The Royals just completed a sweep of the Baltimore Orioles to push their record to 16-21. They remain in last place in the American League Central. They still have the worst record in the American League (though they’re now tied with the A’s). Typically a rise to a 70-win pace isn’t cause for optimism, but when they were on a 54-win pace just a week ago in a season that was being billed as the last stand for many of the core players, it’s certainly a better look. I think it’s fair to wonder even if the Royals we all watched so closely are indeed back.
Looking for reasons to be optimistic about the Royals start, the one that I keep coming back to is that in spite of the terrible April, they didn’t bury themselves in either the AL Central or the Wild Card race. Right now, they’re just 4.5 games behind the division leading Twins and 3.5 games behind the Indians, who are the clear favorites, no matter what the standings say today. The Indians currently hold the second Wild Card spot (though that’s not terribly important in mid-May), so the Royals aren’t that far behind that in that race either. The point is, they had to get hot and win some games at some point, but their dreams of a playoff run are certainly not as over as they seemed last week.
Can they do it? My answer is still probably not, but this is much more fun than it had been. Watching Royals games was a chore in April, and if you had purchased tickets to the game, it was a chore you were paying for. That’s not cool. If the Royals are planning to prove me wrong and actually make a run to the playoffs, there are a few factors that could allow them to do so, and we saw them all on display over the weekend sweep of the Orioles.
They’ve fallen back to Earth, which shouldn’t be a surprise, but the Royals rotation still ranks fifth in baseball in ERA and 13th in innings pitched. Chris Young making two of the last six starts doesn’t help things very much, but even with that, they’re one of the better rotations going and should improve when Ian Kennedy returns from the disabled list, hopefully this weekend.
What we saw against the Orioles before Young’s predictably rough outing was two starts that show you just how this rotation can keep the Royals afloat all season. On Friday night, Danny Duffy looked really good for the first time in almost a month. He went seven innings on just 97 pitches. He finally started getting strikeouts again and he walked just one. He had 15 swinging strikes, which is about the number he should be getting almost every start with the stuff he possesses. What was especially encouraging is that he seemed to find himself after the third inning. From that point forward, he went four innings, gave up two hits and struck out three while not walking anyone. That’s the Duffy we expect to see almost every time out and he delivered.
Then on Saturday night, Nate Karns was electric. He struck out 12 in just five innings of work. If not for former Royal Francisco Pena, he probably would have gone more than five innings and struck out more than 12, but regardless, it was an outstanding performance. He was able to get 18 swings and misses out of just 91 pitches. It was his second straight start getting that many whiffs. Add Kennedy and Jason Vargas to the two who started over the weekend, and that’s a rotation you can trust.
Middle of the Order Hitters
The Royals lineup has been in disarray since the first game of the season. While they only scored seven runs in the first two games of the series, they just looked better doing it. When they broke out for nine runs (a season-high) in the series finale, it looked like everything finally clicked for for the first time. In the series against the Orioles, take a look at the numbers from the key guys in the lineup:
Yes it’s three games and slash stats are silly with that small of a sample, but you can see that the middle of the lineup did the job this weekend. And how about that Soler bomb to dead center? I haven’t seen anything like that before in Kauffman Stadium. That man has some serious power and it sort of feels like he’s just about ready to go nuts. There’s a very real issue with Alex Gordon, but at this point, he’s become a bottom of the order hitter. If these guys above do their job, it won’t be as big of a deal that Gordon is channeling his inner Tony Pena, Jr.
It seems sort of odd that the bullpen would be mentioned here given that they very nearly gave away the lead in the series finale and did give away the lead on Saturday night, but I think the Royals mix has started to figure itself out and I like what I see. While they’re certainly no HDH, I think the foursome of Matt Strahm, Mike Minor, Joakim Soria and Kelvin Herrera is definitely enough to lock down games. When you add in Peter Moylan pitching as a ROOGY (right-handed one out guy) like he should be, and hopefully some contributions from Al Alburquerque and Seth Maness, I can see the Royals bullpen climbing back to the top of the league by the end of this season. I thought before the season that things would eventually shake out to give the Royals a very good bullpen, and it looks like Yost is finding his formula to make that happen. SMSH worked to give up just one run in 8.2 innings over the weekend and that came in Herrera’s third game in three days. The strikeouts weren’t there for those four over the weekend, but I like what they bring to the table as a unit.
So the Royals won three of four in Tampa and then swept the Orioles. They’re definitely climbing. Are they back? I think that remains to be seen. The next checkpoint in my mind comes at Memorial Day. That’s 13 games against the Yankees, Twins and Indians. The last week has been great, but they need to show something big over the next 13. Win eight or nine of them and I think we can certainly have the discussion.