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McArthur Saves the Day
The tall righty has shown quite a bit to the Royals over the last few weeks.
On Monday afternoon, James McArthur came into the game in the top of the ninth inning with the Royals leading 6-4. He got a flyout, a strikeout and a popout. It was the first save of his short big league career. It’s a cool moment. Last night, he should have been able to get credit for another one because what he did in the eighth inning was one of the more impressive things we’ve seen from a Royals pitcher this season. I’m not entirely sure it’s a good thing that three batters in one inning of work is near the top of the list, but better to be near the top than the bottom.
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It was a game of trouble. Steven Cruz walked the first two batters in the first inning and then worked out of trouble. He got the first two outs in the second, but then gave up a double and two more walks. He wasn’t sharp. Alec Marsh had to enter a little sooner in terms of the game situation than he expected and got the final out. Marsh ran into trouble in the fifth when he gave up a double and then Nelson Velazquez made an error. An RBI single gave the Guardians their first two runs, but Marsh escaped without any more runs scoring. The Guardians had more runners in the sixth and scored two more. They got one more in the seventh when Taylor Clarke gave Carlos Hernandez a jam with two on and two out.
Then the eighth began. It started with something it seems like so many Hernandez outings have included lately, a home run. This one was on a 98.8 MPH fastball that seemed like a good pitch, but Bo Naylor hit it hard and far. And as seems to happen so often to Hernandez when there’s adversity, he crumbled, walking Steven Kwan after getting him down 0-2. He had Jose Ramirez down 0-2 as well when Ramires hit a hard single to right after the count extended to 3-2. Hernandez’s night was done before he could cough up the lead that was once as big as five runs.
The Guardians lineup is anything but scary as a whole, but they do have pieces that concern you. Ramirez is obviously the biggest scare point, but Josh Naylor is having one of the quietest excellent seasons I can remember. He’s hitting .309/.350/.499 after last night and seems to have a knack for driving in runs. He was the first hitter McArthur was asked to face.
He started him with a curve on the outer third that Naylor took for a strike. I don’t know what Naylor was looking for next because he took a sinker in a pretty good hitting spot for strike two. Then fouled off a pretty good curve before taking a big swing on a very good curve that he never had a shot to hit. The ball bounced in the dirt and Tyler Cropley, making his big league debut, blocked about the 83rd ball of the night to keep the runner from scoring. Ramirez was able to move up to second to eliminate the double play, but the tying run staying at third was bigger.
Next up was Kole Calhoun. He’s had a rough September, but Calhoun is a veteran and with a man on third and one out, Calhoun knew the assignment. He wanted a hit, but getting the ball in the air was the most important thing he could do. McArthur didn’t give him anything he could lift. He buried a curve that Calhoun took. Then he got a generous call on a sinker just off the plate. Then Calhoun fouled off a curve that caught maybe too much of the plate, but worked out. Then another buried curve, a slider fouled off and a sinker that worked its way back over the inner edge for a called strike three.
Phew. The infield could go back to their normal spots now. Personally, I’d have probably not brought the infield in with a fast runner on second and a runner on third. My thought process there is if it’s first and third, I’m fine bringing the corners in, but with the tying run on third and the lead run on second, I’d much rather give my defense a better shot to get an out, even if it means losing the lead, than to put them in a tougher spot to field a batted ball that, if missed, would lead to actually trailing in the game. But I digress.
The third batter to face was Ramon Laureano, who has some pop but, in a twist, has actually been eaten up by the Royals in his career. The sample is small, but he hasn’t hit well against KC. McArthur threw basically a perfect slider on the first pitch that nipped the zone, but it was called a ball. Then he threw another one that Laureano couldn’t hit and a third in a row for strike two on a foul ball. He tried to get him with a curve, but it stayed a bit too high and Laureano fouled it off. Then he tried a sinker that he pulled and it was 2-2 when he went to his bread and butter, the curve.
Wow. That was masterful. With the tying run on third and the lead run on first (and subsequently second), McArthur threw 16 pitches, 12 strikes and struck out three batters. He landed three of his four sinkers for called strikes, got whiffs on two curves and a slider and ended the inning with the score exactly where it was when he got to the mound. Since his recall on September 1, he has faced 32 batters and one has reached base - a one-out double from Andrew Vaughn on September 6. He obviously hasn’t walked a batter and he’s struck out 11.
