MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Royals' mighty 'pen putting them back in postseason race

Kansas City relievers have posted miniscule 0.69 ERA during 15-3 stretch

Royals' mighty 'pen putting them back in postseason race

When the Kansas City Royals announced last month that they were placing Wade Davis, baseball's best reliever, on the disabled list, virtually everyone in the game thought the same thing.

The Royals were toast. Nice run, fellas. Take a bow. To resurrect a sport in one of the country's best baseball cities is a remarkable accomplishment.

Those back-to-back World Series appearances, including winning it all in 2015, will stand forever as a tribute to your talent, resilience and professionalism. All the Royals did this season was remind us how difficult winning is.

Things have to click in a dozen different ways. It's a thin line. So with Mike Moustakas gone for the season, with Alex Gordon having missed a month, and with the rotation lacking consistency, well, forget about it.

Moustakas and Gordon collide

And all of that is why Kansas City is the most amazing thing happening in baseball right now. It's not just that the club is winning. We long ago learned not to underestimate the heart of a champion.

It's how the Royals are winning. It's the bullpen. Yes, the bullpen. Without Davis. During this 15-3 sprint back into contention, their bullpen hasn't just been good, it has been scary good.

Kansas City's rotation has been superb as well, with Danny Duffy emerging as an ace and Yordano Ventura and Ian Kennedy pitching the best baseball of their careers. Since Aug. 6, Royals starters have gone 12-2 with a 2.41 ERA. Only the Cubs have been better in that time.

Kennedy's eight scoreless frames

But it's the bullpen where the results have been breathtaking. In this stretch, the Royals' relievers have posted a 0.69 ERA.

To repeat: 0.69.

Wait, it gets better. As the Royals open a weekend series at Fenway Park, their bullpen is carrying a 38 2/3-inning scoreless streak. That's the longest in franchise history, and the longest since the Giants strung together 39 1/3 innings in 2002-03.

This is how the Royals have done it the past two seasons. They made every baseball man think about the way he constructed his roster. Kansas City scored runs with contact hitters, speed and by slapping the ball in the gap. It did not hit home runs, which has become the conventional recipe for winning.

The Royals won with defense, too -- the best in the game. And they won with quality relievers lined up at the end of games. Playing against Kansas City became a test of wills and patience. If you didn't score against the Royals' pitchers in the first five innings, you probably weren't going to score against them at all.

And when Kansas City got to those guys at the end -- especially Kelvin Herrera and Davis -- that was that. It's how the Royals are winning now, too. Only this bullpen may be better and deeper than their bullpens the past two seasons.

And Davis threw a rehab inning on Wednesday in Arizona and seems on track to return.

How did this happen? Who is Matt Strahm anyway? He's a 24-year-old left-hander with a 95-mph fastball. Strahm is two years removed from Tommy John surgery, and he was moved to the bullpen with Double-A Northwest Arkansas to help manage his workload.

Strahm's strong relief outing

The Royals view Strahm as a starter as soon as next season. But when Davis got hurt, general manager Dayton Moore summoned Strahm. He allowed a run in his first appearance, none since. He has struck out 19 of the 40 Major League hitters he has faced.

Yost has slotted veterans Joakim Soria and Herrera for the final two innings, but Strahm has given the Royals a powerful weapon for the sixth and seventh.

And then there's Peter Moylan. He's 37 years old, a right-hander from Australia with a funky hard-to-read delivery. Moylan and Moore have a history together from their days with the Braves. He was signed near the end of Spring Training and was called up in May. With all those blazing fastballs in Kansas City's 'pen, Moylan's 90-mph heater is a perfect setup.

Moylan has been a godsend for the Royals, appearing in 31 games and getting better and better.

Moylan seals the win

And there's 37-year-old Chris Young. The 6-foot-10 right-hander has reinvented himself yet again, this time as another of Yost's setup men.

Yost has managed it all beautifully, as usual. Since Aug. 6, Soria, Moylan, Strahm, Young and another left-hander -- 6-foot-7 Brian Flynn -- have posted a combined 0.00 ERA in 35 innings.

In their past 18 games, the Royals have narrowed their deficit in the American League Central from 11 games to 6 1/2. In the AL Wild Card race, they've cut it from 9 1/2 games to four for the second berth.

Gordon, center fielder Lorenzo Cain and shortstop Alcides Escobar have gotten hot at the right time, but Kansas City doesn't need a lot of offense with a pitching staff that has allowed three runs or fewer in 14 of the past 18 games, and fewer than two runs nine times.

Cain's two-run double

All of this is a reminder that Moore has built a great organization from top to bottom, and that building a successful baseball team is still about being able to identify talent.

Moore and his people thought Moylan had something left in the tank. They got Strahm in the 21st round of the 2012 Draft.

The Royals aren't going to bid for big-ticket free agents. That's not their game. It's finding players in the Draft and seeing something in veterans like Young and Moylan that others might not.

Kansas City still has a mountain to climb. The Indians may still be better and the Tigers are formidable as well, but the Royals have again made their presence felt.

We've been told for a century that baseball momentum is a myth, that it only goes as far as the next day's pitcher. Any player or manager will tell you otherwise. When a team is feeling it, there's a sense that they're going to win every game if they keep competing.

The Royals have done that for three seasons now. And at this moment, they've never been a more dangerous team.

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.