Saturday, April 19, 2008

It's a Good Thing I Fell Asleep

I bought the MLB Extra Innings package this year, since we finally have digital cable and are able to get those channels. It's great to be able to once again sit down and watch all the Kansas City Royals games, although I'm not so sure my wife is going to think it's so great as the season progresses.

Last night, I was on the couch, bag of chips and a can of pop on hand, watching the Royals battle the A's. I saw Oakland score the four runs in the bottom of the sixth, breaking open what had been a pitchers duel between Brian Bannister and Chad Gaudin. I don't remember much after that; I fell asleep.

This morning, I woke up and checked the box score and saw that it's probably a good thing I didn't see the end of this game, as Kansas City's Japanese duo of Yasuhiko Yabuta and Hideo Nomo got lit up for eight runs in the eighth inning, and the Royals lost by a score of 13-2. There goes Kansas City's impressive bullpen ERA, I guess.

You really have to respect a veteran like Nomo, who's had incredible success in this game, both in Japan, and here in the United States. But I think it's time that the Royals end this experiment. Nomo has pitched in three games for KC this season, allowing 10 hits, nine runs, three home runs, and four walks, while striking out three in 4.1 innings pitched. His ERA is 18.69. His WHIP is 3.23. Teams are batting .455 against him.

It would have made for an amazing comeback story if Nomo had been able to put up decent numbers like he had in Spring Training. But these are no longer exhibition games where pitchers are facing lots of minor league prospects mixed in with the veterans, and I think we've witnessed the end of Nomo's distinguished career. And maybe it's a good thing I slept through it.

Hideo Nomo Photo Credit: Orlin Wagner/AP

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Meche Wins, as KC Squeaks By Angels

It sure wasn't easy, but Gil Meche earned his first win of the season Wednesday night in Anaheim, as the Kansas City Royals scored three runs early and then held on for a 3-2 victory against the Los Angeles Angels.

Meche, who entered the game with a record of 0-2 and a 7.13 earned run average, scattered six hits over six innings, and worked his way out of trouble several times. He struck out two, walked three, and lowered his ERA to 6.08.

Four Royals relievers combined to hold Los Angeles (9-7) to a pair of hits over the final three innings, and Joakim Soria struck out two batters in a 1-2-3 ninth inning to record his fifth save in five opportunities this season.

Kansas City (9-6) didn't waste any time in getting the offense on track, as the Royals jumped on Angels starter Jered Weaver (1-3) for two runs on five hits in the opening frame.

Center fielder Joey Gathright led off the game with a bunt single, but was then picked off first base. However, consecutive singles by second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, left fielder Mark Teahen, and designated hitter Billy Butler all followed, with Butler's hit to right-center scoring Grudzielanek. Third baseman Alex Gordon then drove in Teahen with a two-out single to right.

The Royals scored what turned out to be the winning run in the second inning when Gathright led off with a single to left, stole second base, and then scored when the Angels' Weaver dropped the throw from first baseman Casey Kotchman on a grounder by Grudzielanek.

In the fourth, Los Angeles (9-7) cut the lead to 3-2 with a two-out rally against Meche. Designated hitter Garrett Anderson singled, moved to third on a double to right-center by center fielder Torii Hunter, and then Kotchman's single to left-center scored both runners.

Meche dodged bullets in the fifth and sixth innings, working out of jams with two runners on base each time. In the fifth, the Angels had runners at second and third with only one out, but Meche snagged a grounder back to the mound and caught the runner at third in a rundown, before ending the inning by getting right fielder Vladimir Guerrero on a grounder to Grudzielanek.

Gathright and Teahen each had three hits for the Royals, with Teahen's double to center in the ninth inning coming just inches shy of a home run. Grudzielanek and Gordon both had two hits, while catcher Miguel Olivo and right fielder Jose Guillen both had doubles.

The teams will wrap up the short two-game series Thursday night at 9:05 p.m., with Kansas City right-hander Brett Tomko (1-1, 2.08) facing Angels' righty Jon Garland (1-2, 5.50).

Miguel Olivo/Joakim Soria Photo Credit: Chris Carlson/AP

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Royals Need Improvement from Meche

The Kansas City Royals have gotten off to a solid start to the 2008 season, winning eight of their first 14 games, and moving back and forth between first and second place in the American Legaue Central standings. But the team's ace, Gil Meche, has yet to contribute to that success.

