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Monday, April 23, 2012
Weekly preview: What's wrong with Royals?

By David Schoenfield

Of course we want the Kansas City Royals to do well. What have the Royals ever done to you? (Leave Jorge Orta out of this.)

No, they're the little team from the Midwest with the cool water fountains in the outfield and were once relevant before Bo Jackson broke his hip. In other words ... a long time ago. No need to recite their recent miserable history here other than to say that despite 16 losing seasons in the past 17, many predicted this would be breakout year for the Royals. They're young! They're exciting! They have Eric Hosmer! Fans trusted The Process and this would be the year their trust would be rewarded with a team that would actually win more games than it lost.

And then the season began and the Royals once again look terrible. They've lost 10 in a row, they're 0-9 at home, Hosmer is hitting .183 and Yuniesky Betancourt has hit first, second and fifth in recent days.

Can it get any worse?

OK, maybe we could have seen this coming. After all, this was still a pitching staff led by ... Bruce Chen. And Luke Hochevar. And ... wait, let's stop being so negative. Truth, it's been a lot of bad luck and bad breaks for the Royals. Five of their 12 losses have been by one run. And while they're 13th in runs scored in the AL, they're middle of the pack in average, on-base and slugging. They just haven't had enough timely hits with runners on base. Usually that corrects itself over time.

The starting pitching has struggled, but there are some good signs. Chen and Hochevar have a combined 26/7 SO/BB ratio and just one home run allowed. Danny Duffy has been throwing some high-octane heat, averaging 95 mph on his fastball. The control is a little wobbly but the velocity is as good as any left-hander in baseball. So maybe there's hope.

After all, it's just two weeks. It's too early to give up.

Series of the week

New York Yankees at Texas Rangers, Monday through Wednesday
CC Sabathia (1-0, 5.59) vs. Derek Holland (2-0, 3.10)
Hiroki Kuroda (1-2, 5.00) vs. Yu Darvish (2-0, 3.57)
Phil Hughes (1-2, 6.75) vs. Scott Feldman (0-0, 0.00)

The Yankees are 9-6, even though they rank 13th in the AL with a 5.84 rotation ERA. While the ERA is high, the rotation has pitched better in some regards -- it has an excellent strikeout/walk ratio of 77/23 in 81.2 innings, but has allowed 107 hits. So have these guys been unlucky with their balls in play? Are they serving up too many meaty strikes? Is the Yankees' defense that bad? One problem: the Yankees' starters have allowed 16 home runs; by contract, Rangers starters have allowed just seven.

April has always been Sabathia's worst month (4.17 career ERA In April versus 3.43 in other months), but his velocity is down compared to previous years. His average fastball velocity is 91.5 mph compared to 92.6 mph each of the past two Aprils. Something to watch for on Monday. Holland, meanwhile, is 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA in six career appearances (five starts) against the Yankees. Besides Darvish's biggest test, note that Feldman draws the spot start on Wednesday as the Rangers played a doubleheader over the weekend after a rainout.

If we get to battle of the bullpens, it should be interesting. Yankee relievers have a 2.14 ERA with 65 K's in 54.2 innings. Texas relievers have a 2.33 ERA, an impressive 36/6 strikeout/walk ratio and .222 opponents' average allowed.

Three pitching matchups to watch

1. Matt Cain (1-0, 1.88) vs. Mat Latos (0-2, 8.22), Giants at Reds (Tuesday, 7:10 p.m. ET)

In his last two starts Cain has allowed no runs and three hits over 18 innings against the Pirates and Phillies. For the season, opponents are batting .114 against him and left-handed batters are just 4-for-43. That's nothing new as he held lefties to a .185 mark in 2011. Cain is aiming for a third straight start with a Game Score of 85 or higher -- something no pitcher has done since 1998 (Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens). Latos has struggled in his three starts, with just 11 strikeouts and a .328 average allowed.

2. Felix Doubront (0-0, 3.94) vs. Philip Humber (1-0, 0.63), Red Sox at White Sox (Thursday, 8:10 p.m. ET)

Hey, we have to highlight Mr. Perfect Game. Humber threw just 96 pitches against the Mariners, relying on his slider as his key pitch in registering nine strikeouts. Doubront left his last start against the Yankees with a 9-1 lead ... and ended up with a no-decision. And here's some good news for Red Sox fans: ESPN Stats & Information informs us that since 1995 three teams have started 4-10 or worse and made the playoffs -- 2007 Phillies, 2001 A's, 2000 Giants (all started 4-10). Including the pre-wild card are, nine teams in all made the postseason with that bad a start. Two of them won the World Series -- the 1991 Twins and 1979 Pirates.

3. Ross Detwiler (2-0, 0.56) vs. Clayton Kershaw (1-0, 1.61), Nationals at Dodgers (Friday, 10:10 p.m. ET)

Detwiler's hot start has been fueled by a 64.3 percent groundball rate, best in the majors among starting pitchers. He's also backed that up with 15 strikeouts in 16 innings. Davey Johnson has been conservative with Detwiler in his three starts as he hasn't thrown more than 81 pitches. Kershaw has allowed five runs in four starts (one abbreviated when he left after three innings with the flu) but has just one win. Not that wins matter of course.

Player on the hot seat: Albert Pujols
After a hitless weekend against the Orioles, Pujols is down to .246, hasn't homered in 65 at-bats and has driven in just four runs. Not exactly what the Angels were expecting. Two weeks is two weeks, but it's time for the $240 million man to produce. From ESPN Stats & Info: Look for the Rays to shift against Pujols. Not only do the Rays shift more than any other team, but Pujols has pulled or gone up the middle on 50 of the 56 balls he's put in play. All of his groundballs have been fielded by the third baseman or shortstop and he's 2-for-20 on grounders.

Player to watch: Matt Kemp
As long he's hitting like this, he's still the player to watch (with apologies to Josh Hamilton). Nine home runs in 16 games, seven in his last nine, a .450 average and 22 RBIs. Awesome stuff. Pujols and Alex Rodriguez hold the April record with 14 home runs. With series at home against the Braves and Nationals, you East Coasters may have stay up a little late.