Wednesday evening to Thursday afternoon was a “dark” 24 hours in the Royals’ 54-year history, to put it bluntly.
That says something considering what this fanbase has gone through in the post-MLB Strike era (i.e. since 1995).
Whatever you feel about the vaccination debate (even though there shouldn’t be a debate, but that’s just me), it was still frustrating to see nearly 40 percent of the Royals roster not available for the upcoming four-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays, who are in the thick of the AL Wild Card hunt. It was even more frustrating to see four players (Andrew Benintendi, Michael A. Taylor, Brad Keller, and Whit Merrifield), who have been the subject of trade talks for the past couple of weeks on the list, also torpedo their trade value, according to MLB insider Jon Heyman.
And if that wasn’t enough, KC Star columnist Sam McDowell broke the news that the number of “unvaccinated” players has caused division and frustration in the clubhouse, which makes sense considering that the “tense clubhouse” environment has been a topic for months now. For a club already sitting in last place, the added “issues” in the Royals’ locker room only put more salt on a deep open wound.
To say the vibes around Royals Twitter were “down” would be an understatement.
There was plenty of frustration shared: with the players, with Whit Merrifield (who said he “would” get vaccinated for a contender essentially), with Dayton Moore and owner John Sherman, and even with each other, as some fans felt that Whit, Benintendi, Taylor, Keller, Hunter Dozier, and the other five were justified in their choice to be unvaccinated.
Nonetheless, games had to be played in Toronto, even with a lot of their active roster missing. As a result, the Royals called up a slew of players from Omaha and Northwest Arkansas, some of who were unfamiliar with casual Kansas City sports fans.
On Royals Reddit, they changed their subreddit name and banner to the “Omaha Storm Chasers” in jest. Betting lines had the Royals as the biggest underdog for a regular season game this season.
And yet, despite all the hoopla and odds against this “rag-tag” group, the Royals ended up beating the now 47-43 Blue Jays in a 3-1 barnburner.
For most Royals fans, including myself, this game was not only one of the most exciting regular season games in quite some time, but it was also a sign that legitimate hope is on the way in Kansas City, which is a feeling many Royals fans haven’t felt since Spring Training.
There were plenty of stories to be had in this close, but exciting, two-run win for the Royals.
Angel Zerpa took the mound as the starting pitcher, despite pitching in relief on Monday, and gave the Royals five innings of one-run ball that included only four hits allowed, two walks, and two strikeouts. Despite all the pressure, the 22-year-old prepared and took the mound with a cool demeanor, something that was refreshing to see from a young group of pitchers who have seemed tight nearly all season long.
Zerpa wasn’t a whiff machine by any means, as he only generated a 22 CSW rate (called strike plus whiff). However, he was efficient, as he only accrued 73 pitches in five innings of work.
In relief, Mike Matheny first went to Jackson Kowar, who has struggled at the Major League level the past two years. Things looked bleak after giving up a leadoff double to Alejandro Kirk, but after that, Kowar was nearly unhittable and showed why he’s long been a top pitching prospect in the Royals’ system since he was drafted in 2018.
The biggest difference in Kowar’s outing today was his primary usage of his changeup, which he hasn’t really done before at the Major League level. The change in usage (all in the wake of Cal Eldred’s absence, due to him being unvaccinated as well) produced sensational results, as seen below.
In the 8th and 9th, Taylor Clarke and Scott Barlow shut the door on the Blue Jays, as the two combined to strike out three and only give up one hit in two innings of work. After months of struggling to find a complement to Barlow in the late innings, it seems like Clarke has emerged as the Royals’ most dependable setup reliever, a good sign since he will be under team control for the next few years.
The pitching was absolutely sensational, which is a bright spot for a staff that has been pretty poor overall, especially on the road. But that shouldn’t overlook what the offense did on Thursday night against Kevin Gausman, one of the better starting pitchers in the league, and the Blue Jays staff.
