Thursday, October 23, 2014

Royals get even with win in World Series Game 2

The Kansas City Royals couldn't afford to lose the first two games of the World Series at home. After getting pummeled in Game 1, it was imperative they bounce back with a win in Game 2 on Wednesday night.

Bounce back they did, as the Royals scored five runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to break open a close game and defeat the San Francisco Giants 7-2, tying the 2014 Fall Classic at 1-1.

My biggest question coming into this game was whether Kansas City starter Yordano Ventura would be healthy enough to pitch effectively. The youngster exited earlier than he would have liked in his Game 2 start in the AL Championship Series with a shoulder problem, and you couldn't help but wonder whether he would suffer any lingering effects in the biggest start of his life.

Before the game, I even saw some chatter on the Internet where Royals fans were criticizing manager Ned Yost for starting Ventura. Some were suggesting the 23-year-old needed to be shut down in order to "protect his future."

Here's the thing about that: Exactly what future are you preparing for? If you are the Royals, your future is right now. This is their chance to win it all, and Ventura is one of their best pitchers. If he can go, you send him out there. What are you saving him for? The 2043 World Series?

Ventura quieted all those fears with a credible performance. His fastball touched 100 mph, as it normally does, and he fired 5.1 innings, allowing two runs on eight hits. With the bullpen Kansas City has, that's all it needed from its young starter.

And credit Yost for removing Ventura at precisely the right moment. The score was tied, 2-2, in the top of the sixth inning, and the Giants had runners at first and second with one out. San Francisco looked poised to solve Ventura, so Yost brought in flamethrowing Kelvin Herrera, who retired Brandon Belt and Mike Morse consecutively to extricate the Royals from that jam.

Kansas City then battered San Francisco starter Jake Peavy and three Giants relievers for five runs in the bottom half of that inning. Hunter Strickland had another terrible showing out of the bullpen for the Giants. He gave up the two biggest hits of the game -- a two-run double by Salvador Perez and a two-run homer by Omar Infante.

Worse, Strickland was inexplicably jawing at the Royals runners as they rounded the bases after the home run. Perez took exception to that, and the benches briefly cleared.

I can't see Giants manager Bruce Bochy using Strickland in any more high-leverage situations in this series. Yes, Strickland's fastball sits at 98 to 100 mph, but it's straight as an arrow, and his slider hasn't been good enough to keep opposing batters off balance. Both Perez and Infante delivered game-changing extra-base hits against Strickland's fastball.

This is nothing new, either. Strickland has now tied a major league record for home runs given up in a postseason with five. He's given up five home runs to the last 23 batters he has faced, in fact. He's allowed six earned runs in just 5.1 innings this postseason. All other San Francisco relievers have given up just four runs in a combined 35 playoff innings. That tells you Strickland just doesn't belong on the mound right now unless it is mop-up time.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City bullpen continues to dominate. Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland combined to pitch 3.2 innings. They allowed nothing, and the Royals coasted to the five-run victory.

The series now shifts to San Francisco after an off day. Game 3 is Friday night. Kansas City sends veteran right-hander Jeremy Guthrie to the mound. The Giants will counter with veteran right-hander Tim Hudson.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Madison Bumgarner cools off Royals in World Series Game 1

The Game 1 winner has won 15 of the last 17 World Series, including 10 out of the last 11.

That fact bodes well for the San Francisco Giants, who cruised to a 7-1 victory over the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday in the opening game of the 2014 Fall Classic.

How did the Giants cool off the red-hot Royals, who had won nine consecutive games dating back to the regular season? They did it by scoring early and allowing their ace left-hander, Madison Bumgarner, to do his job.

Bumgarner fired seven innings of one-run, three-hit ball. He fanned five and walked just one. His only mistake was a two-out homer by Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez in the bottom of the seventh inning, and by that point it didn't matter because the Royals were hopelessly behind.

San Francisco jumped out to a 3-0 lead in top of the first inning. Hunter Pence's two-run homer off Kansas City ace James Shields highlighted the rally.

You wouldn't have expected Pence to be the guy to haunt Shields. Coming into Tuesday's play, Pence was 0-for-11 with three strikeouts in his career against Shields. However, his home run was the biggest hit of the game, and he also had a double to start a two-run rally in the fourth inning that increased San Francisco's lead to 5-0.

