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.

Video: Odubel Herrera’s glorious bat flip

DETROIT, MI - MAY 25: Odubel Herrera #37 of the Philadelphia Phillies hits a three run home run during the fourth inning of the inter-league game against the Detroit Tigers on May 25, 2016 at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
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Phillies outfielder Odubel Herrera, playing in his second game since being benched for a lack of hustle, hit a three-run home run to extend his team’s lead to 5-1 in the fourth inning on Wednesday afternoon. After putting a sweet swing on an Anibal Sanchez 2-1 slider, Herrera flipped his bat in grand fashion. It wasn’t quite as emphatic as Jose Bautista‘s from last year’s ALDS, but it was glorious nonetheless.

To the Tigers’ credit, Herrera’s bat flip didn’t result in any shouting or fighting or throwing intentionally at hitters. So that’s nice.

Herrera is now batting .327/.440/.461 with five home runs and 17 RBI on the year. The Phillies selected him in the Rule 5 draft from the Rangers ahead of the 2015 season and he’s proven to be the lifeblood of the offense thus far.

30 years ago, Dave Kingman sent a live rat to a female reporter

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Someone on Reddit’s /r/baseball page linked to this New York Times article from June 1986.

Dave Kingman, then with the Athletics, was 37 years old and playing in what would be his final season. He was fined $3,500, which is a little over $7,600 in 2016 dollars, for sending a live rat in a pink box to a female reporter, Susan Fornoff of The Sacramento Bee. The rat wore a tag that said “my name is Sue.”

Kingman refused to apologize, saying, “I’ve pulled practical jokes on other people and I didn’t apologize to them.”

According to Fornoff, Kingman had said to her that women don’t belong in the clubhouse, and Kingman had been harassing her since she began covering the team in ’85. The Athletics didn’t keep Kingman around after the season, and he ended up hanging up the spikes.

Pete Dexter wrote in more detail about the incident at Deadspin a few years ago. It’s a good read.

I wasn’t familiar with this story as I was still more than two years from being born when it happened. Sports media has made strides towards being more inclusive of non-white cisgender straight men, especially compared to 30 years ago. But, of course, we’re still a long ways away from an ideal world in which everyone is treated equally and everyone has equal access. Some of the best baseball reporting and analysis these days is being done by women and it’s nice to see sites, especially FanGraphs recently, make a concerted effort towards diversification.

D-Backs mulling optioning Shelby Miller to the minors

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 24:  Shelby Miller #26 of the Arizona Diamondbacks pitches in the first inning during the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on May 24, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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Diamondbacks starter Shelby Miller continued to struggle on Tuesday, serving up six runs on eight hits and four walks with three strikeouts over five innings against the Pirates. His ERA, in 10 starts this season, stands at an unsightly 7.09 with 30 strikeouts and 29 walks in 45 2/3 innings.

The D-Backs acquired him from the Braves over the winter, sending 2015 first overall pick Dansby Swanson to Atlanta along with pitching prospect Aaron Blair and outfielder Ender Inciarte. It’s a trade they’d most likely take back if they had the luxury.

Instead, GM Dave Stewart is considering optioning the right-hander to Triple-A Reno to figure things out, Jack Magruder reports for Today’s Knuckleball. Stewart said, “We want to get him on track the best way we can. We will figure it out and do what’s needed.”

Miller is currently slated to start against the Padres on Sunday, so the club has a few more days to consider what to do. Josh Collmenter will likely be activated over the weekend, which would create a convenient way to put him back on the roster and deal with Miller.

Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Xander Bogaerts both extend their hitting streaks

BOSTON, MA - MAY 24:  Jackie Bradley Jr. #25 of the Boston Red Sox returns to the dugout after scoring in the second inning during the game against the Colorado Rockies at Fenway Park on May 24, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. Extending his hitting streak to 28 games.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
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Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. and shortstop Xander Bogaerts both extended their hitting streaks on Wednesday night against the Rockies, and both did it in the bottom of the fourth inning.

Bogaerts led off the inning with a solo home run to left-center off of Chad Bettis. After David Ortiz walked and Hanley Ramirez grounded into a fielder’s choice, Bradley laced a single to left field. Bogaerts’ streak now stands at 18 games and Bradley’s is at 29. Bradley is tied with Johnny Damon for the fourth-longest streak in Red Sox history. He trails Tris Speaker and Nomar Garciaparra at 30 and Dom DiMaggio at 34.

The Red Sox entered Wednesday’s action averaging 5.87 runs per game, the best mark in baseball. The major league average is 4.28. Bogaerts and Bradley, unsurprisingly, have been a big part of the offense’s success thus far.