Judging the Royals

If the Royals hit, things will get interesting

Updated: 2013-08-23T19:20:33Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

All season long the Royals have pitched well and played good defense. The question has been the offense: will it score enough to give the Royals a chance to win? Coming into this game the Royals were 44-9 when they scored more than three runs. Put a few runs on the board and the chances were good.

But the Royals weren’t hitting.

Now they are. Eric Hosmer finished the night at .298. Mike Moustakas is starting to look like the guy who hit 20 home runs last season , Alcides Escobar is starting to take the ball the other way and now has a six-game hitting streak, David Lough is at .298, Justin Maxwell has been a nice surprise and Miguel Tejada has been providing some offense from the second base position.

Some of the Royals recent success has been due to the schedule; they’ve been playing teams with losing records. That’s why this series against the Boston Red Sox held so much interest: if the Royals are for real, what could they do against a really good team?

So far, they’ve beaten them two times in a row, including Friday night’s 9-6 comeback win. If the Royals split this series, most people would think it was a pretty good series against a very good team. The Royals now have two shots at winning the series. If they can do that and then take the series from Miami, the five-game series in Detroit will be crucial. And it’s been a while since we’ve talked about a crucial series this late in the season.

If the Royals hit, things will get interesting.

Five and a third scoreless innings from the Royals bullpen

When the best starting pitcher on your team goes out and gives up nine hits, six runs and doesn’t make it out of the fourth inning, you generally lose. But good teams pick each other up; if the starter doesn’t have it, the bullpen comes in and slams the door and waits for the offense to get in gear. If the other guys score six, you score nine. If the pitcher is in a jam in the eighth, the defense turns a double play to get him out of it.

Right now the Royals are playing like a very good team.

When Ervin Santana left the game the Royals were down by three runs. When the starting pitcher departs, the score often dictates who comes out of the pen. Managers are generally not going to use their best relievers in a game they’re losing, so Ned Yost went to Francisley Bueno, a lefty the Royals just called up. Don’t miss what Bueno did: he threw two and a third scoreless innings and kept the Royals in the game until they could score some runs.

Once the Royals had their six-run sixth and a three-run lead, Yost could go to the guys he likes to use when the Royals are ahead and that meant Kelvin Herrera.

Kelvin pitched the seventh and appeared to struggle with command at first, leaving a changeup just a bit too up; Mike Napoli hit it into centerfield. Next up was Stephen Drew; if he got on, the tying run would be at the plate. On the second pitch of the at-bat, Herrera spiked a fastball in the dirt—a bad sign. When pitches are thrown in the dirt, they’re generally breaking pitches. Missing that badly with a fastball isn’t a confidence builder. But Herrera seemed to find it and started throwing 99 at the knees. He got Drew to strike out swinging and then got two fly balls to get out of the inning.

Next up was Tim Collins. He pitched the eighth and was brought in to face the left-handed Jacoby Ellsbury, the switch-hitting Shane Victorino, righty Dustin Pedroia and, if things got that far, lefty David Ortiz. Great game plan except Tim did the one thing he shouldn’t do; walk two guys to bring the tying run to the plate. And the tying run was righty Dustin Pedroia.

Collins was either lucky or good and got Pedroia to hit into a double play—the play of the game, according to Ned Yost. Once Collins got Ortiz to pop up, the game was as good as over; Greg Holland has been lights out and was lights out again Friday night; going 1-2-3 in the ninth and picking up his 31st save.

Game notes

• The Red Sox leadoff hitter, Jacoby Ellsbury, jumped on the first pitch of the game. When a pitcher has a devastating secondary pitch, like a slider or split-finger, hitters will go after the first hittable fastball they see. They want to avoid the "out" pitch they’ll see in a two-strike count.

• Santana got David Ortiz to pop the ball up down the right field line and it was so high three players had time to get under it. Outfielders always have priority on catching fly balls—they’re moving forward and infielders are moving back—so David Lough made the catch, but then fell asleep and allowed Shane Victorino to tag up and advance from second to third.

• Daniel Nava shot a ball past Eric Hosmer to drive in the game’s first run and you might wonder if the shorter infield grass had anything to do with it. The Royals have cut the grass down and made the infield surface faster. The other night Mike Moustakas got eaten up when a ball hit the lip of the infield and came up on him. Afterwards I asked how close he’d come to taking a shot in the face and Moose said: "It was so close I could smell the seams." If you’re a Royals fan, you just hope more balls skip past visiting infielders than the hometown guys.

