When the Royals charged to consecutive AL pennants in 2014 and '15, they did so largely on the strength of an impenetrable bullpen. While nearly every other team dealt with the usual volatility and heartbreak that comes with using failed starting pitchers in huge spots, Kansas City kept winning close games. Fall behind the Royals after six innings, and you were doomed to fail. Tie them after six, and you were still in deep trouble.
No bullpen can beat the odds forever, though: So far this season, K.C.'s 'pen has been a disaster. On Opening Day in Minnesota, the Royals came into the seventh inning tied 1-1 . . . only to cough up six runs in the seventh and lose 7-1. In their second game, they trailed 3-1 heading into the seventh . . . only to give up six more and lose 9-1. In the final game of the opening series against the Twins last Thursday, Kansas City entered the seventh tied 3-3 . . . and surrendered two runs to lose 5-3. The coup de grâce came Sunday against the Astros. After winning the first two games of the series, the Royals had a 3-1 lead and were nine outs from a series sweep when (stop me if you’ve heard this one) . . . they rolled out the red carpet of runs. The first two scored in another disastrous seventh inning. K.C. scored one in the top of the ninth to take the lead but Houston stormed right back to tie it in the bottom of the inning. The final insult came in the 12th, when the Royals 'pen blew the game on, of all things, a walkoff walk.
Multiple culprits share the blame. Matt Strahm got blasted for four runs in ⅓ of an inning on Opening Day and another two runs in ⅓ of an inning in game two of the season, before walking three batters in losing Sunday’s game. Travis Wood allowed two runs in ⅓ of an inning on Opening Day, recorded two combined outs in his next two outings, then yielded a two-out, game-tying homer on Sunday. Meanwhile, a few disenchanted Kansas City fans are already calling for Kelvin Herrera to lose the closer job after blowing Sunday’s game, particularly with former-Royals-closer-turned-current-K.C.-setup-man Joakim Soria one of the few relievers to hold up through that first nightmarish first week.
But the main takeaway here is much simpler than that: Neither the Royals nor any other team can outrun the bullpen regression monster for long. Which means they’ll likely need to find other ways to win. With a shaky rotation made worse by the death of Yordano Ventura over the winter, finding those alternate paths to success could be awfully tough.