Little did I know what kind of season this would be in my first year as a Royals partial season ticket member.
I was able to attend 26 games this year, which is a new record for me in a single season, and five more than my allotted 21-ticket package. The Royals, as of Sunday, are only 63-90, which will be their sixth-straight losing season (though with Sunday’s win over the Mariners, they avoided the 100-loss mark officially). This also includes a 39-42 record at Kauffman Stadium this year, which is good but still below that .500 mark.
My record though at Kauffman? 20-6, as I illustrated in the Tweet below (it became customary to Tweet my running season record after every game I attended).
I never imagined that I, during a losing Royals season, would see more wins than losses in a single season as a fan at the K, let alone see that vaunted 20-win mark (out of 26 games, mind you). I probably will go into all of my feelings in a more in-depth post about my experience overall as a season ticket holder after the season has fully ended. Safe to say though, I have already “renewed my blue” for the upcoming 2023 season.
For now, I want to focus on this single game, this last win at the K in the last game of the 2022 season for this peculiar Royals group.
Because this single win was the perfect “picture” of what this 2022 season has been all about, in both good and bad.
And that makes this offseason such an intriguing and important one for JJ Picollo and his new regime in the Royals front office.
Going into this game, I had low hopes that the Royals were going to pull out the series win against Seattle.
I attended Fan Appreciation Night on Saturday, which was my last game of the year in my typical season ticket section (my girlfriend and I splurged for Craft and Draft for the last game of the year). While the Royals lost 6-5, it was a valiant effort by the young Royals against budding Seattle ace Logan Gilbert and a Mariners team trying to clinch an American League Wild Card spot.
Sunday’s game was going to be a much taller task for Kansas City, especially considering the factors leading in:
- Luis Castillo was on the mound, fresh off a five-year contract extension.
- The Royals had Ryan O’Hearn and Hunter Dozier in the lineup, perhaps in what could be their last games as Royals players at Kauffman Stadium (more on this in a separate post after the season).
- The Chiefs were playing a noon game against the Indianapolis Colts, and thus, the attention of most KC sports fans, including those in attendance, would be on them, not the Royals for most of the game.
I expected this to be a quick low-scoring game for the few in attendance.
Boy how things changed quickly.
To be fair, the game went as expected early on, though the young Royals hitters gave Castillo plenty of work early on in the game. The Royals actually held onto a 2-1 lead after four innings, and though Castillo had his share of strikeouts against the Kansas City lineup, he didn’t overwhelm them as I expected. For the day, Castillo allowed five runs on seven hits while walking three and striking out five in 5.1 IP. Safe to say, it was one of his most underwhelming starts in a Mariners uniform thus far.
While the Royals lineup chipped away against the newly-acquired and extended Seattle ace (he was acquired around the Trade Deadline from the Reds), the Royals’ pitching imploded in the middle innings for what seemed like a second-straight night against the Mariners.
Max Castillo, in his first start at Kauffman Stadium as a member of the Royals, struggled in the fifth after four solid, though unspectacular innings. Kansas City’s Castillo experienced the same struggle that most Royals pitchers, other than Brady Singer and Scott Barlow, have experienced this year: allowing free passes on the basepaths (i.e walks).
On Saturday, Kris Bubic, Collin Snider, Carlos Hernandez, and Brad Keller combined to allow nine walks against the Mariners. On Sunday, Castillo walked four batters and hit two, with three of those walks and one of those hit-by-pitches coming in the top of the fifth.
Much like Friday, the rails came off for the Royals pitchers in that inning, as Amir Garrett and Jose Cuas failed to limit the damage while in relief of Castillo. Six runs were credited to Castillo; three runs were credited to Garrett in 0.2 IP; two runs were credited to Cuas in 1.1 IP. Garrett and Cuas also combined to walk four batters and hit one.
Safe to say, today’s performance in the fifth inning was a prime example of why Picollo and the Royals need to move on from pitching coach Cal Eldred and bullpen coach Larry Carter at the Major League level. I wasn’t alone in those feelings either.
With the score 11-2 going into the bottom of the sixth, it seemed like the Royals were going to end their home season at Kauffman Stadium with a whimper.
Of course, the young Royals hitters had other intentions.
One couldn’t say Seattle’s Castillo was cruising by any means against Kansas City. On the other hand, he certainly wasn’t struggling either, especially with an 11-2 lead.
That was until he got to the sixth inning.
The inning started predictably enough, as Castillo struck out Vinnie Pasquantino for the first out of the inning. After that strikeout though, things got weird, and in a good way for the Royals.
Here’s out it unfolded.
- Michael Massey hit a two-run home run to make it 11-4.
- MJ Melendez grounded into a force out to make it 11-5.
- Bobby Witt, Jr. hit a double on a flyball that Jarred Kelenic lost in the sun that plated Hunter Dozier and Melendez to make it 11-7.
