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Hok Talk - How the Royals almost competed in 2019

It was never going to happen in this reality. But what about another?

Kansas City Royals portraits
It definitely involves seeing more of this guy.
John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images

If you’ve been on Royals Review for a while you may remember a time when I wrote stuff here that had titles that didn’t start with “Hok Talk”. Back in those balmy days “an old college buddy of mine” with a “dimensional portal” helped me figure out whether the Royals should re-sign Eric Hosmer. We came alarmingly - or perhaps maddeningly - close to one of those potential realities this year - if you go back to read it you’ll see I mentioned one reality where a team lost 120 games in 2018 but made it to the ALCS in 2019. I discarded that reality as extremely unlikely but after looking back over the last season and a half I realize we were much, much closer to that reality than I had expected. So I decided to check my notes and see just how close we came to fulfilling that, or a similar reality.

Rookies led the way during the season

So here’s a super weird thing. The Alternate Royals (Or A-Royals as I’ll refer to them from now on) lost 120 games in 2018. That’s not the weird part. The weird part is just how similar to the Real Royals (R-Royals) they were. Their roster construction was alarmingly similar throughout the season. the biggest difference between the two teams was that Lucas Duda was never signed because that was one of the realities where Dayton Moore re-signed Eric Hosmer. That team didn’t have that impressive September which caused them to hit the pace they spent most of the season aiming for. Between the losses and Hosmer contract, Dayton Moore couldn’t get approval for money to spend on veterans in the off-season. Billy Hamilton, Terrance Gore, Lucas Duda, Chris Owings, and Brad Boxberger all had to find work elsewhere.

One thing I didn’t mention was that Eric, like Salvy, suffered a torn UCL in spring training of 2019 for the A-Royals which forced them to finally bring up Ryan O’Hearn - who had gotten no playing time in 2018 due to Hosmer’s presence. It was bizarre for two position players to go down with that injury in the same spring, but other than that freak coincidence the A-Royals were remarkably healthy which helped them in their run.

O’Hearn wasn’t the only rookie to make his debut on opening day. Without Hamilton, Bubba Starling found himself installed as the starting centerfielder. The A-Royals kept Brian Goodwin to play rightfield but he completely fell on his face out of the gate while the A-Royals Brett Phillips figured out his flaws in the off-season and got off to an incredibly hot start for Omaha and earned a quick promotion when the team DFA’d Goodwin.

Ryan O’Hearn for the A-Royals did exactly what he had done for the R-Royals in 2018, hit the cover off of the ball. But he did it for all of 2019 instead of a few months in 2018. Bubba Starling did what he’s done the last couple weeks, but for the entire season. He, Phillips, and Gordon formed the best defensive outfield of all time. You did not try to take an extra-base while those guys were running around out there with cannons where their arms belonged.

Among the other players, the Royals couldn’t find the money for Martín Maldonado so they gave the job to Cam Gallagher by default. Royals Review staff took glee in pointing out how very similarly they played to fans who were furious that the Royals wouldn’t sign the best catcher available to replace Salvador Perez. Nick Dini made the club as a backup. He was demoted in mid-June for Meibrys Viloria who split time about evenly with Gallagher after the promotion. It was a pretty good arrangement. Adalberto Mondesi, Hunter Dozier, Jorge Soler, and Alex Gordon were all just about as good for both teams. Mondesi didn’t suffer the shoulder subluxation, though, which helped the team during the dog days of August. Nicky Lopez and Cheslor Cuthbert rounded out the bench with Dozier and Merrifield shifting the outfield as necessary to give guys days off.

Just as an odd bit of trivia, the A-Royals couldn’t find room for Frank Schwindel on their opening day roster so he asked to be allowed to pursue international opportunities. He ended up signing with the Hanwha Eagles in the Korean Baseball Organization and instantly became a sensation there. He even had a cameo in the most recent BTS music video - A K-Pop girl band sensation that has taken over the entire alternate world of music.

Brad Keller and a finally-healthy Kyle Zimmer frontlined a sturdy rotation. The A-Royals’ Keller never had the walk issues that plagued the R-Royals’ version so he won 18 games and came in third in Cy Young Award voting. Zimmer, Healthy and with a fastball that topped out at 97 MPH added to the stellar command that led to his first-round draft choice to begin with backed him up nicely. Danny Duffy was a solid number three who provided some veteran stability to the rotation, Jakob Junis developed a nasty if inconsistent changeup to complement the slider and help him get lefties out. The A-Royals think he might turn into an ace in his own right if he can just get it to be a bit more consistent. Alternate Dayton Moore still brought in Homer Bailey as starting pitching depth. Bailey started the year in the rotation when Duffy got hurt, then went to the bullpen when Duffy returned, and back into the rotation after Jorge López failed out.

The bullpen was the wildest thing, though. Ian Kennedy was just about as good for the A-Royals as he has been for the R-Royals. But A-Kennedy pitched the seventh inning. Why? Because Jake Diekman, the biggest free-agent signing of the off-season for the A-Royals, had a Ryan Madson-esque comeback. He started the year as the closer but for whatever reason, the role didn’t suit him well. He ended up getting most of the eighth inning duties and completely dominated there with a greatly reduced walk rate from his 2018 and R-Royals numbers while maintaining his ability to strike batters out on both sides of the plate. So who closed for the A-Royals? None other than failed starter Jorge López.

