Judging the Royals

Three bad sliders cost Ervin Santana the game

Updated: 2013-05-13T00:28:54Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

Sunday against the Yankees, Ervin Santana threw 102 pitches—three of them cost him the game. In the third inning Santana threw a slider up in the zone to Robinson Cano, and the Yankees second baseman hit it over 400 feet. Unfortunately, the right field bullpen gate is more like 375 feet from home plate, so Cano proved he can hit a homer in Kauffman Stadium and drove in two runs at the same time.

Santana threw another slider up in the zone to Vernon Wells and Vernon hit this one over the left field wall, making the score 3-1. Another bad slider to Vernon Wells two innings later resulted in an RBI single. The Yankees went up 4-1 and had all the runs they’d need and every one of them was driven in on sliders. Santana usually has a devastating slider and in the first inning it appeared the Yankees were swinging at the first hittable fastball they saw, just to avoid the slider later in the at-bat. Once they saw the inconsistent slider Ervin had going Sunday, some of them teed off on it. Later, in the clubhouse, Ervin said he didn’t have his good stuff; made a few bad pitches and paid the price.

So did the Royals; Sunday afternoon they lost to the New York Yankees, 4-2 and are now two games over .500.

Game notes

First inning: With Vernon Wells on first base, Travis Hafner got a 3-0 green light and flew out to centerfield. Look for managers to let power hitters take a shot 3-0: in some cases it’s the best pitch they’ll see and managers want to give the big boys a chance to do damage. Managers also might give a 3-0 green light to a contact hitter if there’s a runner in scoring position.

Jarrod Dyson doubled to lead off the bottom of the inning and Alcides Escobar bunted him over to third. After the game Ned Yost was asked if he had called for the bunt or if Esky had done it on his own. Turns out Esky did it on his own, but Ned was OK with it—Yost likes to grab an early lead. With nobody down and a runner on second, Alcides had to move the runner to third. If he can also drive him in, so much the better, but getting the runner to third with one down is the minimum acceptable results. Alex Gordon followed Escobar’s sacrifice bunt with a sacrifice fly and the Royals were up 1-0.

Second inning: Ervin Santana got two outs on three pitches and the third hitter, Lyle Overbay, did what good ballplayers do in that situation: he slowed the game down. Make an out on the first pitch and Yankee starter Hiroki Kuroda would be back on the mound before he got a drink and wiped the sweat off his face. Overbay took a practice swing, stretched, knocked dirt out of his spikes, dug a toe hold and finally settled in to hit—but he didn’t swing the bat until he had a strike. Overbay saw five pitches and bought Kuroda some time.

Fourth inning: Mike Moustakas made his seventh error of the season and Jayson Nix, the guy who was on base because of Mike’s error, made one of his own: Nix wound up on second base and took off for home when a sinking line drive was hit into short left-center. Jayson must have missed the scouting report on Jarrod Dyson because the Royals centerfielder motored in and caught the ball Nix was convinced would drop for a hit. Dyson flipped the ball to second and doubled off Nix.

Fifth inning: Jeff Francoeur busted down the line and turned an infield dribbler into an infield single. Royals fans have recently seen some guys mail it in on plays like this, but Frenchy didn’t.

Seventh inning: Chris Stewart hit a ball down the left field line and most of the time, that’s a double—unless Alex Gordon is in left. Alex charges the ball hard (years at third base mean he’s not afraid that a grounder will get past him) runs great routes (he approached the ball on the side nearest the foul line which meant his body would be heading toward second when he fielded the ball) and has a quick and accurate release (another benefit of having spent time at third). Gordon held Stewart to a single and that turned into an out when the Yankees catcher tried to advance on a pitch in the dirt. Salvador Perez threw him out.

Alex Gordon has made a habit of turning doubles into singles and fans should appreciate the great play.

Eighth inning: The Royals scored one but were still down by two runs when the inning ended. The only good thing about that is Kansas City fans got one last chance to Mariano Rivera run in from the bullpen—they responded with a standing ovation. A classy move when you know the guy is probably going to stick it to you.

Ninth inning: Just in case anyone cares, Greg Holland came in to get some work and got three quick outs. If he’d pitched like that last Monday, it would have saved Ned Yost a lot of criticism. (I’m guessing that kind of performance is what Ned thought he was going to get against the White Sox.) In the bottom of the inning Mariano Rivera did what Mariano Rivera does—Yankees won 4-2 and the best closer of all time got another save.