Through his first three starts, Meche is 0-2 with an elevated 7.13 earned run average. His control has been off, as evidenced by 10 bases on balls issued in just 17.2 innings pitched, and he just seems to be struggling to throw breaking balls for strikes.

I was thinking I could simply look up the stats from Meche's first three starts of 2007, compare them to the numbers from his first three starts of 2008, and it would reveal an obvious reason for his stuggles, but his numbers are pretty consistent to what he had done to this point last year.

Through three games in 2007, Meche had thrown 296 pitches (187 for strikes), had allowed three home runs, and opponents were hitting .288/.329/.438 against him. Through three games this year, Meche has thrown 294 pitches (183 for strikes), has allowed three home runs, and opponents are batting .275/.367/.493 against him.

Those are fairly similar numbers for what is a drastic difference in ERA from one season to the next. I was particularly amazed at the similarities in his pitch totals, and the numbers that were thrown for strikes, because the biggest difference in 2007 and 2008 for Meche is in bases on balls. Last year at this point, Meche had surrendered four walks, but this year's total is 10, which also explains the difference in OBP.

Since Meche's control has been iffy, he might simply be throwing more balls over the middle of the plate so far this season. Those balls are getting hit hard, as nine of the 19 hits he's allowed this year have gone for extra bases, compared to just five of 21 at this point last year.

Meche also hasn't been helped by a continuing lack of run support when he's on the mound. In 2007, the Royals scored an average of just 3.84 runs per game when Meche pitched, which ranked last in the A.L. and was the fourth-worst average in all of baseball.

Kansas City added free agent slugger Jose Guillen to the middle of its lineup during the offseason, which many hoped would bolster the Royals' offensive woes. But Guillen enters tonight's game with a .158 batting average and has yet to hit a home run in a Royals uniform.

Guillen isn't the only player to blame for Meche's lack of run support, but his support this season has been even worse than last year's, at just 2.79 runs per game. I believe that much of that has to do with the fact that, as the Royals' ace, Meche is often matched up against opposing teams' aces. It's not simply a matter of bad luck, as some people seem to think.

Whatever the issue has been through three games, Kansas City fans are hoping that Meche can figure things out, tighten up his control, and find the form that helped him finish last season with nine wins and a 3.67 ERA.

Meche gets his fourth start of the season tonight in Anaheim against a tough Angels lineup. I'm hoping we see the return of last year's consistency on display once again. The Royals need their ace to be just that.

Gil Meche Photo Credit: Paul Battaglia/AP

Monday, April 14, 2008

Greinke's Complete-Game Gem Tops M's

Zack Greinke limited the Seattle Mariners to five hits and one run in a complete-game 5-1 victory Monday night, helping the Kansas City Royals move back into first place in the American League Central standings with a record of 8-5.

Greinke, who improved to 3-0 with a 0.75 earned run average, needed just 107 pitches to record his third career complete game. It marked back-to-back complete games for the Royals, after Brian Bannister threw a complete-game, three-hitter in a 5-1 win against Minnesota on Sunday at Kauffman Stadium.

The Royals grabbed an early 3-0 lead for Greinke in the second inning, when first baseman Billy Butler led off with his first home run of the season, a solo shot into the bullpen in left field. Right fielder Jose Guillen followed with a double to the gap in right-center, and scored on a one-out home run to center by designated hitter Miguel Olivo, who was 3-for-4 with two RBI and two runs scored.

Guillen and Tony Pena, who have both been mired in long hitting slumps, each went 2-for-4 in the game, hopefully showing signs of breaking out offensively.

Seattle (6-8) scored its lone run in the bottom of the third inning, after Greinke issued a leadoff walk to Brad Wilkerson. It was Greinke's only walk, but Wilkerson later scored on a fielder's choice grounder to first base by Ichiro Suzuki.

Kansas City scored a run in the seventh on a sacrifice fly to center by David DeJesus, who was playing in a game for the first time since Opening Day, and added its final run on an RBI single to center by catcher John Buck in the eighth inning.

The Mariners threatened in the bottom of the eighth, but left fielder Mark Teahen leaped at the wall to rob what would have been a two-run home run by Seattle's Yuniesky Betancourt, and end the inning.

