By LEE JUDGE
The Kansas City Star
I’ve said the best and worst thing about Jeff Francoeur is he always thinks he can make the play: he’ll get thrown out because he thinks he can beat the throw, miss the cutoff man because he thinks he can nail the runner or swing and miss because he thinks he can hit the pitch. I’ve also said he keeps doing it because sometimes he can.
Thursday night he did.
If I’ve got my numbers right—always a good question—going into last night the Royals were 1-27 when trailing after eight innings. Sounds like a job for a wild-eyed optimist; good thing the Royals happen to have one. With the Royals down 2-1 in the ninth inning, Francoeur lined an 89-MPH slider into the left-field seats to tie the game 2-2; giving the Royals some life and a chance to win. Let’s back up and see how it happened:
Apparently the Royals had a game plan for breaking their losing streak: let the Cardinals beat you so often that their closer, Edward Mujica, is worn out from getting all those saves. With Mujica unavailable I thought Cardinals manager, Mike Matheny might stick with the guy who finished out the eighth inning, Seth Maness. I’ve heard very good things about Maness; the night before he might have given up a run, but it was on a series of seeing-eye grounders. Thursday night he’d only faced one batter and thrown five pitches.
But instead of leaving Maness in, Matheny gave the ball to Mitchell Boggs to close out the game. Boggs started the night with an ERA over 10.00, Boggs finished the night—or the next day—with an ERA over 11.00. Before the inning was over, the greatest baseball fans in the world were booing Boggs off the field. (St. Louis has won 20 games this month—it’s pretty hard to feel sorry for Cardinal fans.) Victor Marte replaced Boggs, hit Alcides Escobar with a pitch when Esky attempted to bunt. Made a throwing error when David Lough did bunt (Lough’s bunt was poor—right back to the mound) and the Royals had the bases loaded with nobody out. Marte then got Eric Hosmer to hit the ball into the ground, but with the infield drawn in, the Royals finally found some luck: the ball bounced over the first baseman’s head for a double. Alex Gordon and Alcides Escobar crossed the plate and the Royals had all the runs they’d need to beat the Cardinals, 4-2.
Credit umpire Joe West (possibly the first and last time those words have ever been written) for waiting it out until three in the morning to get the final six outs in. If West had called it early, the game would have reverted to the last complete inning and the Cards would have won 2-1.
The Royals owe this one to a good umpiring decision—and a wild-eyed optimist.
First inning: Alex Gordon hit .391 with a .449 on-base percentage in 18 games after being moved to the three-hole. Now that he’s back hitting leadoff, pay attention and see if Alex gets pitches to hit with Alcides Escobar and his .249 batting average hitting behind him. Alex went 0-3 and walked in his fourth plate appearance.
Matt Carpenter led off the bottom of the inning with a double between Eric Hosmer and the right-field line. When you see that—a ball pulled between a corner infielder or outfielder—it’s often a case of an off-speed pitch left up in the zone. In this case it was a Jeremy Guthrie changeup.
Second inning: Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha was working very quickly and Mike Moustakas did what you’re supposed to do when that’s happening—Moose stepped out of the box. When a pitcher is throwing well, smart hitters will find a way to disrupt his rhythm; ask for the signs again, readjust the batting gloves, take off the helmet to wipe your forehead—anything that makes a pitcher change the way he’s working.
In the bottom of the second inning Wacha—who was making his first major league start—also had his first major league at-bat. Remember the bit about rookie hitters getting a lot of heaters to see if they can handle a big league fastball? It also applies to rookie pitchers who go to the plate. Guthrie threw seven straight fastballs to Wacha and Wacha hit the seventh one into right center for a single. Matt Carpenter followed with a walk and, with Wacha in scoring position, Carlos Beltran singled. Third base coach Jose Oquendo did not send Wacha home; getting a valuable young pitcher blown up at the plate is not a good way to extend your coaching career. One run—even one game—may not be worth losing a good player. If the guy is a fill-in from the minors; send him.
