KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The would-be savior celebrated his 37th birthday nine days ago. Bruce Chen is the eldest member of the Royals, and his role lacks significance. He is the long reliever, a pitcher deemed unfit of the five-man starting rotation and a spectator during the high-leverage relief frames handled by his younger teammates.
In Saturday’s 6-2 loss to the Angels, Chen demonstrated why he has become marginalized on this roster and why he can still offer some value. He is here to handle emergencies, and one arose after four innings. A healthy storm soaked the diamond, chased Yordano Ventura from the diamond and caused this game to end nearly seven hours after it began.
“It’s tough, but that’s the job that the long guy has to do,” Chen said. “You never know when you’re going to be called upon, and you never know how long its going to be.”
After a delay that lasted three hours and 58 minutes, Chen inherited a two-run deficit. In one afternoon, it was possible for Chen to provide stability in a disjointed game, soak up innings for his fellow relievers and perhaps even collect the elusive 82nd victory in his career, which would tie him with future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera for the most ever by a Panamanian.
He completed the first two tasks. Chen lasted the final five innings and struck out eight. But a four-run frame in the sixth sunk his team. The Royals (41-39) nabbed a pair of runs off Angels reliever Mike Morin in the bottom of the frame, but the lineup shut down afterward, and Chen wore the loss in his first big-league outing after spending two months on the disabled list.
“His job is to hold down the fort and let us climb back into the game,” manager Ned Yost said. “And he did it, four out of the five innings. The sixth inning just kind of got away from him.”
The weather thinned an announced crowd of 21,093 into the hundreds. The final five innings thus unfolded before an intimate audience. The setting resembled a mid-March afternoon at the team’s complex in Surprise, Ariz. Only the diehards remained.
The offense offered little resistance at the hands of the Los Angeles pitchers. Hector Santiago blanked them for four innings before the storm arrived. The rain prevented Santiago from improving his 0-7 record, but his bullpen protected the team’s victory.
A downpour overtook the stadium in the bottom of the first inning. It was a temporary summer squall, but the umpires could not determine how long it would last. Ventura left the dugout, and watched as the grounds crew unfurled the tarp. He stood amid the sheets of rain during all seven minutes of the delay.
A more debilitating case of bad luck struck in the third. Ventura gave up a two-out double to outfielder Kole Calhoun. Mike Trout chopped a slow roller to third base, and beat backup infielder Danny Valencia’s throw to first. Two pitches later, Albert Pujols floated a 99-mph fastball just out of Omar Infante’s reach. The ball splashed into the outfield for an RBI single.
The Angels created a more conventional run in the fourth. Howie Kendrick dug out a knee-high curveball and doubled it into the left-field corner. He took third when C.J. Cron singled, and scored when David Freese cracked a single off a lifeless changeup.
The lightning flashed as Danny Valencia came to the plate with two outs in the fourth. Alex Gordon stood on second base, and Valencia had a chance to dent Angels starter Hector Santiago. He fouled off three pitches before flying out to right field. It was an eight-pitch encounter, and the last act of baseball this ballpark would witness for nearly four hours.
The Royals were not interested in a doubleheader on Sunday. So they opted to wait. In the interim, the players shuffled cards and played video games. They watched the other games around the country on clubhouse televisions. “It’s a waiting game,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said.
At 6:03 p.m., Chen emerged from the Royals dugout. Pitching coach Dave Eiland accompanied him to the bullpen. Chen had not pitched in a big-league game since April 24, when he aggravated a bulging disk in his lower back. Ten days ago he completed a rehab stint with Class AAA Omaha, and idled after rejoining the big-league roster last Tuesday.
Chen carted a 7.45 ERA with him to the mound. The Angels inflated that number in the sixth. After a leadoff single by Erick Aybar and a walk to Kendrick, the duo executed a double steal. Freese roped a two-run single up the middle. On the muddy track, he managed to steal second base.
“I made a couple bad pitches,” Chen said. “I left some pitches up.”
