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.

Puerto Rico official calls MLB’s likely series cancellation “an act of touristic terrorism”

Ricardo Arduengo -- Associated Press
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On Tuesday it was reported that Major League Baseball is on the verge of cancelling the upcoming series in Puerto Rico between the Marlins and the Pirates due to Zika concerns. Puerto Rico is not particularly pleased with that.

As this story from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review makes clear, their displeasure is being expressed in totally calm and rational terms:

“It’s an outrageous situation,” Rep. Angel Matos, head of the tourism commission for Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, told the Tribune-Review. “The reality is that this cancellation is unfair, disproportionate, and makes our country look bad. It’s an act of touristic terrorism.”

I will grant that a cancellation wouldn’t be great for Puerto Rico. I will also grant that an expert cited in the same article claims that the odds of any players contracting Zika are very, very long. Indeed, he compares it to someone hitting 20 homers in a single game. Which, sure, Giancarlo Stanton is involved here so you can never totally rule it out, but it’s super unlikely.

But MLB, the union and the players involved aren’t in the business of dealing with the probability of disease contraction. They’re dealing with a bunch of players being really nervous about something vs. a two-game series in May that, while carrying big meaning for Puerto Rico, is sort of meaningless to them in a lot of ways, even if they won’t say so publicly. They’re weighing this a lot differently than tourism commission executives.

My guess is that it still gets cancelled. My guess is that, even if it does, Puerto Rico will survive this act of alleged “touristic terrorism.”

Yasiel Puig caught a big fish

Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig looks to the dugout for signs as he steps out of the batter's box while facing Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Jordan Lyles in the first inning of a baseball game, Sunday, April 24, 2016, in Denver. Puig drew a walk, the first of three in a row yielded by Lyles. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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I know I’m in the tank for Puig and have been for years now, but it’s a pretty fun tank so I don’t care.

Lately I’ve been taken with his hashtag game. Last week we encountered #PuigYourFriend. This one is not as good, but #PuigHungry is pretty solid too.

I just hope this isn’t ruined by word that he’s hired some social media professional to curate his feed. It’s possible and maybe likely, but I just don’t want to hear about it if it’s the case:

 

And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights

Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Corey Kluber delivers against the Detroit Tigers during the first inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, May 4, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Associated Press
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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Indians 4, Tigers 0: Corey Kluber with a five-hit shutout in a game which ended in a tidy two hours and nineteen minutes and featured only three pitchers in all. It’s like it was the 1970s or something.

Red Sox 5, White Sox 2: Sox win!

OK, I can’t just leave it at that for the second day in a row. David Ortiz hit a two-run shot for what ended up being the winning runs. It was Ortiz’s 509th career homer, which ties him with Gary Sheffield for 25th on the all-time home run list. Ortiz is on a 36-home run pace. In the past two seasons he’s hit 37 and 35, so it’s not unreasonable to think he’ll get there. If he does pull that off, he’ll pass Sheffield, Mel Ott, Eddie Matthews, Ernie Banks, Ted Williams, Frank Thomas, Willie McCovey, Jimmy Foxx and Mickey Freakin’ Mantle to end up at 17 on the all-time list. That’s some pretty rarified air. And Gary Sheffield.

Reds 7, Giants 4: Zack CozartBrandon Phillips and Eugenio Suarez each hit homers in the second inning as the Reds put up five on Jake Peavy in the frame and went on to avoid the sweep. The Giants’ top three starters have ERAs of 3.61., 3.32, and 3.03. Their fourth and fifth starters have ERAs of 7.00 (Matt Cain) and 8.61 (Peavy). The Giants are in first place. If they’d gotten anything from the back end of their rotation so far they’d be in first by more than a mere half game.

Cubs 6, Pirates 2Ben Zobrist hit a three-run home run and Anthony Rizzo hit a solo shot. The Cubs sweep the Pirates to win their seventh of eight games. They have a six-game division lead already. Juggernaut, much?

Cardinals 5, Phillies 4: The Cardinals scored twice in the bottom of the ninth, capped off with Matt Holliday‘s walkoff single. After the game Holliday said “we needed it . . . this was one we needed to win.” That seems weird to say in early May, but given that the Cardinals had lost five of six and the Cubs are threatening to run away with the division, it’s not a crazy thought.

Mets 8, Braves 0: Steven Matz pitched two-hit shutout ball into the eighth and Lucas Duda homered twice. New York has won 10 of 12. I’m still of the view that the Braves fire Fredi Gonzalez today. I just feel like that’s a thing that’s gonna happen.

Angels 7, Brewers 3: Mike Trout tripled and homered. Remember when, in the first week or two of the season, people were asking if Trout was OK? He’s now hitting .317/.400/.596 and a 41 home run, 127-RBI pace, so yeah, he’s OK.

Nationals 13, Royals 2: The Nats scored six runs before Stephen Strasburg had to throw a single pitch. They had 10 runs by the time they stopped batting in the third. Most of the afternoon, then, was mere formality. Kris Medlen was both shelled and betrayed by his defense, giving up nine runs, six of which were earned. In two home starts he’s allowed sixteen runs, thirteen earned.

Mariners 9, Athletics 8: Seattle led by two, then trailed by four then came back with five runs between the sixth and seventh innings to take this one going away and to complete the sweep. Dae-Ho Lee hit two bombs for Seattle.

Rockies 2, Padres 0: Eight shutout innings from Tyler Chatwood. The game’s two runs scored of a fielder’s choice and a sacrifice. Feel the excitement.

Yankees 7, Orioles 0: CC Sabathia looked like the CC of old, as he pitched seven shutout innings. The Yankees’ bats finally came alive. Brian McCann drove in three so I guess he came alive too. Total resurrection game for the Bombers. If THE BOSS was still alive . . .

Blue Jays 4, Rangers 3: Russell Martin with a walkoff single, giving the Jays two walkoffs in a row against Texas. Pitcher wins and losses don’t mean much but as a whole the Rangers bullpen has nine losses on the year and that’s not really great or OK.

Marlins 4, Diamondbacks 3: Giancarlo Stanton homered but he’s more than just a power hitter. Check out the hose:

Tomas was called safe, but replay showed that Stanton got ’em.

Rays 8, Dodgers 5: Steve Pearce hit a go-ahead, three-run homer and Brandon Guyer, Steven Souza Jr. and Curt Casali each hit solo shots. The Dodgers were 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position.

 

Astros 16, Twins 4: Jason Castro homered and drove in four runs. Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa both homered and drove in three. It’s the first time all year Houston has won consecutive games. Dang.

Brett Cecil doesn’t appreciate being booed by Blue Jays fans

Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons pulls relief pitcher Brett Cecil during seventh inning baseball action against the Chicago White Sox in Toronto on Monday, April 25, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Blue Jays reliever Brett Cecil has had a rough start to the 2016 season. The lefty leads the majors in losses with five. With that, he carries an ugly 5.59 ERA in 9 2/3 innings. Cecil entered the season with a rather lengthy consecutive scoreless innings streak, but Jays fans seem to have short memories as the home crowd has directed boos at Cecil.

TSN’s Scott MacArthur caught up with Cecil about the booing.

Struggling early isn’t anything new to Cecil. He rode a 5.96 ERA through June 21 last year, the final time in 2015 he would yield earned runs. From his next appearance on June 24 through the end of the regular season, he posted a 44/4 K/BB ratio over 31 2/3 innings. It would behoove Jays fans to show some more patience with the lefty as Cecil could easily turn things around as he did last season.