Once he was demoted to the bullpen López got a chip on his shoulder. He ditched all of his pitches except for the fastball and the curveball and he worked with pitching coach Brian Bannister (lured away from the Red Sox, somehow, to replace Dave Eiland) on figuring out how to hit his spots. He didn’t become pinpoint accurate but he became the kind of effectively wild that Greg Holland was in his heyday. López ended up saving 37 games even though he didn’t start closing until mid-May. The rest of the bullpen was fleshed out with Scott Barlow, Tim Hill, Kevin McCarthy, and Richard Lovelady getting the lion’s share of the work. Glenn Sparkman, Josh Staumont, Heath Fillmyer, and Jake Newberry found themselves frequently on the shuttle between Kansas City and Omaha between injuries and worn out bullpens. None were particularly effective but they were good enough.

In the alternate universe, Cleveland never recovered from their horrible start and the injury to Corey Kluber was a season-ender. They finished in third place. The Twins, for their part, were electric. The league followed the battle between the two small-market teams for the division closely all year. Every series between the Royals and Twins after the first couple, when both teams had shown they weren’t going away anytime soon, took on the feel of a playoff atmosphere. It was like the Yankees-Red Sox but with more flash and fewer walks in less time. In the end, the Royals and Twins both won their final seven games of the season with the Royals sitting just one spot behind. The Royals were forced to play in the Wild Card Game, again.

The playoffs

The game was played in Tampa Bay where even the promise of an elimination playoff game could not convince the citizens there to fill up the baseball stadium. This lead to the A-Rays being moved wholesale to Montreal before the 2020 season. It was another instant classic game. The Rays used Ryan Yarbrough as an opener before sending Charlie Morton to the mound with a plan to finish the Royals. Things looked grim when Austin Meadows and Tommy Pham went back-to-back in the first inning off of the Royals’ starter, Brad Keller. But in the third inning, the Royals greeted Morton with entirely unanticipated back-to-back-to-back blasts from Dozier, Soler, and Starling. That would prove to be all the scoring that would be done that day as the Royals advanced to the ALDS against the Yankees and the Rays went to pack up in the home locker room for the last time. I’m honestly not even sure they bothered to clean up the champagne mess the Royals left. It’s not like anyone would notice it in a dump of a stadium that isn’t used for anything anymore.

Everyone, especially nay-saying, alternate-universe Royals Review writers, was predicting a sweep at the hands of the Alternate Bronx Bombers. But the Royals hung tough and took the series in four games. Viloria hit three home runs during the series and Danny Duffy lit up the A-Yankees lineup with a complete game shutout - featuring 12 strikeouts - to seal the series victory. But the A-Twins had likewise defeated the A-Astros in their own division series and the A-Royals knew they were in for a serious dogfight.

The Royals won the first game and then alternated victories until game six. Up in the series at that point, 3-2, Kansas City elected to send Homer Bailey to the mound. Duffy’s shutout in the ALDS had left him with a sore elbow and he was unable to go. The lack of depth finally came back to bite KC as the Twins stomped them into the grass with a 12-4 victory. In Game 7 the Royals turned to Brad Keller one final time against the A-Twins’ ace, Jose Berrios. It was a pitcher’s duel that saw no runs score for the first eight innings. Keller was pulled after the seventh but Ian Kennedy did his job in the eighth and the Royals asked Jake Diekman to get them to extra innings. Diekman, unfortunately, hit the first batter he saw, Eddie Rosario, before striking out Mitch Garver. Then he allowed a double to Miguel Sano that was so well-played by Alex Gordon in left that the Twins were forced to hold Rosario at third. Diekman then walked Max Kepler and up came eventual ALCS MVP, Jorge Polanco. Polanco had been weaker from the left side all year so Ned, in a rare fit of playing the odds, decided to bring in Jorge López to get the switch-hitter out and send the game to extras.

Polanco worked the count full and fans were screaming so loud I’m not sure you could have heard an airliner crashing outside Target Field. López fired in a fastball but Polanco fouled it off. They repeated that three more times. Finally, López had had enough, and he decided to drop the hammer. He hurled a beauty of a curveball but it was ruled low. Polanco’s walk forced in the go-ahead run and the A-Twins advanced to the World Series (which they won against the A-Phillies, four games to one.) A-Royals fans flooded Twitter, FaceSpace, and every message board they could find to insist that that pitch had been a strike. The digital strike zone overlay seemed to agree with them. The outcry was so loud that it gave Bug Selig, baseball’s commissioner for the last 30 years in that universe, the support he needed to shove robot umpires down the throats of both the Umpire and Player’s unions. Funnily enough, that didn’t reduce the outcry over ball and strike calls on the edges even a little bit. Turns out those complaints are simply as much a part of the game of baseball as chewing bubble gum or slapping another guy’s butt.

Final thoughts

I know it’s frustrating to hear how close this year’s team came to being like the one in Universe 1138-C4-Gamma88. But isn’t it also a little inspiring? It makes me feel better, at least. Who knows? Maybe the 2020 R-Royals will find some of that magic.