Baseball fans get excited when the best teams come to town, but a series against a cellar-dweller may be more important. Here’s why: not surprisingly, the good teams have a good chance of beating you. Go 10-10 during a 20-game stretch against teams with winning records—and that’s what the Royals did recently—and you’re satisfied. But when you play teams like Chicago and Minnesota, you need to beat up on them. That’s where you build your record.
By LEE JUDGE
The Kansas City Star
It works the same way when you face a lineup: Joe Mauer is hitting .327—he’s going to get his hits. You win games by getting the other guys out. Bear down on the guys in front of Mauer and behind Mauer—isolate Joe Mauer and whatever damage he does.
The Royals have taken care of business in the last two series; they have now swept Chicago and Minnesota and move on to New York. The Mets have a losing record and after the Royals finish that series, the Twins come back to town for three more games. The next time the Royals will face a team with a winning record is August 8th, when the Red Sox come to Kansas City.
Between now and then, the Royals need to beat up on the Mets and Twins. And that’s what they did Thursday afternoon—the Royals win this one 7-2.
*Most of the time we’re talking about starters having a rough first inning, then settling in and pitching well. This game didn’t go that way: Scott Diamond had a nine-pitch first inning and started each Royals hitter with a fastball to get ahead. Normally, that might be a good way to get whacked around, but Diamond threw paint. Hitters are looking for an 0-0 fastball, but if it’s located well enough, they’ll take it. Diamond painted the corners in the first inning, but began leaking runs after that.
*James Shields countered with a seven-pitch first inning of his own, but threw 25 pitches in the second. When that happens—a pitcher has a long, high-stress inning—the hitters might want to take a few pitches to give their pitcher a chance to rest.
The Royals didn’t do that.
In the top of the third inning Alex Gordon tripled on the first pitch, Eric Hosmer drove him in with a sac fly on his first pitch, Billy Butler saw five pitches, then grounded out and Salvador Perez made the final out on the very first pitch he saw. So eight pitches after Shields finished a tough inning, he was right back out there. No way to know if that’s why he struggled again in the third—giving up two runs—but being rushed right back to the mound couldn’t have helped. The Royals scored one, but gave up two in the next half inning.
*And while we’re on the subject: in the top of the fourth Diamond walked Lorenzo Cain on six pitches, gave up a single to Miguel Tejada in three and then Mike Moustakas had a nine-pitch at-bat, ending in a single. The Twins then made a coaching visit to the mound, most likely to give Diamond a breather. After that Diamond left a curve in a spot where it could be hit to the outfield (although Cain didn’t tag and score) and another curve in a spot where Alcides Escobar could get it in play and drive Cain home.
When someone has a long at-bat, pay attention to what happens immediately afterward. When a pitcher has a long inning—even if he gets out of it without damage—pay attention to what happens in the next inning.
*in the fifth inning Lorenzo Cain made a game-changing play: he went back to the wall and robbed Trevor Plouffe of a two-run home run. If Cain doesn’t make that play, the score’s 5-4 and it’s a whole new ballgame. In 2010 the Royals defense was one of the worst in the league; in 2013 it’s not crazy to talk about Gold Glovers in left, centerfield, at third, short, first and behind the plate.
*Wednesday night I wrote about the difference between good and bad teams and there was more evidence of how a bad team plays on Thursday afternoon: the Twins made another error to extend an inning, they overthrew a cutoff man to allow a runner to move up, they didn’t move a runner over and that cost them a run, they also walked four and two of them came around to score. Bad teams get down and don’t take care of the fundamentals. Good teams take care of the little stuff, because taking care of the little stuff results in big stuff: winning.
*In the seventh inning Miguel Tejada robbed Joe Mauer of a hit, diving to stop the ball and throwing Mauer out from his backside. Don’t miss the help Miggy got from Eric Hosmer: good first basemen will use the width of first base to extend their reach. In this case Hosmer had one foot on the outfield side of first which extended his reach down the right-field line. Tejada started his sixth game in a row and picked up another hit, another RBI and made two outstanding defensive plays.
If he can do that—still make diving stops and throw out runners—why do the Royals need to send out Elliot Johnson as a late-inning defensive replacement for Miggy?
Veteran ballplayers have told me even getting an inning or two off late in a ballgame helps with their stamina. The game is such a grind and it’s even more of a grind when you’re pushing 40. I’ve also been told Johnson the best defensive second baseman on the team, so when it’s late and close, the Royals may still want him out there. (The Royals had a five-run lead going into the ninth inning of this game and Johnson wasn’t used.)
*The pitching and offense in this game set up the Royals for the next series: even though Shields was working way too hard (102 pitches through five innings by my count) he came back out for the sixth and got through it in 14 pitches. Luke Hochevar pitched the seventh and eighth, Louis Coleman took care of the ninth. That means Tim Collins, Aaron Crow, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland got the day off and are fresh for the New York series. It may seem immaterial, but a bullpen getting the job done without using extra relievers might result in a win a couple days later.
Stuff from the last few days
*Justin Maxwell is a right-handed outfielder. If you’re wondering why the Royals went out and got a guy you’ve never heard of, it’s probably because they have three left-handed hitting outfielders and want some options off the bench.
*Aaron Crow got the Royals out of the eighth inning Wednesday night by coming into a first and third, one-out jam and striking out Chris Colabello and Clete Thomas. After the game, Crow said something interesting: he knew Colabello wanted to be the hero—the tying run was on third with one down—so Aaron used Colabello’s aggressiveness against him.
That sounds like a veteran pitcher talking. When guys first get to the big leagues their instinct is to try to throw the ball through the backstop; after all, that’s what got them here—they have a golden arm. The guys who stay in the big leagues soon figure out everyone else in the big leagues is also pretty good; so you have to be smarter than that. This is the kind of stuff people mean when they talk about it taking a couple years for a player to figure out how to play at this level.
*In the seventh inning of Tuesday night’s game the Twins had a chance to pitch around Billy Butler and didn’t. There were two down, Hosmer stole second and first was open. The Twins chose to go after Billy rather than put him on and pitch to Salvador Perez. Billy made them pay by singling up the middle.
Butler has been scuffling this season and appears to be just missing some pitches that he’s hammered in the past. Making a team pay for pitching to you is how a hitter gets respect around the league and if Butler can come through in those situations they’ll start pitching around him and going after Perez. When two guys are hitting in the clutch, back-to-back, the other team is in a bind.
(The Twins chose to pitch to Billy with first open in the sixth inning of Wednesday’s game and once again, Butler made them pay; driving in Eric Hosmer from second base.)