By Nate Bukaty
1) New England Revolution are one of the most dangerous teams in MLS. With players like Juan Agudelo, Teal Bunbury, Charlie Davies, and Lee Nguyen leading the way, you’re talking about four guys who’ve gotten time with the US Men’s National Team. When I spoke with Kerry Zavagnin this morning, he made the comment that the Revs have really taken a page out of Sporting KC’s book, with their high-pressing 4-3-3 formation. He compared this year’s New England front three of Agudelo, Davies, and Bunbury to the trio of Sapong, Bunbury, and Kamara that we saw in Kansas City in years past.
2) Sporting are one of the most banged-up teams in MLS. Unfortunately, this has become a familiar refrain over the past year. Peter Vermes said this week that his team might not be able to field an entire 18-man roster tonight, because of so many injuries. Eight names appear on the Sporting KC injury list today. Ike Opara, Chance Myers, Marcel De Jong, Graham Zusi and Seth Sinovic are all listed as “out,” while Roger Espinoza, Paulo Nagamura, and Bernardo Anor are “questionable.” Combine that with the fact that Erik Palmer Brown has departed for the U-20 World Cup, and you are looking at an extremely thin Sporting KC roster, particularly in the back. That’s not exactly a comforting feeling, when facing a team as dynamic as the Revolution.
3) Sporting should be rested. Considering all of the injury issues, Peter Vermes might be able to take some solace in this fact: his guys who are available for tonight’s match should have fresher legs than their opponents. That’s because Saturday’s match at Sporting Park was postponed due to weather. While the Sporting players were cooling their heals, New England were battling through a hard-fought one-one draw against Toronto. Then they had to jump on a plane just a couple of days later to fly to Kansas City. Many MLS players have spoken about the challenge of travel in MLS compared to the travel in most other countries. 3-hour bus rides get changed for 3 hour flights, and time zone changes. Those things can take a toll. Sporting KC won’t be at all sympathetic if the Revolution have some weary legs tonight.
4) Revs reversed history last year. This series has historically been dominated by Kansas City, but that certainly was not the case last year. Going in to 2014, KC had posted a record of 23-13-11 all time against New England. But last season The Revolution had their revenge, winning all three matches against Sporting by a combined score of 8-3. So New England will be full of confidence when they arrive at Sporting Park tonight.
5) Vermes is showing versatility. In speaking with Kerry Zavagnin this morning, it stood out to me that he was particularly enthused about the team’s “tactically aware” performance against DC United a couple of weeks ago. Zavagnin said that over the past few years, teams have been able to spend all of their time preparing for Sporting’s trademark high-press attack. He noted that the coaches and players from DC United seemed a little caught off guard by the fact that Sporting sat a little deeper during that one-one draw. Zavagnin said he likes the fact that opponents will have to prepare themselves for different possibilities, when it comes to playing against Sporting Kansas City. Considering the potent nature of New England’s attack, and Sporting’s current makeshift back line, I will be interested to see if Vermes instructs his players to take that more conservative approach tonight.
By Nate Bukaty
I performed my first official duties for Sporting Kansas City last night. The job was to emcee a question and answer session with Robb Heineman, Peter Vermes, and the newly signed Roger Espinosa at the Sprint campus. The event was for Sprint employees, as a thank you for their partnership with Sporting. It basically consisted of me interviewing Robb, Peter and Roger for about 30 minutes, followed by 30 minutes of those three taking questions from the audience.
The event served as a reminder to me as to why I’m so excited to begin my role as play-by-play announcer for Sporting Kansas City. It’s nothing new to see the club’s President, as well as the club’s Manager, answering any and all questions with openness and genuine candor. But it’s still refreshing every time you see it. Heineman handled direct questions from the audience about the transparency (or lack thereof) from the MLS. Vermes took on questions about the team’s roster needs, and the challenges of moving to the Western Conference.
