Category Archives: Baseball

Johnny Cueto’s high-stakes gems ensure Royals fans will remember him fondly

Royals fans will be hoping they have seen the last of Johnny Cueto. Not because of his performances, but because it would mean when the club returns to Kansas City, they would be doing so not for a high-stakes Game 6, but as World Series victors.

Cueto’s three-month rental at the Royals has had more ups and downs than a dodgy romcom, but ultimately, when the franchise has needed their hired ace to deliver, the Dominican has swaggered around the mound like no Kansas City hurler has for years. It was a win not just for Cueto or Kansas City, but for his fellow countryman Edinson Volquez, whose father tragically passed away before the start of Game 1.

In Game 5 of the Division Series against the Houston Astros, Cueto threw eight innings of magical two-run ball, retiring the last 19 batters he faced. On Wednesday night at The K, Johnny Beisbol went even better, firing a two-hit complete game to shut down the New York Mets – the best performance from a starting pitcher in the World Series since Greg Maddux’s gem for the Atlanta Braves in 1995. Cueto’s first feat kept the Royals dream alive, his second gave them a 2-0 lead in the Fall Classic, and a prime opportunity to end their 30-year wait for a world championship.

Cueto knuckled down after Luis Valbuena’s two-run dinger in the ALDS, and he mirrored that effort against Houston in his dismantling of the Mets. Only in the fourth inning did any trouble arise, and had Mike Moustakas’ throw from third to first been more on target, Cueto would have escaped with no damage. As it was, Lucas Duda’s bloop into left field landed safe and allowed New York to scratch out a run. Lesser men would have wobbled, but the only wobbling Cueto did was with his “rocking chair” wind-up – he proceeded to retire the next 15 batters, his solitary lapse came when he walked Daniel Murphy with two outs in the ninth. A night off for the bullpen added the finishing touches to a perfect night.

The Royals bats continued to stick firmly to their mantra. Making contact, getting the ball in-play and keeping the line moving. The most telling statistics from the first two games were deGrom and Matt Harvey’s strikeout count. They totalled just two apiece which prevented from blowing their adversaries away as they have all year. The Royals made them grind, and that persistence paid off.

After leaving the bases loaded in the fourth, Ned Yost’s men got straight back to work, bashing deGrom for as many runs in one inning – four – as he had conceded all postseason. Alex Gordon walked, Alex Rios singled, Alcides Escobar clobbered an RBI single, Eric Hosmer drove in two, Kendrys Morales got aboard before Moustakas drove in a fourth. Similar frenzied hitting in the eighth tacked on a further three runs and gifted closer Wade Davis the night off. A comfortable win was the exact tonic needed after the 14-inning roller coaster ride which had taken place just hours before.

Forget Cueto’s horror show in Toronto, his troubles working with catcher Salvador Perez, and all of those face-palming regular season starts that added fuel to the doomsayers’ fire. When Kansas City gave up Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb and Cody Reed in July, this was the impact they weren’t just hoping for, but expecting. To echo Ned Yost’s words all season, the 2015 Royals are a ballclub borne entirely out of expectation.

Yet, even when the dreadlocked star was struggling on the mound, his presence radiated and aided a marked upswing in form for the Dominican Republic’s brightest young prospect, Yordano Ventura. Kansas City’s Opening Day starter endured a testing first half of the season, blighted by injury and a frustrating knack of instigating on-field fights, notably with Mike Trout. Ventura’s command was awry and his inability to knuckle down with runners on base saw his ERA balloon above 5.00. But after, the Cueto signing and a near demotion to Triple A, the 24-year-old talent began to light it up. One burgeoning ace looked to impress a bona fide ace. The result? A 9-1 finish to the season with a 3.10 ERA. It provided the Royals rotation stability and confidence while their prized asset suffered. Tie in “Steady Eddie” Volquez, one of the best off-season pick-ups, and the deadly Dominican trio was complete.

The mystery of Cueto’s tenure as Royal will have bothered him as much as anyone. He turned up and produced as expected, pitching a four-hit shutout in his first home start, but he then combusted with five successive horrendous starts. With free agency looming, his chance to escape the freefalling Cincinnati Reds for a winning team presented an opening to show the baseball world what Postseason Johnny Cueto is all about. That he is more than the man who dropped the ball after being relentlessly rattled in the 2013 National League Wild Card Game at PNC Park.