For most of the night, though, Greinke was keeping the ball down in the zone and forcing the Mariners to ground out. Royals second baseman Mark Grudzielanek seemed to handle a majority of the ground balls, as he recorded 10 assists and two putouts in the game, finishing just two assists shy of a record-setting assist total for a second baseman.

The Royals and Mariners conclude their brief two-game series Tuesday afternoon at 5:40 p.m. The Royals will send left-hander John Bale (0-2, 5.84) to the hill, while Seattle will counter with righty Miguel Batista (0-2, 6.00).

Zack Greinke Photo Credit: Kevin P. Casey/AP

Things Could Be Worse for Guillen

Just when I thought things couldn't get much worse for Jose Guillen, I found this article about David Ortiz, written by ESPN's Jerry Crasnick.

Ortiz, the four-time All-Star selection of the Boston Red Sox, the guy with the nickname "Big Papi," is in a dreadful slump to start the 2008 season. Yes, pretty close to matching Guillen's troubles at the plate. Ortiz is just 3-for-43 for a line of .070/.231/.140 with one home run, six runs scored, and three runs batted in. So, the Big Papi has essentially become the Big Pop Up.

Guillen, as any true Kansas City Royals fan would know, is batting just .122/.157/.163 with six hits (two doubles) in 49 at bats, five runs batted in, and three runs scored. All you have to do is take a look at the results of the poll on this site to see the level of KC fans' frustration with Guillen so far this year. He batted cleanup for the first 10 games of the season, and then switched places with designated hitter Billy Butler and has been batting fifth the past two games.

Something has to break this slump for Guillen, and I'm hoping it's this week's West Coast road swing through three of his former stomping grounds. The Royals open with a pair of games at Seattle, where Guillen played in 2007, then travel to Los Angeles for two games against an Angels team he played for in 2004, and end the trip with three games in Oakland, where he spent part of his 2003 season.

You have to figure that Guillen might want to show the Mariners' brass that they made a mistake by not signing him to a contract extension when they had a chance this offseason. He's even more likely to be out for blood when he faces Mike Scioscia's Angels. Guillen's time in Anaheim ended in an ugly manner, when he was suspended by Scioscia for making some critical comments about the manager, and he's been very open about the importance he places on the games any time he faces the Angels, or Scioscia, the rest of his career.

And, if nothing else, hopefully some warmer temperatures on the West Coast will bring Guillen's bat out of the freezer. Something needs to click, though, because writing a comparison to the Big Pop Up is getting pretty desperate. I'm banking on a big week from the Royals' new free agent slugger.

Jose Guillen Photo Credit: Duane Burleson/AP

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Blue Review: Week Two

Overall Record: 7-5 (2nd in A.L. Central)
Record This Week: 3-3 (2-1 vs. NYY, 1-2 vs. MIN)
Home: 3-3
Away: 0-0
Current Streak: Win 1
Upcoming Games: at SEA (2), at LAA (2), at OAK (3)

Twins Trouble: I doubt there are many Royals fans who would have scoffed at a 7-5 record two weeks into the 2008 season. But there are probably very few, if any, who would have foreseen seven wins in 12 games, but only a mark of 2-4 against the Minnesota Twins. Most people would have looked at the schedule and predicted a tough time against the Tigers and the Yankees, but the Royals are a combined 5-1 against those teams.

Westward Bound: The Royals packed up after their 5-1 win against the Twins on Sunday, and flew to Seattle for the first of a tough seven-game road trip this week. Kansas City opens with two games against the Mariners, then heads to Los Angeles for a pair of games with the Angels, before wrapping up the trip with three games in Oakland. After Sunday's games, the surprising A's lead the A.L. West with a mark of 8-5, followed by the Angels at 7-6, and the Mariners at 6-7.

Home Sweet Home: Alex Gordon must like the new Crown Vision board at Kauffman Stadium, as the second-year third baseman had a productive week at the plate. In six games against the Yankees and Twins, Gordon batted .409/.458/.682 with six runs scored, three doubles, and a home run. For the season, Gordon's totals are .333/.360/.604 with 10 runs scored, seven runs batted in, four doubles, and three home runs.

The Bee Gees: Kansas City has several players whose last names begin with the letter B, and a bunch more whose surname starts with the letter G, who are making important contributions to the 2008 team. The B's include Billy Butler, Brian Bannister, John Buck, and John Bale, while the G's are Alex Gordon, Joey Gathright, Ross Gload, Mark Grudzielanek, Jose Guillen, Zack Greinke, and Jimmy Gobble. Throw in Gil Meche, and that's a lot of B's and G's.

