There is one issue still lurking for manager Ned Yost: Stabilizing the closer's role.
By JEFFREY FLANAGAN FS Kansas City
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Amid all the excitement surrounding the Royals' thrilling 3-1 win on opening day, there is one issue still lurking for manager Ned Yost: Stabilizing the closer's role.
Incumbent closer Greg Holland was shaky in Chicago, blew a save Saturday in Philadelphia, and struggled again Sunday against the Phillies before being bailed out by Kelvin Herrera.
On Monday, as the Royals were mounting their three-run rally in the bottom of the eighth against the Twins, a curious development was taking place in the Royals' bullpen beyond left field: Neither Holland nor Herrera were warming up for the ninth.
Aaron Crow, who had never started the ninth inning in a save situation, stood alone on the bullpen mound, flipping a baseball in his hand and waiting for the Royals to finish their rally.
When the Royals made their third out, Yost didn't hesitate: He called on Crow for the ninth.
And Crow delivered the goods by pitching around a one-out walk and securing a 3-1 victory.
Royals fans now aren't sure what to think when it comes to the closer's role. Is it Holland's? Herrera's? Crow's?
Yost isn't wavering and reiterated after Monday's win that Holland is still his guy.
And like most managers, Yost doesn't want any controversy on the matter. After all the drama and high-leverage situations Saturday and Sunday, Yost simply decided he needed both Holland and Herrera to rest on Monday, and perhaps decompress for a day or two.
"I wasn't going to throw them," Yost said. "I wasn't sure how I was going to get through it. (Ervin) Santana (eight innings) took care of that. But it's just too early to be pitching these guys three days in a row.
"Crow was well-rested, had a day under his belt, and it was an easy decision."
Of course, Yost's decision to go with Crow could have blown up. Imagine the horror on opening day if Crow had coughed up the lead and the Royals had lost. And imagine the ensuing outrage from fans.
But give all credit to Crow. The moment wasn't too big for him. He got a strikeout, walked a guy on a borderline pitch, and then induced a double play.
Mainly, Crow came out throwing strikes (something Holland hasn't done yet) and avoided a white-knuckle finish. That was his goal – absolutely no drama.
"It was nice to be quick out there," he said.
Yost defended his gamble by reminding everyone that Crow is one of the big boys in the Royals' talented bullpen.
"Aaron's an All-Star," Yost said emphatically. "Aaron Crow is an All-Star."
Crow, a 2011 selection to the All-Star Game, not only saved Monday's win, but saved Yost and the Royals an avalanche of second-guessing as well.
And now Yost has perhaps turned a negative into a positive: The Royals have at least three, young would-be closers to choose from, if need be. The list could reach four if you count left-hander Tim Collins, who was lights out in Philly.
"I have confidence in any one of those four to close out a game," Yost said.
But who is the best option?
Holland won the job last year after Jonathan Broxton was traded, and converted his first 13 chances. He finished 16 of 18 – impressive for his first go-around at the game's (and perhaps all of sports') toughest job.
But Holland's awful outings in Philadelphia have raised concerns. Normally it would be ridiculously early in the season to be panicking about his future, but the problem is, the stakes are much higher this season.
The Royals are built to contend now, and they can't afford to let sure victories slip away because of a shaky closer.
Holland's main issue isn't his stuff – he was hitting 96 mph on the gun in Philly – but more so his command, especially with his breaking pitches.
Holland has been unable to use his devastating slider and splitter early in counts, allowing hitters to simply sit on his fastball, which tends to be overly straight.
Enter Herrera, who at times is simply unhittable. His 100-mph fastball and knee-buckling changeup are not only nightmarish to hitters, but they are a treat to watch. Herrera is quickly becoming the people's choice for the closer's job.
Crow also is a popular choice because of his local ties (Topeka, Kan., native and Mizzou grad), and because he comes into games throwing strikes.
In other words, Yost has options most managers only dream of. But he must settle on one before the month is over, and though he has faith in Holland now, he cannot let that faith obscure the big picture, which is keeping the Royals in contention.
To Yost's credit, he understands this, as evidenced by his decision to yank Holland in the ninth on Sunday and allow Herrera to finish out the win. Yost has done an admirable job in the last two years of developing prospects at the major-league level. But he has made it clear that the developing stage is over, and the results stage has arrived.
So don't expect an especially long leash for Holland. Yost has options for that role, and he likely will use them at any time.