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Royals Flushed

Tony Peña may have had faith, but his decisions down the stretch begged belief.

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Perhaps it's just as well that the fast-starting Chiefs hijacked the Royals' short-lived hold on the city's sports fans. The overachieving third-place squad still ranks among this baseball season's most compelling stories, and Tony Peña's upbeat managerial methods definitely gave the team the confidence it needed to dominate spring training and the April schedule. But September's sorry showing suggests that Peña's sunny style lacks pennant-race urgency -- and that the so-called fans who skipped the season's most important games didn't deserve any better.

On September 22, the Royals beat the Detroit Tigers and moved to five games behind the Minnesota Twins with six games left in the season. "This is no time to quit," Peña said after that victory. "We still have a chance to win. No retreat, no surrender. We're down but not out." And so on. But the decisions he made the next night weren't the moves of a manager driven by must-win intensity. After starter Jose Lima got knocked out of the game in the fourth inning, Peña smartly summoned Kris Wilson, whose primary talent seems to be escaping tough spots without damage. Wilson got the final out of the inning, and the Royals rallied back to trail 7-6.

Here's where playoff-race logic dictates using a bullpen ace such as Jeremy Affeldt or Curtis Leskanic. Yes, Affeldt pitched the night before, and Leskanic usually appears later in the game. But in a monumental game, such distinctions shouldn't matter. To make the playoffs, the Royals would have had to go 6-0 while the Twins stumbled to a 1-5 finish. Slim chance, but one worth considering, especially given Peña's rah-rah rallying cry the previous evening.

Instead, Wilson returned in the fifth and surrendered four runs. So, with the season on the line and the game still within reach, Peña asked for ... Graeme Lloyd, who has taken more shots than Karen McCarthy. There's no reason for Lloyd to have appeared in a meaningful September game, though it might have been acceptable to use him to save wear and tear on decent hurlers if the team had, say, an 18-1 lead. Predictably, Lloyd yielded two more runs, and the game was out of shouting distance. Soon, more backups and minor-league call-ups started taking the field, until the game resembled a spring-training exercise or an everybody-gets-to-play little-league scramble rather than a crucial matchup with playoff implications.

Though a win that night might not have mattered in the big picture because the Twins continued to sprint toward the finish line, Peña had made the same sort of inexplicable choices weeks earlier, when the Royals were still very much in the mix. Flash back a few weeks to September 4, when the team played the Arizona Diamondbacks in a rain-out makeup game. Despite overwhelming odds (Brad Voyles, 0-2 with an 8.35 ERA at the time, took on Randy "Big Unit" Johnson), the Royals seized a shocking 4-1 lead after five innings. All that was left was to call upon Affeldt, Leskanic and Mike MacDougal to close out the game, and the Royals, one and a half games behind the Chicago White Sox at the time, would have been in great shape, with Brian Anderson and Darrell May pitching the next two nights.

Instead, none of those relievers ever left the bench. Peña paraded in D.J. Carrasco, Jason Grimsley, Al Levine and Kris Wilson, who took the loss. Now, Carrasco has had his moments, and Grimsley, like Brent Mayne, looked like a solid contributor several months ago, but with a crucial lead to protect, only the most unhittable options should have taken the field.

Peña trotted these sorry suspects onto the mound during three embarrassing losses to the White Sox in a season-ending series last weekend; it's disconcerting to think he would have made the same dubious choices even if these games could have made a difference. Strangely, it took a standout season to reveal Kansas City's baseball town reputation as a fraud. Royals fans' gilded excuse -- "give us a winner, and we'll go" -- disappeared quicker than a scoring opportunity with Mayne coming to the plate. Those "Believe!" T-shirts should've been printed with an asterisk and a disclaimer on the back: "We believe in the right to receive dollar hot dogs, fireworks and free gear such as this shirt. When none of these incentives are available, we believe in our right to stay home and watch the game on TV or just talk about the Chiefs instead."

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