How shifts change the defense

Saturday night, sixth inning, Yankees shortstop Jayson Nix on first base, lefty Lyle Overbay at the plate; Overbay hit a ball to the right-field side of second base. Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar and Royals second baseman Elliot Johnson both go for the ball. Escobar and Johnson almost run into each other, Escobar backs off, Johnson makes the catch and attempts to tag Nix before he can get to second base, misses, and everyone is safe. So what went wrong?

Even though it was on the first base side of second base, it was Esky’s ball.

The Royals were playing a left-handed shift against Overbay, which is why Esky was able to get to the ball in first place. Alcides was over by second base and Elliot was shifted over in the hole. Sunday morning infield coach Eddie Rodriguez said when a ball is hit between two players, one guy goes high (deep) and one guy goes low (to the ball). Whenever an infielder is moving toward the play that has to be made, he should attempt to take the ball. So the third baseman goes low and takes the ball from the shortstop because third is moving toward first and shortstop is moving away, and the shortstop takes the ball from the second baseman for the same reason.

(The exception to this can be a ball hit hard to the first baseman’s right; he has to know where the second baseman is playing and go get ball if second won’t get there. If the second baseman can field the ball, he calls off the first baseman because second’s moving toward first base. The key to the play is the pitcher covering first because you have two guys going after the ball.)

The left-handed shift changes each infielder’s territory; in Saturday night’s play, what was normally the second baseman’s ball became the shortstop’s: Johnson should have let Escobar take the ball. Chris Getz said when you’re standing in a different place it can get confusing; people are in unfamiliar territory and might go after a ball that was theirs before they changed positioning. Two guys who haven’t played a lot together are going to have more trouble than two guys who have been through all this before, so infielders really need to communicate.

A left-handed shift was also responsible for the ball that Travis Hafner trickled past James Shields for a single. Normally on a slow roller between the mound and first, if the pitcher can’t field it he’ll continue on to first base and the first baseman will come away from the bag, field the ball and toss it to the pitcher covering the bag. But Eric Hosmer was playing back on the grass, defending against a left-handed power hitter—when the ball got past Shields, Hosmer couldn’t get there. If the ball had been hit harder, Eric could have made the play—softer and James would have made it. The slow roller was the perfect speed to fall into a Bermuda Triangle on Bermuda grass. (Actually I have no idea what kind of grass they’ve got going right now on the Royals infield, but couldn’t resist the line.)

Asked about the play, Eddie Rodriguez said: what are you gonna do?

Position the defense to protect against the kind of ball Hafner rarely hits? (A slow roller.) Or do you position your defense to protect against the kind of ball Hafner usually hits? (A screaming rocket.) The Royals positioned themselves to play the percentages and it didn’t work out.

To get back to where we started, the ball hit between Escobar and Johnson was one play that, in the grand scheme of things, didn’t mean much. A double play wiped out both runners on next pitch. But almost everyone—and that includes me—thought Alcides Escobar had screwed up by stepping in front of Elliot Johnson when it was Johnson that needed to give the ball up to Escobar. Understanding what happened and why it happened helps all of us understand what we’re seeing. A lot of sports coverage is done from 20,000 feet—hell, lot of every kind of coverage is done from 20,000 feet. Once a reporter covers the results and the major plays, he’s pretty much out of time and room.

Being able to come back the next day and break down a single play—and a single play that didn’t really affect the outcome of the game—is a luxury most reporters don’t have. Understanding what went into a single play can be eye-opening: I almost always hear something I didn’t know or notice. In this instance I didn’t notice the Royals were in a shift and didn’t know how that shift changed the infielders’ responsibilities. Hearing the inside story should make all of us—especially me—be a little slower to jump to a conclusion and a little less harsh in our judgments.

And that would be a real shift.

West coast games

It would be impossible to over-emphasize how tired I am when many of these words are written. Something that made perfect sense at 9 PM is a blur of verbs, adjectives and nouns at 1 AM. For the next week the problem will get worse; the Royals go to Anaheim and then Oakland. The first four games of the trip start at 9:05 our time which can mean staying up writing until two or three in the morning. If that happens I may bag it after watching the games and write in the morning.

Hang in there, I may not post something until the next morning, but I will post something.

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