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Minor’s Struggles are the Bullpen’s Gain
When Mike Minor faltered and couldn’t hang on to a big lead, the Royals bullpen got to flex their muscles. Again. It’s a recurring theme.
The Royals were thankfully able to stop their /checks notes/ one game losing streak last night with some offense and a whole lot of bullpen work. A night after the offense just couldn’t find any grass with their hard hit balls, you could tell it was going to be a different game in the first inning. When Jorge Soler’s first inning double flew just above second baseman Adam Frazier’s glove, I’m sure the entire team breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t caught.
Hunter Dozier followed up with a ringing triple to score a couple more, and even some buzzard luck throughout the game wasn’t enough to stop the offense from putting up nine runs, which they absolutely needed. I promise I’ll get to the bullpen because that’s really what I want to talk about here, but I want to heap some praise on the bats after they’ve struggled so much recently.
Dozier, who has been in a world class funk all season, hit that triple in the first and then absolutely smoked a ball with the bases loaded in the fourth. Unfortunately, the bad luck reared its ugly head again as Erik Gonzalez made a great play to start a double play to end the inning. Soler went the other way and up the middle for two extra base hits, and he’s been hitting the ball hard for a week and a half. Take a look at this:
Oh, and Salvador Perez went the other way three times! Two of his hits were 100+ MPH.
After eight balls at 100+ last night, they hit another eight tonight. The difference is that they went six for eight instead of one for eight. On the whole, you’d probably expect nine or 10 hits in 16 balls hit that hard, but they’re close to evening out.
I do want to talk about the bullpen, but I can’t talk about the bullpen without mentioning Mike Minor who had his first real clunker with the team in his five starts. Overall, Minor has been very meh. He’s had two okay starts, one that is probably below average, one that is good and then last night. He deserves a lot of blame for not being able to be the caretaker of an early 6-0 lead, but Mike Mathney also deserves some as well. In the top of the fifth inning, he let Minor hit obviously with the intention of bringing him out in the fifth. Was he trying to get him a win? It sure seemed like it, which surprised me, but whatever it was, it was a mistake.
To Minor’s credit, he did get the first out and should have had the second if not for an error by Nicky Lopez, but then he gave up a hit to Bryan Reynolds. And here’s mistake number two from Matheny. After Todd Frazier was obviously seeing Minor well all night, he let Minor face him anyway. I think a lot of that was the need to justify letting him hit. And predictably, Minor gave up a two-run double to make it a one-run game. And now enter the bullpen, only seven paragraphs into a piece that’s supposedly about them.
So Kyle Zimmer came on and basically did Zimmer things against Erik Gonzalez who had hit a long home run earlier in the game. Three pitches later and one lazy popup and the Royals were out of the inning. It’s worth noting that the Royals bullpen, to this point, hadn’t allowed a single run on this road trip. Coming into this game, the Royals bullpen had faced 51 batters this road trip and allowed five hits and walked five. They’d struck out 19. So even with a one-run lead, you have to feel pretty good about this bullpen coming into the game, though you might like some additional insurance.
Zimmer, though, wasn’t sharp, and was probably lucky to be facing a Pirates team that isn’t exactly adept offensively. He walked two batters to load the bases before getting Kevin Newman, a guy who seemingly would fit in with some the Royals struggling hitters, to fly out to center. The Royals relievers had stranded every single runner on base throughout the whole road trip to this point, and add three more to the list.
Looking back on Matheny’s decision to leave Minor out there, and it makes me wonder if he has a feeling the bullpen can get his starters out of trouble if need be and he tried to steal an extra inning. It was obviously the wrong choice both before it went bad and after, but I can actually sort of see that as the thought process, though I don’t like it.
One of the sort of surprises of the bullpen so far this season has been Jake Brentz, who has looked nothing like a rookie with command issues for the most part. But he did struggle in this game, and it’s something that Matheny sort of predicted mentioning that he was facing one of the teams that let him go before he latched on with the Royals. He did struggle a bit, walking two hitters, but he really showed a lot in getting the two outs that he did. And something I appreciated is that Matheny didn’t make the same mistake twice. He didn’t let Brentz face Frazier, who is in there specifically to face a lefty, and went to get Tyler Zuber.
