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Baseball Road Trip: Witness to the Valverde Funeral March

28-hours on the road in the BBQ-mecca of Kansas City. The sites and sounds plus the ups and downs. One tight win and one excruciating loss were part of the experience this time. Was I an eyewitness to yet another "beginning of the end" for Jose Valverde in Detroit?


28 Hours, two Tigers games, and one Closer crisis.

Like any good trip the last minute details are always in a state of flux. Packing, coordinating family details, making sure the car is ready, reservations at your destination, looking up directions...and so on. My trip this week to Kansas City was all of that and more as I ventured to BBQ Heaven to see the Tigers play the Royals on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon.

The original plan had been to go to Minnesota this upcoming weekend and catch the Tigers at Target Field. We live about half-way between KC and Minneapolis here in Central Iowa. But, as often happens when multiple families are involved, our plans to go back to the Twin Cities this weekend fell through. (My family lived there from 1997 to 2007) I figured my chance to see the Tigers in June had passed. My lovely wife came to the rescue by telling me late last week to drop everything and head to KC to catch the Tigers as a Father's Day gift. You can imagine my reaction:

Me: "Really Honey? Are you sure I should go? I dunno......oh, okay, if you insist. If I have to go and see Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander pitch, I guess I will grin and bear it. Damn it all!"

Hitting the road

After a meeting at my son's school that miraculously was over 5-minutes early, I hit the road at 3pm CST. Game time was 7:10pm. No sweat. Putting the cruise control on at a comfortable 73-mph and I was off and running. Having been to Kansas City a few times, the route was no problem and I was making excellent time. Traveling solo also brought about the nice change of never stopping for a "potty break" that having travel companions will cause. I was determined to ride it out. Traffic the whole way between Des Moines and Kansas City was pretty light.

Finding the hotel was my first chore. The Holiday Inn Express-KC Sports Complex is cleverly hidden as it turns out. It's on a little highway called "350". However the hotel's site has it called E. Blue Parkway. Not good. This was killing my pre-game time at Kauffman Stadium as I hunted around for the inn. Two quick phone calls and I found the joint. Quick stop there and off to "The K" I went.

The Freebie

Arriving about 15-minutes before game time it turns out there was a fair walk up crowd at The K. The line to buy a ticket was long and it was moving slowly. I was ready to resign myself to missing the first inning. Then luck intervened. I must have looked like I was by myself because suddenly a guy walked up to me and said "you need 1 ticket?" I probably looked a little surprised and he told me he had an extra and wasn't using it. I quickly said "yes!" and thanked him profusely. Quite a nice gesture to a total stranger. This guy was named "Eric" and had his two sons with him. I told him where I was from and that I was there to see the Tigers. He made a joke that I was lucky I wasn't wearing any Tigers' gear or I wouldn't have gotten the ticket!

This is actually the second time someone has given me tickets outside Kauffman Stadium. In 2011 I was there with a friend of mine from here in Iowa and the same thing happened. There are some good folks in KC!

Game 1- Scherzer versus Davis

Having gotten into the stadium faster than I had anticipated, I had time to head to the BBQ stand in the right-field plaza. This is nowhere near as good as some of the legendary BBQ destinations in KC like Arthur Bryant's, Oklahoma Joe's, or LC's...but in a pinch, it'll do. An order of Burnt Ends and Baked Beans was an easy choice from the selections at hand. Summer Shandy was the best option of what they had at that stand, so I went with it (beer snobs will furrow their brow over this, I understand!). This was an excellent way to start the game.

Max Scherzer was as good as I've seen him in person. This was the third time I've seen him pitch over the years and I was struck by how, to my untrained eye, he was repeating his mechanics time and again. He may not have classic mechanics, but he has refined them to work for him. He had the Royals taking awkward waves and defensive hacks time and again throughout the evening. Only the 5th inning was a hiccup when David Lough hit his first career homer and the Royals added another run after that as well. Scherzer rebounded to retire the side in the 6th and 7th. Great stuff.

