Tuesday, August 4, 2015

TWTW's Royals @ Tigers Series Preview - 8/4 -- 8/6


Danville, Kentucky – It’s funny how repetition of an intense sensory experience can transport you across time and space. Recently, I was at a Reds game with my nephew. Against my recommendation, the little squirt ordered a root beer. I told him root beer was a drink of youthful innocence squandered; a pseudo-beer that young boys drink to emulate broken old men like me, rather than cherishing their adolescence in all its ephemeral and transient splendor. I advised him to order a lemonade or a fruit punch. My nephew wasn’t in a negotiating mood that day, and ordered a root beer anyway. After another heartbreaking Reds loss, my nephew and I headed for the exits when I noticed he left behind his reusable plastic souvenir cup. I grabbed the cup, and noticed it was still full of frothy goodness. Not being the type of man to waste food and drink (I’ve never once needed a to-go box from Chili’s) I did my nephew the service of finishing his sugary drink.

In that moment, I was overtaken by my senses. My head was swirling like the creamy, foamy goodness of that drink, pouring into my mouth like a waterfall. The indescribably blissful taste of the dark brown beverage (was that sassafras bark that I detected?) was like a gut punch of carbonated delight.


I lost track of where and when I was. Suddenly, I was whisked way to a Saturday afternoon in Danville in Spring of 1966. A long-forgotten childhood friend and I sat in the treehouse my father crafted for me, listening to the Cincinnati Reds on the radio. Jimmy Maloney was pitching another complete game shut-out, one of five that he twirled on the season. As my friend and I listened to Jimmy mowing down the Phillies that day, we sipped root beer from frosty glass bottles, feeling in harmony with the world around us. It was a magical summer, spent listening to the Reds, playing in Herrington Lake and listening to The Feel of Neil Diamond on my LP player.


Suddenly, I was back in the unpleasant reality of 2015. My nephew was tugging at my Pete Rose shirsey and asking if we could stop at Arby’s on the way back. Feeling startled and confused, I wiped a lone tear from my eye. Had I really not drunken root beer since the 60’s? Somewhere along the line, I outgrew root beer and moved on to Kentucky Deluxe, like all members of the Hart family have for generations. But the sensory experience was powerful all the same.

In spite of everything that has changed between 1966 and 2015 – the advent of sabermetrics, President Johnson’s alarmingly totalitarian Gun Control Act of ‘68 and the soul-crushing reality of America under NAFTA – one thing has remained constant: my love of baseball. And it’s because I love baseball that I’m writing here today. Folks, it’s my pleasure to continue the hard work I started back in April when I wrote an in-depth preview of the first Royals-Tigers showdown. Although the baseball landscape has changed since these two teams were jockeying for control of the AL Central earlier this Spring, I still think you’d be hard-pressed to find a more compelling baseball series to watch this week.

Two teams – both beloved by their excellent fanbases, and both on opposite trajectories. Not long ago, it would’ve been the Detroit Tigers making blockbuster deadline acquisitions for premier talents like Johnny Cueto, but this year it’s the Tigers who have sold out for the future while the Kansas City Royals have pushed all their chips to the center of the table like me on a self-destructive gambling binge. If I were Mike Ilitch I would’ve thought hard about going all-in with the 2015 Tigers, but then again, he’s the wildly successful pizza baron and I’m the man who blew his 401K at a slot machine.

The good people of Kansas City will be disappointed if they anticipate that this new look Tigers team (bereft of Miguel Cabrera, David Price, Yoenis Cespedes and Joakim Soria) will simply roll over. In spite of the futility of their situation, the Tigers will claw and claw until they can’t anymore. Gritty men like Ian Kinsler and Andrew Romine are too proud and persistent to stop fighting. Why? Because they have hope. A faint and fading hope that one day baseball in Detroit will flower and be renewed. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. This hope is embodied by the young Daniel Norris, a soft-eyed and pleasant looking bearded man who will eagerly study Justin Verlander, the once-and-future ace of Detroit, as he toes the rubber versus the crafty lefty Danny Duffy in game 1 of a 3 game set.

Daniel Norris: Dreamier than Chocolate Peanut Butter Molten Cake at Chili's
The problem for Detroit is that hope will only get you so far against a team of destiny like the powerhouse Kansas City Royals.