- Edward Olivares hit a screaming groundball that bounced off Ty France for a single that scored Witt and make it 11-8.
- Massey blooped an opposite-field single over the head of France (boy he had a rough one) that brought in Salvy and Vinnie and make it 11-10.
- O’Hearn then roped a double to score Olivares and Massey to give the Royals a 12-11 lead.
Safe to say, after O’Hearn’s rough past couple of years, his big hit wasn’t exactly “expected” by the Royals faithful in attendance.
And to give the Royals some cushion, Dozier drove in O’Hearn on a bloop single that Kelenic couldn’t get to on the fly. Kelenic threw Dozier out at second, but O’Hearn scored before the out was made.
To get a full sense of how all the craziness unfolded that inning, take a look at my scorecard from that inning:
13 runs were all the Royals needed, as Anthony Misiewicz, Dylan Coleman, and Scott Barlow shut the door on the Mariners in the final three innings to win 13-12.
There was no reason for the Royals to come back and win this one going into the sixth inning and down nine runs. It was a meaningless game for the Royals, and an important one for the Mariners, who are trying to make the postseason for the first time in nearly 22 years.
But like a lot of games this season, this young Royals group shows a tendency to rise up in the big moment. We saw it on Opening Day with Witt’s big hit in the bottom of the 8th. We saw it with Nick Pratto’s game-winning home run against the Boston Red Sox. And today, we saw the young Royals hitters as a group contribute to the Royals’ victory.
The young Royals aren’t always consistent offensively. After all, 11 of their 13 runs came in one inning today.
They showed today though that they can be the ones to take control of this club when the chips are down. And they’ve slowly been showing that more and more in each and every win.
This makes one wonder what this group can do in 2023 and beyond with the right moves, both on the coaching staff and 40-man roster.
The Royals are 27 games under .500 still, and it is likely that they will probably finish in the 64-66 win range by season’s end. While they do have a road trip against the Tigers in Detroit, where they have fared well this season, six straight games against the Guardians in Cleveland will be a tough finish to the 2022 season.
Nonetheless, regardless of how Kansas City’s last road trip fares, Picollo will have some tough decisions to make after the 2022 season concludes.
And Mike Matheny’s future may be the toughest initial decision of them all.
It should be easy to part ways with Eldred, who’s in his fifth year as Royals pitching coach, especially after how Saturday and Sunday’s contests went. But one has to give Matheny credit for helping guide this young bunch in the midst of such a rough losing season as well as major roster turnover mid-season.
After Carlos Santana, Andrew Benintendi, and Whit Merrifield left Kansas City, Matheny truly handed the keys over to Witt, MJ, Vinnie, Massey, and the other young Royals hitters who have made their MLB debuts in 2022. He has slowly taken Nicky Lopez and Dozier out of the lineup in the midst of their struggles, and as a result, the young group of Royals has truly made this lineup and clubhouse theirs. MJ and Bobby stick out particularly, as they have taken over the patented “Salvy Splash” since June.
Matheny deserves some credit for establishing a clubhouse where those young guys feel like they can be leaders and thrive. That wasn’t the case when he was the manager in St. Louis, and it’s at least a sign that Matheny can change, even if it requires some “roster change” for it to fully happen.
I am not sure if a comeback win like this would’ve been possible under a different manager than Matheny. Would another manager have thrown in the towel and just put in a bunch of subs? Would another manager have ripped the club’s effort and pitching, much like Miguel Cairo did today after the White Sox were eliminated today?
Matheny can be pretty vanilla at times (I mean, this guy signs his jersey with “John 3:16”). But vanilla probably has helped this young group grow organically this year, with the potential to do even more development when Spring Training arrives in February of 2023.
But is that enough to save Matheny’s job?
Not even Picollo is sure as of this moment, which is not exactly an encouraging sign for Matheny’s future as Royals manager.
Today was a wonderful day to end the year at Kauffman Stadium for Royals fans. As Sungwoo Lee, Korea’s biggest Royals fan, said on Twitter today, today’s win partially mirrored the vibes from the Justin Maxwell game-winner in the home finale of 2013. That dramatic walk-off victory at Kauffman ended up building much-needed momentum that offseason into the successful 2014 and 2015 Royals seasons.
Now, 2022 isn’t 2013. Far from it. But the post-Trade Deadline Royals have been a much better group to follow, especially on the offensive end of things.
But the pitching needs improvement on a roster and coaching end, both at the Major and Minor League levels. And Picollo has to make a decision on Matheny. If Picollo does move on, they need to find the right guy who can get Kansas City back to the postseason in 2-3 seasons.
The Royals ended their season at the K on a sweet and positive note.
Now…the organization needs to build on that momentum not just in Spring Training, but as soon as the 2022 season is over…
Picollo doesn’t have any time to waste.
Photo Credit: Kevin O’Brien