The first day of the regular season brought the first major challenge for the new-look Kansas City Royals. Their first opponents were the Detroit Tigers and the first pitcher they would face was Justin Verlander. For years, Verlander had been one of the most formidable pitchers in the American League. In 2011-2012, he was absolutely unhittable. 2013 saw the first signs of decline for the hard-throwing right-hander, but all but the most pessimistic fans thought he would bounce back to contend for a Cy Young.
In the original version of the timeline, before Strike-O-Matic and the robot masters changed everything, 2014 was a disappointment for Verlander. His first-half ERA was almost a run and a half above his career numbers. Even by the standards established in Detroit in the early 21st century, this was a disaster. However, time travel changes everything. While the robot masters had no particular interest in Verlander other than his eventual subjugation at their cold steel hand, their presence would disrupt the timeline across the board. This would give him another shot at a successful 2014. And Verlander wasn’t someone to bet on disappointing twice.
Verlander wasn’t the only player on the Detroit Tigers to worry the Royals. The lineup was anchored by Miguel Cabrera, who some people in the dark, backwards year of 2014 called “the most feared hitter in baseball.” Years later, smarter heads would prevail and folks would realize that the only person who feared Miguel Cabrera more than Mike Trout was a person who paid for an open bar. Nevertheless, Cabrera was one of the best hitters in the American League. For a pitcher like Strike-O-Matic, who could only throw five different varieties of fastball, he posed a danger that could not be ignored.
Pat Burrell suggested that Strike-O-Matic might be held back to game three, the Royals home opener against the Chicago White Sox and avoid the dangerous Cabrera. Unfortunately, he’d only supplanted the Kansas City GM and not the manager. Ned Yost thought that the big new signing who could throw 102 MPH should get the opening day start. Yost further hoped to undermine the new player/general manager Burrell by placing him straight into cleanup slot despite the fact he had not face Major League pitching in years.
And so the season began, with the Kansas City clubhouse steeped in animosity. Ned Yost hoped that an immediate dose of adversity and failure would lead Burrell back into retirement and away from the team he commandeered. Yost had nothing against Strike-O-Matic, who had been a perfect gentleman in spring training, but if ridding himself of Burrell meant losing the powerful pitching machine, that was a sacrifice Yost was willing to make. He didn’t understand that there was more at stake than his ego, or even the AL Central standings, and that Strike-O-Matic’s failure would doom the sport of baseball forever. Perhaps if he knew, he would have acted differently. But maybe not. This is still Ned Yost we’re talking about.
In the top of the first inning, the Royals bats surprised Justin Verlander with two hits and a walk to load the bases, but a rusty Pat Burrell struck out looking and Alex Gordon hit into a double play. No runs were scored, and Strike-O-Matic came in for his first career appearance in the Major Leagues.
It wasn’t much. In fact, it was quite unremarkable–a mere pop up on a checked swing. But it was the beginning of an era. This marked the first appearance by a robot in an American League game. The first appearance by a robot in MLB, of course, had occurred a few days earlier when the robot master code-named Dubya Bush took the mound for the Diamondbacks in Australia.
Later in the first inning, Miguel Cabrera would walk and Ian Kinsler got hold of a Strike-O-Matic fastball, drilling it into the corner for a double. Cabrera came around first, beating Nori Aoki’s throw to the plate and giving the Tigers a 1-0 lead. With Justin Verlander on the mound, the Royals could be forgiven for thinking that the game was already out of reach.
Then, in the top of the third inning, Alcides Escobar blooped a single into the outfield. This brought to the plate the Royals first baseman, a large and simple man who smiled so much and hit baseballs and never said anything but “Hosmer.”
The simpleminded giant stepped into the batters’ box and stared down the great Justin Verlander. With one swing of the bat, the entire fabric of the game was altered.
The Royals took a 2-1 lead behind the hard-throwing Strike-O-Matic. Reinvigorated, the pitching machine reached deep down and began to put zeroes on the board. He struck out seven Tigers in six innings of work, but there were still questions to be answered. No one was sure whether Pat Burrell still had the skills to play at the Major League level. His bat speed was down, his legs were creaky, and the crows feet at the edges of his eyes–
Indeed, Pat Burrell’s plate discipline was as great as ever. He took two walks in the game, scoring one of two more runs the Royals tacked on to support Strike-O-Matic’s strong outing. The pitching machine left in the seventh inning with a 3-1 lead, replaced by the Royal’s newest re-acquisition Joakim Soria. Soria allowed two hits and an inherited runner to score, but that’s all the Tigers would get from the Royals’ bullpen. Despite everything Ned Yost tried, the Royals won their first game in convincing enough fashion.
Some people believe that the first game sets the pace for the rest of the season. These people are superstitious fools. The 1998 New York Yankees lost their opening game 4-1 and then went on to win 114 and raise the World Series trophy at the end of the season. Nevertheless, they had done something that many thought they would not. They beat Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera on the road, and started their season with a (small) bang.
The next two weeks proceeded unevenly. The pitching was excellent. Even “Big Game” James Shields had a couple of good starts, and the pre-eminent leftballer of our era, Bruce Chen, gave up only two runs in the first couple weeks of the season.
But the hitting disappointed, outside of the slugging efforts of the simpleminded giant Hosmer. Pat Burrell slowly recovered from the effects of age, and Alcides Escobar hit a whole bunch of singles but rarely came around to score. Other than that, the Royals barely found their way on base. On the strength of the pitching, the Royals managed a 5-3 start to the new season, but a new threat was on the horizon.
The third series of the season was against the Minnesota Twins, and Strike-O-Matic was about to face the first of the six robot masters, the crafty Stubby Candyman. Strike-O-Matic could bring the heat, but could the struggling Royals lineup do what was necessary against an array of breaking balls that was baffling the league?