The Royals collected 12 hits overall which included multi-hit games from Edward Olivares (three), Vinnie Pasquantino (two), Nicky Lopez (two), and Bobby Witt, Jr. (two), who also smashed a solo home run off of Gausman in the 5th.
Heralded rookie Nick Pratto struck out three times, but he did garner a walk, which has been his calling card in Omaha. Also, Nate Eaton not only got his first in his MLB debut but made it a big one, which was a game-clinching solo home run in the top of the ninth.
Eaton’s moment was not only a heartwarming one in the dugout, as all the Royals players gravitated toward him in congratulations, but in the postgame as well.
When being interviewed, Eaton said that he could only hear his mom, who traveled from Virginia on the day of, from the stands when he rounded second base.
And among the general clubhouse, there was also a different vibe after this win. Mike Matheny remarked that the energy was “up” in this game and that it had a “playoff atmosphere”. Nicky Lopez also mentioned that the win felt great because it was an “unselfish win: (Nicky said he wasn’t trying to throw any shade on the current 10, but that’s hard to believe honestly; good for Nicky nonetheless).
The Royals are still 36-53, 17 games under .500. They are also still in last place, half a game away from the Detroit Tigers (who are 37-53).
And still, it feels like this win could be the start of something special in Kansas City over the next two and a half months.
I do not expect the Royals to make “wholesale” changes overnight. Baseball and business are complicated endeavors after all. It’s easy to say “get rid of them all” from my Twitter app, but it is harder to do in real life with real people and families at stake.
That being said, there was something different with this Royals team in Toronto. There was energy. There was a joy permeating after this win that had not been seen in the previous 35 this season. There was a clubhouse full of engaged guys who liked being around each other, and a manager who seemed pumped to lead this group.
It was just one game, but for one night, this team felt like those 2014 and 2015 squads, as Jeremy Greco (Hokius) of Royals Review mentioned on Twitter last night.
Moore, Matheny, and JJ Picollo should not forget this moment, this game, this win. Even if the Royals lose the next three games in Toronto, which is still highly plausible, this win shows what could be possible with this club.
It shows what could happen when there is a group full of guys who are in sync and committed to building team chemistry. It shows what could happen when a certain pitching coach is not in the dugout for a particular game and someone else is calling the shots (kudos to Larry Carter who stepped in). And it shows the offensive potential this lineup can have, especially with guys like Eaton who can play multiple positions.
The Royals do not need to be beholden to the 10 who constantly used “I” statements to defend their actions. Rany Jazayerli and Matthew Lamar of Royals Review eloquently pointed that out when comparing Dozier’s statements to Danny Mendick’s from last year, who did get vaccinated for the “team.”
The writing needs to be on the wall for Whit, Dozier, Benintendi, Taylor, Gallagher, and maybe Isbel and Keller at the very least. For Melendez, Singer, and Coleman, this needs to be a wake-up call. If they are not committed to doing what is necessary for the team because of their “individual” beliefs, they need to find another club that will tolerate this stuff.
The Royals as a small-market team cannot afford to waste money on guys who won’t help this ballclub on the field and in the clubhouse. The Royals were successful from 2013-2017 because of chemistry. They were NOT successful in the post-Ewing Kauffman Era from 1995-2012 because they lacked it (bringing in guys like Jose Guillen, Kyle Farnsworth, and Danny Valencia will do that).
The “July 14th Royals” showed what can happen when the Royals trust the young guys and trust the “real” leaders in the clubhouse, not the ones whose value is all tied to individual accomplishments and accolades.
Moore and Picollo need to go with the former group in some way, shape, or form post-All-Star break sooner rather than later, even if the wins may be inconsistent.
Because July 14th was a lot of fun. It would be great to parlay that one night into a new-look clubhouse starting in August 2022.
If that happens, I guarantee Moore and the Royals front office will quiet the “boo birds” in Kansas City.
And maybe bring some disgruntled fans back to the K as well.
Photo Credit: Mark Blinch/Getty Images