Indeed, the Blue Jays and their fans still rumbled him north of the border. Chants of “Cuueettoo, Cuueettoo” rang out, and murmurs of Toronto stealing signs left him confused. But at home, Cueto has been a different beast. Beating Jacob deGrom, the Mets ace-in-waiting, and handing Kansas City command of the World Series sent out an assertive message to all teams eyeing up a move for the 29-year-old in the off-season. When it matters most, chucking the ball to Cueto will give a side as much assurance of triumph as baseball ever can. On the road he remains an enigma, however on his own patch, he has thrived.

Yost knows this, and has used him expertly. For all of the seemingly baffling decisions which come out of the Royals dugout at times, Kansas City’s general manager has enjoyed unprecedented success in October – his 20-8 postseason record is the best-ever. Royals fans joke, but for the most part, it’s the opposition who have been “Yosted”. Even the Chiefs picked up a win when Yost was in attendance – perhaps it is destiny.

Maybe the Royals will not win the World Series. They are still two games from glory and the next three are in New York and, as ESPN will make sure you know, the last two teams to come back from two behind in the Fall Classic were from the Big Apple. However, Kansas City looks in magnificent shape, and with Ventura and the ultra-consistent Chris Young to follow, snaring baseball’s grandest prize is within touching distance.

If the Royals do take the crown, none of it would have been possible without Cueto. The late August and September waters were choppy, but once again, Dayton Moore has been vindicated. The all-in move has paid off, and the Royals faithful will remember Cueto fondly rather than fretfully. Now, it’s up to the rest of this historic Kansas City unit to finish the job. Missouri’s keenest baseball town is euphoric, excited and expectant.

Advertisements

Mike Trout shows the future is now as MLB delivers at Midsummer Classic

As the most-watched All-Star event in professional sports, Major League Baseball has a duty to put on a spectacular show each year, even more so in an era where interest – particularly among the youth – is apparently on the decline.

And as eyes descended on the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, it’s fair to say baseball delivered.  The revamped Home Run Derby brought with it new excitement, while the continued emergence of Mike Trout as the sport’s brightest young star was welcome, even if the MLB does do everything possible to shoehorn him into the limelight – no, “hitting for the cycle” doesn’t count if it takes you four games.

The showpiece All-Star Game saw the American League secured home advantage for this year’s World Series with a 6-3 victory over the National League – their 15th triumph in the last 19 Midsummer Classics. Trout homered off the fourth pitch of the game; Brian Dozier sent his first at-bat as an All-Star into the crowd as well, while Aroldis Chapman’s superhuman arm fired 12 out of 14 pitches over 100mph, striking out Brock Holt, Mike Moustakas and Mark Teixeira.

Dispelling the myth that a mass invasion of Kansas City Royals into the game would threaten the American League’s chances, their three eventual starters – Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Salvador Perez – went 3-8 and Perez also reached first base after being struck out, courtesy of Madison Bumgarner’s wild pitch, in a painful rematch of the final out from last year’s World Series (if only that had happened in Game 7 at Kauffman Stadium). Wade Davis threw a typically filthy eighth inning, retiring two, while the other Royals pitcher, Kelvin Herrera, did not get on the mound.

Trout was MVP for the second year running – the first time that has happened in All-Star Game history – but the award perhaps should have gone to Cain who was the only player with two hits, which he complimented with an RBI and a stolen base. The MLB’s desperation to find the “face of baseball” is an understandable one however, and it’s a decision that is hard to take too much umbrage with.

Derby Delights

In Monday’s Derby, hometown kid Todd Frazier saw off the impressive challenge of the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson.  The competition still managed to thrive despite being bereft of Giancarlo Stanton, Bryce Harper and Trout, who were unable to take part due to a broken left hand, a father not well enough to pitch and a humble 23-year-old who wanted to allow his Angels teammate Albert Pujols a chance for glory. No complaints there.

The new time format sped up the contest and made for an exciting couple of hours, even if the repeated “back-back-back-back-back” line from Chris Berman in the commentary box became slightly tiresome.