Offensively it was a grab bag for the Tigers. Omar Infante was swinging a hot bat and Andy Dirks stroked a couple of hits. Otherwise there was not a lot of action against Wade Davis on this night. Davis was attacking hitters and wasn't in a lot of terrible hitter's counts to my recollection.

The Tigers did scratch out a run on Victor Martinez' sac-fly to take a late lead. Joaquin Benoit pitched a solid 8th and turned a 1-run lead over to Jose Valverde in the 9th. It's always fun to see Valverde. I've seen him blow a couple in person and save a few. On this night he was solid. He gave up a single to Salvador Perez to start the inning. I fault the "no doubles" defense to some extent. That was an easy out if Cabrera isn't guarding the line. Instead it's another example of "no doubles" becoming "have a single because we like you". A friend of mine on a Tigers chat room pointed out a good thought. Since Valverde yields stolen bases with no problems, it really doesn't seem necessary to play "no doubles" to lead off an inning. If a guy gets on first-base, he'll be on second-base in short order anyway. So just play the defense the scouting report recommends instead of guarding the line. (unless the scouts say to "guard the line" against Perez...possible I suppose)

Valverde buckled down from there. He probably got a gift to strike out Billy Butler...and it was fun to see Butler's tirade that followed...but Valverde retired Lorenzo Cain (yeah...we'll get to that) and David Lough with no problem to end the game.

So the trip started with a nice "W" on a warm and humid night.

Marking time between games

The Holiday Inn Express was nice. The DirecTV connection is slow and a bit of nuisance to switch channels. But their wi-fi was excellent. Unfortunately, I was not offered a chance to manage the Tigers or act as the DH because "I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express..."

I passed on their breakfast downstairs for reasons I won't bother to describe. Just say, it wasn't a tough call.

I headed over to The Country Club Plaza area in KC. A great little place where you can find a coffee shop to sit outside and enjoy the weather. Which is what I did at "LatteLand". A dark roast and a scone were on the docket and it was solid. It was at this coffee shop on the Plaza a couple of years ago where I saw multiple Tigers wandering about but none were in sight on this morning. I'm sure Rick Porcello, Don Kelly, and Dan Schlereth still recall my "good win last night guys" greeting quite warmly from a couple of years ago...or maybe not.

About the only downside to visiting Kansas City for a baseball trip is that The K isn't in a downtown area. It's located on a concrete island heading out into suburbia. You always have to build drive time in to getting anywhere. It would be nice to stay near all the hustle and bustle of the Plaza or Power & Light District and walk to the stadium. But you can't have it all. The stadium itself is excellent.

A Free Brew and a Burned Calf

I headed back to The K at around 11am. I paid the $10 to park in the stadium lot and started to walk in. I was wearing a Tigers t-shirt on this 90+ degree day. I was getting close to leaving the lot when a guy called out, "Hey Tiger fan...wanna beer?" Well...why not? A free Miller Lite is still free. So I had a beer with this guy and his son. They asked me a bunch of questions about Michigan and Lake Superior (I grew up about 6 miles from the shores of Gitchee Gumee) and they also told me more than I ever wanted to know about the Kansas/Kansas State rivalry. Turns out it's a Civil War between this father/son their devotion to the two colleges, but they rally together over the Royals. This was fun for me to hear because it is like my dad and me. We both follow the Tigers but I root for the Packers while he is a Lion fan to the bitter end.

The only down side was as we were exchanging our goodbyes I backed up into their little charcoal grill. My right calf pressed against and knocked it over! Oops. I had no clue it was there. I have a red spot on my calf from the mishap. The guy scooped up the charcoal as best he could. I think it was okay, it was still burning. They have a story to tell if nothing else..."remember when that dopey Tigers fan spilled the charcoal?"

Game 2-- Justin Verlander versus James Shields

My first order of business was to head straight to the Tigers bullpen area to see who was throwing. I had one hope and it turns out I was right. I wanted to see if Anibal Sanchez was throwing between starts. Sure enough, he was there with Jeff Jones. He had a good sweat worked up and it turned out he only had about 8 pitches left in his session when I arrived their. What I can say was this...he was popping the mitt pretty well for what that's worth. Sanchez was also looking happy and positive when interacting with Jones as they wrapped it up. I can only assume this meant he was feeling pretty well after skipping a start on Sunday with shoulder stiffness.

