Ten bright spots for the Kansas City Royals
Kansas City Royals: Bright spots
The 2012 Kansas City Royals season formally ended on Wednesday night with a 0-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers. Although it has been a disappointing season, and especially a disappointing end which has seen the Royals reach ninety losses once more, there were some very notable achievements for both individuals and the team as a whole. Even in a dark year there were some bright spots and some very special moments to remember.
In a year with 72 wins (let's not think about the ninety losses right now) there were of course 72 good days. Seventy-two days of victories, seventy-two times this year we were the better team on the day. There were almost two and a half months' worth of happy conclusions to contests and uplifting evenings this over the course of the summer. But some games were better and more memorable than others. Some games saw the Royals triumph against long odds and in some games we beat old foes in the contests which matter so much. And at the same time there were players who gave we Royals fans reason to be optimistic and in some cases even proud all year long. It has been a disappointing year, but it is a far cry from the doldrums of the mid-noughties in which nothing seemed to go right and there very much are things to celebrate.
There were ten great bright spots this year for the Royals that outshone all others. Eight games stand out and there were two players who all year were not only good, but amongst the best int the league.
Royals v Yankees - 03.05.12
Every true baseball fan outside of New York despises the New York Yankees. There are no meaningless games against them for any team and least of all the Royals who have had a few October (and otherwise) run-ins with New York. Plus, they're the Yankees. So there was always going to be a bit of emotion about the Yankees four game series in Kansas City in early May and the fact that the Royals were starting to recover from their horror-start added to the motivation.
On the third of May, Danny Duffy threw 5.1 excellent innings as the Royals jumped out to a 4-1 lead, but the Yankees worked their way back to within one by the ninth inning. Then closer Jonathan Broxton came on for the save and started the inning by giving up a single and a walk. But a well-turned 4-6-3 double play turned the inning around and meant that Alex Rodriguez would bat with two out and the tying run on third. Broxton jumped ahead 0-2, prompting Rodriguez to step out and yell at the home plate umpire for a minute (see picture). After staying in the game courtesy of the words 'New York' across his chest, Rodriguez worked the count full. With Kansas City nerves shredding, he then hit a little squibber up the third base line. Mike Moustakas charged hard, bare-handed the ball and threw in one motion to first to get the drug cheat by half a step and to secure a Victory for All Baseball.
Royals v Red Sox - 08.05.12
The Royals drew their series with the Yankees, and that draw meant that the Royals had either won or drawn four consecutive series. The recovery was well and truly on. But they lost the first game of their three game series against the Boston Red Sox and thus needed to win the second game if they wanted to have any chance of keeping their streak alive. It all looked rather dire as they trailed 3-4 going into the eighth inning. They had missed a golden chance to either level the scores or take the lead in the seventh after the potential tying run was thrown out at the plate and then another was stranded at third. The bottom of the eighth started with a pair of walks, however, to bring Billy Butler to the plate. Butler was looking for redemption after hitting into an inning ending double play with the bases leaded in the late innings of the previous game. And did he ever find it. A 1-1 offering from Matt Albers, brought in specifically to face Butler, was deposited 402 feet into the fountains beyond the left field wall. The subsequent 6-4 lead was enough for Jonathan Broxton and the Royals made it five series without a loss the next day.
Cardinals v Royals 15.06.12
The Royals probably care about the I-70 series more than the St Louis Cardinals do given the relative success recently of the two teams, but it is by no means a minor series. Every year many fans go across the state in both directions and the bragging rights to be won are not something at which to be sniffed. The first of six games between the Royals and Cardinals this year was a thriller. The Royals built a 3-0 lead run-by-run over the course of their first seven innings. But two runs in the bottom of the seventh for the Cardinals kept the game exciting and it went to the bottom of the ninth still 3-2 Royals.