Lights Out: Starting right-handed pitchers Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke have been lights out to begin the season. Bannister is 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA and just 10 hits allowed in 21.0 innings pitched. He has struck out a team-high 13 batters, while walking just five, and recorded the Royals' first complete game of the season in Sunday's 5-1 win against the Twins. Greinke, who will make his third start of the year Monday night in Seattle, is 2-0 with a 0.60 ERA, having allowed just 12 hits and one earned run in 15.0 innings.

Butler's Streak: Billy Butler enters this week with a 12-game hitting streak, which is tied for the longest streak in Major League Baseball. Butler is batting .368/.500/.421 with one double, one run scored, and one RBI in Kansas City's six home games, but is even better on the road, with a line of .400/.400/.520, three doubles, three RBI, and one run scored.

Time to Hit, Jose: I'm sure this was not the type of first impression Jose Guillen was hoping to make in his initial games as a member of the Royals at Kauffman Stadium, but Guillen collected just two hits in 25 at bats this week. Just as the Royals were patient with Alex Gordon during his slumping first half last year, the team is continuing to leave Guillen in the lineup despite his horrendous line of .122/.157/.163. Maybe a return to Seattle, Los Angeles, and Oakland this week will wake him from this offensive slumber. Royals fans can only hope.

Three Amigos Still Untouchable: The bullpen trio of Joakim Soria, Leo Nunez, and Ramon Ramirez -- which I have started to refer to as the Three Amigos -- still has a combined 0.00 ERA in 14.1 innings pitched. Soria has four saves, allowing two hits in 5.0 innings, while striking out seven, walking none, and holding opponents to a .125 batting average. Nunez has two holds, allowing just two hits in 5.2 innings for a .111 batting average against, has struck out seven, and walked just two. Ramirez has given up four hits in 3.2 innings, striking out five, and issuing no walks.

Powder Blues Look Good: I'm in agreement with most fans who really love the fact that the Royals brought back the powder blue jerseys, as I think they look great, and they are reminiscent of some of the best times in Kansas City baseball history. I just wish they would have been daring enough to go all the way, and wear powder blue pants, as well. There's something about the white pants with the powder blue top that just doesn't seem quite right. Maybe it's that it sort of looks like a softball jersey to me, but I'm sure I'll get used to it over time. One thing is for certain, though, and that's that I definitely prefer the powder blues to the black mantra that was given a try for a few years. And I love the return of the blue cleats, too. Nice.

Join the Fun, Gil: Royals ace Gil Meche has been struggling to start the 2008 season. Meche enters this week with a record of 0-2 in three starts, with a 7.13 ERA. He's allowed 19 hits and 14 earned runs in 17.2 innings, and leads the team with 16 strikeouts, but has given up 10 walks. Both of Meche's losses came against the Minnesota Twins, in matchups against Twins starter Livan Hernandez. Meche is scheduled to make his fourth start of the season on Wednesday against the Angels.

Tomko Looking Sharp: One of the biggest questions heading into the 2008 season was about who would fill the final two spots in the rotation, and how well they would fare. One of those spots was filled by right-hander Brett Tomko, who has pitched very well in his first appearances in a Royals uniform. Tomko has made two starts, pitching a combined 11 innings and allowing 12 hits and just two earned runs. He took the loss in Saturday's 2-0 setback versus the Twins, despite pitching well enough to win most nights. For the year, the 35-year old righty is 1-1 with a 2.08 ERA, six strikeouts, and three walks.

Hillman Among the Best: Trey Hillman's 7-5 record through 12 games ranks third among all-time Royals managers in their first full season on the job. In other words, that's not factoring in the first 12 games of managers who took over mid-season. Only Tony Pena's magical 11-1 start in 2003, and Jack McKeon's 9-3 record to start the 1973 season are better than Hillman's start. Following Hillman, there are a total of eight managers -- Bob Boone (1995), John Wathan (1988), Billy Gardner (1987), Dick Howser (1982), Jim Frey (1980), Bob Lemon (1971), Charlie Metro (1970), and Joe Gordon (1969) -- who were 6-6, while Tony Muser (1988) and Whitey Herzog (1976) were 5-12. Buddy Bell began his first full season (2006) with a record of 2-10, while Hal McRae was 1-11 to start the 1992 season.