The softballs were reserved mostly for Roger Espinoza, and rightfully so. Espinoza absolutely deserves a hero’s welcome. After a two-year stint in England, the 28-year old Honduran is returning to the club where his professional career began. During his first five-year run in MLS, Espinoza established himself as one of the hardest-working, most energetic, and most physical midfielders in the league. Just a year after helping Sporting KC win the US Open Cup, Espinoza started and played all 90 minutes for Wigan Athletic as they won the FA Cup at Wembley Stadium. Over the past couple of years, Espinoza has been able to put his skills on display in some of the biggest shop windows in the world. The Honduran made a big impression in England during his performance in the 2012 Olympics. He also represented his country in the World Cup in Brazil this past summer. So, as Espinoza returns to Kansas City, he now brings the experience of performing on some of the world’s biggest stages, for both his club and country. And here’s the kicker: At 28 years old, Roger should be in the prime of his career right now. So, Kansas City is getting a more experienced version of the player that Peter Vermes describes as embodying exactly the style of play that he has built his club around.
With Espinoza joining Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, Sporting Kansas City now have a solid foundation of three elite players who were drafted and developed by Peter Vermes, specifically for his system. But there is still a lot of work to do, and Vermes did not shy away from that fact. For one thing, the expansion draft caused some upheaval on the Sporting roster, even if it wasn’t directly from the expansion teams actually drafting players off the Sporting roster. For example, Vermes knew that he would be unable to protect CJ Sapong from the expansion draft, so rather than lose Sapong for nothing, he decided to trade him away before the draft occurred. For another thing, Sporting are switching to the Western Conference, which has been widely considered to be the stronger of the two Conferences for the past few seasons. In addition to competing with clubs like LA and Seattle, Sporting will now have to deal with a much more difficult travel schedule, just from a geographical and time zone standpoint.
The best news is that, with Heineman and Vermes, Sporting have two men running the show who have the perfect attitude to meet these types of challenges. They openly acknowledge the challenges, and attack them with a sense of confidence and purpose. This is something the folks at Sprint witnessed yesterday, as did I.
By Nate Bukaty
Where were you for Game Seven of the 2014 World Series? If you live in Kansas City, or in the nearby region, this is a question that you are likely to hear for the rest of your life. It’s the wrong question. Tonight is not about where you are. Tonight is about who you are with. That’s what you need to hold on to tonight, when whatever is about to happen happens.
I wish that every single person who would like to be in Kauffman Stadium tonight could get a ticket. But I realize that there is no way to fit those millions of people into a 40,000 seat stadium. What is important for all of us to remember is that it doesn’t really matter where we watch tonight’s drama unfold. What matters is that, if at all possible, we share the experience with someone.
You might not realize it now, but if you’ve been emotionally invested in this postseason, you’ve created a bond between yourself and the people you’ve watched these games with that will not be broken the rest of your life. Maybe that bond is with your son or daughter. Maybe it’s with some of your best friends. Maybe it’s with a group of random strangers you’d never even met before. Maybe it’s with a combination of all the above. Whoever it is, for the rest of your life, you’ll be reliving those stories with those people forever.
That’s what really makes this whole thing worthwhile. Yeah, it’s great that a baseball team is winning games in our town. And sure, it’s fantastic to see our little Royals getting love on national television for a change. It’s wonderful to see our long-suffering sports city finally buoyed by a franchise on the brink of some positive history. But none of that compares to the memories that virtually every single person in this town will share with someone else.
Think about it. You already have so many memories from the past month. Who were you hugging when Salvador Perez slapped that ball down the third base line against the A’s? Who were you slapping fives with when Moustakas and Hosmer hit their extra innings bombs against the Angels? With whom were you swapping an incredulous look when Nori Aoki made that awkward catch against the wall? Or when Lorenzo Cain made yet another sliding/diving catch in the outfield? You can probably answer all of those questions without even having to give it too much thought.
So, do yourself a favor tonight. When the tense moments inevitably arise during tonight’s game, take a good look around you. Think about the people that surround you. Think about the fact that you’re sharing this moment with them. Think about the fact that this moment will form a link between and you and those around you, a link that will last as long as you lie. Enjoy it with those around you. Enjoy every minute of it, no matter what happens. Who knows when a moment like this will come around again?
By Nate Bukaty
I love running because it’s the only time I feel like Sean Biggs is right next to me. See, I really started running in earnest again about two years ago, right after Sean lost his battle with cancer at the age of 37. Sean was one of the first people I met when I got to college, and he and I were close friends ever since. We used to run together whenever we could. After he died, I was crushed by the fact that I would never get to see him again. Running felt like one of the most therapeutic things I could do. At first, I had this feeling that Sean was up above, smiling down on me as I plodded my way through the city streets. But over time, it dawned on me that Sean wasn’t “up there.” No, he was right here. Right next to me. Just like it used to be. Me, huffing and puffing, trying to keep up. Sean, gliding along, laughing lightly at how much I was struggling.