Third inning: George Kottaras took a first-pitch fastball for called strike and went on to strike out—more on that later.
In the bottom half of the third, Moustakas bobbled a groundball before making the throw to complete a 5-3. I’ve heard people wonder if some of these guys are taking bad at-bats with them when the go out to play defense. We’ve seen infielders and outfielders fail to make routine plays. If guys are thinking about their last at-bat—how did I miss that 3-1 fastball?—they won’t have full concentration when a ball comes screaming their way.
Fourth inning: After Wacha hit that single in the second, Guthrie treated him like a real hitter—fastball, slider, fastball slider—and struck him out.
Fifth inning: With one out in the inning, Lorenzo Cain got the Royals first hit; a double. Mike Moustakas hit a fly ball to the warning track in right, but Lorenzo did not tag up, apparently convinced the ball would fall. Here’s the deal: if the ball had gone over right fielder Carlos Beltran’s head, even if Lorenzo was standing on second base at the time, he would have still scored easily. If he tags and makes it to third, which he would have done, he might have discouraged Wacha from throwing a breaking pitch in the dirt—throw a wild pitch and Cain scores.
Not tagging was bad base running and the kind of small mistake that can come back to haunt a team later in the game. In fact, it’s the kind of thing that has come back to haunt this team later. Fortunately for Lorenzo, Elliot Johnson picked him up with an RBI single. If it had been an infield single, Cain’s mistake would have been more apparent.
As we’ve seen before, veteran pitchers will go often throw off-speed with a runner in scoring position; Wacha is no veteran, but Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina is. Johnson had to hit a changeup to score Cain. After Elliot stole second, catcher George Kottaras saw nothing but changeups; striking out on the third one.
Sixth inning: If I counted right, Wacha finished the sixth with 83 pitches. Unless the Royals got to him in the seventh, the Cardinals starter was going to get the ball to the back end of the St. Louis bullpen. The odds of winning aren’t good if you don’t have a lead after six innings and they get even worse if you don’t have a lead after seven or eight. Managers tend to have a set of relievers they use when ahead in a game and another set of relievers they use when behind. Let a team get into the late innings with a lead and the manager can use his best relievers.
Seventh inning: The Royals did not get Wacha in the seventh—things were not looking good.
Eighth inning: Left-hander Randy Choate replaced Wacha so he could face lefty Mike Moustakas, and Ned Yost countered with right-handed pinch hitter Miguel Tejada. Choate got Tejada and switch-hitting Elliot Johnson and then Cardinals manager Mike Matheny brought in right-hander Seth Maness to face pinch hitter Billy Butler. Maness got Butler to end the inning.
Ninth inning: The Royals scored three and closer Greg Holland did the rest. Good to see him on the field again. Now back to the Kottaras at-bat.
A reader’s comment
I think your description of Kottaras taking "first pitch fastballs for strikes" is incorrect. 2 out of 3 first pitch fastballs weren't strikes. So why should he swing at them? Add in the at bat where it's unsaid what the first pitch was (other than it was a ball) and he's ahead in the count 3 out of 4 at bats after the first pitch.
I think your intent was that he should swing at the first fastball in the zone rather than taking all the way when sitting 1-0. But I don't know if those fastballs were on the corners, or somewhere he couldn't handle them, or what, so it's an incomplete analysis.
You then contradict this by saying Escobar should not have swung at his first pitch (though I don't know whether it was a fastball, change, etc). You may have intended to indicate that given the 9th inning situation, Escobar should have waited, and I'd buy that, but the way it was presented wasn't clear.
Let’s see if I can clear up any confusion writing about baseball at one in the morning after drinking a six-pack of Bud Lights has caused:
Here’s what I wrote: "If a hitter keeps taking first-pitch fastballs for strikes he’s always going to be hitting down in the count."