Pederson showcased his big-time talent in his first full season as a Dodger and his match with Pujols made for the most touching moment of Monday evening when the latter hugged Pederson’s brother, Champ. The two met for the first time earlier this year and Champ, who suffers with Down’s syndrome like Pujols’ older daughter Isabella, struck a chord, with Albert signing a jersey for him.

Champ said that Pujols was his favourite player at the time although was supporting his brother when the two faced off – the family bond is pretty unbreakable, especially in baseball.  It was one that tugged the heartstrings.

Viewing figures were reportedly down once again, which was in part due to the “Derek Jeter” effect. New York tuned in en masse in 2014 for the Yankee shortstop’s final All-Star Game and their interest in this year would have been muted further since there were no Bronx Bombers starting. An absence of Red Sox starters too marked the first time in All-Star Game history that there were no starters from either the Yankees or Boston. However, in comparison to other All-Star Games, baseball still towers above its competitors.

There were plenty of concerns ahead of the 2015 Midsummer Classic, the fan voting, the injuries – losing Miguel Cabrera, Alex Gordon and Stanton to name a trio were big blows – and the new Derby format. But by and large it worked, and in Trout, baseball is in possession of American sport’s hottest young property. The future may yet be bright.

 

Where are the British sluggers?

Baseball is one of the staples of the American sporting calendar and has a broadening global appeal. But while many countries revel in playing ball, Britain lags far behind

THE DIAMOND: the world’s glitziest and most precious gem. The definition pretty much ends there for most. It certainly doesn’t register even the remotest of sporting flickers for the vast majority of British folk. But across the pond, eyes are locked on the diamond from April to October as America indulges in its favourite pastime. Baseball.

Every year, two leagues of 15 – the National League and American League – do battle to determine their most proficient team. Then, the victor from each goes on to the World Series – the annual showpiece where the ‘world champion’ of Major League Baseball (MLB) is crowned. It is pure sporting theatre laced with that special, infectious buzz only the US of A can offer.

Baseball has played host to tumultuous achievements and scripted some of the most magnificent tales too. Last year, the Kansas City Royals looked poised to end 29 years of hurt and be crowned world champions once more, as they capitalised on the wildcard that granted them a post-season appearance. But they hadn’t bargained on the pitching might of Madison Bumgarner, the San Francisco Giant whose unrivalled performance earned him Sports Illustrated’s coveted Sportsman of the Year award.

Romanticists are not without a generous serving of entertainment either. The American League Championship Series of 2004 spings to mind: the New York Yankees versus the Boston Red Sox – two of baseball’s most iconic franchises. The Red Sox looked down and out when trailing three games to none, but multiple escapes that Harry Houdini would have marvelled at ensured the dreams of a city came to life. Boston won 4-3 and went onto trounce the St Louis Cardinals a week later to claim a first World Series title since 1918.

But one cannot kid oneself. Such folklore is not etched into the minds of Britons. Baseball goes almost totally ignored in the United Kingdom, labeling it a minority sport is perhaps too kind.

It’s not as if the existence of the game here hasn’t been acknowledged – you will find a smattering of the world-famous Yankees caps on the streets of Britain’s towns and cities. But ask one who dons it whether they saw A-Rod’s crunching blow over the Green Monster at Fenway Park the other week – an effort which saw him tie Willie Mays for fourth on the all-time home run list – and you will get more than a quizzical look.

Cricket – the most classic of English sports – is baseball’s closest relative. The parallels are clear. The ball is dealt, players attempt to hit it and fielders do their utmost to snaffle it. Both games are statistic-laden too. At times, one wonders whether the plethora of records for every nook and cranny are necessary, but they sure are fun to delve into.

However, on closer inspection it is crystal clear that while they may belong to the same family, they are now nothing more than cousins. The combination of precision hitting and agility found on a ballpark has yet to be perfected on a cricket field, even with the birth of the sport’s brashest offspring: Twenty20. And unlike in cricket where 360-degree shot-making is fast becoming the norm, the rules of baseball means a slugger is forced to “hit in the V”. Geoffrey Boycott would be proud.

