As anticipated, Royals two-time All-Star closer Greg Holland indeed will require Tommy John surgery to repair his shredded right ulnar collateral ligament.
On about any other team with legitimate World Series aspirations, this would serve as a tidy symbol of its impending or inevitable breakdown.
At the least it would be affirmation of the vulnerability of a group that was so daunting as to seem to hold an unfair advantage last season.
But even as the latest news on Holland was being disclosed Tuesday afternoon, here was Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland in the visitors’ clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field pondering his postseason bullpen alignment and casually saying, “We are deeper than we were last year.”
This was no slight to Holland, who had the highest save percentage in baseball over the previous two seasons (93 of 98; 94.9 percent) and somehow made good on 32 of 37 this year as his arm was crumbling.
It was simply a rational nod, albeit from an optimistic standpoint, to what the Royals still have rather than to what they’ve lost.
“I can’t speak for anybody else, but I know myself and (manager Ned Yost) feel really good about it with the pieces we have down there,” Eiland said.
A season after the Royals were buoyed by one of the most dynamic arrays of back-end bullpen arms in the history of the game, the pieces at times this year have flashed their flesh and blood.
Beyond Holland’s tight-rope act before his season was shut down, for instance, Kelvin Herrera in May gave up his first home run in nearly two years — and four more since.
This one time, in August, Wade Davis gave up two runs in one game for the first time in 16 months, and Ryan Madson had to labor through a dead-arm phase in his first season since 2011.
Rumors of the bullpen’s demise, though, were greatly exaggerated.
For all these disruptions, the Royals still have the best bullpen ERA (2.73) in the American League.
And the simplest numbers that perhaps revealed the most about its effectiveness last season are largely the same.
In 2014, when the Herrera-Davis-Holland tandem emerged as the knockout punch in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, the Royals were 65-4 after six innings, 72-1 after seven and 79-1 after eight.
Entering their game on Tuesday, despite a less routine formula until recently, they were 71-6 after six, 69-3 after seven and 78-1 after eight.
That’s a testament to their depth, a hallmark, but it’s also a reflection of the uncanny linchpin of all this.
The menacing Wade Davis now is the closer, a role change that could mess with less rigid mindsets.
But the mentality that has produced a 0.98 ERA — and perhaps at times left grown men trembling — since he returned to the bullpen in September 2013 isn’t going to unravel because of the change.
Davis demonstrated that, in fact, with 13 saves before officially assuming the role last week.
“His presence is very stoic, very professional, and from a hitter’s standpoint there’s a little bit of mystery there,” Eiland said. “He’s not a guy who’s very high-profile. He doesn’t put himself out there. You don’t see him talking to or fraternizing with players on the other team.”
So, Eiland added with a smile, “there’s a little bit of a fear factor there, and that’s good.”
Meanwhile, there is no apparent fear factor even beyond Davis for the Royals, who would largely like to use Madson (2.20 ERA) in the seventh and Herrera (2.66 ERA) in the eighth as the bridges to Davis.
Herrera’s fearlessness and relentless desire to go, Eiland said, is part of what makes him suited to that particular job, which he has done spotlessly his last three times out.
Madson, meanwhile, is among the best comeback stories in baseball, reviving a career that had seemed over after he’d won 47 games and saved 52 over the years for the Phillies.
“I think he’s almost all the way back,” Eiland said. “His velocity’s better than it’s ever been.”
Luke Hochevar (3.38 ERA) and lefthander Franklin Morales (3.28 ERA) also figure in the middle-inning mix, and Chris Young is the wild-card long reliever/potential starter.
But the most intriguing new element is lefty Danny Duffy.
In three appearances entering the game Tuesday since being moved from the rotation to the bullpen, Duffy had thrown 5 2/3 scoreless innings with eight strikeouts while allowing one walk and two hits.
Duffy said Tuesday that starting hadn’t weighed on him, but he acknowledged being less encumbered in this role.
“My best against yours, and not having to worry about or think about pitch count — and ironically, I’ve been more efficient,” he said. “I just go out there and just empty the tank.”
That’s a particularly gratifying feeling for Duffy, who missed nearly all of the 2014 postseason with a rib injury.
“I wanted to be able to give what I had,” he said, “and I had a lot more than what was available at that point.”
So that’s another part of the Royals entering the postseason with arguably more than what they had available last season — especially considering that Davis was the only member of the 2014 bullpen to have previously pitched in the postseason.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the bullpen will be as impregnable, of course, as the one that enabled them to storm to Game 7 of the World Series in 2014.
Like hitters, pitchers get in slumps, Eiland said. And sometimes the hitter wins the battle or guesses right, or the pitcher just doesn’t get away with a mistake.
“This bullpen, they’ve set the bar so high for themselves,” said Eiland, formerly a pitching coach with the New York Yankees. “It kind of reminds me of when I was with Mariano Rivera a couple years ago. He’d give up a couple hits or blow a save, and everybody thought the world was going to come to an end.
“They’re human beings. It’s going to happen from time to time.”
As such, Eiland isn’t talking about replicating the seemingly unsustainable work of last postseason.
And both Eiland and Yost allow as how they’ll be figuring on more fluidity in roles beyond Davis as the closer.
But quietly, really, this all remains a considerable Royals advantage at a time when so much else has seemed in flux for them — including, of course, giving the bullpen a lead to protect and the shutdown of a closer whose absence might have ruined a less stocked bullpen.