Weekend in Review: Major Minor League Performances, An Almost Sweep and Soler's Issues
A weekend series win and a 4-1 homestand is exactly what the doctor ordered.
For the second straight weekend, the Royals had a result that you would have been happy with before the series started but feel like the team missed an opportunity. After a blown lead in the ninth inning on Sunday and Friday’s game, which I’ll get to here in a bit, we could easily be talking about a seven-game winning streak from a team three games over .500 and just two games out of first. But even with those missed opportunities, they’re still right in the thick of the race after the White Sox were swept by the Yankees over the weekend.
But before we get to the big league club, we need to go down to the minors.
Big Time Results on the Farm
There was so much missed out on last season with the reduced schedule and no minor league season in 2020, but one thing I’ve mentioned a few times is the fact that we didn’t get the opportunity to see how the Royals revamped offensive development was going. Guys like Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez had brutal seasons in 2019 in Wilmington and we missed out on a full season of finding out exactly what they are. In spring this year, Pratto really impressed while Melendez was sort of forgotten. Those two specifically had a MONSTER weekend.
Pratto went 7 for 11 with four home runs, eight runs batted in, three walks and two strikeouts. Melendez went 6 for 13 with three home runs, five runs batted in, a double, three walks and one strikeout. Bobby Witt, Jr. has started slow, but he went 6 for 15 with two homers over the weekend. It was a heck of a weekend for three bats the Royals are likely going to be counting on in some way here relatively soon. I would anticipate the plan for Pratto is to be the first baseman next year with Carlos Santana at first. Melendez needs to be added to the 40-man this winter, but with Salvador Perez signed long-term and the organization loving Sebastian Rivero, he might be a key to a trade. And you know Witt is in the very near future plans. Here’s his 450 foot home run from yesterday.
But it’s not just them. Edward Olivares, who the Royals got for Trevor Rosenthal last summer, continued to absolutely destroy AAA pitching. Even with an 0 for 5 on Friday, he still had seven hits in 14 at bats with a home run, four runs batted in and a walk. I’ve been saying this for two weeks now, but a Royals offense struggling like it is can’t afford to leave Olivares in AAA.
Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad…But Could Have Been Better
Like I said earlier, it’s the second straight weekend that the Royals did plenty but could have done more. A missed opportunity on Friday cost them the chance to get back to .500 and really get back into the division race. But also, winning a series is the goal. Keep doing that and there won’t be any issues. Let’s get to the games.
I thought Mike Minor was pretty good in this game even though the final line doesn’t really reflect much more than mediocre. His changeup was the masterful pitch as he got 18 swings and eight whiffs on it for a 44 percent rate. That’s really, really good. His slider was also really good, but that changeup was a thing of beauty.
You can see he did such a good job of keeping that away from the righties he faced and kept the ball in the lower part of the zone. His third pitch to Miguel Cabrera in the top of the second inning was a huge mistake, leaving a 92 MPH fastball middle-middle. Cabrera isn’t a great hitter anymore, but he can still do damage on a pitch like that and he hit it 417 feet at 111 MPH. An inning later, the Royals were able to take the lead back before Minor had a rough fourth that saw him give the lead back. This was the first time throughout the weekend that the Royals scored and then immediately gave it back.
Of course, outside of an RBI single by Wilson Ramos, I thought Minor made some good pitches that the Tigers hit. Sometimes that happens.
The bottom of the sixth should have been an inning that the Royals looked back on as the one that started them getting the big hit. Salvador Perez led off with a double, the same as Nicky Lopez the previous inning. Lopez didn’t move off second in the fifth, so when Jorge Soler grounded out to shortstop, it was starting to feel like it might be more of the same. But a surprise hit from Ryan O’Hearn scored Perez before Michael A. Taylor stayed relatively hot with another home run to give the Royals a 5-3 lead.
Oof, that pitch from Jose Ureña.
And after looking pretty darn good for six innings, Mike Matheny brought Minor back out to start the seventh. I didn’t like it at the start. But after thinking about it, I got what he was trying to do. Minor was only at 87 pitches to start the inning and the eight and nine hitters were due up with a bullpen Matheny has had a hard time figuring out lately. Of course it didn’t work and with two men on and nobody out, he went to the bullpen to bring in Tyler Zuber.
