Kansas City Royals v Chicago White Sox

Picking the Royals to win … again


I have a friend who, when trying to relax or when stressed about things, will run over Los Angeles Rams scores in his mind. I tend to do the same thing with Kansas City Royals blunders. It comforts me. Whenever I think of Desi Relaford just falling off of first base, as if he had been tipped by drunk college kids, or Ken Harvey getting hit in the back by an outfield throw or the team batting out of order with the first batter of the game (yes, that happened) — I feel better about these Royals.

They have started the most pivotal baseball season in Kansas City in more than 20 years. I really do fear that they might not be up to it.

But, hey, you know, there was this one time the Royals started a non-prospect from Class AA in Yankee Stadium because, well, I still don’t know exactly why they did that.

And I am comforted — because at least they’re not going back to that.

There are so many things that worry me about this year’s Royals team. The Plexiglas effect worries me — this is the proposition that teams that take big steps forward one year tend to give back many of the gains the next. The Royals won 86 games last season, a 14-game improvement and the most they won in a season since 1989. It just feels like they’ll fall a bit closer to earth.

The bullpen worries me — not because I think the bullpen will be bad (I expect it to be good) but because I don’t believe it can be as good as last year. You almost cannot overstate how dominant the Royals bullpen was in 2014. The league hit just .217 against that bullpen last year. The bullpen had an insane 2.55 ERA and the pitchers struck out 9.5 batters per nine innings, they were dominant in every possible way. And bullpens tend to be variable, mercurial … it probably won’t be that good this year. And, right away, Game 1, the bullpen blows a lead

Manager Ned Yost worries me. Yost’s often curious managerial decisions don’t bother me as much as his labored explanations for them — his exposition on why he did not have closer supreme Greg Holland start the ninth inning of a tie game against Detroit Monday but did bring Holland inning once the Tigers threatened to score was typically baffling. People will always argue about how much a manager means to a team’s success, but it has been 30 years since the Royals had a manager (Dick Howser) with any winning success as a manager before taking the job. I was actually daydreaming the other day about the Royals hiring Dusty Baker to be their manager — that’s probably not a good sign.

Jason Vargas and Norichka Aoki and Omar Infante worry me. I know a lot of smart people liked the Royals acquiring these veteran players — or at least didn’t mind it too much — but I keep going back in my mind to the astonishing Royals’ history of signing 30-something “professional players” and then watching them unhappily plod and toil and lose lots of games.

Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain worry me. The Royals have had one of the game’s best minor-league system for years and they just have so much trouble with the seemingly simple process of having player come up and simply become a star without a lot of angst and failure and confusion. Other teams have players who just, blammo, are good players. I see it happen — Evan Longoria and Mike Trout and Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki and Manny Machado and Jose Fernandez and Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander. Heck, it even happened for ex-Royal Wil Myers. I mean it DOES happen.

But it rarely seems to happen for the Royals. Hosmer and Moustakas were the can’t-miss stars of their system (well, with Myers). Hosmer’s three-year career has already been a soap opera. Moustakas has 1,500 plate appearances in the big league and an 85 OPS+. Will they be good players? We still don’t know.

And so, I like to think back. I like to reminisce. I like to remember the time that a Royals outfielder climbed the center field wall to steal a home run only to watch the ball land on the warning track and bounce over his head.

I like to think about the time two Royals outfielders settled under a fly ball, looked at each other, and then started jogging happily toward the dugout … only to forget to actually catch the ball. It plopped down joyfully behind them.

I like to think of the time a Royals player lost a ball in the sun and explained afterward that he wasn’t wearing sunglasses because his prescription sunglasses had not arrived yet. Or another time a Royals player wasn’t wearing sunglasses, lost a ball in the sun and got hit in the face with it … on the plane ride home, it was noted, he WAS wearing sunglasses to cover up the shiner.

There was the time a pitcher was released in the middle of the game so he wouldn’t have to answer media questions about how terrible he had been. There was the time a Royals manager met with reporters in a hotel lobby after a game and was told, much to his surprise, that he had been fired. There was the time a pitcher was so ticked off at himself that he angrily threw his the ball in to his glove again and again kind of like that pitcher at the end of ‘Bad News Bears” only to have a base runner steal third while moped.

There was the time a pitcher complained that he was not getting enough no-decisions.

There was the time a Royals general manager considered hiring an artist — an actual painter artist — to draw some of his players so that they could use the artwork as scouting tools. There was the time the Royals tried out a professional softball player and talked about signing him despite the somewhat obvious drawback that he was balking on every pitch.

I like to remember that the Royals once had a manager who guaranteed the Royals would win the division in May of a season where they lost 104 games. The Royals were once on the brink of being sold to a man who walked around town wearing a suit and Royals cap, who had a meeting with the radio guy and told him to start using one of those egg timers so he would know when to give the score, who then held a meeting with the manager to tell him to stop letting batters swing at the first pitch.

I like to remember that the Royals once announced that the players would not be wearing Negro League uniforms on Negro Leagues Day because, you know, uniforms are expensive.

The Royals once blew a huge ninth inning lead with a spectacular series of blunders capped by a dropped fly ball — this last boo boo led announcer Denny Matthews to make the classic call: “Annnnnnnnnnd he dropped it. Yes he did.”

The Royals once had the future best player in baseball — the 47th best player of all time according to one recent ranking — play high school AND junior college ball in town, and they did not draft him either time.

The Royals once looked at a draft board featuring Tim Lincecum, Evan Longroria, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer (who went to school down the road at Missouri) and with the first overall pick took Luke Hochevar, an independent league player who had refused to sign with a team the year before.

