After losing 100 games in 2002, how did Kansas City start 9-0?
Last Saturday morning Royals righthander Runelvys Hernandez was
having a near out-of-body experience as he watched himself on
television. The 24-year-old stood wide-eyed and still as
highlights of his seven shutout innings in Kansas City's 1-0 win
over the Indians the night before flashed on the four TVs in the
clubhouse at Jacobs Field. "Everything that's happened so far
this season, to me and to this team, is pretty surprising," said
Hernandez, who entered the year with 12 career starts but that
morning led the American League in wins (three) and ERA (0.45).
Hernandez's comment was the biggest understatement of the young
season. Who would have thought that the Royals, coming off a
franchise-worst 100-loss season, would be the first team to open
9-0 since the Reds did it in 1990? (Kansas City's streak came to
an end on Sunday with a 6-1 loss to Cleveland.) "Sure, we were
optimistic about our team," says leftfielder Raul Ibanez, "but I
don't think any of us could have foreseen this."
A favorable April schedule, front-loaded with 13 games against
the Indians and the Tigers (5-17 combined through Sunday), was a
big reason why the Royals had their best start in team history.
But playing an equally large role in the surge was the startling
poise of the Royals' young pitching staff. Kansas City's top four
starters--Hernandez, Jeremy Affeldt, Miguel Asencio and Chris
George--are all under 25 and entered the season with a total of
15 career victories. That foursome was a combined 7-0 with a 2.53
ERA over the first two weeks. What's more, closer Mike MacDougal,
a 26-year-old righthander with 24 1/3 career innings heading
into 2003, led the majors with six saves.
April 20, 2003
Throwing first-pitch strikes, something pitching coach John
Cumberland stressed this spring, has become the M.O. of the
staff. Royals pitchers had thrown first-pitch strikes in 61.6% of
their opponents' at bats, fourth best in the majors, compared
with 56.1% last year, third worst.
Still, it's hard to believe that the Kansas City staff can
sustain such dominance against better teams. "We're in store for
some bumps, and we can't forget that we're rebuilding here," says
general manager Allard Baird, who over the winter was ordered by
owner David Glass to cut the team's $47 million payroll by $10
million. (Baird has it down to $40.5 million, second lowest in
the majors.) So despite his team's promising start, Baird
continues to shop centerfielder Carlos Beltran, the team's 2002
leader in home runs (29), runs (114), RBIs (105) and stolen bases
Beltran, who will make $6 million this year and can become a free
agent after the 2004 season, has been sidelined since spring
training with a strained muscle in his right side. His teammates
eagerly await his imminent return, but Beltran, who rejected a
three-year, $25 million offer from the club in December, is
unlikely to remain in Kansas City past the July 31 trading
deadline. Beltran says he won't consider re-signing until after
the season, when he'll evaluate whether the Royals can contend
for a playoff spot in the near future. "The longer we wait," says
Baird, who is seeking a young third baseman as well as a top
prospect in exchange for Beltran, "the more he becomes a one-year
rental for a team and his value diminishes. So there is an
Beltran should rejoin the team in time for a three-game series
against the defending Central Division-champion Twins beginning
on April 22, the Royals' first series against a club that
finished better than .500 last year. "This has been a great
start," says first baseman Mike Sweeney, "but we'll soon find out
how good we really are."
Pittsburgh's Jason Kendall
Injury-free and Earning His Pay
After signing a six-year, $60 million contract extension in
November 2000 that made him the highest-paid player in Pirates
history, catcher Jason Kendall was plagued by a lingering thumb
injury and suffered a sharp drop in production. A career .314
hitter and three-time All-Star in his first five seasons, Kendall
hit .266 in 2001 and .283 last year. "I'm more disappointed than
anybody," says the 28-year-old Kendall. "I let my teammates down.
I let the city down."
During the first two weeks of this season Kendall looked like an
All-Star again, hitting .293 with as many home runs (three) as he
had last year. Healthy for the first time since 1999, when he
dislocated his right ankle, Kendall is finally fully recovered
from ligament damage in his left thumb that required surgery in
2001 and bothered him last year.
Another plus for Kendall has been the addition of outfielders
Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders and first baseman Randall Simon.
The newcomers give Pittsburgh potentially its best lineup in
Kendall's eight years with the team and allow Kendall, who last
year appeared in every spot except cleanup, to bat second. In 425
at bats in that spot in 2000 he hit .318. "He's an ideal number 2
hitter," says an NL scout. "He makes good contact, uses the whole
field and can hit for occasional power. The team has been
juggling him around so much, but now he's where he belongs."
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The Royals entered the season 29th out of 30 teams in career
victories by their starting rotation. Here is how teams with
similarly inexperienced staffs have fared since 1920.
Year Team Career Wins Record
1998 Marlins 16 54-108*
2003 Tigers 18 1-10[**]
1943 Athletics 19 49-105*
1937 Athletics 21 54-97
2003 Royals 21 9-1
*Worst record in the majors that year
Coming Soon ...
The righthander will crack the Athletics' rotation sometime this
year at age 21, which would be younger than Tim Hudson (23 in
1999) or Mark Mulder and Barry Zito (both 22 in 2000) were in
their Oakland debuts. Last week Harden was promoted to Triple A
Sacramento after retiring all 39 batters he faced--17 K's--in two
starts for Double A Midland (Texas), where his fastball hit 99
mph. In his first game for Sacramento on Sunday he struck out
eight in a 6-2 win.
Harden began the season at Midland even though he dominated there
last year (102 strikeouts in 85 1/3 innings). Oakland is being
cautious with Harden while lefthander John Halama, 31, keeps his
rotation spot warm. Besides, there is a huge economic incentive
for teams to give their top rookies even a few weeks in the
minors at the start of a season: It can delay losing a player to
free agency by a year. Mulder, for example, made his big league
debut on April 18, leaving him only five service days short of
free agency after the 2005 season.