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Close-knit rotation turning page on past

Close Royals rotation turning page on past

KANSAS CITY -- The thing about Royals pitcher Brian Bannister is that he understands a storyline. He could be a managing editor.

The premise was that Bannister, Gil Meche, Zack Greinke, Brett Tomko and Luke Hochevar are shaping up as the most solid rotation the Royals have had in many years.

Take it from there, Banny.

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"I think each guy kind of has his own story: I know Gil is trying to follow up on a career year; I'm trying to avoid the sophomore slump," Bannister began, warming to the subject. "Greinke is trying to make the transition from the bullpen back to being a starter; Hochevar is trying to establish himself as a quality rookie, and Tomko is looking to bounce back from the year he had last year.

"So we're all approaching this thing from different angles, and I think that's what makes it so exciting. We have the potential to throw four or five guys out there with 200-plus innings and be an above-average staff in the American League. It's exactly what this organization needs right now, because we take a lot of pressure off the offense."

The Royals have scored the fewest runs in the American League, so they need all the high-quality pitching these guys can muster.

It's only May, so who knows where this quintet might go? But there's a close-knit group with a layer of talent that could develop into something of substance.

There hasn't been a deep, solid rotation in Kansas City in many years. Page back through the years and no combination really fits that description until you reach 1994 and the names David Cone, Tom Gordon, Kevin Appier and Mark Gubicza jump out. There wasn't a regular fifth starter; that spot was passed around until Jose DeJesus emerged to win three games just before the strike.

Yep, the strike. That was the year the Royals reeled off 14 straight victories to breathe down the necks of the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians in the first American League Central race. The Royals were almost sure they'd surge to the title and then, five days later on Aug. 10, the players struck. There would be no more games that season.

There will be 162 games this year and, after 37 of them, the Royals' rotation is not a "wow" statistically. The starters rank just 11th in the American League with a 4.57 ERA but, as Bannister noted, the potential is there. And this quintet is developing as a unit.

Tomko (1-4, 5.67) is 35, and he's been around.

"I've been on some teams where guys won't talk about game plans. They won't talk about anything because they just worry about themselves. It's tough. It's like being on an island. I don't see that here at all," he said.

This bunch puts their heads together regularly in the clubhouse, in the video room or even over dinner. There's a bonding in the works.

"I would say it's pretty good, because usually there's someone that I don't like, that I just don't want to be around," Greinke (4-1, 1.80 ERA) said.

"But this time I like all of them, so it makes it easier. Because I'm the type that if I don't like someone, I avoid them and I don't even think about doing that with these guys. I like them all equal -- they're all cool guys, so it's nice."

Meche (2-5, 6.31 ERA) has yet to match his stride of last season when his tight pitching thrust him into a leadership role.

"The reason we kind of mix together well is that everybody kind of has the same demeanor about them. Nobody is really outspoken," Meche said. "Everybody just kind of works the same. We all want to pitch well. We actually do talk a lot about pitching -- this is probably the most I ever have within a group."

To be sure, there are other topics mixed in -- golf swings or video games -- but it's mostly how to win baseball games. Hochevar (2-2, 4.94 ERA), who replaced injured John Bale in the rotation on April 20, is the eager-to-learn rookie in the group.

"Meche really helped me with my curveball in between my last two starts," Hochevar said. "I talked to him a lot because he's obviously got a good curveball, and I kind of picked his brain about what he does and what he thinks about on his curveball. It really helped me in my game and I was a lot more consistent about it."

This rotation has shown a knack for providing lengthy outings, thereby preserving a bullpen which has been largely effective.

"The thing I've really liked is every single one of us has been going like seven innings or deep in the games and there's hardly been any real short outings," Greinke said. "When you're having a bad outing, we've found a way to stay deep in the game and keep the game kind of close."

Bannister (4-4, 3.76 ERA) provided the latest example with eight shutout innings in Sunday's victory over Baltimore. So far the five pitchers, in their combined 34 starts, have gone six or more innings 22 times. That's pretty good these days.

"When I first started, I didn't even know it was possible to go deep in a game like that," Greinke said. "If you go five, you did your job; if you go six, that's good, and seven was really good. At least that's what it was like back then. I didn't realize it could be a common thing -- like it has been this year for all of us."

Greinke has one complete game and has gone eight innings once and seven innings four times.

"Zack's kind of jumped out and is pacing us right now like Gil did last year," Bannister said. "It's always good to have that lead horse out there setting the pace. And I think we're kind of all falling in behind."

That's the hope with an eye on developing a firm foundation for a rotation that will persevere.

"I think the mark of a good player or a good staff or a good team is they create a nickname for themselves, so it's something to strive for," Bannister said.

He remembered a framed cover of The Sporting News from 1983 in his father Floyd Bannister's office. "Winning Ugly," the headline blared.

"My dad was a member of the 'Winning Ugly' White Sox. It's fun when you come together as a unit and people can identify you with one name. So it's something to strive for, but it only comes through a lot of hard work and, obviously, good performance on the field," Bannister said.

Yep, rack up the victories first. Then maybe someone will come up with a nickname. Bannister can make the assignment.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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