Kansas City Royals v Chicago White Sox

Back to the Future

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Well, for at least a few days, Reagan is meeting with Gorbachev again, Sly Stallone is boxing Russians and looking for POWs, Madonna is a material girl. For a few days, the Commodore 128 is cutting-edge technology, Coca Cola tries a new recipe and the worst rock song ever recorded, Starship’s “We Built This City,” makes our ears bleed. It is 1985 again. The Kansas City Royals are in first place.

True, they could be out of first place as soon as this weekend. But they are in first place now, and providence demands that small miracles be noticed and cherished. The Royals have been, almost without exception, a nightmare team to love since 1985, when a scrappy bunch of kids and veterans won a World Series. The dreary years since are well-covered ground. And for the first two months of this season the Royals gave every indication that this would be as disappointing and disheartening a season as any of them.

Then they won 10 in a row.

And now, for this moment, they’re in first place.

That’s the wonder of baseball. No other sport offers this chance to go from a nothing team to a thrilling one in just 11 days. On June 7, the Royals were in last place in the uninspiring American League Central. They were three games below .500. They were last in the league in home runs, in slugging percentage, in OPS and, most importantly, in runs scored.

They were so thoroughly out of ideas that they canned hitting coach Pedro Grifol — that’s what the Royals ALWAYS do when they can’t hit. Grifol was the fifth hitting coach to disappear in three years. May in Kansas City is that time of year when hitting coaches (and, occasionally first-base coaches) are best served hiding under beds because they often spontaneously combust or have bizarre gardening accidents the authorities decide are better left unsolved.

So, yes, the Royals’ season was playing out like normal, the longest running tragic opera in America. You would have to say that, the Royals actually were AHEAD of their usual pace — hey, three games under .500 in June is almost parade-worthy in Kansas City. But it felt worse than normal because the Royals had been pointing to 2014 for a long time.  This was to be the year it all turned around, the year their almost unprecedented crop of prospects blossomed, the year the Royals finally gave Kansas City a real pennant race to enjoy and endure.

Eleven days ago, that seemed impossible.

Today, at least, it not only seems possible but very real.

Yes: The wonder of baseball. The Royals have had brief moments of sunshine before –particularly back in 2003 when Tony Pena was handing out “We Believe!” T-shirts and the late Jose Lima was floating change-ups past the world. The Royals were in first place into late July that year. But it was different — 2003 was this strange oasis between 100-loss seasons. That team wasn’t any good, and everyone knew it wasn’t any good. The season was spent waiting to see how long it took the players to figure it out (answer: September 1).

But this Royals teams IS good, or at least they have some good young players. The sluggish start was particularly painful because there had been real hope entering the season. The Royals signed pitcher Yordano Ventura for $28,000 when he was 16 years old — six years later, he’s a rookie throwing 103 mph. The Royals had high hopes for a left-handed pitcher named Danny Duffy, and then one day a few years ago he called up the Royals director of player development J.J. Picollo and said he was quitting baseball. He came back and, not long after, blew out his elbow. He came back again and this year has been mostly fantastic.

The Royals drafted Greg Holland in the 10th round out of Western Carolina — he was a 5-foot-10 non-prospect. Best I can tell, he never once made Baseball America’s list of the Royals top THIRTY prospects. The last two years, he has 67 saves, a 1.25 ERA and he has struck out 143 in 93 innings.

And so on. Once promising starter Wade Davis has become the Incredible Hulk as a setup man — he has struck out 49 batters in 30 innings and, you won’t believe this, has not allowed an extra-base hit all year. Veterans James Shields and Jason Vargas have been very good. Like I say, this team IS good, or as good as Royals teams get, and when they were stuck in last place and playing uninspired baseball, it felt like a new way for them to cause suffering.

Then again, you notice all the players I mentioned above are pitchers — the Royals’ lineup was unbearably awful. For two months they did almost nothing well. The only skill they displayed the first two months of the season was the ability to avoid strikeouts — a skill that doesn’t add up to much when you spend most of your effort grounding balls to second base.

Then, for the last 11 days, the Royals have started crushing baseballs. It’s just a small sample, of course, but it happened so quickly and so unexpectedly that it’s worth celebrating. Since June 7, they have 13 homers in 10 games. They have scored 24 runs in their last three games against top dog Detroit — Tuesday night they crushed last year’s Cy Young-winner Max Scherzer. Catcher Salvador Perez keeps on hitting. Their best hitting prospects of the last few years, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, finally started hitting. Hey, maybe firing the batting coach worked this time.