Nobody is suggesting that a hitter swing at the first pitch even if it isn’t a strike, but big league veterans will tell you a hitter who never swings until he has a strike is inviting pitchers to throw a fastball down the chute to start each at-bat. Alex Gordon has said that once in a while he swings at the first pitch of a game— if it’s a strike—just to keep pitchers honest.
In Wednesday’s game George Kottaras took two fastballs for called strikes in his first at-bat and popped up on 1-2 pitch. In his second at-bat, with a runner on third, Kottaras took a fastball for a called strike to start the at-bat and wound up hitting an infield pop-up on a 2-2 pitch. In his third at-bat George took a changeup for a ball, a fastball for a strike and then swung and missed at two sliders, striking out on a 1-2 count, with a runner once again in scoring position. The fourth at-bat is the only one in which George swung at the first hittable fastball he saw and he drove in a run.
Mike Schmidt once said that every at-bat contained a hittable fastball; his job was to find it. Big league hitters also say you’ll get one pitch every at-bat, but don’t miss it. So back to the beginning: if a hitter does not swing the bat until he has one strike, no matter the situation, he’ll be hitting down in the count a lot. Once pitchers get ahead, they try to hit corners, so—if the pitcher does his job—the pitches become less hittable as the at-bat progresses. When the pitchers are down in the count the pitches tend to become more hittable as the at-bat progresses. Obviously, that depends on the pitcher and his abilities; guys swung at the first hittable pitch they saw from Greg Maddux because they knew it was only going to get tougher if he got ahead in the count. With other guys, taking a pitch might pay off. There are times to be patient and times (usually with an important run in scoring position) to jump on the first hittable fastball you see.
Now for the times to be patient—here’s what I wrote after Alcides Escobar swung at the first pitch when the Royals were down by two with two outs in the ninth:
"Veteran ballplayers will tell you it’s impossible to hit a two-run home run with no one on base. If it’s late in the game and you’re not the tying run, your job is to get on base."
There is no one-size fits all policy. Sometimes it’s good to take a strike, sometimes you need to jump on the first pitch that’s worth hitting. Everybody is looking for patterns: if a guy always takes a strike, that can be used against him. Same thing with a guy who has no patience when a situation calls for it; pitchers can throw something out of the zone and watch him chase it.
I hope that clears up any confusion; if not, I blame the people who make Bud Light.
Since we’re talking about Wednesday night anyway
Seventh inning, one out, J.C. Gutierrez on the mound, Shane Robinson on first base, the left-handed hitter Matt Carpenter at the plate. With count 1-0, the Royals pitched out. Maybe they had a reason to suspect something was up—it wasn’t—but with Billy Butler playing first base and holding the runner, you might suspect the runner was going nowhere. Billy does not get off the bag well and as long as the runner was there and Billy was holding him, the Cardinals had a big hole on the right side of the infield for the left-handed hitter to shoot for.
Once the count moved to 3-1, the Cardinals put the runner in motion; probably assuming Carpenter would get a fastball to hit (he did, but fouled it off). The runner would open up another hole on the infield—someone would move to cover second base—turns out it was Alcides Escobar.
Carpenter fouled the 3-1 pitch off, but knew he had two holes on the infield if the runner was in motion: the one over at first base and the one Esky would open up when he moved to cover second base. On a 3-2 pitch the runner was going again and Carpenter managed to hit the ball where he shouldn’t in that situation: right up the middle. With a runner going, the hitter needs to pull the ball or go the other way—a ball right up the middle will go straight to the cover man at second base—it did—and resulted in a double play. Carpenter lined out to Escobar and Robinson was doubled off first.
You could call it a lucky play for the Royals or a bad one by Matt Carpenter.
Once you listen to the guys who play the game at the highest level, you realize that there’s a lot going on out there.
(Sorry about how long it took to get this posted, but games that end after 3AM ten to make that happen. Let’s hope for a quick one tonight.)