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.
By Nate Bukaty
1. Where was Wiggins?
Andrew Wiggins picked a bad day to lay an egg. Of course, when you get to this time of year, there is no good day to have a bad game. One off night, and your season is over. After the game, Wiggins was as hard on himself as anyone, saying, “I didn’t play like I should have. I blame myself for this. Today I just laid an egg. I didn’t bring it for my team. I let a lot of people down.” While Wiggins certainly could have done more to make his presence felt in the game, I think that Stanford deserve a lot of credit for getting him out of his game. The Cardinal zone clearly made Wiggins uncomfortable, and their length bothered all of the Jayhawk players, with perhaps the exception of Tarik Black. Of the zone, Wiggins again put the blame on himself, “We didn’t play bad against the zone,” he said, “I just played bad against the zone.”
Wiggins is too hard on himself, in this case. Clearly, the Stanford coaches made it their top priority to keep Wiggins in check. Sure, a great scorer still finds a way to get his points in a situation like that, but it certainly helps if some teammates step up to make the opponent pay for such an approach. Neither thing happened for Kansas in this game. I think it’s unfortunate that this will be the last memory that people have of Andrew Wiggins in a Jayhawk uniform. I am confident that Wiggins will grow to become a very good, if not great, NBA player. I can’t imagine how great he would be in the college game, if we were able to watch him as a sophomore, but of course we won’t get that chance.
2. Should Frankamp have played more?
If not for Conner Frankamp, the Jayhawks might not have even been playing on Sunday. When Kansas was struggling on Friday against Eastern Kentucky, it was the freshman from Wichita who came into the game and calmed the waters. After struggling to get any consistent playing time during the season, Frankamp’s number was called against the Colonels. He answered with 10 points, four assists, and zero turnovers in 25 minutes. Then again on Sunday, it was Frankamp hitting a big pull-up three at the end of the first half, putting the Jayhawks in front on their way to the locker room. So why did Bill Self only play his freshman sharp-shooter for seven minutes in the second half? On the surface, getting Frankamp into the game more, especially as an outside shooting threat against Stanford’s zone, seems like a no-brainer.
But if you look at the circumstances of the game, things aren’t always so simple. The Jayhawks really started to fight back in the game when they went to the full-court press. The Cardinal had all sorts of problems getting the ball up the court against KU’s quickness and athleticism. That’s not exactly a strong point of Conner Frankamp’s game right now.
3. What’s the future of the PG position?
One of the bright spots of KU’s short tournament run this season was the play of Frankamp. The freshman from Wichita came in as a top 35 recruit, but he played in just 26 games this year, and averaged just 8 minutes per game when he did play.
But with the way he played in St. Louis last weekend, Frankamp has emerged as a potential answer to the point guard question. Of course, Naadir Tharpe will be back as a senior, and Frank Mason will challenge for the starting role as a sophomore. It will be very interesting to see how that three-horse race shakes out for next year.
Clearly, one of the missing ingredients for this year’s Kansas team, at least as far as being a true National Champion contender, was steady leadership at the point guard position. At least one of those players must rise to that challenge next year, if the Jayhawks are to make a run to the Final Four.
4. Who’s coming back?
After Sunday’s game, freshmen Andrew Wiggins, Wayne Selden, and Joel Embiid were asked about their thoughts on entering the NBA draft this summer. All three said they weren’t thinking about it yet, but decisions will be made in the coming days. Let’s be honest: there’s no decision for Wiggins to make. He’s gone, and that’s the right decision for him.
As for Selden, I personally find it hard to believe that he has much of a choice to make, because I think he needs to come back. As Mike DeCourcy said on our show Monday morning, Selden is not a good NBA prospect right now, but he can make himself into a very good prospect, if he grows his game significantly over the next year or two. A player who couldn’t get on the floor in the second half against Stanford should not be thinking about jumping to the pros right now, in my opinion.
Embiid is the trickiest one. Purely based on his raw talent and ability, he should go pro. But based on his emotionally readiness, and his development, Embiid himself has indicated that the best choice might be to come back to school. But the back injury throws all of these ideas into question. Would Embiid be risking further damaging his draft stock by coming back to college, should he suffer another back injury? Or would Embiid be better served to come back and show that his back problems are, ahem, truly behind him? My guess is that Embiid will see the risk of returning to college, and he’ll make the jump. But I’m not as confident in that prediction as I am with the other two.
5. Who’s coming in?
As of now, the Jayhawks have two more five-star commitments coming in for next year, Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre. Alexander, the fourth-rated prospect in the country, according to Rivals, is a 6’7 “physically intimidating power player” out of Chicago. Oubre, the nation’s 12th rated prospect per Rivals, is listed as a 6’7 “pure wing scorer with great size, deep range and a feel for the offensive end of things.” These seem like almost perfect replacements for Embiid and Wiggins, should the two players turn pro. I say “almost” because Alexander doesn’t have the length and shot-blocking ability that Embiid possesses. In fact, if Embiid goes to the NBA, that will leave the Jayhawks with 7-footer Myles Turner as its 7-foot shot-blocking presence. Still, considering how much the Jayhawks have returning next year, when you add these players to the mix, you have to think that Kansas will be the preseason favorites to win an 11th straight Big 12 title.