Now, I like Zuber, I really do, but I think that was the wrong choice. Initially, I wondered why you even activate Kyle Zimmer if you’re not going to use him, but then I thought that through and it’d be nice to get him in there in a situation that wasn’t quite so crazy. After giving up a single, Zuber threw a ball in the dirt that got away but not far enough and JaCoby Jones tried to score but was thrown out at the plate. Then he walked a hitter (so so many walks) and got a strikeout. With Cabrera due up next, Matheny decided it was time for Greg Holland to get a big out.
We all know what happened. Holland left a slider higher than he wanted to and the ball was probably helped a bit by the wind to go all the way out for a grand slam. I’m willing to look past leaving Minor in. Matheny was obviously trying to steal a couple outs. What I don’t get is why he first didn’t go to Scott Barlow, who has been his best reliever this year. In the post-game presser, Matheny said that the plan if Holland had gotten Cabrera was for him to pitch the eighth as well and then hand the ball off to Barlow. If Barlow was available, though, the save in that game was in the seventh and he needed to be in the game.
That’s how Matheny had managed to that point and he went away from it and it might have cost the team the game. But if he wasn’t going to go to Barlow in the first place, I don’t know why Zuber gets pulled. Cabrera’s bat is slow, so the mid-90s fastball was the play there and not Holland’s slower fastballs and reliance on off-speed stuff that Cabrera could hit. Yes, Zuber’s control is iffy, but a walk would have been far better than what happened. I think it was a series of mistakes that ended up costing the team the game.
I thought this was a particularly interesting start for Brady Singer because after the game, he noted that he probably wouldn’t have made it through three last season, and I think that’s fair. His slider was really good with tons of whiffs but his sinker just wasn’t doing it. His command was iffy at best.
You can see how he was all over the place with the pitch. But he generally made it work. Of course, it wasn’t before giving up two runs immediately after the Royals scored two, which was a trend. With the game tied at two, the Royals scored two more in the bottom of the fourth, so of course, Singer gave up one in the top of the fifth. But what was nice is that the Royals kept adding on and eventually the Royals didn’t give up a run in the half inning after they scored.
Singer made it through the sixth with 90 pitches and after the Royals tacked on a run in the bottom of the sixth, the eight and nine hitters were due up. Sound familiar? And the decision was the same with Singer coming back out to face them. If nothing else, at least Matheny is consistent. I had my big time doubts about Singer coming back out, just like I did about Minor, but after thinking about the Minor decision, I at least understood it. And this time, Singer got Ramos to ground out but then walked Akil Baddoo. And to the bullpen they went again.
Only this time it was Scott Barlow. So either the mistake was being rectified or having Josh Staumont available made Matheny think he could use Barlow in this situation. A single moved Baddoo to third and then a walk loaded the base and there was a very sinking feeling with Jeimer Candelario and then Cabrera looming. Barlow started Candelario off with everything just off the plate inside and the count was 2-2. Then a pitch just up and just away ran the count full. Barlow had to make a pitch and boy did he.
Now it’s time for Cabrera. Again with the bases loaded. In this one, they were up by three, but a grand slam would do the same thing as it did the night before in demoralizing the team and giving the Tigers the lead. The count started 3-1 and I noted on Twitter that they needed to attack Cabrera with fastballs. And immediately, Barlow put one at 97 in the spot he missed to Candelario, but Cabrera did him a favor and swung through it. And then it was time for another 3-2 pitch that he had to have.
Oh he had it. And a strut!
And in a twist, after the Tigers failed to score, the Royals added another insurance run in the bottom of the seventh to go up by four runs. It was so nice to see them just continue to tack on.
I don’t mean to gloss over Jake Brentz because he was fantastic and has proven to be a mostly reliable option in a bullpen with thinning reliable options, but I want to talk just briefly about Staumont and his roller coaster ride. After sitting at 93-94 on Wednesday in his save opportunity, he was unavailable on Friday still, which was never asked by anyone, but I’m curious about that. And then he came out Saturday with a four run lead and showed velocity, but the command just wasn’t there again. There’s not much to say here, but he gave up two runs and the Tigers had the lead run at the plate at one point. This is definitely a situation worth monitoring. Of course, he’ll probably come out tomorrow night throwing 102 and dotting corners.
I was very excited to see how Kris Bubic could follow up his outstanding outing against the Brewers on Tuesday. And then I thought it might be over before it started. He gave up a double to Robbie Grossman and then Jonathan Schoop smoked a ball to Taylor in center for an out. A ground ball that really seemed like someone should have been there to field got through to score the first run. Then it was a hard hit single from Cabrera and a soft single from Eric Haase that got the second run home. After a visit from Cal Eldred, Bubic walked Niko Goodrum on four pitches. None were close.
