Judging the Royals

The Royals do just enough to lose

Updated: 2013-05-20T01:16:26Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

The starting pitchers have done their job; over and over again they’ve put the Royals in a position to win and Sunday’s game was no exception. Even though Luis Mendoza did not appear to have his best command, he still threw six innings and gave up two earned runs—that should be enough for the Royals to win a ball game, but Kansas City still lost to the Oakland Athletics, 4-3.

This time a starting pitcher was let down by the offense (they left 12 runners on base), the defense (David Lough made a crucial and unnecessary error) and the bullpen (Kelvin Herrera gave up another home run).

The tying run scored when Lough made two—possibly three—mistakes. 1.)He didn’t get a good jump on a ball hit by Derek Norris (easy for me to say, I was sitting on my couch sipping an Irish coffee at the time) 2.) He backed up on the play (backing up puts you on your heels and in a poor fielding position) and 3.) He played the ball nonchalantly and off to the side (body up and the ball will hit you and stay in front, even if you fail to glove it). Norris got to third and scored and on a fly ball hit to Alex Gordon. Without Lough’s error, Oakland’s third run would not have scored.

Then with the score 3-3, Kelvin Herrera gave up yet another home run, his eighth in 18 and a third innings. Some people are willing to blame tipping pitches, yet everyone in the world knows Mariano Rivera is going to throw a cutter and he still gets people out. Mariano locates the cutter everyone knows he’s going to throw. Herrera’s pitch was a 96-MPH fastball, but it was right down the middle. Yeonis Cespedes turned it around, the Athletics had their fourth run and, once again, the Royals had done just enough to lose.

Game notes

First inning: The Royals hadn’t seen A.J. Griffin before this game and when that’s the case, the leadoff hitter might want to take a few pitches. The other guys have seen video, but they still want to see how a pitcher’s fastball moves and what his secondary pitches do. David Lough swung at the second pitch he saw and eventually grounded out on the fourth pitch; a changeup.

Credit Griffin for being aggressive and throwing strikes: it’s hard for hitters to take pitches if they keep falling behind in the count.

Second inning: Eric Hosmer pulled a changeup down in the right field corner and Seth Smith caught it after a long run. It’s total speculation on my part, but that might mean the change was a mistake pitch. If Smith was well off the line (and it’s hard to tell unless TV shows you the outfield alignment) that would mean the A’s expected Hosmer to be late on fastballs. It appeared that the A’s were, at times, giving Eric off-speed pitches in, letting him open up and pull the ball foul and then trying to get him out by throwing pitches away. If that’s what was happening, Hos should never have gotten an off-speed pitch he could put in play and still keep fair.

Third inning: Chris Getz was back in there at second base and that wasn’t a total surprise. Even though Chris has scuffled since he hit that home run in Atlanta, he’s been a very good situational hitter over the past few years. Elliot Johnson had a couple of bad situational at-bats Saturday night and, with a team losing low-scoring games, hitting a ball to the right side or getting a fly ball in the air with a runner on third might make a big difference.

Chris was back to his upright stance from last year (he told me he felt like he was still coming up out of the crouched stance he had been using) and it worked: before the day was over, Getz walked, scored a run, drove in a run and singled twice.

Fourth inning: Jeff Francoeur struck out looking on the fifth pitch of his at-bat, but could have easily been called out looking on the fourth pitch. That call went Frenchy’s way and the A’s expressed their disappointment. I would hesitate to say home plate umpire Cory Blaser’s punch out of Jeff on the next pitch was a makeup call, but it’s been known to happen. If you get one borderline call during an at-bat, don’t expect two.

In the bottom of the fourth, Luis Mendoza failed to back up third base when a runner went first to third and the throw from right field came in to Mike Moustakas. As the TV guys—Ryan Lefebvre and Rex Hudler—pointed out, it’s always bad for a pitcher to stand there gawking when he should be backing up a base, but it’s especially bad in Oakland. There’s a ton of foul ground and if a ball gets away, runners might advance more than one base.

Fifth inning: Oakland’s first baseman, Brandon Moss, went a long way to his right to field Alcides Escobar’s groundball, then threw to the pitcher covering first base. Eric Hosmer has recently been criticized for doing the same thing, but fans should put the blame where it belongs: if pitchers get over and cover first base the way they’re supposed to, Hosmer going to his right won’t make any difference.

Sixth inning: Make-up calls, giving the benefit of the doubt to veterans—why don’t umpires just call the strike zone and forget all that other stuff? It would simplify everybody’s life. With George Kottaras at the plate A.J. Griffin threw a 1-2 slider right down the middle, but his catcher, Derek Norris, whiffed on the pitch and it went to the backstop. Because Norris didn’t catch the pitch, it was called ball two.