It's no secret San Francisco has the edge in postseason experience in this series. The Giants won the World Series in 2010 and again in 2012. For many of these Kansas City players, this is their first time in the playoffs.

That difference in experience showed up in this game, particularly in the bottom of the third inning when the Royals had their best chance to get to Bumgarner. Down 3-0, Kansas City placed runners on second and third with nobody out after Omar Infante reached on a Brandon Crawford error and Mike Moustakas doubled.

It's the kind of situation the Royals have taken advantage of throughout the postseason, but it didn't happen this time. Bumgarner escaped the jam unscathed by getting overanxious Kansas City hitters to swing at bad pitches. Perhaps the combination of being on the big stage and facing an early deficit caused the Royals to press.

It sure looked that way as Alcides Escobar struck out swinging on a fastball up and well out of the zone for the first out. Nori Aoki also fanned after he could not check his swing on an 0-2 breaking ball that bounced in front of the plate. Bumgarner tried a similar strategy against the next hitter, but to Lorenzo Cain's credit, he laid off those pitches and worked a walk to load the bases for Eric Hosmer.

The Kansas City first baseman swung at the first pitch and grounded out to second base to end what would be the Royals' last and best chance to get back in the game.

I've heard some analysts criticize Hosmer for offering at that first pitch. I won't be among them. I believe in swinging at the first hittable strike in RBI situations. Sometimes, that's the best pitch you're going to get. Hosmer got an 86 mph cutter from Bumgarner that was middle to outer half. It was a hittable pitch. The only criticism I have of Hosmer is he may have tried to pull that pitch when he would have been better served to try to drive it to left field. But, I don't fault him for swinging.

The real disappointment for the Royals in this game was the poor performance of Shields, who was knocked out in the fourth inning and allowed five earned runs. The Giants went 4-for-4 with runners in scoring position against the Kansas City ace, who is now just 1-3 with an 8.26 ERA in his last six postseason starts.

MLB Network analyst Dan Plesac and others need to stop with the obnoxious "Big Game James" references when discussing Shields, because he's obviously been struggling lately.

For an actual "Big Game" pitcher, look no further than Bumgarner. The San Francisco ace has started three World Series games in his career. He's 3-0 with a 0.41 ERA in those outings. That's clutch.

The Royals will try to even the series Wednesday in Game 2 behind youngster Yordano Ventura. Veteran Jake Peavy will be on the mound for the Giants.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Jose Abreu named the Sporting News AL Rookie of the Year

White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu on Monday was named the AL Rookie of the Year by the Sporting News. This award is voted on by players, and Abreu received 149 of 160 votes in a landslide victory.

The honor comes as no surprise. This year, Abreu became the first major league rookie to rank in the top five in each of the Triple Crown categories -- average (.317), home runs (36) and RBIs (107).

He led the league with a .581 slugging percentage and became the fourth player ever to top 30 home runs, 30 doubles and 100 RBIs in his rookie season. The other names on that list are Hal Trosky, Ted Williams and Albert Pujols.

Angels pitcher Matt Shoemaker finished second with four votes. Yankees pitchers Dellin Betances and Masahiro Tanaka tied for third with three votes each. Amusingly, White Sox infielder Marcus Semien finished fifth with one vote.

Semien spent about half the season at Triple-A Charlotte, so you have to wonder which knucklehead player submitted that vote.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Giants win the pennant ... and Mike Matheny doesn't

Second-guessing managers is part of the fun of watching baseball -- especially during the postseason -- and we're putting St. Louis Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny on the hot seat tonight.

Here's the situation: Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. The Cardinals trail the San Francisco Giants 3 games to 1 and face a must win. The game is tied 3-3 going into the bottom of the ninth inning. St. Louis must hold or its season is over. And the pitcher Matheny turns to is none other than ... Michael Wacha?

Really? 

Yes, Wacha was one of the postseason heroes for the Cardinals in 2013. He won the NLCS MVP award, in fact. But that was then and this is now. It's been an injury-plagued season for Wacha. He missed two and a half months with a shoulder problem, and he wasn't good enough or healthy enough to make the St. Louis postseason rotation.

Wacha hadn't pitched in a game since Sept. 26, yet there he was to start the bottom of the ninth inning with the season hanging in the balance. Four batters later, the Giants were National League champions.

