Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Royals Clinch the AL Central

By Jeff Kallman

Last year, they needed the wild card play-in game to kick their way into a postseason run that ended one game short of a World Series triumph. This year, the Kansas City Royals won't have to worry about that kind of tension. Not after they thrashed their way into clinching the American League Central Thursday night.

Not after they got the biggest game of Johnny Cueto's tenure since his arrival in a non-waiver trade deadline deal. Cueto couldn't have picked a better time to win his first start in six weeks. So it wasn't exactly pretty with 3 runs and 7 hits against 5 punchouts and 2 passes, but nobody said it had to be pretty to win, either.

Not with the Seattle Mariners needing to go through seven pitchers (starter James Paxton was forced to leave in the second with a torn fingernail) before the Royals put paid to a 10-4 win, their first AL Central clinch ever, and their first division title since they were in the AL West and bagged a second straight one in 1985. And not with the Minnesota Twins helping the Royals' cause, their earlier 6-4 loss to the Cleveland Indians assuring the Royals of a postseason berth regardless.

And not with the Royals' bats whittling, pecking, and finally bludgeoning their way back, over, and so far on top the Mariners couldn't have seen them with a telescope. The whittling only began in the bottom of the fifth, when Eric Hosmer hammered a 1-1 pitch over the center field fence off the fourth Mariners pitcher of the day, Rob Rasmussen, who'd just come in to relieve Mayckol Guaipe after the latter opened with a battle that ended with Lorenzo Cain striking out on a huge swing.

How ugly was Cueto's win? The leadoff hitter in four of his first six innings' work, and Cueto had to squirm out of a nasty fourth inning jam while he was at it, with the first three Mariners reaching and the third, Mark Trumbo, sending the Mariners ahead by a run with a two-run double, before Cueto got himself a foul out, a ground out, and a line out to contain that damage.

He got through the seventh in style enough, but by then he had a 2-run lead thanks to Cain's 2-out, 2-run single, which might have been more but for Cain getting thrown out trying to take second on the play.

The Royals went to their customary roach and roll style to hang up a pair in the bottom of the seventh: hit batsman to lead off, fly out, walk, RBI single, intentional walk to set up a double play, and a run-scoring infield force. They got a little friskier in the eight with a 2-run single (Mike Moustakas, who'd given the Royals an early 2-1 lead with a leadoff bomb in the second) and an RBI triple (Alex Rios) back to back.

There's just one problem, however: the Royals will need Thursday night's Cueto and just a little bit more to survive in the postseason. And they'll need their magnificent bullpen to tighten up and pick each other up even more without their closer.

Greg Holland is gone for the season thanks to what turned out to be an elbow ligament tear, an injury that had affected him on the mound in a few prior appearances. The injury took some velocity off his fastball and probably contributed big enough to Holland's 5.50 ERA, 24 hits and eleven walks in 18 innings' work, and three blown saves.

Never mind that he'll face Tommy John surgery, most likely, in the offseason. The injury may actually spell the end of the vaunted H-D-H bullpen, since Holland's walk year would be 2016 and — if he has Tommy John surgery — he'll miss most of it. And the Royals aren't in a payroll position to think about re-signing him yet.

The good news is that the Royals bullpen is deeper than the Gulf of Mexico. Wade Davis finished out Thursday night, just to get in the work and into the mindset of being the ninth-inning man. After shaking off a leadoff homer (Logan Morrison) and follow-up walk (Brad Miller), he struck out his next two hitters and ended the game on a grounder to first. Davis threw a mere 16 pitches to get through it.

Davis and Kelvim Herrera are each good for multiple-inning assignments if need be. Ryan Madson — back to action after two Tommy John surgeries and for the first time since 2011 — has had a 2.35 ERA, has kept hitters on both sides of the plate to sub-.215 batting averages against him. Danny Duffy will probably be the long man otherwise. But losing Holland doesn't necessarily mean disaster assuming manager Ned Yost manages the pen as adroitly as he did last fall.

Right now, though, isn't the time Kansas City wants to think about things like that. They'd rather enjoy the aftertaste of Thursday night's champagne and then get back on their horses. Last year they were roaching and rolling to get to the postseason at all. This year, despite a few early hiccups and a lot of people predicting their growing pains would mean wait till next year, they could end up with the American League's best record.

And if they're likely to be looking at postseason dates with clubs like the Toronto Blue Jays (those ought to be gems) or those upstarts out of Arlington — the Rangers were seen as an even less likely postseason entrant until, somehow, some way, they drilled their way to the top of the American League West, with a glorious chance to put the equally upstart Houston Astros away this weekend, maybe for good — the Royals wouldn't mind at least looking like the league's best.

First, though, they'll enjoy their division title. "There's a lot of guys in this clubhouse I've talked to that have toiled for years to get to this point, to win the division," said Ben Zobrist, another mid-season trade pickup who had two doubles and scored three Thursday — including the game's first run, when Mariners catcher Jesus Sucre threw wild with Hosmer at the plate in the first. "For them to do it, you can see the kind of sigh of relief, the excitement in the organization."

The Royals just don't want to end up sighing a game short of the Promised Land this time around.

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