The theft placed Freese in an ideal position for what followed. Calhoun dumped a slider into left. Freese hesitated for a moment, but decided to challenge the vaunted arm of Alex Gordon with two outs. The throw skipped home, and Freese appeared to be caught. Except Salvador Perez couldn’t corral the ball.
Chen still couldn’t collect the third out on his own. Two batters later, Pujols plated Calhoun with a single, but the inning ended when Lorenzo Cain threw out Trout at third. The Royals staged a minor rally in the bottom of the frame, then drifted toward the end.
“Really, the second half of that game, besides that inning, went pretty quick,” Hosmer said. “Just a weird day, in general.”
KC signs top pick — Brandon Finnegan shook off his suit jacket and slipped into the crisp uniform of his new organization. His name gleamed across the back, as did the No. 1. designation.
“Fits, right?” asked Royals scouting director Lonnie Goldberg as he watched the No. 17 pick in this month’s draft button up the white jersey.
“Yeah, it fits,” Finnegan said, drawing a chuckle from his family seated nearby.
Finnegan, a 21-year-old left-hander from Texas Christian, appeared at Kauffman Stadium on Saturday afternoon, having completed the necessary paperwork to join the Royals. He signed for a bonus worth $2,200,600, the full amount for his draft slot, according to people familiar with the situation. After he debuts in Class A Wilmington next month, his goal for his first professional season is simple.
“Make it as high as I possibly can,” he said.
Last fall, Goldberg received a phone call from a pair of his area scouts, Chad Lee and Greg Miller. They had just met with Finnegan, who was coming off an 0-8 sophomore season at TCU. Finnegan, the scouts told Goldberg, believed himself capable of besting big-league hitters. That conviction has not changed.
“I just have confidence in myself,” Finnegan said. “A lot of people say I’m like C.J. Wilson or Derek Holland. I like to think I am. I’m a big fan of David Price, too. He’s a bulldog on the mound. That’s how I take it when I’m on the mound.
“Now, I’m not 6-4. I’m only 5-11. But I feel like I’ve got the stuff that’s good enough to pitch in the pros right now.”
His new employers will opt for a more cautious tack. Finnegan will fly to Wilmington on Monday, and his professional debut is at least 10 days away. Finnegan tallied 105 2/3 innings for the Horned Frogs. Team officials project him capable of throwing about 45 to 50 more this summer.
For now, the team has not ruled out the possibility Finnegan could aid the big-league club as a reliever during a playoff chase in September. General manager Dayton Moore stressed multiple times on Saturday “we’re not going to put limitations on Brandon or any of our guys.”
“It’s about winning in the major leagues,” Moore said. “We’re going to use all our of players and all of our resources to do that.
As Moore spoke, Finnegan nodded along in his seat beside him. Despite his zeal for promotions, the Royals will remain cautious with him. The team needs to see how he adjusts to the professional lifestyle and the improved level of competition. And, of course, there is his health.
Finnegan missed three weeks in April and May because of inflammation in his shoulder. He returned with a vengeance after the layoff, and his fastball registered in the mid-90s as TCU reached the College World Series. Granted more time to rest after his team was eliminated, he said, “I feel better than I have all season, honestly.”
His production was impressive. He posted a 2.04 ERA and yielded only a trio of home runs. Finnegan struck out 134 batters, a mark of 11.41 per nine innings.
“This year my out pitch was definitely my slider,” Finnegan said. “I didn’t give up very many hits on it. That’s what I use in a two-strike count. I can put people away with my fastball, too. If I wanted a quick out, I could just throw a changeup, and they’d roll over to third base. So all three of them worked for out pitches this year.”
In the coming weeks, the Royals will see how that arsenal plays against professionals. Their hopes are high.
“We selected him with our No. 1 pick, so we expect him to be an outstanding major-league pitcher,” Moore said. “Everybody’s time frame’s a little different. He certainly has the stuff to get major-league hitters out. It’s a matter of transitioning and going into professional baseball and starting to move up the ladder.”