In fairness, I can't say Wacha didn't look healthy. His fastball touched 98 mph on the Fox Sports 1 radar gun. However, his command was absolutely terrible, which is exactly what you would expect from a pitcher who hadn't seen the mound in nearly three weeks. That's why he shouldn't have been out there.

Pablo Sandoval led off the bottom of the ninth inning with a base hit, and the pressure was on Wacha immediately. One out later, he walked Brandon Belt on four pitches. Then, he fell behind 2-0 to San Francisco left fielder Travis Ishikawa and was forced to challenge him with a fastball. Ishikawa answered that challenge, knocking the ball over the right-field wall for a three-run homer.

Giants win, 6-3. Series over. Season over for St. Louis.

It isn't like Matheny didn't have other options. His starting pitcher, Adam Wainwright, gave him seven innings of two-run ball. Reliever Pat Neshek worked the eighth and surrendered a 3-2 lead, giving up a solo home run to pinch-hitter Michael Morse. Everyone else in the Cardinals bullpen should have been available.

Why not bring in closer Trevor Rosenthal? Or hard-throwing Carlos Martinez? A left-handed reliever such as Marco Gonzales or Randy Choate wouldn't have been a bad call in that inning, either, because Belt and Ishikawa are both left-handed hitters, and Sandoval -- a switch-hitter -- is far less dangerous when he's hitting right-handed.

If Matheny had brought in any of those four relievers, it would have been a defensible move. Instead, he went with Wacha. Terrible choice.

The San Francisco victory sets up an wild-card World Series with the Kansas City Royals. Thanks to the stupid TV networks, we have to wait until Tuesday for play to begin.

Am I the only one who thinks it stinks there won't be any baseball on this weekend? 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Kansas City Royals must be happy they traded for James Shields, Wade Davis

Wade Davis struggled with Tampa Bay.
Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore made a trade that stunned the baseball world on Dec. 9, 2012.

He sent outfielder Wil Myers -- who at the time was Kansas City's top prospect and perhaps the best prospect in all of baseball -- and pitcher Jake Odorizzi and two minor-leaguers to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for veteran pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis and a player to be named later.

The critics howled. How could the general manager of the perpetually rebuilding Royals part with such a huge piece of the franchise's future? This was a "win-now" kind of trade, and Kansas City was coming off a lousy 72-win season in 2012. Was Moore delusional? Certainly he didn't believe Shields and Davis would vault the Royals into contention. Trading away Myers was a move that would haunt the franchise for the next decade, right?

Wrong.

Nearly two years after the deal, Moore is getting the last laugh. That's because the Royals are headed to the World Series for the first time in 29 years. Kansas City finished off a four-game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series with a 2-1 victory Wednesday night.

Shields and Davis are both centerpieces of this pennant winning team. Shields is the No. 1 starter in the Kansas City rotation. This season, he led the team in wins (14), innings pitched (227) and strikeouts (180), while finishing second on the team in ERA (3.21). Teammate Yordano Ventura's ERA (3.20) was just a touch better.

The Royals converted Davis, a failed starter, to a full-time relief role this year with outstanding results. Working as Kansas City's eighth-inning guy, he fired 72 innings, striking out 109 batters and posting a 1.00 ERA and a 0.847 WHIP.  He's been lights out in the postseason, striking out 10 and allowing just one run over 9.1 innings in eight games.

In Wednesday's pennant clincher, Davis worked with surgical efficiency, retiring the Orioles 1-2-3 in the eighth inning on 10 pitches (9 strikes). It was the kind of outing Royals fans have come to expect from Davis. He's done it all year.

So, on one December night, with one trade, Moore acquired two players who would become the best starting pitcher and the best relief pitcher on an American League championship team. He paid a price for it, sure, but that celebration that's going on in Kansas City tonight would not be happening without this trade.

And Myers?

He won the Rookie of the Year award in 2013, but this year he compiled an ugly slash line of .222/.294/.320 with just six home runs and 35 RBIs in 87 games. Myers is only 23 years old, and there is still plenty of time for him to get his career on track, but I don't think the Royals miss him right now.

Let this be a lesson to some media and some fans who tend to overvalue prospects. No matter how highly regarded a young player may be, sometimes it does pay dividends to trade that prospect for more proven ballplayers.

