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Thursday, June 16, 2005

THE DRIVE FOR FIVE

What's this? FOUR in a row for the Royals? Can't be. It's not possible. I've come to the ballpark to investigate.

But, of course, it is possible. Last season, 26 of 30 teams had at least one four-game winning streak. (Not the Royals.)

Strange things happen all the time. Take this game, which hasn't even started. Jose Lima belted out a rousing version of "The Star-Spangled Banner". Then a young kid, here for RBI Youth Night, pegged the camera man standing behind home plate with the ceremonial first pitch. Even in the sterile environment of the press box, that drew quite a reaction.

The Royals' clubhouse is a more upbeat place than it was the last time I was at the ballpark, which was shortly after Tony Pena's departure. The players are a little more chattery and have a little more bounce in their step as they proceed through their pregame perambulations.

Steve Lyons was circulating around the field. The former White Sox/Red Sox utility player is now a broadcaster for the Dodgers. He also does some national work for Fox. I didn't speak to him (he was busy) but it brought back a childhood Royals Stadium memory.

Roughly 20 years ago or so, my family visited the park for a series against Red Sox. The Sunday game was Kodak camera day. As I was sauntering around the warning track with a supply of Royals Topps cards, hoping for an autograph or two, I went over by the Sox dugout, where Lyons was chattering away on the top step - just a long, rambling rap about nothing in particular. He wasn't even really talking to anybody - he was just talking. Well, I got too close and he snagged a Willie Wilson card out of my hand and scribbled his name on the back of it. In time, I've learned to forgive him. Anyway, I told this anecdote to a fellow Media Wizard in the Royals' dugout and he suggested I approach Lyons and say, "Hey, pal, your on my turf now." I thought this over but decided against it - you have to be careful what you say to a man who once pulled his pants down in the middle of a big-league baseball game.

Besides the question of whether the Royals can win five in a row, the decent-sized crowd is here to see if Zack Greinke can pull himself out of his recent slump. Slump may actually be too kind of a word. The early returns aren't good - he coughed a up a leadoff single to Antonio Perez on the first pitch of the game, then fell behind Jason Repko (The Dodgers have more Jasons than the "Friday the 13th" franchise) 3-1 and gave up another single. But he fooled JD Drew, getting him to pop out to third. We'll see about Jeff Kent. As I've written: Zack needs more groundballs and more strikeouts.

Kent worked a walk but Zack got out of it with a pop out and a fly out. He's going to have to do better than that but we'll see if the scoreless inning gives him a boost. A couple of runs by the offense might help matters, as well.

More to come....

The Fourth Inning

Mr. Longball just paid a visit to young Zack just a moment ago. It was 389-foot shot off the bat of Jason Grabowski. Greinke has now thrown 77 pitches (twice as many as his mound opponent, Derek Lowe) and has given up seven hits. This start has actually been better than his last few, but what ever has been wrong with Greinke still isn't right.

I overheard Charlie Steiner chatting out in the hallway before the game. He wasn talking about his Yankee days and I heard him say "With the Yankees, there is no such thing as a getaway day." I hadn't thought this but he was pointing out how Yankee opponents never schedule a day game when the Yankees come to town, except for the occasional Sunday afternoon affair. I'm feeling too lazy to check to see if this scheduling disadvantage actually exists for the Bombers. If it does, I truly feel bad for them. Poor Yankees.

Zack just hit Jason Repko. Ooooooo.....

I'd like to welcome another scribbler to the Blogosphere: Royals southpaw Brian Anderson. I put the link on the sidebar to the left.

It's 3-2 Dodgers. Very nice crowd on hand and they really seem to be into the game.

Zack just hit Jeff Kent to load the bases. Ooooooo......

Greinke got Olmedo Saenz on a 2-2 count with one a 62 MPH curveball that made Saenz seem as helpless as a dead kitten. But he's thrown 96 pitches through four innings. No action in the bullepen.

More to come....

The Bottom of the Sixth

This is not the audience of a last-place team. If I didn't have the current standings a click away, I would never guess that this is the same stadium that seemed like a morgue the last time I was here.

The Royals chased Derek Lowe with a six-run sixth. Only a double to break the drudgery of six singles. Just a string of singles, first-to-thirds, extra bases taken on throws, errors on the other team, dirty uniforms, and levels of grittiness and guttiness that is off the scale.