And a few words should be written about Alex Gordon. He’s only 30 but he has lived a full baseball life. In 2005, the Royals drafted him with the second-overall pick — it’s hard to describe how much excitement he triggered. Gordon was not only the top college hitter in the America, he was a true Midwesterner — born and raised and college-educated in Lincoln, Neb. — and he grew up in a Royals family. One of his brothers was actually named after George Brett. Even more , Gordon’s swing was obviously patterned after Brett’s. Everything seemed so right, and then Gordon had a brilliant season in the minors — he was named Baseball America’s minor-league player of the year — and stardom was assured.

Only, it wasn’t. Gordon came up to the major leagues and, for all the calm he tried to display for the masses, he was entirely spooked. He was hitting in the .170s in early June. His defense at third base, which was expected to be solidly average or above, was frightening Royals management. He was the all-but unanimous preseason Rookie of the Year, but instead he hit .247, struck out 137 times. Gordon was only moderately better the next year.

Then the injuries began, and whatever confidence was left seemed shattered. The Royals sent Gordon down to the minor leagues to learn how to be a left fielder. Through age 26, Alex Gordon was hitting .244/.328/.405 and was basically unplayable at third base. It could not have looked more dire.

Then Gordon did what very few can do. He rebuilt himself. He embraced the role of a left fielder, he worked hard on finding his swing. In 2011 and 2012 he was a great player. He hit .298/.372/.478 those two years, led the league in doubles in 2012, won well-deserved Gold Gloves for his play in left field. People had more or less stopped noticing him, but Gordon had become one of the best players in the American League.

This year, he’s again up there, having a quiet MVP-type season. At the moment, the Website Fangraphs puts Gordon’s Wins Above Replacement at 4.1 — second in the league behind only Mike Trout. People feel all different ways about the WAR stat but the point is not the number but that Gordon is doing everything well — he’s hitting, he’s throwing in a little power, he’s one of the best baserunners in baseball.

And, perhaps most of all, he’s playing spectacular defense. Gordon has been the best defensive left fielder in baseball for a while now. These days, he’s making a case for best defensive player in baseball PERIOD, any position. According to John Dewan’s fascinating “Runs Saved” statistic, Gordon has saved the Royals 16 runs this year with his defense. For the moment, he has saved more runs with his left-field defense than Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons or Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.

Look, you don’t have to tell Royals fans that all this can disappear in a moment. There are stats that suggest the Royals have had a lot of luck this season, and luck rarely lasts all the way through. There are reasons to believe the Tigers are much better than the Royals, and that the Royals’ bullpen will not continue to dominate, and that the lack of power in the Royals lineup will lead to some bad stretches and that the starting rotation won’t hold up. You don’t have to tell Royals fans any of that because they’ve been living it for almost 30 years.

But right now: The Royals are in first place. They are wearing their raspberry berets and listening to the cheers and going back to the future. You don’t question these things in Kansas City. You relish in them. Maybe it’s a dream. But if it is, let us sleep for a little while longer. But, yes, please do wake us up before you go go.

Darvish wins 1st start since 2014 as Rangers top Pirates 5-2

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ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) Yu Darvish struck out seven in five strong innings in his first start in the majors in almost 22 months, and the Texas Rangers beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-2 on Saturday night.

The Japanese right-hander allowed three singles with a walk in his return from last year’s Tommy John surgery, ending Pittsburgh’s five-game winning streak.

Adrian Beltre had a two-run homer in the first inning off Juan Nicasio (3-3) to become the fourth third baseman with at least 1,500 RBIs, finishing with 1,501.

Mitch Moreland snapped a 1-for-27 skid with a solo home run in the fourth.

Four Texas relievers allowed four hits and a run with four strikeouts in four innings.

The “Yuuu” calls from a sellout crowd started early for Darvish, who last pitched in the big leagues on Aug. 9, 2014. He missed the rest of that season with right elbow inflammation, and ended up needing ligament reconstruction surgery after his only spring training appearance last year.

Darvish (1-0) had a 0.90 ERA in five rehab starts this month, culminating with an 87-pitch outing. He threw 81 against the Pirates, hitting 98 mph with his fastball in the first inning and displaying his usual array of breaking pitches, some as slow as 70 mph.

John Jaso had a leadoff single on Darvish’s second pitch before Andrew McCutchen struck out. The Pirates didn’t get another hit until Francisco Cervelli‘s sinking liner in front of rookie right fielder Nomar Mazara in the fifth.

No. 9 hitter Cole Figueroa ended Darvish’s shutout bid by pulling a hanging slider into right-center field for a single that scored Cervelli from second. Darvish then struck out Jaso for the second time to finish his outing.

