Surge comes too late in '08 for Royals

Surge comes too late in '08 for Royals

KANSAS CITY -- No doubt about it. If the Royals had played all season like they did in September, they'd still have been playing in October.

As it was, the Royals' 18-8 record in the final month pulled them out of last place in the American League Central for the first time in five years. That was a positive start for the Major League managerial career of Trey Hillman, hired after five years in Japan.

The 75 victories were the most since going 83-79 in 2003, and the Royals finished 13 games out of first place, a big improvement over being 27 back in 2007.

The Royals hit for a better average but scored fewer runs, and hitting coach Mike Barnett lost his job. Rookie shortstop Mike Aviles topped the club with a .325 average and was named Royals Player of the Year. Newcomer Jose Guillen led with 20 homers and 97 RBIs. Gil Meche won 14 games and Zack Greinke won 13, giving the rotation a good 1-2 punch. Joakim Soria had 42 saves in 45 chances and was named Royals Pitcher of the Year.

The Royals held their inaugural FanFest. Most of the players came, and fans overran the Overland Park Convention Center. During two days on a face-freezing weekend, more than 10,000 jammed in to greet Hillman and his lineup and ensured the FanFest square footage would be increased for 2009. New slugger Guillen managed to make news by declaring he wouldn't play left field as Hillman had planned. Guillen told Hillman and general manager Dayton Moore that he preferred right field.

Hillman's background in Japanese baseball undoubtedly helped the Royals' decision to sign that country's legendary pitcher, Hideo Nomo, to a Minor League deal. Nomo, 39, overcame the odds and made the roster as a reliever, but injuries eventually led to his release early in the season.

Art Stewart, who joined the fledgling franchise 39 years before, was named the 23rd member of the Royals Hall of Fame. Still active as a scout, Stewart drafted many stars such as Bo Jackson, Kevin Appier, Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran.

The Hillman Era began at 5:15 a.m. MT on Feb. 7 as the new manager got to the clubhouse for the Royals first, albeit unofficial, workout of the spring. More than 30 volunteers, including 20 pitchers, were on hand at the Surprise, Ariz., complex a week ahead of the official start. "It's wonderful. I got here and didn't want to take the uniform off," Hillman said.

Mark Teahen, who had switched from third base to right field the previous spring, worked on another new position. Teahen was moving over to left field to accommodate Guillen's desire to play in right field. There was something else new -- for the first time since 1995, Mike Sweeney wasn't in camp, his Royals career over. "He's one of the classiest acts I've been around in the game," Meche said.

Guillen's 10-day suspension for violating the game's drug policy was put on hold, pending a new Joint Drug Agreement, and he was cleared by the Commissioner's Office to start the season on the active roster. Catcher Miguel Olivo, however, did have to serve a four-game suspension for fighting last season while with the Marlins.

It was a rousing managerial debut for Hillman on March 30 at Detroit. The Royals defeated the much-ballyhooed Tigers, 5-4, in 11 innings as Tony Pena's looping line drive scored John Buck with the deciding run. Alex Gordon hit a two-run homer in front of a record Comerica Park crowd of 44,934. The Royals would sweep the three-game series.

Opening in under-renovation Kauffman Stadium on April 8, the Royals rode the pitching of Brian Bannister and four relievers over the Yankees, 5-2, to the delight of a sellout crowd of 37,296 fans. Joey Gathright got two hits, stole three bases and scored two runs. Also unveiled was the world's biggest video board, CrownVision, which was a big hit. "Honestly, the replays look better than the plays did in real life," Teahen said.

On April 11, word came from the Commissioner's Office that Guillen's 10-day suspension had been commuted. There would be no penalty. Off to a sputtering start at the plate, Guillen finally came to life with a five-RBI game that included his third home run in a 9-5 victory on April 30 at Texas.

Left-hander John Bale, who made the rotation in Spring Training, went on the disabled list with shoulder fatigue after three starts. Apparently frustrated by his rehab progress, Bale punched a door on May 2 at the team's Cleveland hotel and broke his hand. He didn't make it back until Sept. 2.

When Boston's Jon Lester no-hit Kansas City on May 20 at Fenway Park, it was viewed as an oddity: It was just the second no-hit loss in franchise history. Yet it became the starting point of a 12-game losing streak that virtually ruined the Royals' season. The skid didn't end until May 31 in a 4-2 win over the Indians and their Cy Young Award-winning left-hander CC Sabathia. "I don't care if it was against Billy Bob Buck," Hillman said. "It would be sweet against anybody after 12 in a row."