And from that point forward, it just felt like Bubic was in control. I’m not sure what clicked, but he got a pop out and a strikeout to end the threat. His command wasn’t sharp really at any point in this game, but he battled through it and ended up getting through five innings without any one pitch truly working. He has a great changeup, but he didn’t get a single whiff on it all game. His next three innings showed no issues and then in the fifth, he gave up two singles to start the inning, but got Cabrera to hit into a double play and then got another groundout to end the threat.
I feel like this is similar to the Singer start where this could have gotten way out of hand last season, but Bubic showed quite a bit in this game. When his changeup looks like this and he was able to get through five with just two runs allowed, it’s hard to be too upset.
Of course, Casey Mize was dealing as well as I’ve ever seen him on the other side. He gave up his first hit in the fourth even though it should never have been a hit. He didn’t give up his second hit until the seventh, which made me feel better about the terrible scoring decision in the fourth. With runners on first and third, the Tigers didn’t let Mize work out of it. He was only at 86 pitches. I think I would have left him in if I was the Tigers. That’s a situation they’ll need Mize to handle in the future. But they went to Gregory Soto to face the lefty, only he ended up facing a righty in Hanser Alberto. Alberto mostly did his job with a sac fly to bring home Andrew Benintendi. Of course, there was a replay controversy with Kelvin Gutierrez trying to advance to third and being called out for oversliding the bag even though there was no clear look at it. But I digress.
After an inning from Zuber that showed off everything good and everything bad about him, the Royals turned to Zimmer for the eighth, and I just want to say for a second how dominant he was as he ended up pitching the top of the ninth adn getting through it all with just 18 pitches. His slider was particularly nasty with seven swings and misses on 11 total swings. It might be as good as I’ve seen him.
Zuber, Zimmer and Barlow got the Royals to the bottom of the ninth. And with a struggling Whit Merrifield leading off, I had a feeling that I was afraid to verbalize. If he could just get on, the Royals would win the game. But of course, he hasn’t exactly been tearing things up to that point with a sub-.300 OBP since the first week of the season. On the fourth pitch from Michael Fulmer, he hit a sharp ground ball to third and the Tigers defense once again couldn’t convert. He was on. It was time for Santana to take over.
After a slider away, Santana took this pitch 442 feet to right center and the celebration was on. What a finish. A winning homestand became a dominant homestand and the hope returned, if only a little for Royals fans.
And hope looks like this. And this is fun.
It’s not all peaches and roses, as Merrifield would say. Soler just can’t get going this season. You might recall that I thought he was about to take off the last time the Royals and Rays played as he was just smoking the ball everywhere and finally hit an absolute bomb in the series finale back in April. And on Wednesday night, he hit an absolute bomb that tied the game in the late innings. I thought maybe that would get him going as well.
He promptly went 0 for 11 with six strikeouts. In yesterday’s game, he was dropped in the lineup to seventh for the first time this year and the first time since April 22, 2019. I tweeted this on Saturday about him:
And it’s true. When the Royals acquired Santana and Benintendi, I said a few times that it would be helpful but that they won’t be a good offense unless Soler and Hunter Dozier get back to what they did in 2019. Obviously Dozier hasn’t done that and is now on a rehab assignment in Omaha, but the Royals unequivocally need Soler if they want to make any noise offensively this year. Another option might present itself at some point. Maybe Pratto or Melendez really tears through the system or they can acquire a bat, but at this time, they need Soler. So as much as people want him to sit, be released or anything else fans might say, he’s going to play because they need to figure out what’s going on with him and get that bat back to hitting monster home runs more regularly.
Oh no big deal. The Royals just head to Tampa to take on the Rays who have won 10 in a row. They have one more with the Blue Jays today, so maybe they’ll finish getting it all out of their system and take a few days off from winning, but this is a ridiculously tough series to play in a place the Royals haven’t exactly had huge success. And don’t forget that the Rays were just a crazy comeback away from sweeping the Royals in Kansas City back in April. They don’t get any breaks against Rays pitching either. It’ll be a tough series.
And then the weekend has them heading to Minneapolis again to face a Twins team that still hasn’t quite gotten going but you know can hit the snot out of the ball and the Royals played three blowouts there a few weeks back. This is an extremely difficult road trip, but if they can follow up their outstanding homestand with just three wins, I think that has to be considered a success.