MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Chemistry in KC 'pen still a winning formula

Four relievers hold off Astros to protect victory for Medlen

Chemistry in KC 'pen still a winning formula

HOUSTON -- When Royals right-hander Kris Medlen finished the bottom of the fifth inning Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park with a one-run lead, he pumped his fist and celebrated for just an instant.

Medlen won't remember this as his smoothest night at the office, even with the Royals eventually defeating the Astros, 3-2. In five innings, he stranded runners in scoring position three times.

Still, when Medlen needed to make a pitch, he made it, especially the last one, a curveball that Colby Rasmus swung through with two runners on base to end the fifth. When he departed, Kansas City had that 3-2 lead, and as first starts go, it was plenty acceptable.

Medlen's solid outing

All Medlen had done is put the Royals in position to win, and isn't that the goal of every starting pitcher? When Kansas City has a lead, even after just five innings, it is tough to beat. On Tuesday, manager Ned Yost used four relievers for an inning apiece and watched them shut out Houston for the final four innings.

This is the bullpen that has been so deep and so good the past three seasons that it has changed the way a lot of baseball people build teams. Rather than have one closer and, say, one setup man, teams have attempted to acquire multiple relievers with closer stuff.

The Royals do lots of other things well. Their defense is baseball's gold standard. Their offense is built on contact and efficiency rather than power. And they've got a core group of players who played together in the Minor Leagues and trust one another and their manager completely.

As a result, Kansas City is on one of the great runs in baseball history. Since July 30, 2014, the Royals are 158-99, including the postseason. That's 15 more victories than any other Major League team and 30 more than any other American League team. They've been to the World Series two straight years and won it last fall.

"It's a real comfort level knowing if your club is tied or has the lead after the fifth inning, you feel like you're going to win," Yost said. "That was evident again tonight. It takes pressure off everybody. They know we don't have to score 10 runs to win a baseball game. We've just got to score one more than they do and get it past the fifth inning, and our guys are going to get after it."

That's what happened on Tuesday as Luke Hochevar, Kelvin Herrera, Joakim Soria and Wade Davis finished up to help run the Royals' record to 5-2 in this new season.

Davis got the final three outs, but he also walked two batters and needed 33 pitches. He has been so good the last two seasons that just allowing a couple of baserunners is news. Since Opening Day 2014, Davis has a microscopic 0.94 ERA in 144 appearances.

"I definitely take a lot of pride in getting guys out quick," he said. "That's the best way to do it. But early in the season, I've always had outings like this. It's a grind until you get clicking."

Davis is part of a team within a team, a bullpen that is one of the the cornerstones for all the good things that have happened in Kansas City.

"I think the thing that makes us click out there as a unit is that from the bottom to the top there's a bunch of guys that are unselfish and just want the ball when their number is called," Hochevar said. "There are no egos. Guys don't care where they're pitching. There's talent, but everybody works hard and pulls for each other. I think that's kind of what makes us what we are."

Names occasionally change. When closer Greg Holland underwent Tommy John surgery last season, Davis slid smoothly into the closer role. And after last season when Ryan Madson signed with the Athletics, Royals general manager Dayton Moore added Soria.

And the song remains the same.

"Everyone trusts each other," Soria said. "That's the beauty of this team. The chemistry is special."

Medlen should know. He pitched in relief last season when he returned from his second Tommy John surgery. Having watched the chemistry and the stuff, Medlen is not surprised by the success.

"I've seen how they work and how they prepare," he said. "It doesn't surprise me to see the success they have. They've got unbelievable stuff and make sure they're ready for their job."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.