Kansas Royals Blow Three Straight Leads As Joakim Soria Watches

Clark FoslerCorrespondent IJuly 21, 2009

"I'm right there with them," Hillman said. "I want Soria in the game, too. But I'm not going to sell my soul to the devil for a guy that's already had two major arm injuries in my estimation."  - Royals.com.

That quote was offered after the Royals' Saturday night loss to Tampa Bay.  As detailed by Craig yesterday, the entire series was a calamity of bullpen meltdowns—none of which included Joakim Soria. If you like sarcasm, you have to read Rany's column on Sunday—what makes it funny is that it comes perilously close to being plausible.

At any rate, the bottom line of the Tampa series was Trey Hillman's absolute refusal to use Joakim Soria for "more than four outs."  Would this be a big deal if the setup men had managed to hold even one lead? 

Maybe not, but the fact is that the rest of the bullpen blew three straight eighth inning leads coming out of the All-Star Break when fatigue was a factor for no one and gaining some momentum was imperative for a team teetering on the brink of falling into the "just plain awful" category.

Now, before we get into this too far, let me be clear that I am not advocating that Trey Hillman should have gone to Soria in all three games this past weekend. I am saying that he should have gone to him on Saturday, after the bullpen had collapsed on Friday and with Zack Greinke giving you a quality start. If not then, then for damn sure on Sunday after the bullpen had blown two straight leads and Soria was now sitting on a full week's rest.  

Also, as Craig pointed out, with Sidney Ponson and Bruce Chen starting your next two games against the Angels, what are the odds that a closer will be needed anyway?

Getting back to our actual topic, one of the main arguments I have heard supporting Soria's non-use was that "closers pitch in the ninth inning, that's what closers are for and that's why they are called closers."  

Listen, it is comments like that that make Dayton Moore think he can justify the Betancourt move by saying that "he has access to information most don't, such as next year's salary numbers, possible arbitration outcomes, status of prospects, the draft prospects over the next couple of years and the pending free agent crop,"  and think people will actually buy it. 

Anyway, the Royals have used Joakim Soria in the eighth inning four times this season—twice when they were behind by four runs or more. Hillman went to Joakim on June 11th in the eighth in Cleveland and he gave blew the save. Soria was also called on to get four outs in Boston on July 9, this time coming through with the save.  

In 2008, Soria pitched six times in the eighth inning, but only three of those appearances were in pressure situations. That is a total of five eighth inning "pressure situation" appearances over 86 appearances the last two seasons.

By contrast, the Yankees have gone to Mariano Rivera, who is fifteen years older than Soria, in the same situation six different times this season: five in save situations and once with the game tied. 

In 2008, they used Rivera 11 times in the eighth inning: ten save situations and one tie game.  

That is a total of sixteen eighth-inning pressure situation appearances in 103 appearances.

The Red Sox have used closer Jonathan Papelbon just three times in 8th inning pressure situations in 2009, but they went to him TWELVE times in 2008—nine of those in save situations and twice when they led by four runs.  That is still a total of twelve 8th inning pressure situation appearances over 107 games the past two seasons.  

Both New York and Boston have gone to their closers for more than the standard three out save at a much higher rate than the Royals have gone to Soria. Now, to be fair, you can make the argument that both teams have had eighth inning leads more often and to also be fair, it should be noted that the Angels have never used closer Brian Fuentes in the eighth and the Twins have gone to Joe Nathan just twice this season.

The point is not that you should always go to your closer in the eighth or even make a habit of it, but instead that teams actually do go to their closer in that inning on occasion.  

I certainly believe that when your closer has not pitched in six days and your bullpen is in complete disarray, a Sunday afternoon eighth inning appearance is certainly in order.

Oh, but what about the injuries?  My god!  The injuries!

Yes, Joakim Soria had elbow surgery...in 2003.  He also had shoulder trouble...in 2006.  Of course, he also had some shoulder soreness—although no one could find any structural trouble whatsoever—this season, but that injury did not keep Trey Hillman from going to Soria in the eighth inning in just his third appearance back from the disabled list.  

Nor, after he threw 21 pitches in that June 11 four out appearance did it keep Hillman from going back to Soria for 23 more pitches just two days later on June 13.

For that matter, the Royals went to Soria on three consecutive days in early July, with Joakim throwing 45 total pitches over three days (striking out six in three innings and walking none, by the way) and then, after two days rest, went to back to him for the dreaded EIGHTH INNING APPEARANCE.

Let us also keep in mind that Soria, given that he recently went through a stretch of one inning appearances that took 11, 15, 12 and 13 pitches total, is quite likely to get five outs in something less than 25 pitches. Does that really strike anyone as "overuse" or "risking injury?" Particularly when we are talking about one game, not a string of games?

Bottom line, the Royals are almost compelled to think outside the box. They simply have too many weaknesses to play the game by the book and hope to be better than the other team.  

Does one game really matter?  I don't know, but I would much rather have woken up Monday morning having won at least one game over the weekend instead of being swept at home. 


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