Vahe Gregorian

Royals’ bullpen meltdowns eclipsing all that might make this team intriguing

Royals manager Ned Yost discusses early bullpen struggles

Royals manager Ned Yost addresses reporters at Kauffman Stadium following a 7-6 loss to the Minnesota Twins on April 3, 2019. The loss marked the second one-run loss in less than 24 hours in which the bullpen failed to close out the game.
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Royals manager Ned Yost addresses reporters at Kauffman Stadium following a 7-6 loss to the Minnesota Twins on April 3, 2019. The loss marked the second one-run loss in less than 24 hours in which the bullpen failed to close out the game.

A flash of the sorts of things you might find encouraging, or even exhilarating, about the 2019 Royals was on vivid display against Minnesota with two outs in the fifth inning Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium.

Here was that much-advertised warp speed in the form of a Billy Hamilton steal and an absurd infield single by Adalberto Mondesi, who earlier had hit his third triple of the season only hours after he’d hit an inside-the-park home run Tuesday night.

Here was the remarkably reliable Whit Merrifield, extending his hitting streak to 25 games dating back to the last 20 of 2018 by singling in Hamilton, and then Alex Gordon injecting some urgently needed muscle into the sprint squad with a three-run homer to center in what became a five-run binge.

But with apologies to “Seinfeld,” well, the game isn’t about taking a 6-3 lead. The most important part is holding the lead.

That’s really the most important part, the holding.

And with four full innings to go, you weren’t alone if you felt a sense of dread with the game in the hands of a bullpen that thus far has been something like a house of cards built on a game of Jenga — constructed only to await collapse.

So the cave-in struck again, and the Royals fell 7-6 after Wily Peralta (11.57 ERA) gave up the deciding run an inning after Jake Diekman (8.10 ERA) allowed two runs to tie it.

It made for a second straight brutal loss to the Twins after a marquee moment (Mondesi’s home run on Tuesday gave them a 4-3 lead in the eighth inning before Brad Boxberger took a 5-4 loss in the 10th) that should have stood was frittered away.

Instead of having a 4-1 record and some swagger early, the Royals are 2-3 and lugging a three-game losing streak and stuck looking over their shoulders every time they might think they’ve got something going. Even their two victories were in jeopardy despite having five-run leads each time before holding on 5-3 and 8-6.

“It sure feels like that, that they’re all struggling right now,” manager Ned Yost said, albeit qualifying that by adding that he believes that as they get into the rhythm of the season the relievers will get settled down and settled in.

Now, it’s true it’s early and that there are 157 of these things to go.

But this is lurking trouble on many levels, including that there is such a thing as setting a tone. And for a team looking to rebound from a dismal 2018 (58-104) and seeking to give its fans something to emotionally invest in, the bullpen right now is undermining everything else that might make it intriguing.

In essence, it’s the counterpart to that fifth inning: everything you might find discouraging or exasperating about this team.

So … now what?

First things first: Let’s acknowledge this is not even a sliver of the season and comes amid a choppy early schedule. And Yost is right when he suggested that everyone goes through funks during the course of a season but that the perception is pronounced when it’s from the start.

To some degree, baseball is always about navigating the long slog and not overreacting to the day-to-day.

Trouble is, the day-to-day is the mortar of the long slog.

“Whenever you’re at home and you get a come-from-behind loss like that, it’s always frustrating,” Gordon said. “But it’s early on, so you’ve got to just keep running them out there and giving them chances and hopefully it kind of turns around.”

Lest it sound like Gordon was taking a jab, he wasn’t. He knows it’s a streaky game, knows what it’s like to struggle and feel like you’re letting the team down. So he and others have been quick to try to pick up the bullpen guys, he said, adding, “Next homestand, they’ll probably be great.”

Unless you’re a great teammate, though, it’s hard to feel that way from what we’ve seen so far out of a group that has allowed 14 runs in 16 1/3 innings behind starting pitching that has surrendered 13 in 28 2/3.

From the outside looking in, anyway, it doesn’t seem helped by the apparent lack of definition as Yost is mixing and matching more than he is role-playing so far.

That’s the kind of thing that happens when you don’t have, say, Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland around. And maybe that will change as Yost gets a better notion of what to expect out of this mish-mash, which is perhaps best symbolized by its incorporation of Ian Kennedy in a relief role for the first time since 2009.

Get something decent ahead in late relief out of Kennedy, who didn’t pitch Wednesday and has given up five hits but just one run in three innings, and the shape of things might look a little different.

But the Royals can’t just sit around hoping, either. So let’s hope they’re opening their minds up at least to some possible in-house solutions.

For instance, perhaps Danny Duffy when he returns from his should injury. I’ve always thought Duffy was more productive as a starter, but the bullpen was more stable on the last occasions he pitched in relief from 2014-16.

More immediately, there’s the matter of Kyle Zimmer, who made his long-awaited major-league debut on Sunday and struck out two in a scoreless inning.

Between Zimmer’s injury history and wanting to usher him in a bit gently, Yost so far has been more focused on finding low-leverage acclimation for Zimmer than on how Zimmer might best help this team.

But just maybe the much-delayed future needs to be sooner than later for Zimmer. In fact, Yost seemed to acknowledge Wednesday that Zimmer could get a more prominent opportunity as soon as Thursday in Detroit.

Never mind that the reasoning was more about others not being available from overuse. At least from the way Yost put it after Wednesday’s game, only Kennedy, Zimmer and Brad Boxberger are going to be available to pitch.

“So (Zimmer) is going to have an opportunity tomorrow to step up, and that’s what you try to do,” Yost said. “You provide opportunities. Take advantage of it. Stay on the attack. … Get after them. Take advantage of this opportunity. Continue to build your role as a reliever.”

Especially since the Royals can’t build on anything else they’ve got percolating unless the bullpen radically improves.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.