KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It was a needle in summer’s haystack, a speck, just one game, hardly 1 percent of this crazy, wacky 2013 Kansas City Royals saga. But some of those specks, some of those hardly 1 percents, are bigger than others.
So, yeah, Monday — a 3-1 Royals victory over Minnesota — was big. Big for the city. Big for the 40,073 who packed Kauffman Stadium. Big for manager Ned Yost. Big for general manager Dayton Moore.
But it might’ve been biggest of all for Ervin Santana, the right-hander with the infectious smile and the slider that, when it’s right, bites like a cornered badger. The guy making his home Royals debut. The guy trying to win over a town. The guy who had to wait eight innings for any run support to speak of.
“Better later than never,” chuckled Santana, who scattered eight hits — four came in a jagged first inning — over eight innings, fanning seven and walking just one. “Yeah, anytime you have a big crowd like that, it’s good for the team and for our fans, too. It’s good, and it gives you more motivation.”
And that, when you get right down to it, is all the Royals want. Motivation. Poise. Throw strikes. Make that slider breakdance. Log 30 to 34 starts. Eat up 190 to 220 innings. Steady the middle of the rotation behind James Shields.
In a sense, it’s the same role, more or less, that Moore had envisioned a year ago at this time for (grimace) Jonathan Sanchez. Like Santana, Sanchez came over in an off-season trade. Like Santana, he was a valuable contributor on a winning club (San Francisco, in this case), a cat with electric stuff who had been deemed surplus to requirements in his present rotation.
And, for the most part, that’s pretty much where the parallels end. Sanchez was left-handed, mercurial, and a bleeding disaster. The guy who was supposed to provide a steady hand to a young, shaky rotation made his home debut last April 14 against Cleveland. He wound up getting knocked out in the third inning, facing just 18 batters, walking four, surrendering six hits and five earned runs.
Sanchez never found his control — or his confidence — in Kansas City after that, and following 10 more largely excruciating starts, Moore was forced to cut bait, shipping him to Colorado in exchange for right-handed starter Jeremy Guthrie.
So some Royals faithful, after watching Santana get tagged for three home runs and four earned runs in his 2013 debut last Wednesday in Chicago, wondered if our man Ervin was Sanchez 2.0. They feared it was another case of somebody dumping a burned-out starting pitcher — Santana turned 30 last December 12 — on a Kansas City franchise desperate for veteran arms.
“You know, I don’t think about that,” Santana allowed. “Just try to make it simple. Just go up there and have fun and throw strikes.”
How about this for fun: Fangraphs.com charted Santana as throwing 36 sliders for strikes on Monday, 14 of them the hit-to-the-dirt, swing-and-miss variety. It’s his knockout pitch, the ace in the hole, the one weapon the opposition fears the most.
“He’s got that slider, that’s his kind of putaway pitch,” explained Minnesota’s Ryan, Doumit, who was 1-for-4 with an RBI and a strikeout. “He likes to throw that with two strikes. And our game plan was to try and jump on him early … as a hitter, you don’t want to see that slider. So you want to try to get that fastball before you get a chance to see that slider. And he had it working (Monday).”
More than that, he kept it down. Santana is historically a flyball pitcher by nature, and when he misses, those misses are often high in the zone. But after being punished for his indiscretions at bandboxy U.S. Cellular Field against a homer-centric White Sox lineup, Santana recorded a more palatable 10 groundouts and seven flyouts against the Twins.
“That’s one of the keys, yeah,” Santana said. “You just have to keep the ball down, and anything can happen.”
When Ervin’s on the mound, anything usually does. Get this: Over his last 32 starts dating back to April 2012, Santana has surrendered two earned runs or fewer 14 times — and allowed four runs earned or more 14 times. One week, Jekyll. The next week, Hyde.
Seven tilts into 2013, the Royals have already seen Good Ervin and Bad Ervin, right out of the chute. The hope is that cavernous Kauffman Stadium — where Santana is 4-2 lifetime with a 4.12 ERA in nine starts — will mean fewer recurrences of the latter. The flyballs that carry here in June, July and August tend to die in April, May and September.
“When you have a stadium like this, you have to feel comfortable, and I feel really good (here),” Ervin said. “It’s a pitcher’s park.”
And what a difference a year makes. In Opening Day 2012, amid gorgeous blue skies and expectations in the air, the Royals trotted out Luke Hochevar to glorious fanfare — then watched him give up seven runs to Cleveland in the top of the first inning.
Before several hundred of the locals had even settled in, the game was, for all intents and purposes, over. Everyone knows the rest: The Royals lost that tilt, then the next nine in a row on that homestand.
You can’t win a pennant in April, but you can lose a fan base. In a blink, Kansas City rolled its eyes and dreamed of football. Then the 2012 Chiefs happened, but that’s another painful discussion for another day.
The point is that the Royals, from the front office on down, are on a mission to prove that this spring, this summer, is a clean slate. That it’s no longer about potential, or the future, or pie-in-the-sky hypotheticals. It’s about now. Performing now. Achieving now. Winning now.
And that’s what the bloggers who savaged the Wil Myers/Shields trade over the winter failed to quantify. This wasn’t just about changing a roster. It was about changing a collective mindset in the home clubhouse.
“We’ve just got to keep battling, because if that guy on the other side has got his ‘A’ game, and in years past, we would’ve been like, ‘Man, we’ve got to get to him early, before he gets going,’” Royals slugger Billy Butler explained. “Now we know that the guy we’ve got going out there is going to match up well, and he’s going to take care of business, too.
“You just have the starting pitching each day to hold them down, (so) that if the offense is struggling, that if it takes them (until) a little later in the game to figure it out, we still have a chance. It’s not over by the time you get a little rally going. I think that’s the main thing.”
Santana is neither a projection nor a promise. He is what he is. He’s a proven, trusted brand.
“It’s not the name on the back of the jersey,” Butler noted. “It’s what the guy in the jersey has done.”
One home game into the books, Santana has already done wonders. And like the man said, better later than never. You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com