Zuber is the guy I’ve been SO impressed with this season since he was brought back. When the Royals added him to the roster before the truncated 2020 season, I was very excited for a guy with a good fastball, big time swing and miss slider and good command. And then he struggled with command all season. It seemed like he nibbled more than a guy with his stuff should and it ended up hurting him. He was good enough to have success with all the walks, but it wasn’t good enough to get him on the team to start this season.
But since his return, it’s been totally different. He came on for Todd Frazier and threw a slider when I’m pretty sure Fraizer was looking fastball and got a big out on one pitch. He came back out in the seventh and only needed eight more pitches to get three outs. He’s attacking hitters and letting his stuff do the work. It’s really impressive. With just nine pitches, I actually had no issue with him coming back out for the eighth inning, but his slider started to flatten out a bit and maybe it wasn’t the best idea. But still, when you can add him to the list of relievers in the circle of trust, it’s easy to see that they’re in good shape.
And of course, it all ends with Josh Staumont who appears to be the closer now. He came on after Zuber gave up the bullpen’s first run of the road trip and his first run of the year and he made such a disgustingly filthy pitch to Bryan Reynolds that even on a warm night will make his hands sore for a couple days.
The ninth inning was no drama for Staumont. He threw six fastballs at 98 MPH or harder, but ended the game on this beauty and check out that emotion at the end:
In all, the Royals bullpen has now gone 18.2 innings on the road trip with seven hits allowed and nine walks (that’s a bit too many) with a tidy 0.48 ERA. For the season, they’ve thrown 88.2 innings and have walked more than you’d like, but you’re messing around with guys who aren’t key pitchers in that. Carlos Hernandez and Jake Newberry aren’t even on the big league roster.
It sort of seems that the big five in the bullpen are Staumont, Scott Barlow, Zimmer, Brentz and Zuber. You can probably include Holland as a sixth, but guys like Wade Davis and Ervin Santana are just there as the “B” squad. The six listed have gone 66.2 innings with 44 hits allowed, 67 strikeouts and a 2.43 ERA.
There’s been a ton of talk about the rotation, which has been fantastic on the trip outside of last night, but the bullpen is becoming an even bigger strength than I envisioned. Think about that group above as the season progresses. Yeah, that’ll work and is a big reason why I think the Royals can win games they probably shouldn’t throughout the season.
What Went Wrong For Minor?
As I said above, Minor has been generally fine this season before the clunker last night, and I think one issue is that his curve just wasn’t really working for him last night. I think for one, his knuckle curve just wasn’t working for him like it did in Detroit. He only had nine swings on it in 24 pitches. On Friday, he had 12 swings on it in 27 pitches, which doesn’t seem like a huge difference, but he was keeping hitters off balance with it in Detroit and that wasn’t really the case in Pittsburgh. But really, I think he was missing with his slider too much too. Take a look at this pitch chart against the righties.
There are just too many pitches in general left in hitting zone that got him hurt. The home run allowed to Gonzalez wasn’t actually a terrible pitch, but it was set up by the curve simply not working for him. So really it was a combination of everything, but command and location was the obvious culprit for him, and if he wants to get deeper into games moving forward, it’ll simply have to be a lot better, especially when he goes up against better offenses than what he saw last night.
The Gauntlet Begins
After today’s off day, the Royals start a stretch of 26 out of 34 games against playoff teams from last season. Of course, the postseason was so greatly expanded last year that it sort of sullies that, but they were still playoff teams with only six against the Tigers and two more against the Pirates teams that were not playoff participants. Those 34 games are played over 38 games, which isn’t terrible, but it’s a tough stretch of games.
Sitting at 15-8 right now and with a 2.5 game lead over the White Sox, four games over the Indians and seven games over the Twins, the Royals don’t have to be perfect over this stretch, but if they can play .500 ball against the playoff teams and go even 5-3 against the Tigers and Pirates, they’ll get out of this stretch at 33-24. I said before this stretch of six against the Tigers and Pirates that they had go at least 4-2 to continue to consider themselves competitors and they passed that test, just as they passed the test of the tough 10-game homestand preceding this. The three-game set against the Twins followed by seven at home against the Indians and White Sox feels like a chance for them to make some headway. Even a 5-5 stretch, though, would keep them in a good place.