Royal Review's Max Rieper was kind enough to answer a few question ahead of ALDS. Let's chat:
Royals were 19-9 in August, and 11-17 in September. What changed and do you think it will linger into the playoffs?
The Royals pitching absolutely imploded in September. The starting pitching had been a source of weakness all year, but even reliable pitchers like Edinson Volquez began to struggle and Johnny Cueto suffered the worst five-game stretch of his entire career. Everyone in Kansas City tried to diagnose what his problem was with theories ranging from a poor cutter to wild conspiracies that Cueto just didn't want to be in Kansas City. Cueto had a meeting with Manager Ned Yost and catcher Salvador Perez and admitted he preferred a lower target than what Salvy was accustomed to setting, and since then he has pitched pretty well. I doubt that was all there was to it, my guess it was some poor mechanics coupled with some bad luck, but Cueto has looked much better his last few times out
The bullpen issues in September were a bit more alarming. Greg Holland had struggled the entire second half with a disturbing drop in velocity until the club finally had him check out his arm to reveal minor UCL damage, requiring Tommy John surgery and an end to his season. Ordinarily, the loss of an All-Star closer would be pretty damaging to most contenders, but the Royals were able to promote Wade Davis - a better reliever - to the closer position. As good as the Royals pen was last year, they have more depth this season with free agent Ryan Madson in the fold along with a healthy Luke Hochevar and starter Danny Duffy joining the pen for the post-season.
Houston was AL-best 53-28 and 3-0 against the Royals in home. Do you worry if the Royals don't take the first two game that the hole be too big to dig out of?
I think most Royals fans see the games in Kansas City as critical. We have debated how important home field advantage is in general, but it seems clear that both of these teams are perfectly suited for their home ballpark. The Royals play in a big ballpark and slap the ball around - they had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors and are one of the best contact teams in modern times. They use their speed and defense to keep the game close with flyball pitchers who aren't stung by the long ball because of the deep alleys in Kauffman Stadium. Once the series moves to Houston, those pitchers will see those fly balls leave the stadium, and I don't think the Royals can win a slugging match with the Astros.
How have Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto fit in with the Royals? Any growing pains? What do you expect out of them in the postseason run?
Cueto arrived to much fanfare as he is really the first major July trade the club has ever made. The city embraced him and he wowed fans when he tossed a complete game shutout in his first home start. Since then he's had his struggles, and irked fans by being a no-show at a fan event a radio station had been promoting for weeks. A report leaked that he had told Hanley Ramirez that he was open to signing with Boston next year, and some fans feel like he has one foot out the door already. He has a laid back personality that some can take as aloof or apathetic, leading some to question his desire. All of that could be forgotten if he pitches well in October.
Zobrist, on the other hand, has been everything as advertised, and more. In just 59 games he is already sixth on the team in walks. He has been the team's most consistent hitter down the stretch and has given them the top-of-the-order on-base guy they desperately needed. He has also seemed to embrace Kansas City, as has his wife, Christian singer Julianna Zobrist. The Royals have apparently been after him for a long time, and he seems to fit their profile of what they love in a player, so it wouldn't surprise me to see them try to retain him beyond this year.
Do you think there will be any payback from Edinson Volquez sending George Springer to the DL after hitting him in the hand with a pitch?
I can't imagine there will be payback. The Royals have certainly had their confrontations with other clubs before, but I didn't notice any bad blood between them and the Astros. I can't imagine the beaning was intentional. It was just one of those things that happens like when the Royals lost Alex Rios for two months when J.R. Graham hit him on the wrist, an injury he was never really able to recover from.
If the Astros were going to retaliate, you would think they would have done it in Kansas City a few weeks later. It would be the height of stupidity to retaliate during a playoff series with so much on the line. But if Houston wants to give the Royals a free baserunner and risk a pitcher getting suspended for the series, I guess I'll take it.
Many people scoff at Ned Yost's moves with situational bunting and running, what are you thoughts on him as manager and his moves?
Ned is a pretty much just like every other manager in baseball, he makes some infuriating decisions, and he makes some pretty good decisions as well. He has an outstanding bullpen which helps him look smarter. He was pretty loyal to some veterans that weren't cutting it like Jeremy Guthrie, Omar Infante, and Alex Rios, but those issues have resolved themselves. About the only real criticism I have of him right now is the insistence that Alcides Escobar lead off despite a sub .300 on-base percentage because the team wins with him there. It's the equivalent of a "lucky t-shirt."
But the national perception of him as a "dunce" is also far off base. I give Ned a lot of credit for adjusting a lot as situations change and learning as he gets new information. He learned to have a quick hook in last year's playoffs, learned he didn't have to play small ball so much this year when the offense was much better, and he has learned from his experience in Milwaukee not to tinker too much. He seems to command the respect of the clubhouse and has done a good job resting regulars and parceling out playing time. He's gone from being nearly run out of town to being greeted to standing ovations when he walks into Kansas City restaurants. It's quite a turnaround.
What has to happen for the Royals to win this series? What do they need to avoid?
The Royals need decent starting pitching - not even great pitching - but starters that can keep them in the ballgame. Yordano Ventura has been on fire in the second half, but he's had his ups and downs this year. Johnny Cueto looked good his last couple outings, but his terrible stretch in September provides some doubt. Edinson Volquez was a bit shaky in September and can have trouble locating at times. The Royals need some good outings from those guys. The offense, even through the slump, was clicking pretty well for the most part, and the bullpen appears to be in better shape now that Greg Holland isn't closing games. The Royals were able to use this formula well against the Astros in Kansas City - keep the game close, shut the Astros down with the pen, and win it late. Winning the games in Kansas City this week will be critical, especially with Dallas Keuchel looming in Game Three in Houston.
One, do they still play Lorde's "Royals" at the K? Two, are you sick of it if so?
I can't recall hearing Lorde's song at Kauffman. I'm sure they've played it, but its not like a regular thing. The club has hilariously tried to manufacture a "sing-a-long" song with a fan contest the last two years. Last year the fans chose "Don't Stop Believin'" even though half the teams in the AL Central use that song, and it mentions our rival, Detroit. They finally ditched it in the World Series because the band Journey are big Giants fans. This year fans chose "Centerfield" by John Fogarty, but its been about as well-received as St. Louis BBQ.
The Royals players themselves have adopted a song each year that has carried over to the fanbase. Last year it was "We Ready" by Archie Eversole (https://www.youtube.com/