Capturing the market

While cricket is constantly struggling to innovate and attract newcomers, baseball has a contrasting problem. According to co-host of the now defunct MLB on Five, Josh Chetwynd, the MLB has a fanbase, it is just neglecting it.

“It’s very telling that both the NFL and the NBA have staged regular season top professional games here in the UK and baseball hasn’t. MLB has a presence here but they need to be aggressive about the market.

“The fact that they let a domestic-based show on baseball slide and have basically been willing to just allow people who are already fans to either pay for a premium channel, or for MLB.TV, isn’t a great commitment,” laments Chetwynd.

On a potential MLB on Five comeback in the future, he is hopeful but currently unexpectant. “It would require MLB to make a commitment in this market. The NFL did just that and I think that’s why they remain on terrestrial television. Until that happens, it may be a long wait.”

Matt Smith from BaseballGB, a UK-based website which covers the sport in this country as well as in America, thinks that bringing a Major League game to the UK could be a stepping stone.

He commented: “Behind the scenes, MLB has had discussions recently about the potential of doing that (playing a game in the UK) in the next few years – potentially playing somewhere like Surrey Cricket’s Oval or at the Olympic Stadium – and we’ll have to wait and see if that comes to fruition and exactly how British baseball could really make use of that short burst of publicity.”

Smith is also acutely aware of the versatility some sports have over others when it comes to staging events – something which has held baseball back.

“Sports like basketball and ice hockey have been able to create this (presence in the UK) by playing in multi-purpose arenas, which provide a good viewing experience for paying fans and a good backdrop that sells it to TV companies like Sky, who have shown highlights of games from those domestic leagues. We really don’t have anything like that in baseball as whilst you can shoe-horn a baseball field onto a cricket field, it’s not quite the same.”

Scope for growth?

That American football and basketball have cut through into the British market and baseball hasn’t says either one of two things. That Britain doesn’t care about baseball, or more likely, investment and promotion is lacking. The game of rounders adopts many of baseball’s principles and is played regularly by schoolchildren on these shores, which indicates we are not averse to the concept, the interest just hasn’t been harnessed.

Chetwynd understands the problems and, with the right measures, he thinks progress can be made.

“We lag behind greatly in infrastructure. The creation of a proper field at Farnham Park was a great step forward, but there needs to be three or four more facilities before you have a critical mass that will start attracting kids. To paraphrase the movie Field of Dreams, I do believe that if you build it (over and over again) people will come. We just need nice purpose built baseball facilities,” he said.

Yet British baseball is not only lagging far behind America, Japan and the Dominican Republic – the game’s powerhouses – but mainland Europe too. While the Netherlands stunned all to grab a fourth-place finish in the 2013 World Baseball Classic – the best showing from a European side – the UK failed to even qualify for the 16-team tournament.

The British Baseball Federation (BBF) has been in charge of the sport’s affairs in this country since its foundation in 1987. The organisation oversees the National Baseball League (NBL) – the biggest senior league competition in the UK – and eight other divisions in three lower tiers.

The perennial difficulty, and one that is yet to be overcome, is to craft something that will not only give baseball a sustainable base in Britain, but a system that encourages more people to both participate and spectate.

Chetwynd added: “I believe that the BBF and the developmental organisation Baseball Softball UK (BSUK) have come a long way in offering support for aspiring baseball players. There are lots of clinics and efforts to help teams in pockets without any baseball experience get going.

“That said, I’m always cautious on this front as British baseball’s history has had tons of ebbs and flows where it looks like the sport is gaining traction, only to have a few key figures who are driving expansion lose interest or have other factors derail their efforts. I do believe BSUK is more structured than most of those previous efforts, but you never know.”

The future

It’s difficult to predict if Farnham Park – a fully-fledged ballpark in Slough – will prove to be a trailblazer or whether it is destined to be an anomaly within the UK’s sporting landscape.

“I won’t be happy until we have every boy in America between the ages of six and 16 wearing a glove and swinging a bat,” Babe Ruth, one of baseball’s best, once chimed. While such an event here would be pure fantasy, taking heed of the aspiration would not be a bad thing. Baseball in the UK is a niche market, but essentially, that market is there. Ensuring the game is accessible to those who want it is key.

