KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The most perplexing pitcher on the Royals’ staff the first two months of the season was right-handed reliever Kelvin Herrera.
Blessed with a 100-mph fastball and a devastating changeup, Herrera, 23, has tantalized Royals fans with such electric stuff that he often appears unhittable.
And for the most part, he was in 2012, sporting a 2.35 ERA in 76 appearances.
But this spring, Herrera mysteriously lost his command. And that 100-mph heater couldn’t rescue him when he left pitch after pitch in hittable zones.
The damage? Eight home runs in just 18 innings, an unnerving total for a guy who had given up just five home runs in his previous 78 games.
Royals manager Ned Yost tried his best to stick it out with Herrera, who has closer’s talent and was slated to be Greg Holland’s primary setup man.
Finally, though, Yost and general manager Dayton Moore reluctantly shipped Herrera out to Triple-A Omaha in hopes he could rediscover his command.
“I didn’t see it coming,” Herrera says. “But I just went down there with the attitude that I would get better and get back soon.”
Herrera was gone only 10 days.
“But it seemed like five years,” he says.
A return to life in the minors was a jolt to Herrera’s system, to say the least.
“You forget about what bus trips are,” he says. “We had to go from Oklahoma City and drive all night and morning to Omaha, then play that day on the field. No rest.”
Herrera, though, made the best of it. He focused on two things: Keeping the ball down in the zone and pitching backward — that is, he started sequences with his breaking pitches to set up his fastball.
“I just threw more breaking balls,” he says. “I started out with breaking balls a lot of times in the count, just to let them know I had a breaking ball. That really made my fastball even stronger.
“My curveball is my best breaking ball. My changeup has always been a good pitch for me, but now I’m throwing my curveball more and it’s helping my other pitches.”
Herrera overmatched Triple-A hitters, not allowing a run in five appearances.
“Yeah, I was dominating the hitters,” he says. “I really tried to get the ball down and get more ground balls. That was the main thing.”
And then the call came, and Herrera was on his way back to the big league club.
“It felt great,” he says. “It felt normal again, like I was coming home.
“I’m happy to be back helping the team.”
Herrera knew this already, but his demotion perhaps cemented the realization that it doesn’t matter how blazing his fastball is if the location isn’t right.
“Definitely,” Herrera says, smiling.
“In this league, you can throw 200 mph and it doesn’t matter,” Herrera says. “If it’s over the plate and up, they’ll hit it.
“And then sometimes they just hit good pitches. In Double A or Triple A, you can get away with some bad pitches. Not up here.”
While Herrera is relieved to be back in the bigs, Yost is even more so. Yost has his shutdown bullpen back intact.
“It’s a huge help for us,” Yost says. “It definitely felt like there was a hole there without Kelvin.”
And the memories of his bad start this season are finally starting to fade. Herrera has not allowed a run in all six appearances since his return.
“There were some bad days (this spring),” he says. “I want to forget about that. It felt like every ball I threw was hanging. It was bad.
“If you hang it, they bang it. I know that now.”
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter @jflanagankc or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.