Jonathan Broxton got the first out of the inning courtesy of an incredible play in the hole by Alcides Escobar to rob Yadier Molina. Broxton got the next man as well, but with two outs and nobody on Tyler Greene succeeded where Molina had failed and managed to get a hit to the left side. And that was where things got crazy. The Cardinals needed Greene in scoring position and with two outs had little choice but to send him from first. Greene stole second base successfully and then got a bonus as Humberto Quintero's throw went into centre field. Chris Getz went out from second to retrieve the ball and try to gun down Greene as he went to third to end the game. But his throw was errant and almost went into the Cardinals' dugout. The Royals were saved for the moment by the post supporting the stair-rail. Greene was thus not awarded home plate, but representing the tying tun in the bottom of the ninth he had to try to score regardless. But Mike Moustakas played the carom off the railing and fired a strike to Quintero to get Greene on the third attempt and win the game 3-2.
Cardinals v Royals 17.06.12
Two days after the dramatic end to the first game of the I-70 series, the first leg was even at a game apiece. The Cardinals looked well set to take the deciding game as they held a 2-1 lead going into the ninth after back-to-back home runs from Matt Holliday and Allen Craig had put them on top in the sixth. Hard throwing closer Jason Motte struck out both Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar to start the ninth and then jumped ahead of Billy Butler, in the game as a pinch-hitter, 0-2. But the fastball intended to put away Butler and the Royals was not located quite right. Instead of being neck-high and unhittable it was letter-high and very hittable. With the Royals down to their final strike, Butler sent the pitch well over the left-centre field wall and the game into extras.
Both teams had chances to get a run in the first four extra innings, but it was not until the top of the 14th that Yuniesky Betancourt doubled in Alex Gordon to make it 3-2 Royals. But Jonathan Broxton got into trouble trying to close out the game and the Cardinals tied it at three. So to the 15th the game went. Cue Betancourt again. With Jarrod Dyson on second and two out a hit would put the Royals back in front. Betancourt did that and more, homering to left and putting the Royals up 5-3. This time Broxton made no mistake and finished the Cardinals in order in the bottom of the 15th.
All-Star game/Home Run Derby
To have the All-Star Game and all the associated festivities in Kansas City was always going to be a proud time for the Royals and the fans made sure the event was a rousing success. But the highlight was arguably the night before the All-Star Game with the Home Run Derby. Yankees second-baseman Robinson Cano snubbed Billy Butler when selecting the AL team for the Derby. Perhaps he simply cared more about the AL winning a meaningless event than entertaining the fans at an event designed solely to do the latter. But he certainly did not seem to think that the Royals fans really cared. He was wrong. Cano was booed during batting practice. He was booed when he stepped to the plate in the Deby and every one of his 'outs' was greeted with a deafening roar and chants of 'Billy Butler'. Cano was clearly shaken and had to step out a couple of times. In the end he failed to hit a single home-run, the worst performance of any of the competitors. On that night the Royals fans showed that we know what the score is and that we do care. Hopefully it was a wake-up call.
Royals v White Sox 19.08.12
It was not a good 2012 for Royals starting pitching. Dayton Moore had attempted to boost it in the offseason by trading for Jonathan Sanchez. On paper it was a very good move and Moore cannot be faulted for it, but it utterly failed to pan out. Sanchez had a shocker and was dealt to the Colorado Rockies in July for Jeremy Guthrie. Guthrie had struggled in the thin air of Coors Field, but once he had got settled in Kansas City he began turning out a succession of very impressive starts. None were better than his outing on an August Sunday against the Chicago White Sox, however.
Guthrie's raw numbers that day are 'merely' very good: 7.2 IP, 2H, 2R, 0ER, 1BB, 5K. But what they fail to show is that the first of those two hits did not come until the eighth and the the walk didn't even happen until the fifth and on a very borderline pitch at that. Four more outs and Guthrie would have had a no-hitter. Eventually, anyway. There was a play in the seventh that threatened to cause a firestorm of controversy as Paul Konerko reached on what was originally ruled as an infield single as Alcides Escobar's hurried throw pulled Eric Hosmer off the bag. The ruling was eventually changed to an error, but not until after the game and at the time it appeared break up the no-hitter. (In spite of the custom that the first hit always be a clean one.) Controversy was avoided when Dayan Viciedo lined a clean single with two out in the eighth and the no-hitter was properly ended.
