Vahe Gregorian: Despite so much gone awry, Royals' continued winning is 'a really promising sign'
Consider this: Among some other (thus-far) wonky starting pitching for the Royals, opening day starter Brad Keller has an ERA of 19.29 entering his third start on Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium.
Three of the top five men in the batting order, Andrew Benintendi, Carlos Santana and Jorge Soler, are hitting .200 or under. Hunter Dozier remains hitless in 16 at-bats, and Adalberto Mondesi's return remains on some vague horizon as he rehabilitates an oblique strain.
Then there's this: Since mashing 14 extra base-hits through their first three games, the Royals have been held to one measly extra-base hit or fewer in each of the last six games, their longest such power outage since April 1981.
Oh, and they sure strike out a lot, including a franchise-record 88 times through their first eight games. If you had known all that would be attached to the early weeks of the 2021 season, you'd have reckoned it was a recipe for collapse. And the makings of another exasperating April that could sabotage the season. Instead, the Royals are defying logic and gravity with a 5-4 record after beating the Angels 3-2 on Tuesday night at The K.
And as they plow forth into becoming whoever they ultimately will be, with the rational prospect that many of the aforementioned will revert to their more customary ways in the weeks to come, they are flexing some tentative traits of what winners do: find a way with any of a variety of resources from their utility belt.
The sort of "stuff," Whit Merrifield said, that has been in short supply the last few years. A "really promising sign," said Merrifield, whose two stolen bases were transformed into runs. Their versatile ways to victory included an eye-opening offensive binge when they were lagging 5-0 in the first inning of the first game of the season against Texas. They essentially rinsed and repeated the feat when they were down 4-0 the next day.
Two days later, they flashed a different dimension with a 3-0 win in Cleveland. Then they cobbled one out on Sunday in Chicago, where Santana's home run tied it in the ninth and they won in the 10th with all of the brute force of ... two bunts.
And then came their concoction on Tuesday, when they got another stellar start from Danny Duffy (six innings of one-run ball, a fine encore to his six shutout innings in Cleveland) in a game that will be most memorable for the quirky final out: Sal Perez threw out David Fletcher at third base with the bases loaded after a pitch in the dirt from Greg Holland caromed off Perez's left shoulder up between the legs of batter Jared Walsh and back to Perez.
"The ol' trick play," Holland called it, joking that he had discussed it ahead of time with Perez. But this victory was less about sleight of hand than what might be considered slight plays, the little things that go a long way: smart and opportunistic offense, professional at-bats, sheer hustle and downright clutch pitching by Duffy, Jake Brentz and Holland in a game marked by the Angels leaving 11 men stranded after out-hitting the Royals 12-5.
"Just nonstop pressure, nonstop effort, scratch and do whatever we've got to do to put runs up to give ourselves a chance," as manager Mike Matheny put it.
Like so: Buoyed by what Matheny called "probably the best I've ever seen Danny Duffy," the Royals took a 1-0 lead in the first when a sacrifice fly by Santana brought home Benintendi. They made it 2-0 in the third on Santana's groundout to drive in Merrifield after he was on the front end of a double steal.
Even if Santana isn't quite producing the way the Royals anticipate he will yet, he's also been a revelation with drawing walks and his discipline in moments such as that to get the job done by not being "too greedy," as Matheny put it.
Then Merrifield singled and stole again his next time up, coming home on a Perez RBI single to make it 3-1. Merrifield is always looking to take a base, but he's also cognizant of game situations ... not to mention the bigger picture. So he set about trying to help the Royals create their own breaks all the more so with so many bats muted.
"It's no secret that our offense has been fighting the last couple games," he said.
Time will tell how much this resourcefulness sets a template. Or at least allows the Royals to tread water until they get more of what they need from their rotation and their broader offense. But it's a story in itself that they are 5-4 while going without so much that would have seemed paramount to winning ... and with so much more that could be percolating with some revivals in the weeks to come.
"There's a large portion of our lineup that hasn't started to get going yet," said Matheny, a part that he rightly says could do "serious damage."
All the more meaningfully since no serious damage has been done even with so many things playing out less than ideally so far. Instead, the Royals have demonstrated the resolve and ingenuity to make the most of messy situations by finding a way ... something that any winner has to be able to do.