The Minnesota Twins prepare to host an improving Kansas City Royals team that has finally found its offense.
The Minnesota Twins host the Kansas City Royals for the second time this season, after sweeping the season-opening series against the one-time division bullies.
After collecting just four wins in each of the past two seasons against Kansas City, the Twins have already taken all five contests this year.
But this may not be the same Royals team the Twins have knocked around, not even the one that hosted them at Kauffman Stadium three weeks ago. This Royals team has an offense.
While they are still struggling to find a bullpen (how weird is that to type?), they boast an impressive 1-2 at the top of their rotation in Danny Duffy and Jason Vargas, and a reliable closer in Kelvin Herrera (eight of nine in save situations).
Even their number-three starter, Ian Kennedy, has been pitching well – though unable to receive any run support for much of the start of the season. He has allowed two runs or fewer in four of six starts, yet sits winless (0-3) for the year.
A team that sat last in the league standings for all of April in nearly every offensive category (runs, average, home runs, extra base hits) has risen slowly from the ashes.
While still last in runs (hard to overcome spotting the rest of the league nearly 30), they have inched closer to their peers. Their .200 average has climbed to .227, though still second-worst in MLB.
But the most impressive stats are the power ones. They have leap-frogged four teams to sit 26th with 39 home runs, just two behind the Twins (though the Twins have played four fewer games due to rain-outs).
While Twins fans won’t see any Berrios-Duffy or Santana-Vargas showdowns, they will be evenly matched this weekend on the mound.
Kansas City: The Royals have been playing their best baseball over their past 10 games, taking three of four from Tampa Bay, and more impressively, sweeping the Baltimore Orioles before a showdown with the Yankees this past week.
Coming off a streak of winning six of seven, with Vargas and Duffy to close out the series, Kansas City started thinking this was the run they needed to get back into the AL Central race. It’s not like Minnesota, Detroit or Cleveland are running away with it.
After Jason Hammel endured yet another beating, Vargas looked to help the Royals take over the series on Wednesday. Going into the game, he led the league in ERA (1.01), having allowed one run or fewer in six of his seven starts – sound familiar?
Like Ervin Santana, Vargas suffered through a horrible start in front of the home crowd, allowing six runs in just four innings during an 11-7 Royals loss.
Luckily for KC, Danny Duffy is still Danny Duffy and shut out the Yanks for seven innings, striking out 10, in a 5-1 Royals win to salvage their finale. Much like Jose Berrios did yesterday against the Colorado Rockies after Santana faltered in the doubleheader’s opener.
Pitching: While their bullpen still struggles, the offense has given the Royals’ starters some leads to work with finally. This has allowed manager Ned Yost to set up his bullpen the way he’d want to, instead of bridging the final four innings from three runs down.
This has lessened the high-leverage situations on pitchers not quite ready for prime time, and giving the eighth to Mike Minor (three holds, 9.3 K/9, 2.11 ERA) and setting up the ninth for fireballing Kelvin Herrera.
Even Joakim Soria has proved effective for the Royals in the seventh and eighth innings, another successful reclamation project for the Royals’ coaching staff. His only hiccup this season was his last outing against the Twins (four runs in 2/3 of an inning).
Pitcher to Watch: Friday night’s starter, Nate Karns. While he’s been horrible against the Twins – lasting just 2/3 of an inning in relief, giving up four runs in the 9-1 Twins win in game two of the 2017 season – he’s performed well after being promoted into a starter.
In three games against Minnesota, he’s allowed 13 runs in just 6.2 innings. Miguel Sano has three plate appearances versus Karns: 1 HR / 1 3B / 1 BB.
Over his past three starts, he’s gone 2-0 / 2.08 ERA / 29 K / 4 BB, including 12 strikeouts in a five-inning start against Baltimore, making him the first Royals pitcher to record 12 strikeouts in a start of five innings or less.
Like any team, they need a spark plug, and Cain is the Royals’. In a make or break year for Cain (free agent this coming offseason), he’s gotten more runs and nearly as many hits and RBI in the partial month of May as he did all of April.
Setting the table and applying pressure on the base paths is Cain’s game. Like the rest of the Royals team, the lack of extra base hits is puzzling to him, especially with the vast spaces of the outfield at Kauffman.
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Batter to Watch: Eric Hosmer. Whether is was a hangover from winning the World Baseball Classic, or just cold weather throughout the Upper Midwest to start the season, Hosmer struggled out of the gate in 2017. He too is a free agent this offseason.
During the Royals’ nine-game losing streak to end April, Hosmer’s average lingered just under .200 – this from a lifetime .278 hitter. Finally, during a 5-2 loss in the finale of a winless six-game roadtrip, Hosmer found his swing, collecting three hits – including a triple. The triple was just his third extra base hit of the month.
Since, Hosmer has returned to All-Star form, hitting .381 in May thus far to raise his batting average up to .289 for the season. More importantly, he’s picked up seven extra base hits in just 17 games this month.
Twins: The Twins have endured cold, rainy weather throughout much of the first two months of the season. Their rain-out Wednesday necessitated a day-night double header Thursday. As such, they are allowed to recall a starter for an upcoming game.
While Adalberto Mejia is getting promoted for Saturday’s start, that will not be their emergency pickup. Instead, that move was already in the works, with Mejia being pulled early from his last start on Tuesday after three scoreless innings, before Wednesday’s washout.
The thinking is it may be for Kyle Gibson to get the nod Monday. Manager Paul Molitor stressed that it would not be Santana on short rest, especially not this early in the season. After struggling early (five runs in first four innings) Santana lasted seven full, throwing 104 pitches.
Minnesota currently leads the AL Central by one game, despite winning only nine games at Target Field so far, and having a -9 run differential on the year despite their 20-17 record. Only Cleveland (+9) has a plus run differential in the division. The Royals have the worst in the American League at -42, but sit just 4.5 games back in the standings.
The Twins had their record-tying home run streak snapped during the first game yesterday. After Byron Buxton homered in Tuesday’s game, it ran Minnesota’s streak to 16 games with at least one home run – that tied the 1979 Twins for the franchise record. Of course, they went homeless in each of the two games of the double header… baseball.
Notes: Jose Berrios looks like he’s here to stay. After his second start to begin his 2017 season, he’s allowed but one run over 15+ innings. His win yesterday was the first since Francisco Liriano‘s 2010 season in which a Twins pitcher struck out 11 or more batters without allowing a run.