Weekly Hit Ground Ball: The race is on

WHGB11After close to thirty years spent languishing between false hope and no hope, fans of the Kansas City Royals have entered this September in an unfamiliar competitive position.

The unfamiliar encourages a sense of excitement but also trepidation.

However much Royals are trying to outwardly enjoy this season, inwardly there is bound to be a sense of foreboding. Good things don’t happen to their team. This isn’t really happening. It’s all about to come crushing down.

Watching Danny Duffy leave the mound at Yankee Stadium on Saturday after throwing a solitary pitch was the moment when those fears were realised.

Look beyond the largely irrelevant 8-11 win-loss record and you’ll see that Duffy has been excellent for Kansas City this season. It’s not just been the way Duffy has pitched but also that he’s finally broken through after years of promise since he was drafted back in the 2007 amateur draft.

He was one of a crop of young players that were hailed as the answer to the Royals’ many years in the doldrums and, up until now, like most of the rest he had failed to live up to the billing. This season, in deed and in the sense of hope, Duffy has personified the way that things have finally turned around for Kansas City.

Seeing him grimace in discomfort and exit early with a sore shoulder was the last thing the Royals needed, again both in terms of actual impact (losing him for the game and potentially the foreseeable future) and the demoralising effect this blow could have on the team.

Kansas City went on to lose that game against the Yankees 6-2 to compound their misery and yet there was a chink of light from Detroit where the Tigers failed to capitalise. Despite having their recently-acquired ace David Price on the mound – an addition thought at the time to hammer another nail into the Royals’ coffin – Detroit lost 5-4 to the surging San Francisco Giants, keeping Kansas City two games ahead at the top of the AL Central.

Duffy’s condition will be assessed further over the next few days to determine whether it was a mere blip or something that could see him miss extended time, potentially the rest of the season. If he is out for the year then he’ll be a big loss, yet maybe it won’t be a sign of things inevitably going wrong for the Royals and instead will show that this is destined to be the year playoff baseball returns to Kansas City, regardless of the obstacles that come their way.

The Royals’ emergence in the AL Central, where many – including myself – predicted another season of Detroit domination, is one of many great stories building to a crescendo this month.

Baltimore look set to win the AL East division for the first time since 1997, whilst in the AL Wild Card race the Seattle Mariners may just turn their offseason splurge on Robinson Cano into a first playoff appearance since 2001.

The Mariners are even catching up the Oakland A’s who looked certainties for a third consecutive AL West title before a startling collapse over the last month that has seen a rampant LA Angels team fly past to gain not only a lead in the division but the best win-loss record in the Majors.

The A’s were able to snatch a walk-off win on Saturday against the Houston Astros, turning around a 3-1 deficit in the bottom of the ninth inning, and that’s the sort of win that could spark an all-important change in fortune as we head into the last few weeks of the season. That’s what this A’s is clinging to, at least.

In the National League it’s been the Milwaukee Brewers playing the role of the A’s, plummeting from an unexpected stay at the top of the Central and seeing the St. Louis Cardinals resuming normal service at the summit. The Brew Crew have won only three of their past 16 games and now need to forget about what has gone. They are still firmly in the Wild Card race, a position they would have been delighted with if offered it before the season began, and need to somehow find a way to make that their mindset.

And as the regular season begins to wind down, the Philadelphia Phillies reminded us all on Monday that there’s something to play for every time you take the field. Their combined no-hitter was a rare enjoyable moment in what has been yet another poor season for a team that enjoyed so much success between 2007 and 2011.

The Texas Rangers are another team to quickly hit hard times after a recent run of excellent seasons. They were the first time to be eliminated from playoff contention this season and questions were already being asked about manager Ron Washington’s future before he stepped down for personal reasons on Friday. Wash had his game-management called into question at times, but there’s no doubt he was a manager that his players fought for and it’s one of the harsh realities of sport at the highest level that his time in charge will be remembered for the two World Series championships his time narrowly missed out on, rather than all of the other regular season success they had.

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