No batting practice before the game. Too bad, that's always something I enjoy.

As for the game itself? Verlander was great. I have seen him pitch in person about 7 times over the years and he has never disappointed me. Wednesday was no different. Pitching in the first real heat of the summer, he was dominant. (also, the average vendor wandering the stands in KC has to be about 55-years old. Few, if any, of them look very fit. How aren't they dying, literally, on a hot humid day like this? Kudos to them for soldiering through their gig!) A few hitters looked absolutely silly at times. This was the Verlander we weren't seeing through the first month of the season, especially that stretch around the Texas Massacre. There were a couple of hard hit balls for outs, but only a couple. Verlander was never in any real serious trouble in his 7-inning trip through the KC lineup.

James Shields was vulnerable at times and allowed a couple of runs but he was quite solid as well. He had help...some expected and some gifted. His defense made several solid plays. David Lough robbed Miguel Cabrera of a double with Torii Hunter on first base. This would have scored a run but the spectacular catch kept the Tigers off the board. Eric Hosmer speared a shot by Matt Tuiasosopo that saved a double as well.

The "gift" that Shields received was that on a day where he didn't need any extra help the Tigers elected to sacrifice bunt not once...not twice...but three times on the day. Free outs. The sac-bunt in the first inning after a leadoff double by Avisail Garcia was quite the call but worse was having Ramon Santiago lay one down to take the air out of a possible big inning later in the game. Tuiasosopo and Brayan Pena led off with back-to-back doubles and Shields may have been on the ropes. But the bunt put the inning to bed as the Tigers scored no further.

I should have left after 8 innings. The Tigers were up two runs and I had a three-hour drive ahead of me. If they were going to blow, I shouldn't have wanted to be there. But Papa Grande had made it through the ninth the night before and the Tigers had a two-run lead this time.

First off, Drew Smyly returned to the hill to start the inning. I loved that. The lefty was due up in Hosmer. Lefties were 6-54 against Smyly so far this year. Of course Hosmer poked the first pitch the other way for a single. My hope was that Leyland would stick with Smyly. No dice. Valverde came out of the bullpen. (by the way, is there any doubt that Valverde would utilize the "bullpen cart" for a ride in from the bullpen to the mound if they still did that like they did back in the 70's?)

I won't kill Jim Leyland here for the decision. Righties were coming up and these very same guys didn't crush Valverde the night before. He then retired Perez and Butler with very little problem. Then the roof caved in quickly against Cain.

The Closer in modern baseball lives on the razor's edge. Valverde was merely one strike away from the Promised Land of a victory lap when he got ahead of Cain, 0-2. Here is where the mystery begins. The pitch call was truly awful. A homer was the worst thing that can happen. Valverde's splitter has been getting hit for homers. Why call it there? Why not bury one in the dirt? Why not just waste a heater up-and-in above Cain's hands? Instead they teed it up for him and he didn't miss it. (some of this has to be on the catcher. Pena could have called for something else. It's on Valverde in the end, but Pena is a minority owner of the outcome) Deflating.

The rest? Three easy outs against Greg Holland in the 10th inning and Phil Coke does what Phil Coke does. 3-2 loss.

The Wrap

I raced to my car through the revelry going around me. KC fans were ecstatic understandably since Verlander had sucked the air out of the place all day. But, as legendary Royals radio voice Denny Matthews repeatedly says, "With Valverde, you always have a chance." On this day, Cain had his chance on a pitch that never should have been thrown. Three hours later I was back at the house helping get the kids ready for bed.

Overall, it was still a great trip. Watching Scherzer and Verlander at the top of their respective games is never a waste of time. Watching what may have been the start of the Valverde Funeral March in Detroit was at least memorable whether that memory is ugly or not.

In July the Tigers venture back to Kansas City. I am going with a small group of friends and it promises to be a lot of fun. We'll hit the best of the town's BBQ joints and none of my friends have seen the incredible Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The Friday and Saturday night games are on the schedule for us to attend. If anyone in the BYB community is going to be there, let me know.