Bannister's Complete Game Tops Twins

Facing a three-game losing streak, the Kansas City Royals turned to Brian Bannister, and for the third time this season, the right-handed starting pitcher was dazzling.

Bannister improved his record to 3-0, and lowered his earned run average to a microscopic 0.86, by pitching a complete-game, three-hitter in a 5-1 win against the Minnesota Twins. His effort was basically a shutout, as Minnesota's lone run was unearned after right fielder Jose Guillen dropped a routine fly ball in the first inning. He struck out three, walked one, and helped the Royals improve to 7-5.

Third baseman Alex Gordon led Kansas City's offense by going 2-for-3 with a double, his third home run of the season, three runs scored, and a stolen base. Center fielder Joey Gathright was the only other Royals player with two hits, while designated hitter Miguel Olivo had an RBI double in three at bats. First baseman Billy Butler raised his batting average to .386 with an RBI single and three walks in four plate appearances.

The Royals will now be tested by a seven-game West Coast road swing, which starts Monday at 9:10 p.m. with the first of two games in Seattle. Zack Greinke (2-0, 0.60) will start for the Royals, while Jarrod Washburn (1-1, 3.00) will take the hill for the Mariners (6-7).

Brian Bannister Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel/AP

Royals' Offense Needs a Jump Start

I went to a Storyhill concert last night with my wife -- I bought the tickets in January, and it was my Valentine's gift to her -- so I wasn't able to watch the Royals' 2-0 loss to the Minnesota Twins, but it doesn't seem like I really missed much.

Kansas City was shut out by the Twins for the second straight game, dropping its record to 6-5, and extending a streak of 26 consecutive innings in which the Royals have failed to score a run. Ouch.

For the first time in several years, the Royals have a solid pitching staff -- both rotation and bullpen -- that seems capable of having a successful season. Through 11 games, Kansas City's 12 pitchers have combined for a 2.82 earned run average to lead the American League. The Royals also lead the league with five saves, two shutouts, 89 hits allowed, and just 31 runs against.

Those figures are certainly the biggest reason behind Kansas City's 6-2 start to the season, but the offense has faltered in the last three games, resulting in the team's first three-game losing streak of the year.

Kansas City's offense ranks dead-last in the A.L. for home runs (4), bases on balls (24), and on-base percentage (.304), while ranking next-to-last in runs scored (33) and slugging percentage (.347).

New manager Trey Hillman has been tinkering with the lineup, trying to find the right combination, but nothing has seemed to work. Right fielder Jose Guillen, who signed a three-year, $36 million contract during the offseason in hopes of bolstering the middle of the Royals' lineup, is the target of many fans' ire.

Guillen, who hit 23 home runs and drove in 99 runs last year for Seattle, is batting just .133 with five RBI, three runs scored, and two doubles. His OPS is a miserable .348, and his OPS+ is -5.

It's difficult to have numbers much worse than Guillen's, but shortstop Tony Pena owns them. After opening the season with a game-winning RBI bloop-single to beat the Tigers in 11 innings, Pena has failed to record a hit. Entering today's game, he is batting .037/.071/.037 with eight strikeouts in 27 at bats.

This is not meant to be a rant about how bad Jose Guillen is. I understand that he has a history of slow starts in April, and that his numbers will eventually rise. You can't keep a player of his caliber out of the lineup, but I just hope that hitting coach Mike Barnett can help Guillen figure things out before he digs himself too big of a hole. Even if Guillen bats .300 over his next 20 at bats, his average would still be just .184, so it will take some consistent hitting to bolster his average.

On a positive note, several Royals players are off to solid starts. Designated hitter Billy Butler (.372), first baseman Ross Gload (.333), left fielder Mark Teahen (.316), and third baseman Alex Gordon (.311) all have plus-.300 averages and have played in all 11 games, while second baseman Mark Grudzielanek is batting .343 over nine games.

Teahen's numbers are most impressive in that group, as he's compiled a line of .316/.435/.526 with three doubles, a triple, and a home run for a 160 OPS+. But Gordon, who leads the team with six RBI, is tied for 28th-best in the A.L in that category.

The Royals will attempt to break out of their offensive funk when they play host to the Twins in the final game of their three-game series today at 1:10 p.m. Hopefully, the offense finds its way to the ballpark.

Mark Teahen Photo Credit: Duane Burleson/AP
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