The Royals lost this game by two runs, but it didn’t have to be that way. In the second inning with one down and the bases loaded, Alcides Escobar hit a sacrifice fly to centerfield. Lorenzo Cain was on third base; he tagged up and scored. Cleveland centerfielder, Michael Bourn, made a throw to the plate and the ball was airmailed, way over the cutoff man’s head. Miss the cutoff man and trail runners can move up. David Lough was the runner on second; he recognized that the throw was high, tagged up and moved to third base. Johnny Giavotella was the runner on first base; he didn’t take advantage of the high throw and remained on first.
By LEE JUDGE
The Kansas City Star
After he scored, the camera followed Lorenzo Cain into the dugout. Miguel Tejada was also in the shot and he could be seen, and heard, telling Giavotella he should have tagged and been on second base.
Screw something up and baseball has a way of punishing you; Alex Gordon singled and Lough scored. Had Giavotella tagged up and been in scoring position, he would have scored also. There were two outs at the time and a runner on second would be able to leave on contact. Hosmer hit a grounder, the inning ended and Giavotella never crossed the plate.
That’s one run the Royals gave away.
In the third inning with two outs and Michael Brantley on first base, Carlos Santana hit a ball down the right field line. By letting the count go to 3-2, James Shields allowed Brantley to get a head start—full count, two outs, runners leave early. The ball hit the wall down the right-field line, caromed right to David Lough and in his hurry to make the throw back to the infield Lough lifted his head too soon and missed the ball. By the time Lough picked the ball up and made his throw to the plate, Brantley was in safely. The next batter made an out, so if the count weren’t 3-2 or Lough picked the ball up cleanly, Brantley probably doesn’t score.
That’s two runs the Royals gave away.
In the seventh inning after a Billy Butler lead-off double, Salvador Perez made no effort to hit the ball to the right side to move Butler over to third base. Instead he pulled the ball to third base, freezing Billy where he was. The count was 1-0, Sal didn’t have to swing and it was an inside pitch; not the pitch you want if you’re thinking about moving the runner over. Mike Moustakas followed that by hitting a sharp groundball to first baseman Nick Swisher, but Swisher was well off first base and back on the grass. If the contact play was on, even Billy Butler scores on that ball.
That’s three runs the Royals gave away.
There are certainly other things that led to this loss—the Royals walked five and two of them scored, the bullpen failed to hold a lead—but failure to advance on a high throw, letting the count run full, kicking a ball around in the outfield and failing to advance a runner cost the Royals three runs. There are times a reader will get upset because a player they like is criticized for failing to do the small things or a player they don’t like is praised for getting them done—those readers don’t see the small things as important. As one of them put it, "After all, they’re small things." But I’ve never met a professional baseball coach who felt that way. They believe there are no small things because those small things add up to big things—winning and losing.
The small things cost the Royals this one: Cleveland 6, Kansas City 4.
Where things stand
Before the game Ned Yost was asked to analyze the first half of the season and he described it as up and down. He thought the pitching had been excellent, the defense borderline spectacular, but the offense had been inconsistent.
Nobody asked me, but what the heck—I’ve got a website and everything—but it seems like this is a young team making young-team mistakes. Failure to execute those small things we’ve been talking about: hacking at pitcher’s pitches when they don’t have to, failure to consistently execute situational hitting fundamentals, continuing to assume they’ll get fastballs in fastball counts and coming up with weak swings when they get a changeup, failing to get down bunts, taking big hacks when a groundball to the right side would be a better bet.
The coaches can only do so much—this isn’t high school ball where the coach is king. If a coach on a one-year contract gets in a power struggle with a player who has a multi-year deal, who do you think is going to win that one?
Most fans would be surprised by how much autonomy big-league ballplayers have; that’s why veteran leadership in a clubhouse is so important. The veteran players tend to be the ones who tell the younger guys to pull it together, buckle down and play the game right.
So far, that doesn’t appear to be happening.
The bridge innings
The most difficult innings in baseball tend to be the ones between the time the starter leaves and the ball gets to the closer in the ninth. When Kelvin Herrera was right, the Royals could expect two shutdown innings at the backend of games; but without Herrera, getting the ball to Greg Holland with a lead has been much tougher.
When Herrera first came up he was described to me as a guy who threw 100 miles an hour, had a great changeup and would mix in a third pitch—his curve—just to give the hitters something else to think about. Recently Herrera was described to me as guy who throws 100, but it’s straight. He couldn’t locate it, the ball was up in the zone and he seemed to have lost all confidence in his two off-speed pitches—or at least he doesn’t throw them as much. That’s the point of Herrera being in Omaha: maybe he’ll get those pitches back without worrying that any mistake he makes will cost a big-league game. Better to experiment and figure out what’s what away from the bright lights and the media.
In Herrera’s absence, Tim Collins and Aaron Crow have been the main guys Ned Yost goes to when he’s trying to hold a lead and they’ve been inconsistent. That’s one of the reasons Luke Hochevar has been getting a look as a backend of the pen guy—they’ve got to get this problem solved. It’s hard enough to grab a lead late in the game; you can’t give one away when you have it.
• Another rocky first inning for James Shields. He seemed to labor all day and used 113 pitches to get through five innings. That left three innings for the bullpen to pick up before Ned Yost could hand the ball to Greg Holland in the ninth. If the bridge-inning guys continue to struggle, it’ll be more important for the starting pitchers to pitch-to-contact, rely on their defense and try to go deep in games.
