JUDGING THE ROYALS

Twins' Albers effectively pounds strike zone against Royals

Updated: 2013-08-07T15:19:36Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

Big league pitchers can throw strikes more often than most of us realize. Once in a while they’re so wild they can’t find the zone, but it’s much more common for them to miss the strike zone because they want to or because they’re being too fine—trying to hit corners and missing. Take away the fear that a pitch over the plate will lose them the game and the smart pitchers get very aggressive about throwing strikes. Monday night Jeremy Guthrie got a lead and started pounding the strike zone, Tuesday night it was the Twins Andrew Albers doing the same thing.

The Royals gave up three runs in the top of the first inning and never got the tying run to the plate at any point in the game. That meant that Albers—making his major league debut—could throw strikes without fear that a mistake would cost him. If someone hit a ball over Rivals sports bar, he’d still have a lead. So Albers was aggressive and—by my scorebook—threw a first-pitch strike to 17 of the 29 batters he faced. Of those 17 batters who saw strike one, none of them walked and only one of them got a hit.

Since the tying run was never at the plate Albers could afford to be aggressive and get ahead in the count. After the game Ned Yost said Albers kept the ball down and mixed in just enough changeups and sliders to get the job done.

Billy Butler said the toughest thing he faces as a hitter is seeing a pitcher for the first time. Hitters can look at scouting reports and watch video, but until they stand there and see pitches live, they’re really not sure what a guy has. Once a guy’s been around a while, people figure out how to go after him. The Royals clearly didn’t get Albers figured out on Tuesday.

James Shields’ problem was being wild within the zone.

For the most part he could throw strikes—he walked two and hit one—but Shields couldn’t get the ball down in the zone and that led to three home runs, seven earned runs and a Royals loss. Even when he did manage to get the ball down in the zone, Shields said he couldn’t get a call. As James said afterwards: nuthin’ went right.

Tuesday night the Twins beat the Royals 7-0.

Game notes

• Shields threw 36 pitches in the first inning and that meant the Royals hitters had to take some pitches in the bottom of the inning just to give Shields some rest. Albers took advantage of the situation and pumped in strikes and that set the tone for the game.

• Justin Morneau got a 3-0 green light and hit the ball out of the park for a two-run homer. You generally see 3-0 green lights given to power hitters or good contact hitters when a runner’s in scoring position. The idea is to pick a spot in the zone, start your swing to that spot and finish the swing if the pitch is there. If not, shut your swing down and take the pitch.

• Billy Butler did not get a 3-0 green light in the ninth inning because he was not the tying run. At that point the score was 7-0 and the most Billy could have done was hit a 3-run homer. Even though Billy walked on four pitches and Alex Gordon wasn’t the tying run, the Royals left fielder swung at the first pitch he saw, fell behind in the count and eventually hit into a game-ending double play.

• The Royals were playing Jamey Carroll very shallow in centerfield and Carroll burned them with a fifth inning double. Lorenzo Cain did not appear to take a great route to the ball so it might have been the route and not the positioning that resulted in the double. Watch game three and see if the Royals back up a bit when Carroll comes to the plate.

• James Shields was called for a balk in the sixth inning for stepping toward home plate and attempting a pickoff at third. James said he completely disagreed with the call.

• If you’re looking for a silver lining, Will Smith relieved Shields and threw three scoreless innings. Ned Yost said Will is very good when he gets the ball on a downward plane and can get whacked around when the ball is flat. Smith finished the game and saved the Royals pen for tomorrow.

• Smith had a couple of very nice moments on the mound: in the eighth inning he came inside and jammed Chris Colabello for strike two. The pitch was a 94 MPH fastball and Colabello hit it foul to the opposite field. OK, so what’s a hitter thinking at that point?

Be quicker.

So Will threw him an 82 MPH slider and Colabello was out in front and popped it up. Same thing with Clete Thomas: he was late on 93 MPH fastball, so he’s probably thinking he needs to be quicker. So throw another slider and get him out in front for strike three. This pitching stuff is pretty simple—until you get a guy like Joe Mauer at the plate. You can pitch the lesser hitters the same way over and over, but the good guys adjust. If a guy like Mauer sees you pull the same trick over and over, he’ll sit on that slider and whack it. With the good ones, you have to keep changing what you do.

• It wasn’t much, but the Royals forced the Twins to use a reliever—Casey Fien—to finish the game. Everything matters: forcing the other team to use an extra pitcher might help you in the next game.

Blowout baseball

Monday night the Royals beat the Twins 13-0. Winning by that much can be trickier than you think. After two innings the Royals were up by six runs. Do you shut your running game down? Do you quit stealing bases or bunting or going first to third? When you’re blowing out the other team, what’s the correct baseball etiquette?

Talk to third-base coach Eddie Rodriguez and he throws a bewildering number of factors at you. What inning is it? Being up by six in the second inning isn’t like being up by six in the eighth. How about the pitcher? Is the guy on the mound dominating? 6-0 is different than 12-6. A score like 6-0 might mean your pitcher is dealing; a 12-6 score means you’re in a wild one and neither pitcher is able to hold down the other team’s offense. And what field are you on? If you’re playing in Colorado or in Wrigley with the wind blowing out, you better keep pouring it on; a six-run lead can disappear in a hurry.

There’s no magic formula that tells a team when to back off, but five runs late seems to be a guideline. If you’re up by five, a grand slam can’t beat you, but you can’t shut it down too early—teams do have five-run innings. Shut it down early, let the other team come back and beat you because you didn’t want to embarrass anybody and then miss the playoffs by one game? How dumb would you feel then?

And what about the team that’s getting beat? Their behavior is also a guideline: if they’re still stealing bases they’re saying one run is still meaningful, so you steal bases. That seems logical, but some teams expect the team that’s ahead to quit trying while the team that’s behind tries to catch up.

You can make the other team mad if you run up the score and make your own team mad if you don’t. Say a hitter who’s scuffling gets a two-out base hit and you don’t send the runner. Getting two-out base hits is hard and you just robbed your guy of an RBI so the other team wouldn’t get its feelings hurt. Say you hold the runner up and your guy ends the year with 99 runs batted in. Eddie said his guideline for sending a runner home in a blowout is if the runner can score standing up. If there’s a play at the plate the play was too close, come in standing and you’re not piling on. In the seventh inning Eddie had a pair of those decisions, Alcides Escobar drove in two with a single up the middle, then Justin Maxwell drove in Escobar. In both cases Eddie saw Twins center fielder Clete Thomas playing deep and thought the runners would score easily—he was right.

First-base coach Rusty Kuntz had his own decision in the seventh: Eric Hosmer was on second base with one down and Ned Yost had already given the sign to cool it on the bases. Rusty said it’s OK to tag up from third for an RBI, but tagging up from second to get third is considered rubbing it in. Rusty said he was two pitches late, but then sent Hosmer the "halfway" sign (don’t tag up on a fly ball, go halfway).

Talk to several guys and they tell you how tough this situation can be: there’s no hard-and-fast rule so everyone is doing it by feel. And what one guy feels might not be the same as what the next guy feels. Get it wrong, make the other team feel they’ve been disrespected—that you were running up the score—and somebody might get hit by a pitch.

And if that happens, you know you miscalculated.

(The Twins answered in the best way possible: you get shutout on Monday, come back and shut your opponent out on Tuesday.)

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