The MLB lost the luxury of terrestrial TV in 2008 after 13 unbroken years – it was a hefty blow. It’s tough enough for a mainstream sport to be bereft of free-to-air coverage, nevermind a plucky outsider.

“Never let the fear of striking out get in your way,” goes another Ruth gem. The road may be long, bumpy and at times without hope, but the desired destination is never totally out of reach. Just ask the Red Sox.

Fact Box

Playing ball at Stamford Bridge

Over 100 years ago, before World War One had begun and the New York Giants were known as a baseball team, Stamford Bridge – the home of Chelsea Football Club – hosted a match between the Giants and the Chicago White Sox. King George V and 20,000 others watched on a February day in 1914 as the final game of the teams’ world tour went to extra innings. The White Sox eventually prevailed 5-4 – thanks to Tommy Daly’s home run in the bottom of the 11th inning – to wrap up the series 24 games to 20.

Britain were world champions?

The first version of the Baseball World Cup (it was then known as the Amateur World Series) took place in 1938 and was contested between Great Britain and the USA. The five-match series was held across the north of England over a week in mid-August. The Brits raced to a 2-0 lead with wins in Liverpool and Kingston upon Hull before the Americans kept the competition alive with a triumph in Rochdale. Great Britain were not to be denied in their bid to win their first, and so far only World Cup though, sealing the title with a 4-0 victory at the Shay in Halifax.

The Northampton pitcher

Few English players have ever made it into the Major Leagues and even fewer have become seasoned campaigners. Danny Cox was an exception to the rule. The Northampton pitcher enjoyed plenty of moments in the limelight in an 11-season career, most notably for the St Louis Cardinals. Cox pitched twice in the 1985 World Series – which the Cardinals lost to the Kansas City Royals – but his finest moment arguably came in Game 5 of the 1987 World Series, where his winning performance gave his team a 3-2 lead, only for the Minnesota Twins to fight back and be crowned world champions in a deciding seventh game.

Contracts

The MLB has a reputation for being lucrative and it currently boasts 27 of the 30 largest contracts in all of sport. Alex Rodriguez broke the record twice when signing deals with the Texas Rangers and the New York Yankees but he was usurped by Venezuela’s Miguel Cabrera, who penned a $292 million 10-year contract with the Detroit Tigers in 2014. Miggy was then toppled just months later by Giancarlo Stanton when he struck a $325 million deal with the Miami Marlins. However, since his agreement is set to last three years longer, Cabrera remains the highest earner per match.

 

Guthrie pitches six scoreless to give Kansas City Royals best ever 40-game start

Jeremy Guthrie (4-2) pitched six scoreless innings, struck out three, and walked two as the Kansas City Royals cruised to a 7-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds in front of over 30,000 at Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday evening.

The win ensured the Royals moved to 26-14 on the season – a franchise record after 40 games – and cemented their lead at the top of the American League Central, courtesy of victory in both Interleague matches against the Reds.

Guthrie’s efforts also aided the Royals to tie another franchise best with 24 consecutive scoreless innings, a streak stretching back to the beginning of Sunday’s game with the New York Yankees.

Jason Marquis (3-4) opened proceedings for the Reds but was replaced after conceding four runs inside the first four innings.

A 10th double of the year for Eric Hosmer helped the Royals take the lead in the second and a grounder in the fourth allowed Mike Moustakas to score – marking Hosmer’s 30th RBI of 2015. Kendrys Morales’ sacrifice fly also meant Hosmer could reach home in the same inning.

Moustakas continued his hot run with the bat, going 3-for-4 with three singles, taking his season tally to 51 hits and his batting average to .342.

Alex Gordon’s sacrifice fly scored Homer in the second but his night will be remembered for his catch on Todd Frazier in the fifth which saw him crash into the left field wall.

The Royals added further pain with two more runs off of Raisel Iglesias in the eighth inning, but by then the Reds looked a spent force, as they slipped to 18-22 on the year.

After a day off tomorrow, the Royals will return to action on Friday evening when they open a three-game I-70 series against the St Louis Cardinals. Chris Young (3-0) will be on the mound, fresh from a win over the Yankees last Friday.

The Reds also have a break and will be back on the diamond on the Friday evening, as they take the trip to play the Cleveland Indians.