Beltre’s homer just cleared the wall in center field after Prince Fielder‘s RBI groundout to score leadoff hitter Jurickson Profar, who had two hits filling in for suspended second baseman Rougned Odor. It was the second game of Odor’s seven-game ban.

SHORT HOPS

Joey Gallo, who had just one at-bat in his five-day stint, was optioned to Triple-A Round Rock to make room on the roster for Darvish. … Pirates lefty reliever Tony Watson came off the paternity list and pitched a perfect eighth.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Pirates: Manager Clint Hurdle planned to give 2B Josh Harrison the night off after he came out of the series opener early. He’s been battling an illness that kept him out of the lineup Thursday as well.

Rangers: C Robinson Chirinos is expected to start a rehab assignment Tuesday with Double-A Frisco. He’s been out since April 10 with a broken right forearm and could be activated as soon as he is eligible to come off the 60-day disabled list on June 9.

UP NEXT

Pirates: LHP Francisco Liriano (4-3, 4.30) has won his last four starts against the Rangers and is 5-1 with a save and a 2.89 ERA in nine career games against them, most of those with Minnesota. His last appearance against Texas was Sept. 10, 2013.

Rangers: LHP Martin Perez (2-4, 3.13) makes his team-high 11th start and has gone 2-2 with a 2.23 ERA in his past six starts. He threw six shutout innings in a 4-1 win over the Angels in his last start

Utley answers with slam, solo HR as Dodgers rout Mets 9-1

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NEW YORK (AP) After the New York Mets missed, Chase Utley connected twice.

Utley hit a grand slam and a solo homer after Noah Syndergaard threw a 99 mph fastball behind his back, and the Los Angeles Dodgers went deep a season-high five times in routing New York 9-1 on Saturday night.

In a scene that seemed inevitable since October, Syndergaard was immediately ejected following the third-inning pitch – which certainly appeared to be his shot at retaliation against Utley for the late takeout slide that broke the right leg of then-Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada in last year’s playoffs.

Plate umpire Adam Hamari tossed Syndergaard, sending Mets manager Terry Collins into a rage, but no trouble ensued between the teams. A longtime New York nemesis, Utley raised one hand slightly in the direction of the Dodgers’ bench to keep teammates calm – and later responded by doing all sorts of damage with his bat.

“I think a loud, energizing environment gets the best out of you. I think it’s fun,” said Utley, who has 19 RBIs this season, nine in the first two games of this series. “It kind of gets the adrenaline going a little bit, makes you kind of dig down deeper.”

Asked if he thought Syndergaard delivered a purpose pitch, Utley said: “Possibly, but I understand it.”

Adrian Gonzalez homered and had four hits for the Dodgers, who spoiled the Mets’ 30th anniversary celebration of their 1986 World Series championship. Howie Kendrick and Corey Seager also connected, all after Syndergaard was gone.

Kenta Maeda (4-3) shook off an early line drive that hit him on the pitching hand and threw five shutout innings. The right-hander yielded two hits, both singles in the first, and stopped his three-game losing streak.

“Pretty impressive. You wouldn’t see too many other pitches staying in the game at that point,” Utley said.

The stoic Utley is playing at Citi Field this weekend for the first time since Tejada was injured. The Mets – and their fans – were incensed by the aggressive slide, which led to a change in baseball rules this season designed to protect infielders in what some call the Utley Rule.

But the Mets had not tried to retaliate until Saturday night; Utley played all four games without incident May 9-12 when the teams split a series in Los Angeles.

With one out and nobody on in the third inning of a scoreless game, Syndergaard’s first pitch to Utley sailed behind the second baseman by a considerable margin.

Hamari immediately ejected Syndergaard, prompting Collins to come storming out of the dugout. Collins also was ejected after screaming at Hamari and pointing in his face during an animated argument. The manager was finally escorted back toward the New York dugout by another umpire.

“The ruling was that he intentionally threw at the batter,” crew chief Tom Hallion told a pool reporter. “We can either warn or eject. And with what happened in that situation, we felt the ejection was warranted.”

Hallion said no warnings were issued before the series.

“We take each game individually,” he said when asked if last year’s playoff series played a role in the ejection. “We have to make a snap decision. We can’t think about, OK, well this guy did this or he did that in Game 6 of whatever. We don’t have enough time to think that way. We make a decision on what happens in the game.”

Collins said he had never before seen a pitcher get ejected without a warning.

