'Pen key reason for Royal resurgence
Club now expects to win games due to youngsters adapting
KANSAS CITY -- Probably the most telling observation of the Royals' last road trip came after a tough 10-8, extra-inning loss at Detroit on Saturday as manager Buddy Bell was discussing the game with reporters.
"We don't expect it to be easy on anybody," Bell said. "We expect to win these games."
That's the difference in the revitalized Royals of 2007. They have come to expect to win. It hasn't been that way very often in the last three or four years.
One big reason is the Royals' starched-with-iron bullpen.
After a 6-5 victory at Boston on the trip, Bell was asked if the relievers had him on the edge of his seat. "Yeah," he said with a grin. "But it's not quite like it used to be."
Not much is quite like it used to be around the Royals. Coming off a 5-4 trip through the mean streets of Cleveland, Boston and Detroit, they had a 24-20 record since June 1.
That's right -- a winning record. They're in position to finally escape the lower rung of the American League Central. Almost certainly there's little chance of them losing 100 games again. To do that, they'd have to go 19-45 in their final 64 games.
It seems as if general manager Dayton Moore, in his second year with the Royals, has pushed all the right buttons.
"We are encouraged, as we were last year in the second half," Moore said. "It didn't necessarily translate to the first few weeks of the season."
True, the Royals wobbled in April and May, but they have undergone a revival in the last two months.
"We've been pushing the 'youth movement' for a few years now," right fielder Mark Teahen said. "But, I think we're finally starting to have the talent to actually say, 'Hey, we've got a youth movement going on.'"
Yes, it finally seems that the young players are the right young players.
"A couple of games I've looked around and it's like 'Gosh, there's no one out here on the field that has more than three years [of] experience,' but it's a solid lineup," Teahen said.
Teahen, of course, is one of the young lions -- the No. 3 hitter with a strong left-handed bat. He hasn't hit with as much home-run power as anticipated, but he leads the club with 43 RBIs. It was his gracious and smooth move to right field that allowed hot prospect Alex Gordon to assume third base.
"We had a situation where to get Gordon in the lineup, something had to be done. So I moved there and I'm thinking it makes us more solid, especially moving forward," Teahen said.
For two months, it appeared the Royals might have made a mistake. Gordon was foundering at-bat. Yet, when the club geared up in June, so did Gordon.
Since June 7, he's batted .310 (44-for-142), raising his average to .232 from .173. In his last 38 games, he's knocked in 23 runs and had 27 extra-base hits. His fielding has been excellent, and he's versatile enough to play first base, if needed.
"He went through some stuff with some people wanting him out of here, but he handled it as well as anybody around," Bell said. "Where he ends up [in final batting average] will be no indication of the way he hit."
When team captain Mike Sweeney went out on June 18 with a knee injury, hitting prodigy Billy Butler got his chance to be the everyday designated hitter.
Billy the Kid's contributions in the last month have been eye-opening: From June 20 to July 22, he hit .373 (31-for-83) with 22 RBIs. He's also played first base, as the Royals try to find a position for him.
"If I get a pitch, I'm not missing it right now," Butler said. "Every day is a new day. I just try to go out tomorrow and do the same thing and help the team win -- whether that's driving in a run, getting a guy over, whatever it is."
That attitude and a clinical approach to batting practice have won him respect from the coaching staff and veteran players.
|"Well, we've played a lot of close games and that means a lot when we can hold them right there. We're running four or five different pitchers out of the bullpen that are doing real well. It's a nice lineup that Buddy's been working."|
-- Royals pitcher|
The bullpen was the first element of the club to become a major influence. It came together, basically, after Zack Greinke was moved from the rotation to a relief role. His tough performances meshed with the arrival of closer Octavio Dotel from the disabled list.
Dotel rapidly took control of save situations with Joakim Soria and David Riske helping set him up. Jimmy Gobble was the left-handed specialist and Joel Peralta gave added middle-inning granite.
"Well, we've played a lot of close games and that means a lot when we can hold them right there," Gobble said. "We're running four or five different pitchers out of the bullpen that are doing real well. It's a nice lineup that Buddy's been working -- everyone picking each other up and we're doing the right things."
Even if Dotel is traded, Soria or Greinke could step in as the closer. Soria picked up 10 saves while Dotel was injured early in the season, and Greinke has been very crisp soon moving to the pen.
The bullpen was so good that Bell resisted the temptation to move either Greinke or Soria into the rotation when he needed help there.
"We've got a mix of youth; we've got a mix of veterans, and we've got some 'tweeners in there," Gobble said.
Bell still pines for longer outings by his starting pitchers so his valuable bullpen doesn't develop battle fatigue.
Moore's biggest gamble, the five-year, $55 million contract he gave to right-hander Gil Meche, has paid off so far.
Meche has been pretty consistent with a 7-6 record and 3.63 ERA. He went seven or more innings in nine of his first 15 starts and then sagged a bit, tiring prematurely. He snapped back with a seven-inning win in his last start.
Brian Bannister, a rookie right-hander Moore obtained from the New York Mets, has been a pleasant revelation with a 6-6 mark and a 3.68 ERA. He's worked into the seventh inning in seven of his past 12 starts. So he's been no laggard.
However, Jorge De La Rosa and Odalis Perez have encountered difficulties getting deep into games. The fifth spot has been a patchwork endeavor.
The Royals had a 15-12 record in June, their first winning month since 2003, and were 9-7 in July after winning series in both Boston and Detroit.
"We've played pretty well the last two months, and we've just got to continue that," Bell said.
Teahen believes there's a can-do attitude starting to permeate the Royals' thinking.
"When we get on the field we might be younger but we have just as much talent or more," he said.
Dick Kaegel is reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.