I’ve never been a gifted distance runner. I’m a bow-legged asthmatic, with sinus problems to boot. And truth be told, I never really enjoyed distance running in the first place. For me, running was always a punishment from your coaches during practice. It was something you wanted to avoid at all costs. It wasn’t until my senior year in college that Sean taught me to appreciate the spiritual experience that running truly is.
I was a ball of stress during my final year of college. The immediate prospects of the real world, finding a job, and truly taking care of myself, all weighed on me constantly. And the stress resulted in a lot of sleepless nights. I spoke about these issues with Sean one day, and it turned out that he was dealing with similar issues. Thankfully, he had an idea for how we could overcome this. Sean had read that exercise is the best stress relief, and there was scientific reasoning to back it up.
So we started running together. As was the case with most things, Sean was far better than me, right off the bat. Sean ran at a gazelle’s pace, sharing with me all sorts of deep thoughts, all while never running out of breath. Meanwhile, it was all I could do just to keep up. But Sean was right. I ran off my stress, and my sleep returned.
For anyone who knew Sean, it was no surprise that he would go on to become an elite runner, completing the Boston Marathon six times, including one in less than three hours. Sean was basically elite at everything he tried. I know that there’s a tendency to exaggerate someone’s accomplishments when we eulogize, but that’s not the case here. How else can I describe a guy who was the starting quarterback in high school, starred on a state championship basketball team, turned himself into an amazing distance runner, and who aced his way to an engineering degree before getting his Master’s at MIT?
The point is, while I’ll never get to see Sean again, I get to be with him every time I run. And I know that Sean will be with me this Sunday morning, when his wife and two children count down the start of the second annual BIGGSteps Toward Cancer Prevention 5K. I was not able to run the inaugural race last year, so I can’t wait to take off from that start line on Sunday. I hope you’ll consider joining me.
When Sean died, some friends of mine and I decided that we needed to do something to preserve the legacy of such a special person. So we established the Sean D. Biggs Memorial Foundation. Simply put, our mission is to fight cancer, and to establish as scholarship fund at the KU School of Engineering, a place that was so special in Sean’s heart. Our main fundraising event is the BIGGSteps 5K. Last year, we raised almost $75,000. This year, we’re on pace to do even more.
This year, the funds generated by the BIGGSteps 5K will help KU Cancer Center director, Dr. Roy Jensen and his team develop a high-risk gastrointestinal cancer program by supporting a cancer genetic counselor.
“Cancer genetic counselors help families assess their risk for colorectal cancer by recording their family histories and genetic risk factors, then screening to check if they have these inherited risk factors. KU's soon-to-be-hired genetic counselor will also work to expand the cancer center's biospecimen bank, enabling basic scientists who study cancer on the molecular level to investigate new genetic risk factors.
“Preventing cancer like the kind that took Sean Biggs' life far too soon is our goal,” says Dr. Jensen. “Thanks to support from the Biggs Memorial Foundation, KU Cancer Center is able to take a great step forward in determining people's chances of getting cancer and whether they are at high risk for certain types of cancer. We are so grateful for their support.”
So we will literally be helping to save lives, right here in Kansas City, when we take BIGGSteps Toward Cancer Prevention this Sunday. If you’d like to join us or donate, please log on to www.biggsteps.org. Or, just show up at the KU Edwards Campus this Sunday morning, by 8:00 AM. We’ll be registering people all the way up until the race. I hope to see you there.
By Nate Bukaty
1) Standing Pat: While many of us were busy grumbling about how the Royals failed to make a splash before the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline, the Royals were busy winning baseball games. Just a few hours after Dayton Moore sat at the podium, defending his lack of action at the trade deadline, the Royals went out and completed their series win against the Twins, with a 6-3 victory. Then they headed to Oakland, and took two out of three from the team that was widely considered to be one of the biggest trade deadline winners. So, since standing pat on the 31st the Royals have won three out of four games, and they have moved up by two full games in the wild card standings. We certainly shouldn’t make too much of a four game stretch, but it appears that this Royals team will continue to fight, despite a lack of moves at the trade deadline.
