Bob Lutz

August 11, 2014

Royals doing basics well enough to smell October

Pitching, speed part of Kansas City’s seven-game winning streak

I watched the Royals run the San Francisco Giants out of Kauffman Stadium on Sunday afternoon. They stole seven bases and the Giants were helpless to curtail the thievery.

Kansas City also smacked a pair of home runs and rode the excellent pitching of Danny Duffy and the bullpen.

The recipe for success in Kansas City has been established and the pot is simmering on the stove in preparation of an October feast. Run, pitch, hit an occasional long ball.

The Royals had won seven straight games going into a game against the runaway Oakland Athletics on Monday night at The K. They were 15-7 since the All-Star break and while Kansas City has powered up – 16 home runs since the break – it continues to be about pitching and speed.

Danny Duffy is the best 7-10 pitcher in the modern era. James Shields is pitching like he’s supposed to pitch of late, with a 2-1 record and 1.77 ERA since the All-Star break. And that bullpen is like a dark alley in a bad part of town for opposing teams. None want to venture there.

As the Royals chase Detroit in the American League Central, the situation is clear. This team has a chance to make the playoffs for the first time in 29 years. And it promises to be a exciting-yet-harrowing experience for a fan base that just isn’t used to a pennant race and all the joy and agony it includes.

What does Kansas City need to do in order to play October baseball?

Keep running, first and foremost. Jarrod Dyson is a real weapon at the bottom of the batting order. He just needs to make contact, then his legs take over. The Giants did everything but try to throw a net around him during the weekend series.

Dyson leads Kansas City with 26 stolen bases and has the look of a guy who could steal two a game if manager Ned Yost turns him loose. The Royals have other threats, too. Alcides Escobar (24), Lorenzo Cain (16) and Nori Aoki (13) have helped the Royals to 102 stolen bases, one behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for the major-league lead.

As for the pitching, let’s look at the starters.

Duffy, 5-10 before winning his past two starts, has a 2.03 ERA in the second half. But he’s struggled some with his control of late, walking 15 in 31 innings.

Shields, who was traded for to be the pitcher who could lead the Royals to the postseason, is pitching like that guy now after a so-so first half that saw his ERA rise to 3.65. Since then, he’s 2-1 with a 1.77 ERA, more resembling the kind of pitcher who can take the ball in a wild-card playoff game and give his team a legit chance.

Veteran Jeremy Guthrie has also been pitching better of late, with a 3-1 record and 3.38 ERA since the All-Star break. And even though Jason Vargas was knocked around by the Athletics in his first game back from the disabled list 10 days ago, he was better in his last start, limiting the Giants to two runs in five innings. Vargas is just working the rust off after more than three weeks on the DL.

If there’s a cause for concern among the starters, it’s with young right-hander Yordano Ventura, who has never pitched more than 134 2/3 innings in a season as a professional. He was at 127 going into Monday night’s start against Oakland. After allowing one run in a start against Cleveland on July 4, Ventura’s ERA was 3.05. In six starts since, it’s 4.75, although he was effective in his most recent outing before Monday.

Remember two seasons ago when the Washington Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg late in the season? The Nats were headed to the playoffs — for the first time — but Strasburg had reached his limit and was shut down after 159 innings. He was 24 at the time.

The Royals have said nothing about limiting Ventura’s workload, but it’s worth keeping an eye on. If he goes deep into his four remaining August starts, he could begin September having pitched 150 innings or more. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Royals start to use kid gloves with Ventura. Or with Duffy, who was shelved by significant injuries in 2012 and 2013 and has never, until now, pitched more than 105 1/3 innings professionally. He’s at 115 2/3 innings after his win against the Giants on Sunday.

Duffy and Ventura will be, the Royals hope, fixtures in future rotations. But they’re also a big part of now. And a team chasing its first postseason since 1985 probably can’t afford to baby two of its best arms.

It’s going to be a wild final seven weeks in Kansas City. Royals fans, you wanted to experience the heat of a pennant race. Well, this is gonna be hot.

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or Follow him on Twitter: @boblutz.

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