Rays v Royals 21.08.12
Starting pitching for the Royals was like London busses in mid-to-late August. Just two days on from Jeremy Guthrie's heroics Luke Hochevar took the mound against the Tampa Bay Rays. Despite having a poor year overall, Hochevar had shutout the Rays in Kansas City two months prior. But this time he was up against my pick for the AL Cy Young award, David Price. And Price was sharp, going eight innings and giving up no runs on three hits. But Hochevar matched him pitch for pitch, giving up just one hit in eight scoreless innings. Both pitchers exited in the ninth with no-decisions having battled each other to a scoreless draw through eight. With the game still to be won, however, the Royals pushed across a single tally in the tenth and the 1-0 advantage was enough for Greg Holland in the ninth.
Royals v Angels 15.09.12
A late season game with nothing on it for the Royals (albeit a lot on it for the Los Angeles Angels) would seem like an odd choice for a memorable moment. But it was a homecoming for Zack Greinke, the man who won the Cy Young award with the Royals in 2009. Now pitching for the Angels after a stint with the Milwaukee Brewers, he had not had a shutout since leaving Kansas City. But he had pitched well on his first return to Kansas City, giving up only an Alex Gordon home run in the first en route to a no-decision. (The Royals won the game 2-1 with a run in the eighth and almost made this list.)
This time Greinke was even better, however. The Royals were held scoreless through eight innings and when he came back out for the ninth it looked like Greinke was his old self in an unfamiliar uniform. Angels manager Mike Scioscia had other ideas after a one-out single by Gordon, however, and brought in Ernesto Frieri to try to retire Billy Butler. He failed. Butler put the first pitch he saw 420 feet onto the large stone wall that forms the batter's eye beyond the centre field fence. Not only were the Royals still breathing, they now had a great chance to win with only one out in the ninth. And Salvador Perez wasted little time. He hooked a 1-1 pitch deep down the left field line and off the foul pole for the game-winner. I'm rather a fan of the WPA stat and the graph for this game was incredible. Frieri threw four pitches in the inning and in those four pitches the Royals overturned a 90% chance of losing. Butler added 48% with his blast and Perez supplied the other 42%. It was a staggering turnaround.
There were two players who were constant lights in an otherwise fairly dark summer and one of them was Billy Butler. Reading through the first eight entries one may have noticed a theme of clutch late inning home runs from Butler and in fact ten of his 29 blasts came in the eighth inning or later and six of those either tied the game or put the Royals ahead. But there was much more to his season than that. Butler hit .313 this year with 29 home runs and 107 RBIs. It was enough to lead the Royals in all three categories and was an impressive display of consistency. He was not only an excellent hitter by Royals standards, but one of the best in the American League and it has been a while since that has been said of a Royal.
After last year everyone in Kansas City knew that Alcides Escobar was a great gloveman. The fact that he was not even on the shortlist for a Gold Glove was a staggering oversight given the number of games he saved with his range and arm. This year, incredibly, he was even better. He seemed to make an incredible play at least once a game with the glove and between him and Mike Moustakas it was incredibly hard to get a ball through the left side of the infield. Escobar ranged not only far to his right, but had the arm to still throw out runners from the outfield grass. It was a very special year for him with the glove, but not shocking after what he did last year.
What was amazing, though, was his improvement with the bat. Last year Escobar was about an average hitter with no power. He hit four home runs in all of 2011. But this year he was vastly improved. He hit .293 this year and set a Royals record for most hits in a year by a shortstop. (And the Royals have had some pretty good shortstops in their history.) His power numbers were still low, but his slugging per cent was well improved as he did a great job of finding the spacious Kauffman Stadium gaps. He also stole more than thirty bases this year. Even with Billy Butler's heroics he has a great chance of being the Royals' player of the year.