Just one game, but bullpen collapse could reveal magnitude of Hochevar loss
We all know the Royals’ formula for winning.
Get solid starting pitching, play Gold Glove defense, get a few timely hits and then let the shut-down bullpen do its job.
That shut-down bullpen was anything but in the season opener Monday, a 4-3 loss to Detroit.
Aaron Crow, shaky down the stretch last season, surrendered a run on a wild pitch in the seventh and gave up the tying run on a triple to light-hitting Alex Gonzalez later in the inning.
With the score tied 3-3 in the ninth, Wade Davis gave up a walk and then a single to rookie Nick Castellanos on a hanging slider. Skipper Ned Yost came in with closer Greg Holland but by then it was likely too late. With the infield in, Gonzalez sent the game-winner past shortstop Alcides Escobar.
The bullpen collapse is hardly cause for concern after just one game. But let’s not forget what we’ve stated in this space often the past few weeks: The Royals will miss Luke Hochevar, their setup man from a year ago who is lost due to Tommy John surgery, a lot more than people realize.
Remember that when Crow, Tim Collins and Kelvin Herrera all slumped toward the season’s end, Yost went with Hochevar to be his primary eighth-inning guy to set up Holland.
Now, Yost is hoping Davis can fill that role — but Davis wasn’t convincing Monday.
And perhaps even more alarming are Crow’s continuing struggles.
Crow was dominant last June and July, notching seven wins and eight holds while sporting a 1.17 ERA.
But Crow’s season slipped in August when he coughed up a 3-1 lead on the road to the Mets, gave up a homer to Detroit’s light-hitting Ramon Santiago in a game the Royals barely won 2-1, and then gave up a walk-off homer to Miguel Cabrera later in the month at Detroit.
The final straw came in early September, when Crow gave up a two-run homer to Kendrys Morales that led to a crushing 6-4 loss. Crow pitched only three more games, mostly in mop-up duty.
And if Crow isn’t careful, he could be in mop-up duty some more this season.
Crow wasn’t awful Monday. But he did give up the 3-1 lead.
Crow struck out Castellanos on a slider with runners on first and third in the seventh, but the ball darted away from catcher Sal Perez and a run scored.
Yost wasn’t about to put the blame on Perez.
"Sal set up down and away," Yost said after the game. "It’s a tough pitch to handle when you’re set up away and the slider backs up inside and bounces in."
Crow then gave up the game-tying triple to Gonzalez on a spinning slider that seemed to hang over the plate forever before Gonzalez ripped it into left-center field.
"Not where you want that pitch," Yost said.
The Royals’ offense closed up shop after their three-run fourth and thus needed the bullpen to extend the game into extra innings.
Interestingly, Yost chose not to start Holland in the ninth — Holland is accustomed to entering innings clean — opting instead to go with Davis, who got in trouble quickly after one out.
Yost said he traditionally won’t start his closer on the road in an inning unless it’s a save situation. But Yost eventually brought Holland in with runners on first and third.
"I had to because the game was on the line," he said. "We hoped Wade would get through the ninth and then we’d have Herrera for the 10th."
That scenario never unfolded.
And although Yost has indicated that Davis likely will succeed Hochevar in the primary setup role, chances are that Yost will have to keep an open mind and perhaps even experiment with Herrera, Davis and Collins to see which pitcher he can rely on.
April might be the month of auditions.
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter at @jflanagankc or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.