Ned Yost wasn’t buying it: after Saturday night’s game I asked if he’d been seeing an improvement in his defense as well as his offense these days and he said not really—he thought his defense has always been good. They’d been making some errors (they were last in the league in fielding percentage coming into Saturday’s game), but they weren’t the kind of errors that worried him. As we left the interview room he asked if I thought his defense looked better, which is like asking Ray Charles what he thought of the Mona Lisa.
By LEE JUDGE
The Kansas City Star
I’m no expert, but yeah—I think the defense has looked better.
Alcides Escobar made a spectacular play to end the fifth inning: he caught the ball on the right-field side of second base, did a 360 and threw out Trevor Crowe to end the inning. Eric Hosmer caught a pop fly while staring into the sun. Elliot Johnson and Ervin Santana combined on a nice 4-1. Salvador Perez threw out a runner trying to advance on a pitch in the dirt. Lorenzo Cain ran down a couple of line drives (OK, he did miss a fairly routine fly ball Friday night, but still got an out on a force play.) And speaking of Friday night: Alex Gordon turned a couple doubles into singles. Salvador Perez saves runs on a nightly basis by blocking pitches in the dirt and throwing out base runners. Eric Hosmer saves everyone errors by scooping bad throws, so yeah—I think the defense has looked better and that makes the pitching and offense look better as well. Some of this stuff can seem routine until you see a defense not make these plays—then they seem anything but routine.
Right now the offense is getting the attention and it should—but don’t miss what the Royals defense has been doing lately.
First inning: Astros starting pitcher, Erik Bedard, threw a first-pitch changeup to Royals leadoff hitter, David Lough. Lough singled on the next pitch and moved to second base when Houston’s centerfielder, Brandon Barnes, slightly overran the ball. When guys come to the big-leagues for the first time they’ll tell you how fast the game moves at this level—a slight bobble or nonchalant approach on a ball and someone takes an extra base. It’s already happened to David Lough, this time David Lough did it to someone else.
The second Royals batter of the game, Alcides Escobar, also so a first-pitch changeup and eventually grounded out to Bedard on the fifth pitch of the at-bat. I didn’t get to talk to Salvador Perez after the game, but he also got a first-pitch changeup and whacked it into centerfield like he was expecting it. Smart players look for patterns in the game and when they find one, they take advantage. Lough scored on Salvy’s single and the Royals were up 1-0.
With two down and Perez still on first, Eric Hosmer hit a ball down into the left field corner. J.D. Martinez couldn’t make the catch, Perez scored from first, but Hosmer was thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple. Replays showed Eric watching the ball as he ran down to first base—he almost missed the bag—and then turning it on once the ball dropped. Making the third out at third base is generally considered a mistake; if the runner stops at second he’s already in scoring position and will probably score on a base hit anyway.
Second inning: Things started well: the first two runners got on—but then the Royals made three straight outs. It appears David Lough is getting more off-speed stuff now than he was when he first came up, but he’s still at .293 and had a couple hits Saturday night.
Fourth inning: Erik Hosmer singled, Lorenzo Cain walked and with Hosmer in scoring position, Miguel Tejada hit the ball into left field. J.D. Martinez generally plays deep and the ball was dying on its way out to left; Hosmer scored standing up. With Cain on second and Tejada on first, Jeff Francoeur doubled down into the right field corner on the first pitch of the at-bat. Once again, there was a pattern: everyone in the inning had been started off with a fastball.
After the game I asked Jeff if he’d been looking fastball there and he said definitely. He also he’d been working with George Brett on a couple things and they were beginning to pay off. Jeff said he’s been "too violent on his front side" and in English that means he was landing too hard when he put his front foot down. That brought his weight forward too soon and made his head move. If your head moves you can’t see the ball, and now Jeff says he’s starting to see it clearly for the first time in a long time.
Seventh inning: The crowd rumbled with displeasure when Salvador Perez got hit by a pitch to start off the inning, but nobody on either team saw a problem: Perez was hit by a 74-MPH curveball. You don’t send a message with off-speed pitches. If a team is unhappy with a player on the other side and decides to hit him, it will be with a fastball thrown below the shoulders and behind him—that way he’ll back up into it and get smoked without the ball coming near his head.
Eighth and ninth inning: J.C. Gutierrez gave everyone else in the bullpen the night off. Ervin Santana threw seven innings and Gutierrez threw the final two. If the Royals have to empty out their pen in the next two days, remember what J.C. did—his two innings keeps every other reliever available for Sunday.
(I’ve spent over 500 games in the third base coach’s box, so I’m kind of sympathetic to the guys who have to make the required decisions; guess right and the base runner gets the credit, guess wrong and you’re the moron who sent him. Eddie Rodriguez had to make a split-second decision that helped win Friday night’s game against the Twins—here’s what went into it.)
Friday night against the Astros; the score was 2-2, it was the eighth inning, there was one down and Eric Hosmer—the winning run—stood on first base. Billy Butler was at the plate with an 0-2 count. Before the next pitch was thrown, here are a few of the things that ran through third-base coach Eddie Rodriguez’ mind:
Four innings earlier, Butler had driven a ball into the right-center gap for a double—after that, the Astros shifted their outfield a bit more toward the opposite field, leaving a gap between left fielder, J.D. Martinez, and the left field line. That would mean a long run for the Astros leftfielder if Butler hit one into the left field corner.
If Billy hit a double and Hosmer was coming into third, Eddie would have to make a decision: send him or hold Hosmer up. If Eddie held Hosmer up on a double, that would mean first base was unoccupied and the Astros could walk on-deck hitter, Lorenzo Cain. That would set up a double play with David Lough at the plate. Eddie checked the right field bullpen to see if the Astros had anybody up—they didn’t. That meant Fields would face Lough if the inning progressed that far.
The Royals had Greg Holland available, so if they could score at least one run in the bottom of the eighth, Holland would come in and face the Astros’ eight, nine and leadoff hitters in the top of the ninth—a desirable spot in the order to bring in your closer.
When Billy hit the ball down the left-field line, Eddie began backing up toward home plate; that move buys a third-base coach time. If a third-base coach stayed around the bag, he’d have to make his decision before the runner ever reached the base. By backing up toward home, a third-base coach can delay his decision until the runner comes around the bag—Eddie was backing up while checking Hosmer’s position on the base paths and Martinez’ progress toward the ball. The ball died and that made Martinez’ run even longer. Once the Astros left fielder reached the ball, he didn’t backhand it, plant and throw, he tried to come around the ball and square his body up to home plate—that’s takes time and that’s when Eddie made his decision: this will not be a strong throw, I’m sending Hosmer.
Now to be honest, you just got the Reader’s Digest version of Eddie’s decision. The real version was four times as long and five times as complicated. The game may look simple, but when you play it in the big leagues, nothing is as simple as it seems—especially a third-base coach’s job.