Hey, it's not the kind of the The Stat Guy usually writes about but it's a lot of fun to see. The crowd is really into things. They boo when a dude in the dance-off rips his shirt off and starts flailing about like a drunken hyena. They applaud when an old couple kisses on the big screen. They laugh when an image of Napolean Dyamite flashes on the scoreboard with "Sweet!" beneath it. You can't beat fun at the old ballpark.

Right here on the Official Game Notes:

AL Central Standings (since 6/1)
Kansas City, 10-4
Chicago, 9-5
Cleveland, 9-5
Minnesota, 8-6
Detroit, 7-7

One of my purposes tonight was actually to pen a diatribe about all the credit that has gone to Buddy Bell because of the recent good fortunes of the Boys in Blue. But this doesn't seem like a good time for Cynicism. There is a crowd full of rabid maniacs waving brooms in the air. If word leaks out that some one is writing a downer, they may storm the press box with torches and pitchforks. It's best to remain cautious...

Coda...

All's swell that ends swell.

The Royals closed it out - 9-6. Jeremy Affeldt, who still wants to close, got his wish. Of course, it wasn't a save situation. And Affeldt pitched like somebody you can't use in save situations. But the Royals won and they have, indeed, won five in a row. They're now on pace to win 60 games. My projection was 65, but who's counting.

Was a great night for the fans, all 16,182 of them. (It felt like more.) Beautiful night, a sweep of the Dodgers. And, as WHB's Nate Bukaty pointed out in the postgame manager's press conference, the Royals are the first team to sweep the Yankees and the Dodgers in the same month.

Since the team didn't win as many as four games in a row last season, it really is a nice accomplishment to win five. I'm still not ready to heap too much credit on Buddy Bell's considerable shoulders but, after all, he is 11-4.

When asked what has been different since he took over, Bell said, "What happens when you have a change, you go either forwards or backwards. Shaef (Bob Schaefer) pretty much got the ball rolling. I've pretty much just tried to stay out of the way."

And that, as much as anything, is the best move Bell could have made. Now I wrote (not here) when Bell was hired that the team was due to play better even if they put the lemonade vendor in charge of the team. But I didn't foresee an 11 of 15 stretch, no matter what breaks the schedule might have brought.

Bell did say one thing that disturbed me. He was very complimentary about Zack Greinke's performance. Someone pointed out that his line wasn't really very impressive.

"I don't pay too much attention to the numbers," Bell said.

Egad.

So what did he like about Greinke performance? (5 IP, 8 hits, 3 runs, 2 walks, 4 strikeouts, 2 hit batters, 4 ground outs, 7 fly outs)

"I liked his aggressive approach. He pitched inside and used his fastball much more effectively."

So it was approach, not so much results.

"He (Greinke) is a different kid," Bell said. "He has so much talent but you can rely on talent too much. Young kids have to go through it."

Didn't Roy Hobbs' father say something like that?

"He was much more aggressive. That's the Zack I remember."

I, personally, would like to see the results but Greinke was better than in his previous five starts.

Greinke was guardedly optimistic about his outing.

"Usually I pitch with a comfortable speed. Today, I pitched all out," Greinke said.

Regarding his mental approach, Greinke said, "I was just thinking about 'Albert, call the pitch', 'Zack, throw the pitch.'"

Now, I've written a great deal about how I'd like to see Greinke throw more groundballs. But is that really possible - for a pitcher to do that?

I asked Greinke that question, after the horde of Media Wizards cleared away - he seems to be much more direct and thoughtful when he isn't being besieged - particularly if you ask him a good question.

So would Greinke like to thow more groundballs?

"I think that's what really got me into a funk because I wanted to throw the sinker so bad. It's the one pitch I don't have. But my ball doesn't move that way. My ball doesn't move like Derek Lowe's."

So instead of groundballs, they turn into line drives?

"They turn into pop flies and home runs."

Interesting. If, indeed, Greinke can't throw more groundballs at this stage of his career, what does that mean? He is, after all, a finesse pitcher. Can a finesse pitcher succeed by striking out a below-league-average number of batters and throwing lots of flyballs? It bears investigation.

So the jury is still out on Greinke but things are definitely looking up for the Royals as a whole. Hey, I know what's probably going to happen - I've done the math. But, nonetheless, on this beautiful night in June, as I look over the now-empty seats, the bases pulled, the infield watered down, I'm glad I was here.

Why have they turned it around? How long can it last? Why do even bad teams go on win streaks?

Who knows? Emil Brown said it best:

"I don't want to figure it out. If I figure it out, it might end."

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