Royals notebook: Yabuta shows signs of improvement

BOSTON | It’s inevitable, perhaps, that Royals reliever Yasuhiko Yabuta would acquire “Shake” as a nickname — Shake Yabuta — but sure that beats other less-kind alternatives.

Yabuta appears to be righting himself after a rough introduction to the big leagues. He made his fourth straight scoreless appearance Monday as a footnote to the no-hitter by Boston’s Jon Lester.

“I’ve started to get the ball down,” Yabuta said through an interpreter. “And even when I fall behind, I’ve been able to throw more strikes. Getting the ball down and locating my breaking ball has made a big difference.”

The Royals lured Yabuta, 34, from Japan in the off-season by ponying up a guaranteed $6 over the next two years. They believed they were obtaining a proven setup reliever since Yabuta recorded 86 holds over the last three seasons for Chiba Lotte in the Pacific League.

The early results weren’t promising. Yabuta struggled through most of his spring outings and began the season by allowing 13 runs, 22 hits and nine walks in his first 14 innings. That prompted a pointed discussion a few weeks ago with manager Trey Hillman and pitching coach Bob McClure.

When Yabuta insisted he was healthy and not having trouble with the ball, which is slightly different from those used in Japan, he got a terse directive from Hillman: “Fill up the strike zone the way you did in Japan.”

Hillman was particularly troubled by the walks. Yabuta walked just 10 hitters last season in 62 2/3 innings.

“There’s no doubt that he’s finding something,” Hillman said. “Mac has done some nice things with him. He’s making adjustments. He’s throwing more strikes.

“It’s good to see. He’s closer, but he’s not there yet, to the pitcher we brought over. He’s moving in the right direction.”

McClure is working to shorten Yabuta’s stride, which spans about 6½ steps from where he pushes off the rubber.

“He’s longer than anyone I’ve ever had,” McClure said. “To get there, he’s almost got to jump. That’s going to hurt his command, but it’s also why his change and split are so good and so deceiving.

“So you don’t want to take that deception away from him, but you want to improve his command. How do you do that? I’m not really sure. We’re still working on it.”

The result, at this point, is to turn Shaky into Shake.

“I always get on the mound with confidence,” Yabuta said, “but the secret to pitching is keeping the ball down. That’s what is leading to good results.”

Gathright improves

Outfielder Joey Gathright remains limited by a sore left shoulder resulting from a collision Saturday with David DeJesus in Florida. Gathright said his shoulder popped briefly out of joint — something he has experienced in the past.

“It’s better,” he said. “It just takes time. It usually takes a few days to get it back to normal.”

Gathright took batting practice for the second straight day and is viewed as available for duty.

“When he took batting practice,” Hillman said, “the soreness in his shoulder shortened his swing. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise.”

After the last time

Wondering how the Royals responded after suffering a no-hitter for the only other time in their 40-year history?

After becoming Nolan Ryan’s first of seven career no-hit victims on May 15, 1973, the Royals mustered nine hits, but just one run, the following night in a 2-1 loss at Texas. The opposing pitchers that night: Pete Broberg and Steve Foucault.

The Royals went 5,550 games between no-hitters. There were 74 no-hitters thrown against other teams in that span, including at least one against every team except the Cubs, Reds and Pirates.

Lack of support

A year ago, Gil Meche received the lowest run support per nine innings among American League starters. This season’s unfortunate victim is shaping up as Luke Hochevar.

The Royals have scored just 10 runs in Hochevar’s six starts for a run-support average of 2.52 for his 35 2/3 innings. That would rank third in the big leagues if Hochevar had sufficient innings to qualify.

Starters must average one inning for each game their team plays to qualify. The Royals, entering Tuesday, had played 44 games.

Detroit’s Justin Verlander, entering Tuesday, had received the lowest support at 2.29 runs per nine innings, followed by Cleveland’s Paul Byrd at 2.47. Oddly, Verlander had the best run support in 2007 at 7.32.

Royals right-hander Brett Tomko ranks ninth among AL starters at 3.55.

And Meche? He entered his start Tuesday at 3.59 runs per nine innings, which ranked 11th among AL pitchers. That only seems like a step forward. He got 3.92 runs per nine innings in 2007.

Minor details

Left-hander Danny Duffy worked three scoreless innings Monday in his season debut for Class A Burlington before running into trouble in three-run fourth in a 7-3 loss to Kane County.

Duffy, 19, was the Royals’ third-round pick in last year’s draft. He gave up three runs and six hits in 3 2/3 innings while striking out four and walking one.

Baseball America ranked Duffy as the Royals’ No. 5 prospect entering the season after he went 2-3 with a 1.45 ERA last season in 11 games for Surprise in the Arizona Rookie League.

The Royals want Duffy and 2007 second-round pick Sam Runion, also 19, to pitch about 100 innings this season. Runion allowed one run and four hits in six innings Sunday in his season debut at Burlington.


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