young’s no-hit, five-inning spot-start from the equation, and the four returning starters from last season have combined to pitch 111 innings in 21 starts — 5.3 a start.
Some of this is skewed by oddities (Yordano Ventura’s cramps and ejections) and outliers (Duffy’s one inning Wednesday).
Just the same, it’s also hard to know what to expect will be corrected going forward.
In his new role as No. 1 starter, Ventura, for instance, has been done in by a surging lack of self-control, which is why he is serving a suspension now.
Can it be assumed he’ll harness his passions more constructively when he gets back and be around longer game to game? Or does he have more work to do on finding the sweet spot of peak, undistracted performance that seemed to come so easily to him as a rookie?
Meanwhile, Duffy is a special talent grappling for the consistency he flashed last year when he was among the best left-handed starters in the game. Maybe that’s only a tweak away.
Jason Vargas has a 5.26 ERA but pitched well Tuesday and seems still entrenched in the rotation.
Jeremy Guthrie is giving up 6.52 runs per nine innings and could be on the verge of being replaced in the rotation by Young.
So the Royals and their bullpen navigated one substantial hurdle unscathed with the return of Holland, and that was a good milestone to get to.
But now it’s next challenge up for everyone: the rotation, a vulnerability even for the vaunted Royals’ bullpen until it proves otherwise.