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Salvage Work

Doubleheaders are tricky business.

With the eight (or nine) man bullpen being the norm, it can still be difficult to navigate the staff around 18 guaranteed innings in one day. Factor in stretches where days off are far in the horizon, and it’s damned essential for teams to get depth from at least one starter when playing two.

On Sunday, the way it would have been drawn up on the white board it figured to be Danny Duffy giving the Royals length in the first game while hoping for a decent enough outing from Jake Junis in the nightcap.

About those best laid plans…

Duffy was roughed up in game one. After seven runs in the first two innings, he thankfully was able to apply a tourniquet to gut it out through a little over three more frames.  That put the bullpen in play a little earlier than expected. Or hoped. Peter Moylan, Scott Alexander and Brandon Maurer held the Mariners at bay. A Nelson Cruz home run in the seventh was the only blemish on the bullpen in game one.

On the flip side, you have the Mariners, staked to a seven run lead and a starter who couldn’t get out of the fifth. They used seven pitchers in relief, with a seventh inning carousel that saw three relievers to record three outs. Modern baseball, man.

The Royals battled gamely, but the Cruz home run was the difference in defeat. They had their chances, and the Mariners, certainly in the late innings, had the look of a team disinterested in actually winning, but the 27th out was recorded before the eighth run.

With a deep bullpen and adequate cover for Duffy in the first game, it wouldn’t be accurate to say the pressure was on Junis in game two. At least not any more than any other major league start. With no days off in the schedule between now and August 17, Junis, who was recalled as the 26th man on the doubleheader roster, was pressed into starting duty. He had had a bit of a bumpy ride as a starter in the bigs so far, with a 6.00 ERA and 40 hits in 33 innings. Nine of those hits left the yard which is an unhealthy 2.5 HR/9. The majority of those starts came in June, where the Royals were still pulling themselves back into a pennant race. The stakes were higher on Sunday.

Junis shoved.

It was a brilliant outing where he required just 94 pitches to get through eight innings. Junis allowed just four hits (no home runs!), and struck out seven. By holding the Mariners in check, he was able to secure the four game series split with Seattle. That meant in a day where Cleveland lost and Tampa won, the Royals were largely able to maintain the status quo in the races. It also meant that Seattle would leave Kansas City exactly the same number of games back in the Wild Card standings (1.5) as when they arrived.

The Wild Card race seems to be getting interesting again. Just a week after the trade deadline where it looked like the Orioles and the Angels were sinking, they have found a little momentum and have tightened the standings. Stating the obvious here, wins are critical at this juncture. If anything, it matters being the team the others are chasing. Let them trip over each other and themselves trying to make up ground. Claim the high road and try to keep your balance.

Still, at this moment, Tampa and Seattle look worthy challengers. At Baseball Prospectus, the Royals playoff odds have cooled, down to 32 percent, a loss of 10 percentage points from a week ago. The Mariners have made modest gains and are at 23 percent while the team to beat looks to be the Rays, who, despite going 5-5 over the last 10 games, have surged in the playoff odds report and are now the favorites for the second Wild Card at 40 percent. While the aforementioned Orioles and Angels are hot at the moment, PECOTA isn’t buying their chances. Both are below 10 percent.

The odds of course, are the odds. They are based on computer simulation and, like team record projections published in March, don’t mean anything. It’s simply one benchmark in a season that looks a long way from being sorted.

A key man in deciding how the next two months play out will be Salvador Perez. The Royals hemmed and hawed on Saturday, declining to place their catcher on the disabled list, but it had the feeling of the inevitable. Out with a strained intercostal muscle, Perez is down for a minimum of 10 days and worst-case scenario has him out until early September.

Perez is enjoying his finest season since 2013. You know. From before the Royals were good. His .510 slugging percentage is a career high and his on base percentage has rebounded and is finally above .300 at .308. That gives him an above league average TAv at .274 and a 1.5 WARP. His loss hurts. There’s no getting around it. Take a productive bat out of the middle of any contender’s lineup and they’re going to miss it. When it’s a catcher… Sigh.

For now, the Royals will rely on a tandem of Drew Butera and Cameron Gallagher. Both are acceptable backup options under normal conditions. Starting on the regular? Let’s just say neither can replace the production of Perez.

The bottom third of the order again resembles the black hole we saw in April. Which causes a rethink on my part as to how to allocate playing time amongst the outfield and designated hitter quartet of options. Offense is now more of a priority with Perez out, which means it would behoove the Royals to figure out a way to get Jorge Bonifacio and Melky Cabrera most of the at bats.  Let Brandon Moss and Alex Gordon fight over the remainder of the available at bats. The longer Perez remains sidelined, the more critical it is that Ned Yost gets his lineup correct.

The pennant races can’t be won in August. But it sure feels like it can be lost.

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