Monday, May 24, 2010
When it was 'Lima Time' in Kansas City
Of Jose Lima's 89 career wins in the majors, only 13 came as a Kansas City Royal.
But when I think of Lima, I always think of Lima Time circa 2003.
In 2002, the Royals lost 100 games
In 2004, the Royals lost 104 games.
After joining the Royals in 2003, Jose Lima started off 7-0.
But for five months in 2003, the Royals were relevant. And for me, the enduring image from those five sweet months of relevance will always be Lima, pumping his fist after finishing his seventh inning of shutout baseball on the last Saturday before the All-Star Game.
Backing up a few years ...
In 1998 and '99, Lima ranked as one of the better pitchers in the National League, going 35-18 over those two seasons with the Astros. Nobody in the National League had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio.
And then, poof, it all disappeared. Lima, always somewhat homer-prone, gave up 48 home runs in 2000 and his ERA skyrocketed to 6.65. The next summer, Houston traded Lima (7.30 ERA) to Detroit for Dave Mlicki (7.33 ERA). Lima had reached the majors as a Tiger in 1994, but the reunion didn't help much. He went 5-10 the rest of the season, then pitched even worse in 2002. That September the Tigers released him.
That winter, Lima couldn't find a job in the major leagues. He couldn't find a job in the minors, either. Not the real minors, anyway. Lima signed instead with the Atlantic League's Newark Bears, and teamed up with 44-year-old Rickey Henderson and a host of other (lesser) non-prospects.*
* By the way, Rickey batted .339/.493/.591 in 56 games.
In eight starts with Newark, Lima went 6-1 with a 2.33 ERA. In 54 innings, he struck out 52 hitters, walked five, and gave up four home runs. Sure, it was just the Atlantic League: perhaps equivalent to Double-A baseball, perhaps not quite ... but in one of his canniest moves as Kansas City's general manager, Allard Baird bought Lima's services on the 4th of June. Eleven days later, without so much as a tune-up start in Omaha, Lima started for the Royals against the Giants.
I can't find what I wrote then. I suspect that I was pretty skeptical, though. In that first start, Lima gave up four runs in six innings, and struck out just one Giant. The Royals won, though. And that was just the beginning. In Lima's first six starts, he struck out 15 and walked 14 ... but somehow the Royals won every game.
It's the sixth of those starts that I'll always remember. I was in Denver for the annual SABR convention. The Royals were in first place. But that's putting it mildly. The Royals were running away with the American League Central. Entering Lima's July 12 start at Texas, the Royals were 49-41, five-and-a-half games ahead of the second-place Twins. If Lima could win on Saturday night and nothing terrible happened on Sunday, the Royals would enter the All-Star break as clear favorites to win a division title just one season after losing 100 games.
That night, most of us were at Coors Field for the Rockies game, and saw on the scoreboard that the Royals had indeed beat the Rangers, pushing their lead to six games over the Twins (who were still playing in Anaheim). Afterward, many of us repaired to the convention hotel's bar for beers and SportsCenters, and for the next couple of hours I made sure that I was always facing a television, so when Jose Lima came off the mound -- having just struck out Laynce Nix to finish his seventh shutout inning -- I could bring the conversation to a halt, direct everyone's attention to the screen (again) and yell "Lima time!" as Lima pumped his fist and trotted toward the dugout.
I must have done that half a dozen times -- yes, to the increasing annoyance of those unlucky enough to be at the table with me -- and I'm fairly sure that's the only moment since 1985 when I was absolutely sure that the Royals were going to win something that mattered.
In the end, of course, the Royals weren't anything like contenders. Thanks to Carlos Beltran, Mike Sweeney, Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa, and plenty of clutch hitting the Royals finished fourth in the American League in scoring. But the pitching ... Lima would win his next two starts, but got hammered on the 1st of August and was obviously not healthy; including that game, Lima would start just six more games the rest of the season, going 1-3 with a 10.65 ERA. Darrell May (!) was the Royals' ace; the only Royal who started more than 18 games, May led the club with 10 wins.
The Royals won on Sunday afternoon and went into the break with a seven-game lead over the White Sox, seven-and-a-half over the Twins. They were the biggest story in baseball. And then it all came apart, because Lima Time was over and because the Royals went 32-38 after the break and because the Twins went 46-23 to win the division going away.
It was fun while it lasted, though. And it was never more fun than when Jose Lima struck out Laynce Nix and it seemed like anything was possible.