Last year, the Royals "manufactured" runs. This season, they said that they wanted to hit for more power. Baseball experts all talked about how if Kansas City could only hit more home runs, it'd be a force in the playoff picture once again.
Through four games, it's easy to see what they were saying.
The Royals squeaked past the Angels of Anaheim 4-2 on Friday night, improving to 4-0 for the first time since the 2003 season. They did it using both small-ball and the long ball, but the staple of dominant pitching from the 2014 Royals remains strong.
With two outs in the first, Lorenzo Cain smoked a ringing double into the left-center gap, and Eric Hosmer singled him home for the early lead. Hosmer, who had been booed louder than any of the Royals due to his extra-inning bomb in last year's ALDS, immediately was greeted by another chorus of boos. After the Angels tied the game on a third-inning double by Kole Calhoun, Kansas City snatched the lead right back in the fifth on an RBI single by Cain.
The next frame, the Royals would add another run when Kendrys Morales unloaded on a belt-high fastball. It was the first homer of the year for the Kansas City DH, who became the sixth Royal to homer in the first four games of 2015. Interestingly, it took 21 games for six different players to homer last season, and Kansas City only had three four-game stretches with at least one home run in 2014. The way the first two runs were scored certainly reflected last season's "manufacturing" approach, but Morales' bomb provided yet another reminder that the 2014 Royals believe they can change the way they score.
David Freese closed the margin to 3-2 when he homered in the home half of the sixth, but the Royals responded by loading the bases with two singles and a hit-by-pitch in the top of the ninth. Cain battled through a gutsy plate appearance that lasted seven pitches, ultimately concluding in a bases-loaded walk to drive in the fourth run of the game for Kansas City. It provided an important insurance run on a day where closer Greg Holland was unavailable after pitching the past two games. Ned Yost said after the game that Holland was fine, but pitching coach Dave Eiland had advised the managing staff to give him the day off.
The pitching staff, despite being without its All-Star closer, was magnificent. Jason Vargas (1-0) was splendid in his season debut, holding the highest-scoring offense in baseball from last year to two runs in six innings of work. He scattered five hits, struck out three, and walked just one. He threw 98 pitches.
Without Holland, the "HDH" trio had to be re-arranged. Jason Frasor was called on for the seventh inning, and he worked around a two-out double before Kelvin Herrera worked a scoreless eighth. Wade Davis closed out the game to earn his first save of the season and the fourth of his career. All three relievers were stellar, but Davis struck out the side, including two with looking punchouts. As a unit, the new "FHD" trio combined for six K's and three baserunners through three shutout frames.
Hector Santiago took the loss for the Halos; he was knocked out of the game after 5.1 innings of three-run ball. He struck out four Royals and allowed six hits. Kansas City's plate discipline was impressive; they chased Santiago from the game by inflating his pitch count. It took him 100 pitches to record 16 outs, showing more signs that the Royals have made it a priority to improve on last year's weaknesses.
It was a game that mirrored the first two games of the 2014 ALDS. The Royals struck early, held down the Angels' offense, and then delivered a late knockout punch before riding the best bullpen in baseball to a win. In total, it was the Royals' fifth consecutive win against Los Angeles. Kansas City kept pace with the Tigers, who are also 4-0 and represent the only other undefeated team in the American League.
The series continues tomorrow when Jeremy Guthrie makes his season debut for the Royals. He'll be opposed by Angels Opening Day starter Jerad Weaver, who surrendered four runs in six innings in a season-opening loss to the Mariners. Despite Kansas City facing the Angels nine times last year, Guthrie only started once. On June 29 at Kauffman Stadium, he allowed three earned runs in 6.2 innings, and the Royals will need another strong outing from their #5 starter if they hope to clinch the series.
The Royals are 4-0 for the first time in more than a decade. They're playing as well as any team in baseball. They're hitting home runs, averaging over six runs per contest. And in case you needed any other reason to smile, they're continuing to ruin important occasions for Angels fans all over Los Angeles.