This just in: the Kansas City Royals don't suck. At least they don't suck as much as they usually do. The Yankees' next three series are against the Royals, Orioles, and White Sox and the Royals just might be the most dangerous of those three teams as they are currently tied in the AL Central with Chicago and just one game behind Baltimore in the overall standings, but have been much hotter than either of late.
Since the end of interleague play, the Royals have gone 13-8 while taking series from the Angels (a three-game sweep), Mariners, Red Sox, and Tigers. They also lost two of three to the Indians by a combined three runs and their only loss to Detroit came in ten innings. Over those 21 games, they've outscored their opponents 124-81, which works out to a .701 winning percentage (or a 15-6 record). By comparison, the Blue Jays are 11-13, the Orioles are 12-10 (not counting their suspended game with the Yankees), the White Sox are 14-12, and the Devil Rays are 5-20 since the end of interleague play.
Why have the Royals been so good against the league's best teams? Their bullpen has a lot to do with it. Led by a finally healthy Octavio Dotel (3.34 ERA, 10 SV) and Rule-5 steal Joakim Soria (2.34, 10 SV while Dotel was hurt), and rounded out by the setup duo of veteran righty David Riske (2.42 ERA) and 25-year-old lefty Jimmy Gobble (2.67), the Royals' pen has the sixth-best ERA in the American League, and things are only getting better as Zack Greinke is thriving in his new middle-relief role with a 1.88 ERA since June 10.
That strong performance by the pen means that the Royals can hold onto the leads handed to them by their surging offense, which scored 5.9 runs per game over that 21-game stretch. The leaders there have been veteran second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, who has hit .431/.453/.510 since coming off the DL on July 6, utility man Esteban German, who has hit .371/.443/.548 while starting 15 of those 21 games (initially in place of Grudzielanek at second, and since then spotting in at third base and pushing struggling überprospect Alex Gordon to first base), and rookie designated hitter Billy Butler, another top prospect, who has hit .373/.422/.590 since being recalled on June 20.
There's something amiss, however. It seems no one else has really hit much at all over those last 21 games, and, since Grudzielanek and German essentially split second base over that span, that means the offense has been riding on two hot bats, Butler's and the second baseman's. Catcher John Buck, who leads the team with 16 homers (more than twice the total of second-place Mike Sweeney), has slugged .524 over that stretch, but with only three taters and a .292 on-base percentage. Reggie Sanders has the next-best season line on the team, but injuries have limited him to 16 starts on the season. He was just reactivated from the DL a week ago and has made just three starts since then, going 2 for 10 in those games. First basemen Ryan Shealy and Mike Sweeney (surprise) are back on the DL. Ross Gload, who seemed redundant earlier in the season, has instead been merely punchless filling in for Shealy. Despite occasionally threatening to fulfill his promise, Alex Gordon has hit just .240/.301/.320 over those last 21 games. David DeJesus and Mark Teahen have been better than that, but not by enough. Tony Peña Jr. was never supposed to hit in the first place, and hasn't, but is still outperforming Emil Brown (.228/.288/.319 on the season).
Are the Royals all smoke and mirrors? Yeah, probably. Butler is the real deal, and German is a criminally neglected player who deserves to start somewhere (the Indians should be banging down the Royals' door for him), but Grudzielanek is obviously in way over his head, Gordon is really the only hitter likely to rise up to replace his production, and it just might be that Gordon isn't as ready for the Show as the Royals thought he was. The bullpen is likely to cool off at some point as well, which leaves this team in the hands of Butler, German, and Gil Meche. There's no doubt that the Royals are a better team than they were a year ago, but they're still a legitimate last-place team (despite the White Sox's best efforts). The only real danger is that they're having a lot of fun playing the spoiler right now, and there's nothing that says that's going to stop this week with the Yankees in town. There are still eight players on this Yankee team who remember the devastating sweep the team suffered in Kansas City in 2005.
Tonight, Roger Clemens looks to get the Yankee road trip off on the right foot against lefty Odalis Perez. Clemens has a 2.63 ERA over his last three starts despite taking the only loss in the Yankees' second-half-opening series in Tampa Bay. Perez, meanwhile, has a 7.47 ERA over his last three starts, but still managed to pick up a win against the Red Sox in his last outing (5 IP, 5 R) thanks to the four runs the Royals scored off Julian Tavarez in the fifth inning of that game. The big hits in that inning? Doubles by Grudzielanek and Butler. It sounds a bit extreme, but the key to this series may be making sure those two don't get anything to hit in big spots.
Home Ballpark (2007 Park Factors): Kauffman Stadium (107/106)
Who's Replacing Whom?
Ross Gload replaces Matt Stairs
Tony Peña Jr. replaces Angel Berroa
Alex Gordon replaces Doug Mientkiewicz
Billy Butler replaces Mike Sweeney (DL)
Jason Smith replaces Tony Graffanino
Jason LaRue replaces Paul Bako
Gil Meche replaces Mark Redman
Jorge De La Rosa takes Runelvys Hernandez's starts
Odalis Perez takes the starts of Denny Bautista, Joe Mays, and Brandon Duckworth (DL)
Brian Bannister replaces Luke Hudson (DL)
Octavio Dotel replaces Ambiorix Burgos
Joakim Soria replaces Andrew Sisco
David Riske replaces Elmer Dessens
Zack Greinke replaces Jeremy Affeldt
John Bale replaces Mike Wood
Ryan Z. Braun inherits Todd Wellemeyer's innings
1B Ross Gload (L)
2B Mark Grudzielanek (R)
SS Tony Peña Jr. (R)
3B Alex Gordon (L)
C John Buck (R)
RF Emil Brown (R)
CF David DeJesus (L)
LF Mark Teahen (L)
DH Billy Butler (R)
R - Esteban German (IF)
R - Reggie Sanders (OF)
L - Jason Smith (IF)
R - Jason LaRue (C)
R - Gil Meche
L - Jorge De La Rosa
R - Brian Bannister
L - Odalis Perez
R - Octavio Dotel
R - Joakim Soria
R - David Riske
L - Jimmy Gobble
R - Zack Greinke
R - Joel Peralta
L - John Bale
R - Ryan Z. Braun
15-day DL: R - Mike Sweeney (1B), R - Ryan Shealy (1B), R - Scott Elarton*, R - John Thomson, R - Brandon Duckworth
60-day DL: R - Luke Hudson, R - Roman Colon, R - Joe Nelson, R - Angel Sanchez (IF)
L - David DeJesus (OF)
R - Mark Grudzielanek (IF)
L - Mark Teahen (LF)
R - Billy Butler (DH)
L - Ross Gload (1B)
L - Alex Gordon (3B)
R - Emil Brown (RF)
R - John Buck (C)
R - Tony Peña Jr. (SS)
*Elarton will be activated to make Tuesday's start, with Bale or Braun likely to be optioned to triple-A to make room.