2) The REAL J-Guts? In my view, the key to the Royals’ momentous series victory over Oakland was the performance by Jeremy Guthrie on Friday night. It had to be the most surprising performance of the weekend, as well. It shouldn’t come as a shock that Big Game James lived up to his nickname on Sunday. But who really expected Jeremy Guthrie to out-dual Sonny Gray in a 1-0 victory on Friday? Remember that Guthrie was coming off a putrid month of July, in which he posted an ERA of 10.07 over four starts. So, it was quite the pleasant surprise to see Guthrie go out and set the tone in game one of a series against the best team in baseball.
3) Singles Night with Wade Davis: Every night is singles night when Wade Davis pitches, because that’s all he allows. Actually, the Royals’ super setup man has allowed one extra base hit all season, a double off the bat of Kurt Suzuki last Thursday. Up until that point, Davis had gone an absurd 45 and 2/3 innings without giving up an extra base hit. At $4.8 million, Davis is getting paid like one of the best setup men in baseball, but at least he’s living up to those standards. In fact, with 73 strikeouts in just over 47 innings, and a WHIP of 0.845, Davis is having one of the best seasons by a setup man…ever.
1) The X-Ray Machine: The news that Eric Hosmer was hitting the disabled list with a fractured hand left many in the Royals’ organization scrambling to explain their handling of the situation. Hosmer said he believed the fracture occurred when he was hit by a John Lester pitch on July 20. The problem is, Hosmer appeared in SEVEN more games after that. He was pulled out of two of those games because he continued to feel pain in the hand. The second time he subsequently hit the DL, when the fracture was discovered. Team Trainer Nick Kenney told the Kansas City Star that he believed the stress fracture didn’t develop until a week later, when Hosmer aggravated the injury with a check swing. Kenney said that the initial X-rays, taken on July 21st, showed no evidence of a fracture. But the point remains that this situation only got worse by Hosmer trying to play through the pain. He’s now expected to miss as many as six weeks, while his hand heals. If that’s the case, the Royals will be without their starting first basemen until the final two weeks of the season. Had he been held out until the injury completely healed, you would in all likelihood be seeing him much sooner, at least 11 days sooner, as that’s how long it took the Royals to realize how serious the injury was.
2) Danny Duffy’s Run Support: So, about this red-hot eight-game stretch by Danny Duffy. Amazingly, despite posting an ERA of 1.75 over that stretch, Duffy’s record is an unsightly 2-5. It doesn’t take a stat-nerd to figure out that Duffy’s poor record is due almost entirely to a lack of run support. But this is something that Duffy has been dealing with all season. He’s averaging 2.81 runs from the Royals during his starts this season. That’s 0.34 runs per game worse than any qualified starter in the Americal League. Just look at Duffy’s July. He took three losses and two no-decisions, despite allowing just seven earned runs over 31 and 1/3 innings. It’s crazy to look at Duffy’s season record of 5-10 next to his ERA of 2.44. I keep expecting those numbers to even out, but to this point, they keep going in opposite directions.
3) Moustakas facing Lefties: When the Royals traded away Danny Valencia, it appeared to be a step back towards Mike Moustakas playing on an everyday basis. Moose had been sitting against lefties while Valencia was on the team. When I asked Ned Yost if Moustakas would now get those starts against southpaws, he was non-committal, but he indicated that Moustakas would get a chance, because he’d been swinging the bat much better of late. While it is true that Moose has picked up his game a bit since his recall from Omaha, it can easily be argued that much of that has been due to the fact that he has not had to face left-handed pitching. But, alas, the first time the Royals faced a left hander sans-Valencia, Moustakas was in the lineup…and he went 0 for four. To be fair, that lefty was John Lester, but that afternoon dropped Moose’s batting average to .128 against lefties on the season. The next day, against another lefty, Christian Colon got the start at third base, in Moustakas’s place. Colon helped ignite the Royals’ winning rally with a double. Let’s hope we see more Colon against the southpaws going forward.
