‘Salvy on Deck’: Quick Reflections on the Royals Last Game at the K in 2021

On most games this season, Kauffman Stadium would be nearly empty with the Royals down 7-3 in the bottom of the ninth against the AL Central division cellar dweller Minnesota Twins. And yet, the tension among Royals fans in the stadium was high, mostly due to the fact that Salvador Perez was due fourth to hit in the inning.

All the Royals needed was for one person to get on base. Get a hit. Draw a walk. Lean into a pitch inside. All Royals fans wanted at the moment was just one last chance to see Salvy set the Royals’ single-season home run record and break the record set by Jorge Soler back in 2019.

Yes, it was nice that he had set the single-season record for catchers. Yes, his season was one for the ages, especially considering the physical demands placed on catchers in this day and age of advanced analytics.

But Royals fans really wanted him to get No. 49…or at least have one last shot to do so, even in a game that was pretty much over after a disastrous five-run top of the first inning from Royals starting pitcher Jackson Kowar.

And yet, the Royals went down in order in the bottom of the ninth. Pinch hitter Andrew Benintendi flied out to left field. Whit Merrifield struck out for a third-straight at-bat. And Kyle Isbel, who came into replace Nicky Lopez in the batting order after Nicky garnered a hit to put his batting average back up to .300, ended up striking out looking to end the game in deflating fashion.

There was Salvy. Waiting on deck. Unable to get one last shot to separate himself from Soler for the Royals’ single-season HR crown.

If anything, that image of Salvy on deck, with the Twins celebrating a win in the final game of the 2021 season, was pretty much a microcosm of the 2021 Kansas City Royals campaign.

That isn’t to say that this season was a disappointment by any means. The Royals were projected by most experts to win anywhere from 70-72 games. They won 74, which was slightly above the pundits’ preseason predictions. Is it a monumental turnaround? Absolutely not. But remember: this Royals team lost 100-plus games in both 2018 and 2019, and finished with a winning percentage in 2020 that would pro-rate out to 70 wins.

Granted, 74 wins may not be the “turnaround” that some Royals fans were hoping for, especially after the acquisitions of veterans Mike Minor and Carlos Santana in free agency, the trade for Andrew Benintendi, and a hot start in April which saw the Royals for a short time in first place in the AL Central. Twitter user Bud E. Biancalana wrote it best on Twitter to capture the sentiment of fans who were in that camp even though it was the Royals’ best season since 2017:

There certainly were brutal moments to 2021, and that was encapsulated in today’s game in more ways than one. Kowar in four innings of work struck out six batters and only walked one, and at-times, showed the Kauffman faithful why he was named the Royals’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2021. However, his first-inning was incredibly brutal, as he allowed five runs on five hits, which included a massive three-run bomb to Jorge Polanco that set the tone in the Minnesota Twins’ favor early-on:

The Royals offense showed more life than they did on Saturday night, as they actually matched the Twins in hits with nine. Unfortunately, the Royals stranded 16 base runners on Sunday afternoon, a common theme for the season. The Royals can string together base hits (they actually finished 9th in the league in team batting average, according to Fangraphs). But when it came to scoring runs? The Royals struggled in that department, as they ranked 24th in the league in total runs scored for the season, according to Fangraphs data.

Sunday afternoon painted a perfect summative picture of what the whole season was like: a mixture of promise, and disappointment. There is potential for the Royals to move up in the standings in 2022. There are some interesting pieces in place, both on the hitting and pitching end. And yet, too many times this year, those pieces failed to come through when needed, or just didn’t gel together consistently enough throughout the year.

It was enough to keep the 2021 Royals season from being a failure. However, it wasn’t quite enough to make it a “major” success either.

Royals fans are used to losing seasons, especially those who were born and raised in the post-George Brett era.

Since 1993, the Royals have had only four winning seasons (2003, 2013, 2014, 2015). It hasn’t been easy to be a fan of the Boys in Blue, sans that 2013-2017 run, especially with the Kansas City Chiefs and Sporting KC competing for titles in the NFL and MLS, respectively. Most Royals fans can be pessimistic, especially online, and quickly dismiss any and everything the Royals front office does, which can take a toll on Royals fans who try to look on the positive end of things.

Has everything the Royals done in the Dayton Moore era worked? Absolutely not. I can point to many moves and decisions that have infuriated me, even as a more glass “half-full” Royals fan. That being said, I am not a fan of Royals baseball because I expect them to win all the time. The game is deeper than that. The experience is more nuanced in a way that goes just beyond wins and losses. Maybe it’s due to baseball being my favorite sport to write about and watch. But while I would like the Royals to be closer to the Tampa Bay Rays than the Baltimore Orioles in terms of division standing, I still value the Royals fan experience, especially at Kauffman.

Honestly, I consider myself lucky to be part of one of the best fan bases in baseball, as evidenced by the end of today’s game:

The Royals lost back-to-back games to the last-place Twins in infuriating fashion (the offense just failed to come through when it counted). Salvy was unable to separate himself from Soler over the weekend stretch of games. Most fan bases would’ve been out of there and on their way home immediately after Isbel’s strikeout, especially on a Sunday afternoon.

And yet, there the Kauffman Stadium faithful were, standing up, cheering their ballclub, and the players out of the dugout, waving and tipping their hat in appreciation.

MLB.com Royals beat write posted an interesting Tweet today in regard to Royals fan attendance this year:

To some baseball fans, that doesn’t seem like an impressive number, whether it’s overall or today in general. But there are a few things to consider: there was a crucial Kansas Chiefs game in Philadelphia today at noon; Sporting KC was playing at 3:00 p.m. at Children’s Mercy Park in KCK; and the Royals were playing the last-place Twins (going to say that as many times as possible considering how obnoxious some Twins fans were being behind us today). And yet, the Royals still drew over 17,000 to the K, and finished over the 1 million fans mark by a considerable margin.

Going into today, the Royals ranked 9th in the American League in attendance, despite finishing fourth on a win-loss basis in the AL Central in 2021. Kauffman Stadium attendance overall was better than the Athletics (15th), Rays (14th), Orioles (12th), Tigers (11th), and Indians (10th). I didn’t count the Blue Jays, who ranked 13th, because they had strict attendance limitations in Canada.

That shows not only how great the experience is at Kauffman Stadium, but how great Royals fans are. Yes, this was another disappointing year, but they came out in full force, always rooting on the Boys in Blue, even during some rough stretches of the season.

Even today, there were a bunch of volunteer ladies giving out Royals memorabilia to fans in the upper decks, and I was able to snag this as a gift:

It just goes to show you how special this stadium and the Kansas City baseball fan community really is.

I went to 14 games this year at the K, and my record this season was 5-9, not great by any means. This year, and today especially, was a bit disappointing to watch on the field. However, I remain optimistic there are better days ahead, and I am hopeful the Royals front office will make those right few moves this Winter that will make this team a more serious contender in 2022 and beyond.

But one thing that was not disappointing was the experience at Kauffman Stadium this year, and the Royals baseball community.

I am already counting the days until pitchers and catchers report in February.

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