In the bottom half of the sixth inning, Alex Gordon dove for a ball hit by Seth Smith. Gordon didn’t make the catch, the ball glanced off Alex, and Smith pulled into second base with a double. It’s rare to criticize a decision by Alex Gordon, but he allowed the tying run into scoring position with two outs. On the other hand, Gordon has made so many of those diving catches it’s hard to fault him for thinking he could make one more. Mendoza got out of the inning with no damage and I’m guessing Gordon breathed a sigh of relief.

Seventh inning: Before the A’s scored their third run on a fly ball to left, they had a chance to score their third run on a fly ball to right. Jeff Francoeur gets criticized for his pitch selection—and rightly so—but he also gets criticized for his defense. Some people say he’s lost a step, but the American League managers and coaches made him a Gold Glove finalist—basically saying he was one of the three best right fielders in the league—in 2012. People who watch closely see Jeff Francoeur save runs with his arm—or the threat of his arm—on a regular basis. The A’s chose not challenge Francoeur’s arm in the seventh inning.

Ninth inning: With two outs Billy Butler singled to put the tying run on base. Elliot Johnson came out to pinch run and with Ryan Cook’s big leg kick, it seemed like it was only a matter of time until Elliot tried to steal second base to put the tying run in scoring position.

Elliot took off on a 1-1 pitch and Hosmer put that pitch in play; Eric singled and the Royals had runners on first and third. Mike Moustakas came to the plate and hadn’t had a base hit in a while. When a guy is running together a string of 0-fers, TV announcers love to say the hitter is "due." In that case, send me up there—I’ve never had a hit in the big leagues, I’m due as hell.

Meanwhile, Hosmer stole second base and in another case of bad scorekeeping, it was scored "defensive indifference." Really? The Oakland A’s are indifferent to having the winning run in scoring position? If nobody moves to cover and the catcher doesn’t make a throw, a lot of scorekeepers will score defensive indifference when it’s really defensive cowardice; the defense is afraid to throw the ball down to second base with a runner on third because something bad might happen.

With the tying and winning run in scoring position, the "due" hitter Moustakas worked the count to 3-2, but ended the game by grounding out to second base.

The third-base tree

Apparently, Ned Yost was asked how long he was going to stick with Mike Moustakas one too many times over the weekend. Bob Dutton, the Star’s beat writer, recorded Ned’s response:

"You know what? Maybe when we get home, I can go to the third base tree and pick another third baseman. … Obviously, third basemen who can hit and hit with power, they must grow on trees.

"They’ve got to. Like relief pitchers. And starting pitchers. Right fielders. Left fielders. First basemen. All of these guys must grow on trees, and you must be able to just go get another good one. A ripe one. Make sure it’s ripe.

"Those trees are at a hidden location but, obviously, they’re somewhere. Because that’s what everyone wants to do. Let’s just go pluck another one out of the tree. That’s the nonsense that really ticks me off."

"The kid is going to be fine. Yes, he’s fighting it right now. They’re all fighting it. They want success. They want to bring a championship to Kansas City. At times, the desire to win overwhelms them.

"I’ve been in baseball my whole life. I know which kids are going to work and which kids aren’t. He’s going to work. I’ve seen it too many times. (Being patient) with young guys works. It works.

"I went through these conversations 50 times in Milwaukee. We’re nowhere close to bailing on any of these kids, but I understand I’m going to have to answer (these questions) every week until (Moustakas) starts producing.

"But I’m going to tell you something, if I’m wrong on this kid, it’ll be the first. I’ve never been wrong on one of these kids who I’ve had conviction with. None of them. We’re talking about 15 guys over a 30-year career.

"There are just too many smart baseball people who see what I see. So with Hos, with Moose, Salvy (Perez) and (Alcides) Escobar...all of these kids, they’re going to be fine. They’re going to be very productive players.

"But if you think they’re going to be productive from the moment they get here just because they had great minor-league careers … no. There are huge lessons and journeys to endure at the major-league level

"There is no third baseman tree. You don’t go grab another one. You let him develop. Look at Gordy (Alex Gordon). When I came over here (in 2010), all I heard (from fans) was this kid is never going to be anything.

"No. You’re wrong. Give them time to develop. But I understand it. I know what the fans want. They want it, and they want it now. Instant gratification just doesn’t work (in baseball)."

I gotta admit I found Ned’s response pretty funny—and generally accurate. Lots of people are great at firing GMs and managers, benching players and sending them to the minors. But those same people aren’t so great at saying who should replace all the people they’d like to get rid of. If some kid has great numbers in the minors, remember this; the players who are here also had great numbers in the minors—that’s how they got out of the minors. And big league players aren’t that impressed with minor league numbers. In their minds until a player does it here—and does it here for a few years—he hasn’t proven much.

What Ned’s saying is everybody needs to get over the idea that there’s some great player out there that’s somehow gone unnoticed. The guys who are here are pretty much the best guys the organization has, but sometime you have to be patient, even when you’re playing the best third baseman in the system. There’s more urgency now because the Royals are in a window of opportunity, but there’s always going to be someone scuffling and there’s not much you can do about it but work hard and be patient.

Unless someone can find that third baseman tree.

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