• Baseball guys will tell you that a good changeup makes your fastball better. Case in point: Michael Bourn struck out in the second when he appeared to be waiting for Shields to throw that changeup. Shields never did and because he was waiting on the change, Bourn got fastballs blown by him.
• When Michael Brantley scored from first base in the third inning, on-deck hitter Mike Aviles—a guy who’s been around a while—could be seen in the correct spot, doing his job. Aviles was behind home plate and signaling Brantley to slide. It’s a small thing, but it needs to be done and the Royals have failed to do this more than once.
The biggest factor in success is talent—no question—but after that, the talented guys who take care of the small stuff have an advantage over the talented guys who don’t.
• Whether it was intentional or not, Jason Kipnis dropped a knee on David Lough when Lough attempted to steal second. That’s why their knees collided and both players came up limping. Dropping a knee is putting it on the ground and in the base path, blocking a runner off the base. The old-school baseball response to a guy who drops a knee is to come in spikes-high the next time, give the guy some stiches in his thigh and let him know you’ll respond in kind. It might also be taken care of by a pitcher and catcher: Kipnis could get drilled and they’ll remind him of the play with Lough.
If you don’t respond, word gets around that you can be intimidated.
Another guy who might wear one in the future is Lonnie Chisenhall. He got a pretty good bat flip off after he hit that grand slam Saturday night. If Kipnis or Chisenhall get drilled sometime in the future, the pitcher who does it will look in the cameras and say he was just trying to come inside with a fastball and it got away from him.
But you’ll know better.
• Announcer Steve Physioc said even "mild-mannered" Jeff Montgomery took exception to the Chisenhall bat flip. That tells me Steve never played against Monty. I faced Jeff in a men’s senior league and Jeff would drill a guy for looking at him the wrong way. Monty’s the nicest guy in the world off the mound, but when he was competing, he didn’t mind reminding the hitter who was boss.
Monty also said something interesting during the broadcast: if the pitcher wants to get ahead in the count 0-0, he can throw a get-me-over breaking ball up there and most hitters will take it because they’re looking for a fastball. If the pitcher tries to get ahead with a first-pitch fastball, it better be well located because that’s a pitch they want to hit.
• With a runner on second Salvador Perez came to the mound and Johnny Giavotella joined the conference. With a runner on second base the signs change; for instance they might use first sign—shake—first. That means it’s the first sign in the sequence and if the pitcher shakes the sign off, it will still be the first sign in the second sequence. There are a lot of sign systems: outs plus one, second sign—shake—first, second sign after previous pitch. Whatever sign systems are used the middle infielders need to know because it’s their job to get the signs and pass them along to the corner infielders and sometimes the outfield as well.
Alcides Escobar didn’t join the meeting and I don’t know why.
• In the fifth inning with nobody out and a runner on first base, Nick Swisher hit what appeared to be a double-play ball to Johnny Giavotella. Maybe he struggled to get it out of his glove, but Giavotella didn’t attempt to turn two, but instead went to first base for the out. That cost Shields an extra ten pitches.
In the fourth inning with runners at second and third and nobody out, Johnny pulled the ball to short, allowing Lorenzo Cain to score, but freezing David Lough at second. A ball to the right side would have scored Cain and moved Lough to third. Giavotella had a perfect pitch for doing the job: a 2-1 94-MPH fastball on the outer half. He took it, chased a slider and then pulled that ball to short. Luckily, Alcides Escobar picked him up by scoring Lough with a base hit.
Johnny Giavotella fans don’t like hearing it, but frankly, this is the kind of stuff they’re talking about when baseball people say he’s got to hit to make up for the rest of his game.
• If you’re looking for progress, going into this game the Royals run differential was a -6. At the same pint last year, it was a -52. (I got that one from the TV guys and here’s another: if you think Ned Yost uses too many different lineups, Terry Francona would make you crazy—71 for Ned, 74 for Terry.)
• More progress: Greg Holland is also going to the All-Star game. It’s been a while since Kansas City had three players good enough to be an All-Star. And it’s not too hard to imagine a couple of the guys who didn’t make it being in one not too many years from now.
• Cleveland catcher Carlos Santana had only thrown out 10% of base stealers and that number got worse: the Royals stole two more bases off him Sunday.
• Eric Hosmer sliced a ground-rule double down the left field line and it reminded me of something Rusty Kuntz told me in New York: Hosmer is jealous of the way a ball comes off Alex Gordon’s bat. Apparently Alex gets great movement toward the foul line and that turns into doubles when the ball slices away from the left fielder. The ball off Hosmer’s bat is straighter, which makes it easier to track and easier to catch. If Hosmer wants to develop more slice he just needs to watch me hit a golf ball. On a fairway I’m an opposite field hitter.
The All-Star break
No games for the next four days. I feel like ’ve been working on a factory assembly line since mid-March and I’m now being told I can do whatever I like for four days. Free to do whatever you like for four days: go out to dinner, go see a movie, watch the TV shows you’ve recorded and haven’t had time to see.
So here’s what I’m going to do:
I’ll probably watch baseball. I’m kinda over watching players screw up their swings in the home run derby while listening to Chris Berman screech: "Back, back, back— gone!" But it won’t surprise me if I end up in front of a TV that night. Once you know how it’s put together you realize the All-Star Game is generally pretty bad baseball (more on that later), but I’ll still watch it for the great moments that sometimes pop up. And I’ll probably post something new every day.
I’ve got a lot of material I haven’t used, so I’ll rummage around and find something to stick on the website at some point each day. Keep checking in, I’ll eventually get it done—but not until I go see a movie.