Monday, April 30, 2007

The end of a cruel, cruel month

I'm going to forgo the poetic flair of T.S. Eliot and say it straight up: April is a bitch. Forget mixing memories and desire, per "The Waste Land": what memories? Just that one surprise of a season in 2003, when the winning happened so fast no one quite knew what to make of it. What else is there?

Here, including this year, is how the Royals have done in the past seven Aprils, and their final records:

2007: 8-18 (.308) ... ?
2006: 5-17 (.227) ... 62-100 (.383)
2005: 6-18 (.250) ... 56-106 (.346)
2004: 7-14 (.333) ... 58-104 (.358)
2003: 16-7 (.696) ... 83-79 (.512)
2002: 8-16 (.333) ... 62-100 (.383)
2001: 10-15 (.400) ... 65-97 (.401)

And probing a little further...

2000: 12-13 (.480) ... 77-85 (.475)
1999: 9-11 (.450) ... 64-97 (.398)
1998: 12-15 (.444) ... 72-89 (.447)
1997: 11-12 (.478) ... 67-94 (.416)
1996: 9-18 (.333) ... 75-86 (.466)
1995: 2-2 (.500) ... 70-74 (.486)
1994: 9-11 (.450) ... 64-51 (.557)
1993: 9-14 (.391) ... 84-78 (.519)
1992: 3-17 (.150) ... 72-90 (.444)
1991: 8-11 (.421) ... 82-80 (.506)
1990: 6-12 (.333) ... 75-86 (.466)
1989: 16-8 (.667) ... 92-70 (.568)

Since 1989, the Royals have finished above .500 in April just once. In this article by Alan Eskew, Mark Teahen is quoted as saying: "I said in the spring it was important for us to get off to a good start. We haven't really done that, but at the same time there's a whole lot of season left. We haven't gotten the wins, but you can see as a whole the organization and this team is a lot better than what we've been putting on the field the last couple of years." I'll let you ponder that statement, knowing the Royals, in the last two years, have lost 100 games both times and started their seasons by winning 25 percent and 23 percent of their games.

Now inhale for a second. Hold that breathe, let it mix with all your cynicism and frustration and disappointment. Exhale.

The negative vibes gone?

Good. Because Teahen speaks the truth. And though spring is traditionally the time for optimism, it's apparent the Royals prefer deferring till the leaves turn greener. We're waiting for the summer rain to surprise us, and here are five reasons -- one for each month left to play -- they may yet:

1. Pitching help is on the way, this for a team that has more than held their own in the starting pitching front (tonight's 6-inning, 3-run performance for Odalis Perez marked his second straight quality start). In the first six innings of games, Kansas City's staff has posted a 3.90 ERA, which is fourth best in the league. Unfortunately, in innings 7+, the team's ERA jumps to 5.40, which is third worst. (And if you want a real disheartening aside: the Royals are batting .194 in the late innings, which is unfathomably bad.)

If this was the same old, same old non-Dayton Moore team, we'd all be lamenting the hopelessness of this setup, where the team seems cursed to play low-scoring, tight games for six or seven innings, then allow two or three runs and watch as everyone shuts down. But alas, this isn't your same old non-Dayton Moore team. Consider:
  • Octavio Dotel, the team's should-be closer, threw off the mound today and will be making his first minor league appearance in less than two weeks.
  • Lefty specialist John Bale, who will be Lefty No. 3 in the Royals' pen, threw an inning of scoreless ball in Double-A Wichita and felt great doing it.
  • Could-be starters Luke Hudson and Scott Elarton, both coming off injuries, are both at Triple-A Omaha and might get called up before this next month runs its course. This would solidify the rotation -- Gil Meche (2.18 ERA), Perez (possibly, though he can be replaced by Brian Bannister, especially if Bannister pitches like he did Sunday in Seattle), Zack Greinke (3.51 ERA), Jorge De La Rosa (3.82 ERA) and Hudson -- while adding some live arms to a lethargic pen that's been carried by Jimmy Gobble and Joakim Soria.
  • With the addition of Bale and Dotel, Soria can move into his role as the primary set-up man and David Riske, we think, will find a comfort zone working the 7th. We haven't even mentioned the value of Brandon Duckworth, a possible starter whose contributions from the bullpen should keep him there for the foreseeable future. And let me not neglect to mention that veteran Todd Wellemeyer looked sharp and effective tonight against Anaheim in his three innings of work: zeros all across the board except his one strikeout. That 7.36 ERA will come down. The team's ERA will lower, too.
2. Trust us on this: Alex Gordon will not end the year batting .169, Ryan Shealy will not finish at .096, Emil Brown will do better than .194 and -- even though cynics among you will disagree -- Tony Pena Jr. will finish above .200. The bats will come alive, and when they do, the Royals will go on a three-game winning streak that stretches to four and then six and then, possibly, eight, and everyone will suddenly be wondering aloud, "Who saw this coming?"

3. Speaking of Gordon (featured in this week's issue (5/7) of ESPN The Magazine)... remember, Ryne Sandberg started 0-for-20 before getting his first hit; then he came up empty in his next 11 at-bats; George Brett began 2-for-25 and 5-for-40 in 1973 and hovered around the Mendoza line through the All-Star break; for a more recent example, there's a kid down in Baltimore by the name of Nick Markakis -- a real natural of a talent-- who batted .182 last April as a 22-year-old rookie and only rose to .209 by May 28. What'd he do the rest of the way? Hit .338 in June, .403 in July and .354 in August, with 10 home runs that month. So it's not too much to expect Gordon to live up to everyone's expectations (though you'll notice I've stopped referring him to Mr. God or His Holiness the Savior).

4. Here, you might expect me to say something about the Royals' Pythagorean record being much better than their actual record, that they're losing heartbreaking close ones, etc. etc. I can't do that though, because reality is, the Royals aren't supposed to be much better than their record indicates (Breaking 100 can take it away from here).

But here's what is true: this team is young -- real young and getting younger, after some team realizes Reggie Sanders still has some value and trades for him -- which means it's hungry. It's eager. And it's just about ready to make its move.

5. Every year since 2000, when the Royals have been sub-.500 in April, they've played the rest of the season at a better clip. That means KC will be no worse than 42-94 the rest of the way, which would be good for 50-112. Of course, this isn't the NBA, and the day my favorite team starts shooting for 50-win seasons is the day I quit baseball.

So have heart, Royals fans. Shanti, shanti, shanti, the rewards will come.

UPDATE, 5/1: This from ESPN's daily Elias Says feature: "Kansas City lost to the Angels 3-1 dropping its record to 8-18. It's the third straight season in which the Royals have ended April at least 10 games under .500 (they were 6-18 in 2005 and 5-17 in 2006). No other team in major league history entered May 10 or more games below .500 in even two straight seasons."

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