GAME 1 – Danny Duffy v. Justin Verlander



Justin and Danny have had their doubters. The polemicists who call into sports talk radio shows have not been kind to them. Both of them have battled injuries while struggling to shoulder the weighty expectations of their respective fanbases. Dan Duffy will pitch in his characteristically effective but inefficient manner. The lefty will leave in the sixth inning, having thrown 100+ pitches and surrendered several runs, but with his team still in striking distance.

The other starting pitcher’s performance is harder to predict. Justin Verlander is an enigma of late, a player more two-faced than Whittaker Chambers. Which Verlander will appear: the Verlander that allowed 1 run over 8 innings in three of his four last starts, including a 10-strikeout gem vs. the Tampa Bay Rays last week? Or the Verlander who was unceremoniously firebombed in his other starts? Justin will try to rediscover the presence of mind that allowed him to guide his team to victory twice against the Royals in the waning days of the 2014 season. Verlander knows he can’t return to the days when he would clinch games by blasting 100 mph heat past Alex Gordon in the bottom of the 9th inning.



Yet, in spite of his inability to match his peak performances from yesteryear, Justin will approach game 1 of this series with a new-found confidence. With Max Scherzer and David Price finally out of the picture, he now feels ready to assume his rightful role as the ace of the Tigers rotation. Whether he is ready to don such a mantle will determine the outcome of this tone-setting game 1.

GAME 2 – Johnny Cueto v. Buck Farmer

If I were a Tigers fan, I’d consider renting a movie from blockbuster or going bowling during this game. Johnny Cueto is the crowned jewel of Kansas City’s rotation, and eager for his first W wearing Royal blue. Buck Farmer is a minor leaguer who desperately needs more seasoning, like the so-called “chicken” served at Subway.

Stick with KFC for your poultry needs, folks.
As Buck leaves the mound after a shelling, it will be clear that the Tigers chances of winning the game have been taken out to pasture. Moose will run wild on the cropland of Farmer’s dreams, leaving destruction and chaos in his wake. Some say Salvador Perez is a man in decline, particularly nerds like Andy McCullough who think that things like OPS+ matter. The only thing declining will be the cans of corn Perez has hit lately -- those will turn into dingers in this series. Perez will be back, and the fools that led Billy Beane into another failed season will continue writing for Fangraphs.


GAME 3 – Yordano Ventura v. Anibal Sanchez


Since the arrival of Johnny Cueto, Ventura seems to have turned a corner. Without James Shields, the young Yordano was adrift. Thanks to the stabilizing presence of fellow Dominicans and veterans Edinson Volquez and Cueto, Ventura’s temper has been contained, allowing the young flame thrower to remain mentally focused on winning. The young man’s near-designation to Omaha additionally gave him perspective about how to conduct himself in the majors. He’s still prone to youthful indiscretions – his twitter feud with Jose Bautista, for example – but it’s undeniable that Yordano is a changed man since the emergence of these role models. Look for him to turn in an appropriately professional outing this Thursday.

Meanwhile, Anibal Sanchez is having an identity crisis. How did a man stingier than Margaret Thatcher’s wildly successful austerity programs suddenly become more prone to bombings than London during the Blitzkrieg? It’s a question I don’t have the answer to. This game will be a clash of opposing forces: the youthful energy and fire of Ventura, fighting for a ring – and the suave stylings of Sanchez, seeking to rediscover himself along the road of introspection. In a moment like this expect to see a man familiar with Detroit and Kansas City step up. Expect to see a robbed all-star come up big, as he does in ways WAR can never measure. Omar Infante, former teammate of Anibal’s with both the Marlins and Tigers, is comin’, and will play a decisive role in game 3.

CONCLUSION

Baseball is a game that transcends the slow passage of time. Each crack of the bat, which rings loudly through the summer air as balls fly into the seats – be it off the bat of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, J.D. Martinez or any other player – echoes perpetually in the minds of fans who actually watch the games. Other games may have higher fangraphs NERD scores, and other series like Tampa Bay Rays v. Chicago White Sox may boast pitchers with better FIPs in Tuesday road games. But for those of us who care about narratives and rivalries, you won’t find better baseball than Kansas City v. Detroit. This weekend, I’ll break with my usual tradition and pour myself a glass of root beer as I watch these games – in order to re-experience the youthful vigor I once had, that Yordano Ventura has, and which Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez are trying to recover. Youth, like a cold root beer, tastes beautiful but is gone far too quickly.