- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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A Royal Wedding
Kansas City manager John Wathan insisted during spring training that the signing of free agent Kirk Gibson in the off-season wasn't done solely for the intensity and fire Gibson would bring to the team. "The guy can play," said Wathan. "I don't think people realize that he stole 26 bases in 28 tries last year."
Still, there were lots of skeptics. Because of injuries, Gibson, 33, played in only 89 games last season and 71 in 1989. Last year, while struggling to come back from August 1989 surgery to repair a torn left hamstring, Gibson even hinted at retirement. He batted .213 in 1989 and .260 in '90, and he hit a rather meager total of 17 home runs those two years.
Well, so far, Wathan's assessment looks correct: Gibson can play. As always, he has been ferocious on the bases, but more important for the Royals, his power has returned. Through Sunday, he was tied for the league lead in home runs with six, four of which came in a four-game stretch from April 20 to 24. Three of those four were hit at Cleveland Stadium, which meant Gibson had one more homer there this year than the Indians.
Gibson got one of his home runs off Cleveland relief ace Doug Jones, and it was strikingly similar to the homer he hit off the A's Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series at Dodger Stadium. In each instance, Gibson had two strikes against him with two out in the ninth inning. Jones and Eckersley had both thrown fastballs just before serving up their home run pitches. Both of the gopher balls were off-speed pitches. Gibson was hobbled by a knee injury against Eckersley. Before facing Jones, he had thrown up during the game because of an upset stomach.
Gibson may not win an MVP award, as he did in 1988 when he hit 25 homers and stole 31 bases for the Dodgers, but if he keeps playing this way, he will make the All-Star team for the first time in his career. The reason that the Royals desperately need his offensive onslaught to continue is that they will be without first baseman George Brett for a month because of ligament damage in his right knee and without third baseman Kevin Seitzer for four to six weeks because of a broken right hand.
Gibson's fiercely competitive attitude should be useful in the Kansas City clubhouse as well. After the Royals lost seven of their first 12 games, he called a players-only meeting in Cleveland. "There was just too much talk about last season," said Gibson, referring to K.C.'s lackluster 75-86 record in 1990. "I wouldn't call it a pep rally. We just recognized that we weren't headed in the right direction. We were playing scared. We weren't putting pressure on teams. You've got to be aggressive on the bases. If we get down a run or two, just don't roll over. We can score five or six runs in an inning. It's going to happen. You have to have the attitude you can do that. I think we started making excuses. We have to be accountable."
The Fat Lady Isn't Singing
Few things are tougher on a team than losing a game in which it has led with three outs to go. Some managers believe a defeat of that sort is like losing two games because such losses often carry over to the next game. Through last weekend, 18 leads had been blown this season with three outs or fewer to go. And these weren't run-of-the-mill relievers who were blowing saves. We're talking about the best closers in the game.
Eckersley gave up three runs in the ninth inning on April 20 in a 3-2 loss to the Mariners. (At week's end, he had allowed two homers and four earned runs in nine innings. In 1990, Eckersley yielded two homers and five earned runs in 73⅓ innings.) Dave Smith lost leads in the ninth on April 19, 21 and 22. The result: three nasty defeats for the Cubs. Jones surrendered that ninth-inning, two-out homer to Gibson. Randy Myers of the Reds gave up two runs in the ninth to lose 2-1 to the Astros on April 22.