Monday, April 17, 2017

Royal Rematch: The Giants Return to Kansas City

Danville, Kentucky -- There is no feeling more disturbing than the familiar becoming foreign. I think it was the spring of 2009. I was exhausted after a long day of working at the tire factory, and eager to go home and recuperate. But when I got home, the fridge was empty. I had eaten my last pepperoni Hot Pocket® for breakfast. Grudgingly, I went back to my car and headed to a nearby McDonald's.

McDonald's is great because it's familiar. McDonald's is a pillar of stability in a fragmented world torn asunder by the forces of globalization, the decline of the conventional nuclear family, ideological polarization, and forcible secularization. The connective glue that once held society together has disappeared. All the old institutions that once gave a man certainty -- the church, the union, the Blockbuster video store -- are all gone. Yet, a man can find comfort in the knowledge that at McDonald's, you can get the same burger in Danville as you can in Marmet, Flint, Bakersfield, and Deerfield. Or you could, at least.

That evening in the spring of 2009, I walked into McDonald's; but I didn't recognize what I saw. Apple slices. Side salads. Carrots. Parfait. Cucumbers. Sandwich wraps. Oatmeal. It dawned on me how long it had been since I had last been to a McDonald's. In a few short years, McDonald's went from being an unabashed all-American staple, to a weak-kneed Panera-wannabe. McDonald's was great because it had a formula: tasty food served quick for a cheap price. It wasn't healthy, but that wasn't the point. In attempting to cater to health-conscious liberals, McDonald's forgot what made them great.

No thanks, McCommunists.
Folks, for a while it looked like the Royals forgot what made them great as well. I felt a similar sensation -- that disconcerting vibe when something familiar feels foreign -- when I watched the 2017 Kansas City Royals. The 2015 World Champion Royals were great because they played their brand of baseball. They stole bases. They bunted. They played great defense. They made productive outs. They did the little things. They went to third base on a single. They put up runs without hitting dingers. It was Royals baseball, and they were proud of it.

The 2017 Royals had an abysmal 2-6 start because they forgot this formula. They were without Jarrod Dyson, the teams's swaggering id, and one of their primary threats on the base-paths. They uncharacteristically signed Brandon Moss, a lumbering slugger who had previously been their sworn enemy as an Oakland Athletic and Cleveland Indian. They traded elite closer Wade Davis for some kid from the Cubs who hits dingers and can't play defense. Their once invincible bullpen was a shadow of its former self, giving up runs in bunches in the late innings. The Royals looked out of their element, like a fruit salad at a burger joint. Until one man stepped in.

With two dominating starts, Jason Vargas got the Royals back on the winning track and stopped their season from being smothered in the cradle. So far this season Vargas has been the unquestioned ace of the Royals staff, besting even the beastly Danny Duffy. His most recent start -- a 7.2 inning, 8-strikeout, 4-hit performance against the Oakland Athletics -- not only put an end to a horrific losing streak; it put Vargas firmly in the Cy Young conversation. That's no small feat for a man recovering from Tommy John surgery. On a pitching staff that is now full of mercenaries like Ian Kennedy and Chicago Cubs castoffs, Jason Vargas is an anchor of familiarity, a reminder of the glory days when guys like Jeremy Guthrie and Bruce Chen were mainstays of the Royals rotation.

Folks, some familiarity is just what the Royals needed. Thanks to Vargas, the Royals are looking like their old selves, having clawed back to the .500 mark after that awful start. That momentum is a good thing, as the San Francisco Giants -- their rivals from the 2014 World Series -- come to town for some inter-league action. On Wednesday, Mr. Vargas will square off against Madison Bumgarner, the man who single-handedly thwarted the Royals' World Series hopes that autumn. Although Bumgarner's reputation as a postseason God was tarnished this past fall when he ran into the Cubs buzz-saw, nobody in Kansas City has forgotten what he did in 2014: 3 games, 20 innings, 1 run.

Vargas doesn't usually crack baseball's list of dominant lefties: Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Chris Sale, David Price, etc., etc. After a couple more starts and a chance to prove himself against a hated rival, that will change. And when it does, the league better watch out.