Improvements evident in Kansas City

Improvements evident in Kansas City

KANSAS CITY -- The Royals came into the season with a new manager, a new slugger and a new outlook. And, by golly, they finished in a new spot, fourth place.

That ended a span of four straight last-place finishes in the American League Central and set up some optimism for 2009.

Freshman manager Trey Hillman, arriving from five successful years in the Japan League, emphasized fundamentals and "little ball" in Spring Training, but not everything clicked for very long.

"I think we've all learned a lot. From a managing standpoint, I've learned a lot about our personnel. We had plenty of times where we had to persevere, and those are usually some of the most telling times," Hillman said.

The Royals got off to a 9-6 start but hit a seven-game slide. They recovered from that but not a 12-game skid in late May that sunk them.

Jose Guillen, brought in as a free agent for three years at $36 million, admittedly reported out of shape. He was pardoned from a 15-day penalty for a violation of the Commissioner's drug prevention program but got off to a poor start. Through May 5, Guillen was hitting .165 with just three homers and 15 RBIs.

But Guillen rebounded to hit 20 homers and drive in 97 runs with a .264 average.

Mike Aviles arrived from the Minors in late May to give an added boost to the lineup and, hitting consistently, finished with a .325 average. David DeJesus also had an excellent season at bat, hitting .307.

Gil Meche and Zack Greinke gave the Royals two starters with at least 13 victories each for the first time since 1996.

But the biggest story in pitching was Joakim Soria, who gave the Royals a rock they could reliably lean on for the first time since Jeff Montgomery was the closer. And Monty retired in 1999. Soria notched 42 saves.

"I think we've answered some very good questions. We still need development, and we need better numbers from some guys because we're so far behind the run production of other clubs in the Central," Hillman said.

Second-year players Alex Gordon, 24, and Billy Butler, 22, struggled at times but still showed enough batting output to keep hopes high. Mark Teahen, changing outfield positions and filling in at third when Gordon was hurt, wasn't the run producer that the Royals hoped.

An injury to second baseman Mark Grudzielanek cost the Royals dearly on offense and defense over the last two months.

In many ways, it was a tough year but an instructive one.

ROYALS TOP PERFORMANCES
4/26, KC 2, TOR 1 -- Pena saves the game
Tony Pena dove in the hole between third and short, making a back-handed stop. On his knees, he rifled a throw to first base.
Highlights: Watch
6/23, KC 8, COL 4 -- Gordon's quick-thinking double play
Alex Gordon caught Chris Iannetta leading off third base and had enough time to get Willy Taveras at first for the DP.
Highlights: Watch
6/27, KC 7, STL 2 -- Teahen's leaping catch
Mark Teahen ran to the wall, timed his jump at exactly the right moment and stole a potential homer from Albert Pujols.
Highlights: Watch
6/29, STL 9, KC 6 -- DeJesus plows over LaRue
David DeJesus lowered his shoulder and barrelled into catcher Jason LaRue. DeJesus had to leave with a bruised rib.
Highlights: Watch
6/30, KC 6, BAL 5 -- Olivo's late homer
With two outs and two strikes against him in the bottom of the ninth, Miguel Olivo kept the game alive with a homer to left.
Highlights: Watch
7/24, KC 4, TB 2 -- DeJesus lays out
David DeJesus dives on the warning track in foul ground to corral a liner.
Highlights: Watch
7/28, KC 4, OAK 2 -- Greinke dominates A's
Zack Greinke strikes out 11 A's, the most by a Royals pitcher since Blake Stein's 11 in 2001.
Highlights: Watch
8/5, KC 2, BOS 8 -- Gload's unusual save
Ross snatches Jason Bay's fly ball from off the top of the outfield fence, keeping it in the park.
Highlights: Watch
8/26, KC 1, TEX 2 -- Gathright's leaping grab
Joey Gathright goes a long way, leaps and crashes into the outfield wall to rob a hit from the Rangers.
Highlights: Watch
9/21, KC 0, CWS 3 -- Gordon reaches over rail
Alex Gordon leans way over the rail of the White Sox dugout to snare Paul Konerko's pop foul.
Highlights: Watch

"We went through some things where a lot of us had higher expectations and we didn't quite meet them, but, instead of just falling apart, I think, for the most part, we all just kind of stuck together," catcher John Buck said.

"We'd have our differences but in the end, we all kind of jelled together, battled through together and had each other's backs. That's a plus. That had to be in place for us to take a step forward anyway, and that happened now rather than later, so, hopefully, we can be the winning part of that next year."

Record: 75-87, fourth place in AL Central.

Defining moment: Just when the Royals seemed about to bounce into contention, they spiraled into a 12-game losing streak May 19-30. They went from two games out to 9 1/2 and were cooked.

What went right: Greinke, back to the rotation, was a solid starter all the way, and Meche was excellent after a poor April. Soria was a go-to closer who meant almost-certain victory. Guillen fulfilled his big-dollar production quota and Aviles surfaced as a hard-hitting shortstop. DeJesus, whether in left or center, hitting first or third, was again very solid. At least there were six more victories than in 2007, and the club finished with a strong September, going 18-8 -- the most wins in the month since the 1985 World Series champions also won 18. Maybe that's an omen.

What went wrong: Brian Bannister couldn't reprise his fine rookie season and struggled, once going 13 straight starts without a victory. John Bale, the only left-handed starter, bogged down early. The offense was near the bottom in runs scored and, not surprisingly because of a big home park, homers. The batters' inability to work pitchers showed in the lowest number of base on balls in the AL. Fundamentals slipped -- missed pop flies were a glaring consequence -- despite a heavy emphasis during Spring Training and in-season. There was an inability to snap out of long slumps -- the 12-game skid and a 3-18 stretch in August, for example -- that proved deadly. The outspoken Guillen's rants against teammates and fans caused some distractions.

Biggest surprise: Aviles was pegged as a backup-type prospect and was laboring in his third season at Triple-A when he was called up in late May. He caught fire in June, hit consistently the rest of the season and also played well defensively.

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