Look, I don’t know if this is for real or if this is forever or whatever, but I see a pitcher who was getting middling results as a starter in the Phillies system who the Royals saw something in. They immediately put him in the bullpen and the results didn’t stick right away.
As they’ve done with a couple of other pitchers, they helped him add a slider that took some time to develop but he’s figured it out and while he had an absolutely brutal bomb of a big league debut, he’d been pretty good in Omaha surrounding that. I’m not ready to say he’s the 2024 closer or that he’s even going to be a competent big league pitcher long-term, but it’s nice to see a guy thrive when put into the Royals environment rather than wait to thrive until he’s out of it.
MJ Melendez continued his strong second half with a big game, especially early. In the first, he took his childhood friend deep for a two-run homer to give the Royals an early lead.
In the third, he picked up Kyle Isbel, who was on third when Bobby Witt Jr. grounded into a double play and Isbel watched the play happen without moving. Then in the fifth, he worked a walk. He played a nice left field last night too, which is something I know he’s working hard on every single day and I’m hoping we finally see the results on that soon if he’s with the team next season. I do want to touch on something I mentioned on Twitter yesterday with him.
He’s put in the work, made a bunch of adjustments and found himself succeeding really from the first game of the second half. From the first game back after the break through September 5, he hit .298/.351/.526 in 46 games and 185 plate appearances. In that time, he was only hitless in consecutive games once. But his next six games were kind of a disaster. He went 0 for 19, though he did still work four walks, but yikes.
There are multiple tests, in my mind, that a player faces when they struggle. The first is how they can overcome the struggle. I’m not sure if 185 plate appearances is enough to say that he fixed everything. I’m pretty confident he was getting buried after hitting .206/.285/.352 in his first 186, so if you’re comfortable burying a player after that many, you should be comfortable praising him too, but that’s not how fandom often works. Still, he seemed to have figured a lot out. But then the second test comes when they slump again because they’re going to. It’s just a fact of the game. And Melendez went 0 for 19 with nine strikeouts in 23 plate appearances. Would he revert back to struggles or could he overcome?
The answer is way too small of a sample, but in five games (and one of them was just a pinch hitting appearance), he’s hitting .429/.556/.786 with a homer, a triple, four walks and one strikeout in 18 plate appearances since. That’s a good response. I obviously want to see it continue, but the test after the test may be even more important and he’s passing it so far, which is great to see.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Cropley, who is an interesting story and a guy who probably never would have gotten big league team in any other season. But this Royals team had the perfect storm happen. They moved Melendez off catcher permanently but still had Salvador Perez and Freddy Fermin. Cropley got a chance to get called up in Toronto, and I really do believe a lot of it was passport availability though maybe Matt Quatraro just liked him a lot in spring training. Then he’s off the roster after two days because Logan Porter can come up and Perez goes on the concussion IL opening up a spot. So here comes the backup catcher from AA to be a backup catcher in the big leagues.
He didn’t look great in his first two at bats. He did make contact in the first and hit a ball to Laureano in center. He then struck out in his second at bat. But with one out and a man on third and the Royals leading the 6-2, James Karinchak gave him four straight fastballs and the count was 2-2. After four straight fastballs up, Karinchak went to a curve down. That’s tough for any hitter, let alone a guy in his big league debut who probably never even dreamed he’d be there two weeks ago. But Cropley did what a veteran hitter does. He dropped the bat head, lifted the ball and drove in the seventh run. It seemed like insurance at the time, but the thing about insurance is that you never know when it’ll be needed and it ended up needed.
Between that sacrifice fly and roughly a billion blocked pitches in the dirt, Cropley deserves a lot of credit for the Royals holding on to win a game and clinch their third straight series. Oh and hey, he even got his first big league hit in the eighth inning. They could have used even more insurance, but didn’t get it and didn’t need it because of course Collin Snider would nail down the save. Even in a team effort, it takes a few key individual performances to make the difference.