The Royals once canceled their annual banquet to save a few bucks, once had a pitcher throw a baseball, no joke, 10 feet over a catcher’s head even though he was standing about 40 feet away at the time, once had an outfielder kick the ball back into the infield, once had a batter go so long without a walk that when he finally got one the fireworks went off — these are all true. The Royals once decided the best way to keep young players like Johnny Damon was to buy them a house in Kansas City (apparently on the theory that they might never figure out that houses can be sold).

The Royals once put a talented and young left-hander into his first big league game on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium with runners on first and second with Jorge Posada at the plate. The Royals either didn’t know or did not believe the numbers that showed Posada was a BETTER HITTER against lefties. After that three-run homer, the kid pitcher — a great guy named Tony Cogan who I still hear from now and again — was kind of ruined.

There are so many more … but, see, already I feel better. With all the worries, the Royals are not that team anymore. The problems they have are adult problems, real baseball problems, the sort of things that other teams must deal with. The Royals have very good baseball players. Alex Gordon is a brilliant defensive outfielder and an above average hitter. Billy Butler is a professional hitter who will get on base and offer doubles and occasional home run power. Salvador Perez is one of my favorite players in baseball, an exception to the general rule about young Royals players — he’s a brilliant young defensive catcher along the lines of a young Yadi Molina and a developing offensive player along the lines of, well, a young Yadi Molina.

Hosmer, for all my concerns above, is someone I still believe will develop into one of the really good hitters in the game.

That bullpen is still loaded with amazing arms and stuff.

Young Yordano Ventura physically resembles Pedro Martinez and he has a 102-mph fastball. James Shields is a pro’s pro. Again, even with my concerns, the Royals have five starters with a chance to be league average, and that’s actually very valuable.

And, in the end, the Royals don’t need miracles to win. They just need some players to live up to their billing, they need a few breaks, they need some development and they could use some luck — aren’t the Royals due for some luck? They absolutely could make the postseason this year.

And so, what the heck, I’m picking them to do so, despite my concerns (and Michael Schur’s logical skepticism). I’m picking them to win the American League Central. But then, I always do — every year as columnist for the Kansas City Star, I would pick the Royals to win the division. It was part joke, part silliness, part insane optimism, part naive hope. I always thought that’s what Opening Day should be about. I’m picking the Royals to win the American League Central. Why? Because: It’s time.

The Cubs clinch World Series berth with NLCS Game 6 win

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 22:  The Chicago Cubs celebrate defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 in game six of the National League Championship Series to advance to the World Series against the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 22, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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After 71 years, the Cubs are headed back to the Fall Classic.

The dominance with which Clayton Kershaw attacked the Cubs in Game 2 of the NLCS was nonexistent in Game 6 as the Dodgers’ ace loaded the bases to start the first inning and scattered five extra bases and five runs over five frames. By the time Dave Roberts pulled his starter in the sixth inning, Kershaw was sitting on a Game Score of 33, the lowest he’s mustered since the start of the 2015 season. Only one of his strikes came via curveball, and whether he was having difficulty locating his off-speed stuff or felt more confident with the fastball-slider combo, it was the fewest curves he’d seen land for strikes all year (per David Adler).

Where the Dodgers were able to give Kershaw the edge in Game 2, they found themselves powerless against opposing hurler Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks turned out 7 1/3 scoreless frames with two hits and six strikeouts, preserving the Cubs’ second shutout of the postseason and the first since they bested the Giants in Game 1 of the NLDS. After his 1-0 loss to the Dodgers early in the NLCS, seeing the MLB ERA leader turn out a gem was a relief for the Cubs, especially one as spectacular as an 88-pitch two-hitter.

With Hendricks effectively stymieing the Dodgers’ best attempts to get on base, the Cubs played to their strengths at the plate. Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist cleared the bases in the first inning for a two-run lead, followed by a Dexter Fowler RBI single in the second. Willson Contreras came through in the fourth inning for the Cubs, lifting an 87 m.p.h. slider to left field for his first home run of October, while Anthony Rizzo hit his second homer of the postseason on a 1-1 fastball in the fifth.

Neither bullpen allowed a single run from the sixth inning onward. Dodgers’ right-hander Kenley Jansen took the ball from Kershaw in the sixth, scattering four strikeouts over three innings and denying the Cubs so much as a single baserunner through the end of the game. Aroldis Chapman, meanwhile, issued just one walk in 1 1/3 scoreless frames, inducing a Yasiel Puig double play to clinch the Cubs’ 17th franchise pennant.

With the win, the Cubs will face off against the Indians in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday at 8 PM EDT. And, in case you needed a reminder:

Video: Willson Contreras blasts first postseason home run off of Kershaw

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 22:  Willson Contreras #40 of the Chicago Cubs celebrates after hitting a solo home run in the fourth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers during game six of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field on October 22, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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So much for Clayton Kershaw posing a threat tonight. The Cubs got their knocks in early and often against the Dodgers’ ace during Game 6 of the NLCS, racking up three runs in the first three innings before rookie catcher Willson Contreras unleashed his first postseason home run in the bottom of the fourth inning.

According to MLB.com’s Phil Rogers, Contreras became the 10th Cub to homer in the 2016 playoffs, following big hits by Addison Russell, Anthony Rizzo, Dexter Fowler, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Jake Arrieta, Kris Bryant, Travis Wood, and Javier Baez. Of the ten home run hitters, Contreras joins catchers David Ross and Miguel Montero as yet another backstop capable of driving the long ball (and, less importantly, as another player capable of a sweet, sweet bat flip).

Rizzo, whose last homer was a deep drive to right field off of Los Angeles right-hander Pedro Baez in Game 4 of the NLCS, piled on Kershaw’s five-run outing with another home run in the bottom of the fifth inning. Kershaw called it a night after five frames, and the Cubs currently lead the Dodgers 5-0 in the sixth inning.