December 5, 2022

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Bullpen flexes in Texas as Royals roll

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Speier's two perfect innings lead way as Kansas City evens series
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ARLINGTON — Gabe Speier found out he would make his first Major League start at about 1:30 p.m., when he arrived at Globe Life Field to start preparing for Wednesday’s game against the Rangers.

The Royals pegged the lefty reliever to open Wednesday’s bullpen game, in part because of the matchups presented and in part because he’s been one of the Royals’ best relievers not used in many high-leverage situations this year.

Speier set the tone with two perfect innings and the rest of the bullpen carried the game from there, as the offense showed several positive signs in an 8-2 win over the Rangers, snapping the Royals’ three-game losing streak.

“If you could draw it up a certain way, it’s kind of how you draw it up,” Whit Merrifield said after his three-hit game, including his first home run of the season.

When the Royals moved Kris Bubic to the bullpen to work out the issues he’s faced this season, there wasn’t a clear answer for who was going to start Wednesday’s game. The Royals decided on a bullpen game because of the length they could get from some of their relievers, and they decided on Speier to start it off because of what he’s shown in limited appearances this season.

He’s now thrown 11 1/3 innings this season and hasn’t allowed a run — one of six pitchers in the Majors to throw 11-plus innings and have no runs allowed. The Royals have been outscored 31-6 in the first inning this year, so they needed a good start Wednesday.

Speier delivered. The 27-year-old has added velocity over the last two seasons — he’s hovering around 94 mph now as opposed to 90-91 mph in 2020 — and finetuned his sinker to become a lethal pitch for him. He’s yet to allow a hit with the 32 sinkers he’s thrown, and it pairs well with his slider, which hitters have just a .133 average against this year.

“I think it’s helped me a lot going away from righties and getting those ground balls and into lefties,” Speier said of his sinker. “I try to stick to my strengths as much as possible. If my strength falls into a hitter’s strength, I’m not going to shy away.”

Speier didn’t change anything about his pregame routine Wednesday; he just knew exactly when he was going to pitch instead of beginning the game unsure of when he’ll take the mound. He was on the field warming up with other pitchers early in the afternoon and didn’t game-plan any differently for the start.

He warmed up in the bullpen during the top of the first inning and jogged to the mound from the ‘pen instead of the dugout like starters typically do.

“I was asking some guys, like, ‘Should I be ready and be in the dugout and run out of the dugout or run out of the bullpen?’” Speier said. “And when I sat down and thought to myself, I was like, ‘I’m just going to treat it like any other outing coming out of the bullpen.’”

Then he mowed down the Rangers’ lineup, needing 17 pitches through two innings and six batters faced.

“So impressive,” manager Mike Matheny said. “You throw guys into uncomfortable situations, or situations they haven’t been in before, and you just watch and see how they respond. And they couldn’t have responded better.”

Speier handed it off to Joel Payamps in the third, and the right-hander struck out five in three innings Wednesday, bringing his season ERA to 2.08 across nine appearances.

Right-hander Collin Snider allowed a solo homer in the sixth to Corey Seager — his third of the series — but limited the damage, and Taylor Clarke tossed a scoreless seventh. When Clarke went out for the eighth and allowed back-to-back singles, Matheny called on Scott Barlow for help.

Barlow threw three pitches and got three outs with one double play and a groundout to eliminate the threat.

“What a game-changer that is to come in that situation,” Matheny said. “Just a couple pitches and gets [Clarke] out (of the jam). That’s a huge momentum swing right there.”

The Royals used that momentum to break the game open in the top of the ninth, when the Rangers intentionally walked Salvador Perez to load the bases, and Emmanuel Rivera came through with a pinch-hit, bases-clearing, three-run triple — the first in franchise history.

The win injected some much-needed energy into the Royals, especially the offense coming through when it did.

Now, the goal is to build on the progress made Wednesday.

“It’s good for today,” Merrifield said. “But we’ve got to start stringing it together. We can, it’s just a matter of doing it. Hopefully this will carry over, and we have another good day tomorrow. Hopefully get some things rolling.”

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