Highlights and Lowlights: A Look Back at the First Half

June 30 marked the end of the first half of 2011. Additionally, at the end of June, the Royals had played 81 games – the exact mid-way point of the season. So in those two respects, the beginning of July provides a good time to look back on a half year of the life of the team.

Photo credit - Minda Haas

Unfortunately, for a club that stood at 33-48 at the halfway point, there haven’t been too many high points on the field. So, unfortunately, there have been some significant valleys to go along with the peaks.

The half-year highlights of 2011

March 31- April 3: Taking three out of four from the California Angels

After losing a disappointing opener (looking all too much like the Royals of old), the team showed serious grit and a flair for the dramatic by winning the next three games against the Angels. A walk-off homer by Kila Ka’aihue and a dramatic eighth-inning rally highlighted the opening weekend. Two days later, the Royals would win another walk-off against the White Sox, giving them four straight games won in their final at-bat. The youthful celebrations that followed these early-season comebacks endeared the team to its fans.

April 2: Storm Chasers vs. Naturals at Kaufman Stadium

Off-season rankings that called the Royals farm system not just the best collection of prospects in 2011, but one of the best in history generated considerable buzz for this exhibition game. Fans got a chance to see eight players ranked in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects, highlighted by a dominant performance by Mike Montgomery.

May 6: The Promotion of Eric Hosmer

Several key prospects started the season with the team out of spring training, so Hosmer wasn’t the first. And fellow blue-chippers Danny Duffy and Mike Moustakas were soon to follow. But no roster move inspired the excitement or optimism that the promotion of Hosmer did. It seemed to signal that the team was going all-in with their prospects – “Super-Two” status be damned. And by aggressively replacing the struggling Ka’aihue with a rookie when the team was still in contention, it signaled that the team was going to try to win this season.

Hosmer’s promotion caught the attention of more than just the most devout KC fans. National media outlets picked up on the significance of the move as well. For a moment, there was hope and excitement about Royals baseball. Hosmer didn’t prove to be the spark needed to keep the team in contention, but he hasn’t disappointed. May 6, 2011 may yet turn out to be a day of great significance in the history of the franchise.

May 12: Taking two out of three in New York

Freshly in the fold, Hosmer belted two homers in the series, giving the Royals their first series win in Yankee Stadium since 1999. The Royals left New York with a 20-17 record, 3.5 back of Cleveland. Unfortunately, in just one week the team would be below .500 and 6 games back in the standings.

June 6 – The Drafting of Bubba Starling

The date of the draft could be a red-letter day in the first half of the season for every team, every year. Particularly if the team perennially holds one of the top five picks. But this year was different for the Royals. Not only did Kansas City hold a top-five pick, but there was a prospect on the draft board who had achieved legendary status right in the team’s own back yard.

As fate would have it, Bubba Starling was still available when the Royals’ turn came up. Though some would argue that the real need of the hour was pitching, and that Starling’s lack of polish makes him a risk, KC pulled the trigger. This is undeniably a high-risk, high-reward move, but one that pumped a needed infusion of local interest into the farm system.

With the big-league team floundering along at 26-34 on draft day, KC fans were once again looking to the future, and Starling gives them something to be excited about. Now it’s time to start positioning for a high-draft slot for 2012.

The half-year lowlights of 2011

April 20: Hochevar chokes on perfect game

Hochevar was perfect through five innings. But in perfect Hochevar-fashion, he allowed one big inning to do him in. He allowed a single. Ok. No big deal. Then a balk. Then a double. It’s ok. He induced two groundouts. A nice job of stopping the bleeding, right?

But then he balked in a runner from third. Then he gave up a single, double, walk and another double. By the end of the inning, Hochevar had gone from perfect to putrid.

If that were just a one-time-deal, it would be easily forgotten. Unfortunately, it just reads like a script that Hochevar faithfully follows.

May 16: Suffering one of the worst losses in team history

After a hot start, the Royals still possessed a winning record on May 16. But while the wheels hadn’t come completely off yet, they were certainly wobbling. No one expected, however, the 19-1 beat-down KC would suffer at the hands of the Indians that afternoon.

Not even Kyle Davies can be this bad. He started the game by walking three of the first four batters. Turns out he was experiencing shoulder problems, so he exited. Most times, removing Davies leads to improved pitching on the Royals part. But not this time.

Nate Adcock got the Royals into the third, but the Ned Yost summoned Vin Mazzaro. It was in the fourth that all hell broke loose. By the time it was over, Mazzaro would produce one of the worst pitching performances in history. The guy the Royals gave up David DeJesus to get would cough up 14 runs in just 2 1/3 innings – the most by a reliever since 1942. Mazzaro would become the first pitcher to give up 14 in less than three innings since 1900.

The 18-run margin tied the worst in team history. And any hopes KC had of challenging Cleveland seemed unrealistic after the beating.

May 19: Prospect John Lamb goes down to elbow injury

When Baseball America’s #18 prospect exited a Northwest Arkansas game in the first inning, Royals fans with an eye on the future held their breath. The word came out a few days later – Lamb would need Tommy John surgery and wouldn’t pitch again in 2011. Just more bad news for a team on the slide and in desperate need of some quality starting pitching.

June 2-5: Getting swept at home by Minnesota

The Royals were dropping in the standings by June, but they had a golden opportunity to get right. Limping into town for a four-game set came the once-proud Minnesota Twins with a league worst .315 winning percentage. Sweep this series and the Royals would be right back in business.

The Royals managed just six runs. In four games.

Four days later, the Royals’ lead on the dismal Twins had gone from 7.5 to 3.5 games. It essentially terminated KC’s chances of winning the Central Division and signaled that the Twins weren’t about to settle into the basement.

June 19: Dropping into last place

It didn’t take long.

The walk-off heroics and days of jockeying for the division lead seemed like distant memories. By dropping a game to St. Louis, the Royals slipped quietly into their familiar position of last place in the Central Division.

It just continued to get worse from there. By the mid-way point, KC trailed Minnesota by 2 games and division-leading Detroit by 10.5. They finished the first half with the worst winning percentage in the AL.

The hot start gave us something to be excited about. There were flashes of a gritty, gutty team that wouldn’t go down easy. There was plenty of young talent in the bullpen and some of the future stars matriculated to the big leagues. Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera seemed to revive their careers, and as promised, Alex Gordon finally started dominating.

But the losses just piled up too quickly for the era of good feelings to last. The team has a lack of starting pitching no amount of guts, determination and youthful exuberance can overcome.

Time to start the auditions for 2012. And time to get in position for that draft pick. Once again.

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