KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — By the time the Kansas City Royals had run roughshod through the American League playoffs last year, everyone in baseball knew exactly what H-D-H meant.
Herrera, Davis, Holland. The big three relievers at the back of their bullpen.
With the dominance of Kelvin Herrera in the seventh inning, Wade Davis in the eighth and Greg Holland closing out, the Royals effectively turned every game into a six-inning sprint. If they had the lead by then, they were almost assured of having it at the final out, and that was a big reason why they advanced to Game 7 of the World Series.
“We just knew,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said, “that the game was over.”
There’s only one “H” in the bullpen these days, now that Holland required Tommy John surgery. But as the Royals prepare to play the Yankees or Astros in the divisional round on Thursday, their revamped bullpen still may be deeper and more dynamic than a year ago.
Ryan Madson has been a revelation after spending time away from baseball. Danny Duffy’s move from the rotation to the relief corps gives Kansas City a power lefty. And Luke Hochevar’s return from his own Tommy John surgery means another capable arm in the middle innings.
Whereas the Royals’ relievers went 28-18 with a 3.30 ERA last season, 10th-best in all of baseball, they are 30-14 with a 2.72 ERA this season. That was second-only to Pittsburgh.
“The key for us being able to do this, really, is the year Ryan Madson’s had and Danny Duffy and his development in the ‘pen,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “So it just gives us another two strong guys that we didn’t have last year down there.”
Veteran Jason Frasor and rookie Brandon Finnegan pitched well in the playoffs last year, but Hochevar, Duffy and Franklin Morales are widely considered upgrades.
Madson has moved into the seventh-inning role, while Herrera has been handling the eighth and Davis the ninth. So instead of the catchy H-D-H, get ready to hear about M-H-D this year.
“Not having Greg is big,” Davis said. “He’s a great guy to have around in general.”
Holland has been almost irreplaceable the past few years, one of the constants in the Kansas City bullpen as the long-downtrodden club climbed from irrelevance to respectability. The two-time All-Star has saved 125 games over three seasons, including back-to-back years of 40-plus.
But while pitching through elbow pain much of this season, the hard-throwing right-hander watched his ERA climb to 3.83 this season. It’s a number that would be the envy of many relievers, but not Holland, who had a 1.21 ERA two years ago and a 1.41 mark last year.
So rather than pitch with a compromised wing, Holland elected to have surgery. He’ll miss the postseason while Davis takes over the high-pressure last three outs.
“Greg’s been the anchor of that ‘pen forever, for five, six years,” Hochevar said. “You’re used to having him back there. You’re used to knowing that, you know, Greg’s got the ninth. So yeah, there is a different dynamic that’s missing without Greg there. But I feel like everybody in the bullpen just feeds off each other. We’ve been blessed to be so deep.”
That depth has been invaluable this season.
With a starting rotation that gobbled up innings last year, the Royals only needed 464 out of their bullpen. That number climbed to nearly 540 innings this season, fifth-most in baseball.
The Royals should be well-rested, though.
They clinched their first division pennant since 1985 with two weeks left in the season and managed to rest many of their key pieces down the stretch. They nearly squandered home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by doing it, but locked that down with a win Sunday.
The Royals also get a breather they didn’t have last season, when they had to play Oakland in the AL wild-card game. They have three days off before opening the ALDS at Kauffman Stadium.
“Obviously we’re guaranteed to play,” Davis said. “Last year we weren’t guaranteed to play besides just the one game. Obviously that’s different. Other than, I think we’re all just kind of ready for the excitement to kick in and toe the line out there and get ready to play.”