Guillen apologized to Kansas City fans and Royals management for a June 27 expletive-laced outburst in which he said, "I care less about the fans and how they boo me. They booed me earlier in the season when I was struggling, I could care less." He'd been booed earlier in the week for jogging to first base on a groundout on which a poor throw was made. During the 12-game skid in May, Guillen also made news by saying some of his teammates were "babies."

Inserted into the starting lineup on June 6 in his hometown Bronx, Aviles banged two doubles against the Yankees to launch an impressive rookie showing. In his first 20 games, he batted .333 with three homers, nine doubles and 14 RBIs. His final .325 was the best average among all Major League rookies and the highest rookie mark in Royals history.

David DeJesus, one of the Royals' best clutch hitters, belted a two-out, two-run ninth inning homer for a 5-4 victory over the Mariners. It was Kansas City's first walk-off homer in more than three years. It also typified DeJesus' season in which his .419 average with runners in scoring position led the Majors. In the same game, Mark Grudzielanek got his 2,000th career hit.

Soria, emerging as a solid closer, was named the Royals' All-Star Game representative at Yankee Stadium. He replaced his idol, Mariano Rivera, in the 11th and went 1 2/3 scoreless -- if tense -- innings, giving up two hits and two walks with two strikeouts. The American League won, 4-3, in the 15th. Soria finished his season with 42 saves in 45 opportunities and a 1.60 ERA.

Tempers were as hot as the weather on Aug. 3, when Olivo, struck by a pitch from D.J. Carrasco, charged at the White Sox pitcher and ignited a fracas. Both players and Sox manager Ozzie Guillen were ejected. Later, so were Hillman and Greinke when the Royals' pitcher hit a batter. Olivo and Greinke would receive suspensions. The Royals won the game, 14-3, but that was one of the few bright spots of the month.

The Royals were in fourth place, just 9 1/2 games out of first place when they beat the Red Sox the next night. Then they lost 18 of the next 21 games and fell into last place, 20 games off the pace. "For whatever reason, we haven't been able to maintain the consistency that we all expected. We've all got to look ourselves in the mirror and figure out how to get better," said a glum Moore. They were 7-20 in August.

Talk about turning the page to a new chapter. The Royals roared to an 18-8 record, best in the Majors. Meche, Greinke and Kyle Davies each posted a 4-1 record, and Soria was a perfect 9-for-9 in saves. Ryan Shealy, a September callup, blasted seven homers and had 20 RBIs. Alberto Callaspo posted an 18-game hitting streak and DeJesus batted .388.

On Sept. 23, Greinke went seven innings of a 5-0 win at Detroit, and Kansas City, after 42 days in the cellar, took fourth place and shoved the Tigers into last. There the Royals would stay to end a four-year run of finishing fifth. "It's nice that we finished up so strong. It gives you some confidence going into next year, and you just feel good about the season as a whole," Teahen said.

Former third baseman Kevin Seitzer, who began his career as a hard-hitting rookie with the Royals in 1986, was hired as the hitting coach to replace Mike Barnett. The Royals also hired John Gibbons as bench coach and moved Dave Owen to third base, replacing Luis Silverio, who took another job in the organization.

In the first trade since the end of the World Series, the Royals obtained first baseman Mike Jacobs from the Florida Marlins in exchange for reliever Leo Nunez. Jacobs was expected to provide left-handed power in the middle of the lineup.

Olivo and the Royals exercised their mutual option on a $2.7-million contract for 2009 and Hillman announced that Olivo would be the primary catcher ahead of incumbent regular John Buck.

Coco Crisp was acquired from the Boston Red Sox to play center field and give needed speed to the top of the batting order. The Royals sent reliever Ramon Ramirez, a right-handed setup man, to the Red Sox in exchange. Crisp promptly set a goal: "I think I can easily steal 40. And whatever above that is uncharted territory for me, but without a doubt, 40 is something I can just close my eyes and do."

The Royals went to the Winter Meetings looking for right-handed setup help to replace Ramirez and Nunez and picked up veteran Kyle Farnsworth. They also signed middle reliever Doug Waechter and prospective starter Horacio Ramirez, a left-hander.

Grudzielanek, after three years as the Royals' second baseman, rejected their offer of salary arbitration to test the free-agent market. The Royals were a late entry in the pursuit of free agent shortstop Rafael Furcal, but dropped out of the running.

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