Royals' 'weak link' does heaving lifting

BY foxsports • April 12, 2012

Don’t look now, but The Weak Link is 3-1 with a 1.85 ERA.

In
34 innings, The Weak Link has allowed just 22 hits and struck out 25.
Thanks largely to The Weak Link, the Kansas City Royals hit their home
opener Friday with the lowest team ERA (2.39) in the American League.

“Everybody
in the clubhouse had faith in them, that they were going to do a good
job,” Royals reliever Aaron Crow said of his starting rotation, the
franchise’s red-headed stepchild for, oh, the past 10 months or so. “And
I think outsiders might not expect that, but everybody in here, going
into the season, expects them to throw like that throughout the whole
year.”

Granted, it’s six games. A week, basically. When it comes
to baseball, you have to be careful not to make too big a deal of too
small a sample size.

But in the same breath, consider this:
Through the first six games of 2011, a home stand that featured the
Angels and White Sox, Royals starters pitched 35 2/3 innings,
surrendering 44 hits, 20 earned runs, walking eight, striking out 19 and
posting a collective 5.05 ERA.

Here’s what the starters have
managed through the first six games this year, three games apiece in
Anaheim and in Oakland: 34 innings, 22 hits, seven earned runs, 15
walks, 25 Ks and a collective 1.85 ERA.

Yeah, yeah, small sample
size, cold weather, night games played in the East Bay muck. We get
that. Still, you’ve got to acknowledge: It’s something to build on.

A
weekend of 10-9 ballgames might be fun as all heck to watch, but The
Show ain’t your brother-in-law’s softball league. MLB 101 says the
Our-Time Royals are probably only going as far as their starting
pitching will take them.

Lately, that’s meant a slow, painful
escalator ride down to fourth place. Now, though, you start to wonder —
and not with rose-colored glasses, either — if a corner might finally be
turning.

“We believe it’s not how you start, but how you
finish,” said Luke Hochevar (1-0, 2.84), who’s slated to toe the rubber
for the Local Nine on Friday afternoon against Cleveland. “But still,
coming from last year, the starting rotation was the part of the unit
that everybody pointed to and said, ‘These guys need to pick it up.’ And
you don’t want to be that part of a unit, of a team.

“And so I
think a lot of guys in the rotation took that personally into the
offseason, and really used it as a motivating factor to come into this
season and be a strong point of this team.”

The Weak Link heard the whispers. All through the autumn. Then the winter. Then on into the Cactus League.

“I
mean, yeah — we hear a lot of things, you know?” Luis Mendoza, one of
the Royals’ newer arms, acknowledged with a grin. “Good things. Bad
things. But we take it and that’ll help, like you said, motivate us and
show them that we can pitch in the big leagues and have good numbers. We
(hear) everything, but those comments help us to be better every day.”

So
does peer pressure. It’s cliché, sure, but that doesn’t make it any
less true. If you’re Bruce Chen, Jonathan Sanchez, Hochevar, Mendoza and
Danny Duffy, you don’t want to be the guy who drops the rope.

Mendoza:
“Like if Sanchez throws before me, if he does a good job, I want to do a
better job or the same. So I think that’s the way we’re doing it.”

Hochevar:
“It’s just a different unit this year. During the game, we sit next to
each other and just talk baseball the whole time and pick each other’s
brains as to why we threw certain pitches in certain counts.”

They’re
pitching smarter, pitching with a plan. Through the first six games of
2011, Royals starters gave up nine home runs. Through the first six
games of 2012? One gopher ball, off Chen in Oakland, where the ball
usually carries like a wet sponge.

“We’re pitching more
aggressively,” Mendoza observed. “We’re making quality pitches and
trying to avoid (solid) contact. All of spring training, we worked on
that, like how to pitch to each team and each player. So that’s what we
have to do and we’re taking all that into the season.”

The Weak
Link is may be doing the heavy lifting at the outset, but it’s a long
grind. Eventually, the clouds will part. The temperatures will
skyrocket. The parks will shrink. The kids are pushing one another,
which is nice: Chen’s seen a little bit of everything in this wacky
game; Sanchez has a no-hitter and a World Series ring on his résumé.

Mind
you, slumps can be contagious, too. When the bleeding starts again,
who’s going to be the one to cowboy up and close the wound?

That’s the next step, the next test. Hochevar said Thursday that he wants to be that guy. The stopper. The hoss.

“We
want to be a staff that leads this team,” the big righty continued.
“Because the fact of the matter is, we’re not going to go anywhere
unless our starting pitching picks us up and does their job.”

The Weak Link doesn’t mess around.


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