Friday night the Royals beat the Rays 7-2. Kansas City has now won nine of its last 10 games. They now have the best ERA in the league. Their number five starter, Luis Mendoza, now has an ERA of 2.93 in his last eight starts. (Got that one off TV, thanks, guys.) The Royals have now pitched 13 straight games in which they’ve given up three earned runs or less.
By LEE JUDGE
The Kansas City Star
That’s really good pitching.
For the most part, the pitching has been there and the defense should be one of the best in the league. In fact there’s an advanced metric called "Team Runs Saved" that says they are the best (although I have no idea how it’s put together, but if it makes my point, I’ll use it anyway). The Royals have lost 13 one-run games (as of Wednesday, only two teams in the American League had lost more) so it seemed like if the offense could find a way to scratch out a few more runs, they might turn things around.
They found a way.
Their record in June is 10-3. I don’t predict, I have too much experience at being wrong to have any faith in my ability to forecast the future—but—if the Royals are going to start hitting the ball on a more regular basis and the pitching and defense can stay anywhere near the level they’ve currently reached, things could get interesting.
In the first inning Billy Butler singled with Alex Gordon on second base. Lorenzo Cain was the on-deck hitter and he wasn’t in the right position as Gordon came home. The Royals had the third base dugout so the on-deck hitter has to run to get into position behind home plate. That way the runner can see the on-deck hitter’s signal as the runner comes home (the runner has his back to the field and can’t tell what’s happening). Cain should have been signaling Gordon to come in standing or slide—not yelling advice from the side. If it’s loud, the runner won’t hear you. On the other hand, in Tampa Bay you could give advice from the upper deck and be heard. They’ve got a good team there and don’t come out to support them.
Cain then grounded into a 1-4-2 double play and the soft dirt in front of home plate had something to do with it. Before the Royals left on this trip Elliot Johnson told me the field was designed for pitchers and making the dirt soft in front of home plate was part of the deal: balls hit straight down don’t bounce much and will lose steam by the time they reach the pitcher’s mound.
In the bottom of the inning Luis Mendoza—a sinker/slider guy who needs to be down in the zone—was up in the zone and paid the price: a home run to Matt Joyce and an RBI double to Evan Longoria.
By the second inning Luis appeared to make an adjustment and was getting better results—just check the scorebook. When a sinker/slider guy is on, he’ll get a lot of balls pulled on the ground: left-handed Sam Fuld pulled a slider to Hosmer, right-handed Yunel Escobar pulled a fastball to Alcides Escobar.
That pattern continued: in the third inning left-handed Matt Joyce pulled a fastball to Hosmer and right-handed Evan Longoria pulled a fastball to Esky (more on that in a moment). Bottom line: Mendoza was up in the first inning and then started getting a lot of the Rays to pull the ball on the ground right up until the seventh, when he departed.
The fastball Evan Longoria pulled to short in the third was actually a four-seam fastball on the hands. Longoria had two strikes and couldn’t spit on the pitch, but couldn’t get the barrel to it either. In the sixth Mendoza tried the same pitch—a fastball on the hands—but missed just slightly out over the plate and Longoria hit a rocket into left. A couple inches in—an easy grounder to short. A couple inches out over the plate—a line drive to left.
In the fourth inning Desmond Jennings hit a check swing dribbler up the third base line and Miguel Tejada let it roll, hoping it would go foul—it didn’t. Clearly, Miggy needs to start reading my stuff: yesterday I wrote that Elliot Johnson told me that balls that start on the dirt will stay fair, balls that are rolling off the turf onto the dirt will go foul.
In the bottom of the inning Tejada pounded the ball down into the soft dirt in front of home plate which resulted in an easy one hopper back to the mound. In the seventh inning Luke Scott did the same thing, but his ball appeared to hit home plate, bounced over the mound and made Alcides Escobar try to make the play bare-handed; there was no time to glove the ball. Esky couldn’t do it and the play was scored an E6—which is bad scoring. If Alcides took his time, there’s no play. Try to take a shortcut to help his team and he gets punished if it doesn’t work.
Chris Getz once told me that there are ways to approach plays that keep you from getting errors: step in front of a bullet, take it off the body and if you don’t get the runner, you will probably get an error as a consolation prize. Play the same ball off to the side—a much poorer approach—and if it gets past you it will probably be scored a hit. Scorekeepers are sometimes encouraging poor baseball.
In the fifth inning the Royals got to starter Matt Moore. As games go along hitters get a better idea of what the pitcher has that night and how he’s using it. The hitters talk to each other so it’s no surprise that in the last two nights the bottom of the order started the big rallies; the top of the order guys are telling them what to expect.
Baseball fans saw something amazing in that fifth inning: Alex Gordon snapped a bat in half and hit the ball almost all the way to the warning track in right. Gordon probably snaps so many bats for three reasons: he uses maple (generally considered to be a harder, but more brittle wood), pitchers are trying to get in on his hands and, finally, Alex Gordon is one strong human being.
Elliot Johnson tripled, but a misplay by Sam Fuld helped him: there’s an angle down in the left field corner, Fuld misread which part of the wall the ball would hit and allowed it to shoot past him. You don’t see many triples to left field—third base is too close.
Everyone who’s been wanting to see Eric Hosmer pull the ball got to see him smoke a fastball—not an off-speed pitch—down into the right field corner for a double. When I talked to George Brett about Hosmer’s swing, George said they wanted to eliminate the front-leg kick Eric had been using. The theory is he’s not getting his foot down on time and that’s making his hands late. Hosmer had no leg kick on this swing and it seemed to work out pretty well. George Brett may know something about hitting a baseball.
Given a three-run lead Mendoza came out for the bottom of the inning and went 3-0 on the number-nine hitter; Yunel Escobar. Luis eventually got him, but if he’d walked Escobar he would have given up a run when Matt Joyce doubled. When your team gives you a cushion, throw strikes.
Down by three, Matt Joyce got picked off second. A phrase you hear around the ballpark goes like this: Look at the scoreboard—it will tell you everything you need to know. Up by three: throw strikes. Down by three: don’t take chances on the bases.
The bullpen did its job again: Aaron Crow, Tim Collins and Kelvin Herrera held the Rays scoreless after Luis Mendoza left the game. The only knock on Herrera had to do with throwing strikes: he walked two guys and that prompted Ned Yost to get Greg Holland up in case he was needed. Holland had already been up once and "dry humps"—getting a reliever up, but not using him—can put a little wear and tear on an arm as well. Holland still had to throw on a night he wasn’t used.
Crow and Collins looked electric. Aaron struck out the two batters he faced and Collins struck out a couple more batters in the next inning, including Evan Longoria on three pitches: fastball, changeup, curveball. This is the bullpen that other teams feared; when these guys are right, Ned Yost has lots of arms to bring home a win.