• Early runs are not just a psychological boost, they change a pitcher’s strategy. When a pitcher has at least a two-run lead—as a long as there are no runners on—he can be as aggressive as he likes with the hitter. The tying run is still on-deck; even if the pitcher makes a mistake and the ball gets hit out of the park, the pitcher still has a lead. That’s why it makes managers crazy when a pitcher walks a guy to bring the tying run to the plate—the pitcher just gave away an advantage.

• Jacoby Ellsbury stole second base and Ervin Santana was part of the problem. Santana did not hold the ball in the set position and Ellsbury never stopped moving—he got a walking lead. Ervin pretty much let Ellsbury get a running start. Pitchers are creatures of habit and if they don’t mix it up, base runners will take advantage. Pitchers get so focused on the guy at the plate they often have to be reminded to pay some attention to the runner: the catcher will give a sign to the pitcher to mix it up, hold the ball in the set position, make the runner stop moving.

• With Justin Maxwell on first base, Jake Peavy kept throwing over and the crowd was booing him for doing so. But it probably wasn’t Peavy’s choice: these days most pitchers don’t go over to first base unless they get a sign from the catcher and the catcher probably gets it from the bench. So boo the bench coach calling for the pickoff.

• Bottom of the first and Billy Butler got a two-out hit. Two-out hits are not all equal: if a fast guy does it he can steal second and score on one more hit. If a slow guy gets the two-out single you might still be three hits away from scoring a run.

• Justin Maxwell started the Royals scoring with a home run to left and went on to get two more hits. The other day outfield coach Rusty Kuntz was working with the 6 foot, 5 inch, 220 pound Maxwell on his throwing motion and someone asked how it had gone. Rusty deadpanned: "Well, there’s just not much there to work with." (Rusty’s a funny guy.)Even around other ballplayers, Maxwell has an impressive physique and looks like he could play wide receiver in the NFL if this baseball thing doesn’t work out.

• Alcides Escobar continues to take the ball the other way and have success doing it—he’s now got a six-game hitting streak going. Ned Yost said Esky had been looping his swing (allowing the bat head to fall below the level of the pitch and then bringing it back up—a long slow trip to the ball) and now Esky’s staying on top (keeping the bat head above the ball until contact—a much more direct path to the ball). If you’re worried that Esky hasn’t hit a home run in a while—the last one was back in April—don’t. Hitting a home run right now might be the worst thing that could happen to him. You don’t want Esky going back to pulling and lifting the ball in order to hit one out.

• You might be able to tell the score of the game by how they pitch George Kottaras. If one run means anything, pitchers tend to not “give in” when George is at the plate. Kottaras is way strong and they know a mistake can leave the yard. So they’ll pitch him fine at the edges of the zone and even if they get to 3-0, they won’t throw a cookie down the middle; they’ll continue to try and hit the corners. If they walk him, they walk him. If pitchers have a multi-run lead, they’ll be much more aggressive about throwing Kottaras strikes.

• Santana threw a "get-me-over" slider to David Ortiz in the third inning and the "get-me-over" slider got over the fence: Ortiz crushed it. A get-me-over breaking pitch is one with less break, thrown when the pitcher wants a strike. The count was 3-2 and Santana did not want to walk Ortiz, so he threw a slider that would stay in the strike zone. The "bastard" slider is one that starts in the zone and then moves off the plate. That’s why pitchers want to get ahead in the count: so they can throw pitches that finish out of the strike zone.

And hanging sliders really get whacked. A hanging curve is at least a change of speed and there’s some chance a hitter will get out in front and pop it up. A slider that doesn’t break is just a mediocre fastball. I think it was Jim Palmer who said more balls have been hit a long ways off hanging sliders than any other pitch.

• The Royals had a couple base running mistakes that need to get cleaned up: Eric Hosmer got doubled off second on an Alex Gordon line drive and Mike Moustakas was down the line when David Lough hit a sacrifice fly. Moose had to hustle back and tag up and made the play at the plate closer than it should have been. Give credit to Hosmer for good base running because he advanced to second on the throw home.

Enjoy it

The Royals are currently 60-53. Last season they didn’t win their 60th game until September 2nd, this season they’re a month ahead of schedule. I’ve got no clue if the Royals will make the playoffs and I’m not sure how much I care—they’re playing interesting games and winning more than they lose.

Enjoy it—I know I will.

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