Kansas City is proof of that.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

White Sox announce early lineup for SoxFest 2015

White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu and shortstop Alexei Ramirez are among the current players scheduled to attend SoxFest 2015 at the Hilton Chicago from Jan. 23-25.

In a news release and an email to fans, the team released a list of eight players who are expected to appear at the annual convention. Joining Abreu and Ramirez will be outfielders Adam Eaton and Avisail Garcia, catcher Tyler Flowers, third baseman Conor Gillaspie and pitchers Jose Quintana and Jake Petricka.

Sox manager Robin Ventura, pitching coach Don Cooper and hitting coach Todd Steverson also are scheduled to attend.

That's a good list. Chris Sale is probably the only current player fans care to see who isn't on there.

The Sox have said former players from the 2005 World Series championship team will be at SoxFest this year for a 10-year anniversary celebration. Unfortunately, we've yet to hear exactly which players will be back in Chicago.

Maybe the team just hasn't gotten those former players to commit yet, but in the interest of selling hotel packages and weekend passes, you would think the Sox would want to release that list of names sooner rather than later.

Call me crazy, but I think Jermaine Dye, Joe Crede, Aaron Rowand, Scott Podsednik and the newly retired Paul Konerko, et al, would sell more SoxFest passes than any of the current players would.

We'll stay tuned to see if there's any more news on this in the coming weeks.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Royals take 2-0 lead in ALCS; Bumgarner dominates Cardinals in NLCS

The Baltimore Orioles hadn't lost back-to-back home games since June 28-29 -- until the Kansas City Royals came in and won the first two games of the American League championship series.

The Royals scored two runs in the top of the ninth inning Saturday to come away with a 6-4 victory in Game 2 of the ALCS. They'll take a 2-0 series lead back to Kansas City, where the series resumes Monday night.

I'm happy for the Royals and their long-suffering fans, but as I watched Saturday's ninth inning unfold, I couldn't help but have a bit of sympathy for Baltimore fans. That game-deciding rally by the Royals was death by 1,000 cuts for the Orioles, and as a White Sox fan, I've seen that movie before in games against Kansas City.

Here's how the Royals manufactured their two runs: a swinging bunt infield single, a sacrifice bunt, a perfectly placed RBI double right down the first-base line, an error and a ground ball through a drawn-in infield for an RBI single.

As we noted yesterday, Kansas City has been on a power surge lately, and it got another home run from Mike Moustakas on Saturday -- his fourth of the postseason -- but the aforementioned go-ahead double by Alcides Escobar was more indicative of what we typically see from the Royals offense.

They swing for contact, they put the ball in play, they "hit 'em where they ain't," and they run the bases well. In that RBI situation, Escobar wasn't trying to do anything heroic. He hit the ball to the opposite field. It happened to be in the right spot, and he got the desired result.

When your team is playing against the Royals, you feel like they should be able to stop them, but they can't. Kansas City often creates rallies out of nothing. They put the ball in play. They come at you with speed. They keep the pressure on. They force teams to execute defensively.

That approach is the opposite of what you see from a lot of teams today, where offenses are focused on being "dangerous" at all times and hitters don't care if they strike out while swinging for extra-base hits. For the most part, the Royals are looking to single and double teams to death, and they just might ride that all the way to the World Series. They are now just two wins away.

Giants blank Cardinals in NLCS opener

There is no underdog story on the National League side of the bracket. The San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals have combined to win the last four NL pennants. This NLCS is a clash of the usual suspects, with most people picking the Cardinals to win.

The Giants, however, drew first blood with a 3-0 victory behind ace Madison Bumgarner on Saturday in St. Louis.

The San Francisco left-hander set a postseason record for most consecutive scoreless innings pitched on the road. He ran his streak to 26.2 innings with 7.2 spotless frames in this Game 1. He hasn't given up a run on the road in the postseason since 2010.

In case you were wondering, the previous record was 23, held by some guy named Art Nehf, who pitched in the 1920s. Kudos to any reader who knows anything about Nehf.

The Giants have now won 12 of their last 13 postseason games dating back to their World Series win in 2012. St. Louis is known for being at its best in October -- the Cardinals have made the NLCS four years in row -- but San Francisco also seems to save its best ball for the playoffs.

The teams face off in Game 2 on Sunday night.