By Nate Bukaty
1) Run Prevention: Note, I use the term “Run Prevention” here, rather than simply “pitching.” Essentially, “run prevention” is the new fancy term for the combination of pitching and defense. I prefer the new term, because the two units really work hand-in-hand. And, when it comes to collective run prevention, the Royals’ pitchers and fielders work together about as well as anyone in the American League. As the folks at fangraphs.com have pointed out, one easy way to see how much a team’s defense has helped it’s pitches is to look at the difference between the staff’s FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and it’s ERA (you all know what that stands for, I assume.) KC currently has the 2nd best ERA in the AL, behind the A’s (did I put enough initials in that sentence for you?) Meanwhile, they have just the 10th best FIP in the League. This tells you that the Royals’ defense is playing a major role in the pitching staff’s outstanding start to the season.
2) Raising the EscoBAR: Quick, who currently leads the Royals in OPS? If you’re your answer is Alcides Escobar, then you probably just made an obvious guess based off of my corny intro. But seriously, Alcides Escobar, baseball’s worst everyday offensive player in 2013, currently has the highest OPS on the Royals team, at .828. He leads the team in OBP, and has the second-highest slugging percentage, behind only Danny Valencia, who has just 11 ABs on the season. If you ever needed an example as to why we shouldn’t make too much of the small sample size of these first 19 games, this is it.
I’ll go ahead and make this bold prediction: if Escobar is leading the Royals in OPS by the end of the season, they will not be in the playoffs. But this statistical rarity does tell you a couple of things: 1) Escobar is off to a hot start in 2014, which has been important in keeping the Royals around .500, and 2) pretty much everyone else is not. This is the third straight year that Escobar has gotten off to a fast start. In 2012, he carried that start to his best offensive year as a big leaguer. In 2013, he devolved into an almost automatic out. It’s more than a safe bet that Escobar won’t maintain the numbers he’s currently putting up for the rest of the season, but he’s at least giving hope that he can be useful for more than just his glove.
3) Oh-my Omar: The Royals are getting exactly what they were looking for when they signed Omar Infante to a four-year, 32 million dollar contract this off-season: a dependable, consistent presence at second base. Infante’s 2014 offensive numbers almost perfectly line up with his career production. He’s been a steady bat in the two-hole, and he’s shown toughness, playing through some early season elbow issues, and he missed just 2 games after getting hit in the face by a pitch. On Tuesday night, Infante even suffered another scare when Indians reliever Chen-Chang Lee lost control of a fastball that sailed dangerously close to Infante’s melon. One could understand if such a moment would’ve caused Infante to suffer some flashbacks, but the veteran simply dusted himself off and promptly roped a single back up the middle. So, for the first time in years, the Royals seem to have stability at second base.
1. Loud Noises: As in, the Royals’ bats haven’t made many of them. This topic has been covered ad nauseam, but it merits the coverage. The Royals’ lack of power is the fundamental reason that their record is no better than a game above .500. The first two games of this Cleveland series have been a perfect example. Home runs have determined the winner of each game, pure and simple. Jason Kipnis decided game one with a two-run blast off Jeremy Guthrie. Mike Moustakas decided game two with a three-run bomb off Danny Salazar. The Royals finished dead last in the American League in home runs last season, and they are dead last again this season. It’s hard to even have an average offense when that’s the case.
2. Walk before you trot: What the Royals lack in power, they make up for in impatience. Of course, this is something we Royals fans have grown accustomed to over the past quarter century. This season, only the Orioles and White Sox have drawn fewer walks than the Royals. But is that because they have poor plate discipline, or simply because their opponents pound the strike zone, because they have no fear of the Royals’ power? Well, the evidence suggests that you don’t necessarily need to throw a strike to get Royals hitters to swing. According to fangraphs, The Royals swing at a higher percentage of balls out of the strike zone than all but two teams in the American League. Those other two teams? You guessed it: The Orioles and White Sox. Still question whether or not walks are a function of plate discipline?
3. The AL Central: This could be great news for the Royals. Last year, it took 93 wins for the Tigers to clinch the Central. The way things are looking now, it’d be a surprise if that many wins were necessary to win the division this time around. Sure, it’s early, and teams can change over the course of the season. But right now the Central is a complete jumble of average-looking teams. Only 2.5 games separate first place from last. As of Wednesday morning, nobody in the division has more than 10 wins, and nobody has fewer than nine. Obviously we expect some sort of separation to develop as time goes on, but maybe not as much as in years past. All of the teams in the Central look flawed, as I view them. That includes the Tigers, who recently cut their shortstop, and are still searching for answers to their bullpen issues. Last season, the Indians made the Wild Card with 92 wins. It might not even take that many victories to win the division this year.