Royals cast in new role this year

By Steve Sell
October 08, 2015

I’m sure the television bigwigs slumped in their collective chairs Monday night when the Houston Astros silenced the ratings-grabbing New York Yankees.

Millions of viewers probably are done watching the baseball playoffs since the Yankees are out. It’s like golf when Tiger Woods doesn’t play.

What we now have is the Astros playing the Kansas City Royals in what amounts to a regional series. The folks on the East Coast will be in bed long before the final pitch is thrown tonight and the West Coast fans now have all their focus on the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Royals were 2-4 this season against both the Yankees and Astros, swept on the road by both. But I still like their chances against the Astros rather than the Yankees because of the Pinstripers’ history of domination against KC.

The Royals aren’t sneaking up on anybody this time. They were the feel-good story in 2014, overcoming the legacy of Jon Lester to win the wild card against Oakland, then reeled off seven more wins in a row to close out Los Angeles and Baltimore to advance to the World Series where they lost in a seven-gamer to Madison Bumgarner — er, San Francisco — , one of the better Series in recent memory.

This time, expectations are higher. The Royals were the American League’s best team nearly all season, except for the brief September hiccup that dropped them below Toronto for a few fleeting days. They closed strong with five straight wins to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

The offense is better. Kendrys Morales’ numbers dwarfed those of Billy Butler’s from last year and Mike Moustakas was a revelation. The improvement of Lorenzo Cain offset the loss of Alex Gordon for 8 weeks and the malaise that gripped Alex Rios after he came back from a broken hand. Ben Zobrist has added professionalism, while Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez provide some thump, even though they have no clue of the strike zone and just go up hacking.

The bullpen, last year’s anchor, isn’t quite as good since Greg Holland is out until 2017 due to Tommy John. I have no doubts about Wade Davis as the closer, but Kelvin Herrera and Ryan Madson can make me squeamish sometimes with their lack of command.

The Big 3 of Yordano Ventura, Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez is an upgrade over last year if it pitches to its potential. Cueto has been somewhat of a flop after such a splashy start and these will be his final days as there’s no way the Royals can afford him next year, though his price tag could be coming down as all of a sudden there’s whispers that his better days could be behind him. Volquez has been like Houdini in that he always gets himself in jams, but finds a way to get out. Hopefully Ventura won’t revert to his loose-cannon days of the first half of the season and allow the moment to overwhelm him.

I’m worried the pressure of being a favorite will be too enormous for the normally underdog Royals. Houston wants to prove it’s this year’s Royals, and to go in and win at Yankee Stadium has to ignite this team’s confidence. It will be important for Royals pitchers to keep the ball in the park and turn this into a bullpen series. If that happens, Kansas City should prevail.