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tk13
03-02-2005, 02:13 AM
http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/sports/11025696.htm

Royals drilling in desert

Team working hard to solve its fundamental problems

By BOB DUTTON The Kansas City Star


SURPRISE, Ariz. — The Royals were practicing the wheel play earlier this week, putting the entire infield in motion in anticipation of a bunt, when manager Tony Peña came roaring onto the field.

“Hey!” he yelled at a group of pitchers standing off to the side.

“HEY!!!” he added, jabbing his finger in the air and waving his fungo bat in irritation. “PAY ATTENTION! This play is only good for one pitch. Just ONE pitch. That's all.”

Peña then stalked back to his original position alongside the dugout, ordered the infield to reset for another attempt, and watched to ensure his chastised pitchers were paying attention.

You better believe they were.

***

Fundamentals are the unquestioned focal point this spring for the Royals. That should be no surprise for anyone who recalls the near-nightly tragicomedy of last summer when a seemingly endless series of blooper-reel breakdowns contributed to 104 losses.

“I don't want to talk about last year,” Peña said. “But yes, our fundamentals were awful. Just awful. We didn't do anything right. We know that.”

Part of that is because injuries forced the Royals to cycle a franchise-record 58 players through their roster. That constant turnover shattered the continuity that undergirds any successful team.

But it went much deeper. Nobody disputes that.

“Last year,” Peña recalled, “we had a veteran team, and you think that veteran players know what to do. We found out that's not always true.”

Peña vowed to himself never to make the same mistake again.

“Players are human,” he said, “and they are allowed to make a mistake. But if they make a mistake, it won't be because we did not address the situation here in Arizona. We are going to cover every single situation.”

As a result, practices are stretching to 2 p.m. and beyond.

“In the past,” team captain Mike Sweeney said, “usually we were out of here by noon. This year, I haven't been able to get away before 4 o'clock.

“But we deserve this. We know what happened last year, and we know this team has to do the little things to win. If it takes extra hours of doing fundamentals, we've got to do it even if it makes for a grueling spring.”

Better that than another grueling summer.

“I've been in some camps where you're done at 12,” outfielder Matt Stairs said. “OK, here we're going until 1:30 or 2. Who cares?

“Some days are quicker if we're getting it right. If we're not doing it right, we're going to be out there longer.”

The routine is about to change somewhat as the Royals head into their Cactus League schedule. But the emphasis will remain.

“When Tony and I sat down after last year and talked about this season,” general manager Allard Baird said, “the one thing we talked about a lot was having the proper approach — clearly stating our goals and working hard in our drills.

“That's the thing we did extremely well two years ago when we were successful. That's what we want to get back to.”

***

The model for the Royals — and every other small-market team — is the Minnesota Twins, who enter this season as favorites to win a fourth consecutive American League Central crown.

The Twins' success begins with a strong farm system that indoctrinates players on the importance of mastering the game's fundamental skills.

Infielder Denny Hocking spent 14 seasons in that organization before signing last year with Colorado. This season, he is trying to win a job with the Royals after signing as a minor-league free agent.

“The Twins put a lot of emphasis on defense,” he said. “The one thing I really enjoy about this camp so far is they put a lot more emphasis on offensive execution.”

That difference, in part, comes from need. The Royals' projected lineup is short on long-ball potential. Situational hitting is paramount. Drills emphasize the need to hit the ball to the right side to move runners, etc.

“Last year,” Peña said, “we left so many runners in scoring position. We can't do that again this year.”

Whatever the drill, Peña and his staff make a point to stop proceedings to correct mistakes or — as in the case of that wheel play — any perceived inattention. He's not all smiles. Not after 104 losses.

“It's not like we want to run a boot camp,” he said. “But we need to work.”

The Royals are also filming workouts this season for the first time from a mechanized scissors lift — in effect, an eye in the sky — for review purposes.

“We're not looking to embarrass anybody,” Baird said. “But let's face it. If you make a mistake and you see it on tape, in the company of your teammates, it tends to reinforce the need to do things correctly.”

This attention to fundamentals is heightened by a youthful roster.

“You've got to look at the people here,” said outfielder Terrence Long, acquired last November in the trade that sent pitcher Darrell May to San Diego.

“We've got a lot of young guys here. I've always played on a veteran team. With a team like that, you still work on fundamentals. Here, it's just a little bit more.

“It's not excessive. It's stuff that needs to be done.”

***

The Royals played their first intrasquad game on Tuesday. In the fourth inning, with one out and runners on first and second, Peña signaled for the wheel play.

Chris Truby charged from third as Chris Clapinski punched a bunt up the line. Truby fielded the ball, turned and threw to shortstop Angel Berroa, covering third, for one out. Berroa then threw to second baseman Ruben Gotay at first, beating Clapinski and completing the double play.

“Hey!” Peña yelled as he jumped from his seat alongside the third-base dugout. “HEY!!!”

Only this time he was smiling.