“My argument was, nobody got hit,” Collins said. “There was a time when, in this game, where you had a shot and nothing happened, the ball went to the backstop. So that was kind of my argument.”

After waiting near the mound with teammates for some time, Syndergaard walked calmly to the Mets dugout without showing any emotion as the crowd cheered him.

“It was just a pitch that got away from me. That’s all I got,” Syndergaard said. “I can understand why he did what he did. I still think a warning would have been better.”

Collins acknowledged he’s a little concerned Syndergaard might get suspended.

Logan Verrett (3-2) entered for the Mets and, with a vocal contingent in the sellout crowd of 42,227 urging him to hit Utley with a pitch, eventually threw a called third strike past him. But then Utley homered on Verrett’s first pitch of the sixth for a 1-0 lead.

Booed all night, Utley added his sixth career slam off Hansel Robles in the seventh, making it 6-0 with his 38th homer against the Mets.

Pinch-hitter Juan Lagares homered in the eighth for New York, long after the outcome was decided.

In the series opener Friday night, Utley was greeted with loud jeers and derisive chants. He had four RBIs in a 6-5 loss, including a three-run double that tied the score with two outs in the ninth.

“We came together as a group,” Utley said. “We battled, and it was a good win.”

WHERE ARE YOU NOW?

Tejada was released by the Mets during spring training and signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, who designated him for assignment Saturday.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Dodgers: RF Trayce Thompson exited in the fifth with lower back soreness. He was replaced by Yasiel Puig, who hit an RBI single off Verrett in the sixth.

Mets: INF Wilmer Flores (hamstring) went 1 for 2 with a sacrifice fly in his fifth rehab game for Double-A Binghamton. Before the game, Collins said it was reasonable to think Flores could come off the disabled list Sunday.

UP NEXT

Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw (7-1, 1.48 ERA) starts the series finale Sunday night against 43-year-old Bartolo Colon (4-3, 3.44). Kershaw, coming off a two-hit shutout against Cincinnati, is 7-0 with a 1.17 ERA in 10 starts vs. the Mets. He is 5-0 with a 0.64 ERA in May – including a three-hit shutout of New York on May 12 at Dodger Stadium. The three-time Cy Young Award winner has struck out 55 and walked two this month.

Mets’ Syndergaard ejected after throwing behind Utley

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NEW YORK — In a scene that has seemed inevitable since October, New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard has been ejected for throwing a 99 mph fastball behind Chase Utley of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Utley is playing at Citi Field this weekend for the first time since his late takeout slide in last year’s playoffs broke the right leg of then-Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada.

New York was incensed by the aggressive slide, which led to a change in baseball rules on slides at bases this season. But the Mets had not attempted to retaliate until Saturday night.

With one out and nobody on in the third inning of a scoreless game, Syndergaard’s first pitch to Utley sailed behind the second baseman’s back by a considerable margin.

Plate umpire Adam Hamari immediately ejected Syndergaard, prompting irate Mets manager Terry Collins to come storming out of the dugout. Collins also was ejected.

Indians’ Brantley unsure of return from shoulder injury

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CLEVELAND — Indians outfielder Michael Brantley has no timetable for his return from the shoulder injury that has sidelined him for the second time this season.

Brantley spoke to reporters Saturday for the first time since being placed on the 15-day disabled list on May 14. He began the season on the DL following surgery for a torn right labrum in November. Brantley hit .231 with seven RBIs in 11 games before being shut down again.

“I wasn’t bouncing back quick enough to keep playing back-to-back games, which is very important,” he said. “I want to be healthy each and every day and I have to play at a high level. This is the major leagues. You have to be at the best of your ability and the highest health-wise you can be.”

Brantley, who received an anti-inflammatory shot in the shoulder two weeks ago, doesn’t think he returned from the surgery too soon.

“I was ready,” he said. “We talked about it. We had a great process laid out. Everything went smoothly. It was just a bump in the road.”

Brantley has been hitting off a tee but isn’t sure when he will begin taking swings in the batting cage. He is playing catch since he throws left-handed but wants to be cautious about resuming a hitting program.

“Surgery is nothing to play with,” he said. “You have to be smart and understand your body.”

Brantley visited Dr. Craig Morgan, who performed the surgery, in Wilmington, Delaware after he returned to the DL. An MRI showed no changes in the shoulder.

“He said everything checks out good, just make sure to take your time and we’ll see what happens from there,” Brantley said.

Brantley finished third in the AL MVP voting in 2014 when he hit .327 with 20 homers and 97 RBIs. He batted .310 with 15 homers and 84 RBIs last season.