Judging the Royals

The Royals lose a weird one, 2-0

Updated: 2013-08-21T05:35:14Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

Coming into Tuesday night’s game against the White Sox, Gordon Beckham had hit .178 off Ervin Santana. By game’s end that batting average had gone down to .174. But six pitches into the first inning Ervin hung a slider to Beckham and the ball was hit almost 400 feet. Bad matchup or not, the White Sox were up 1-0.

Then things got weird.

With Paul Konerko on third base and Avisail Garcia on first, catcher Salvador Perez whiffed on a Santana pitch. The passed ball went to the backstop—and then through the backstop. It hit one of the rotating signs behind home plate and appeared to tear a hole in the sign’s fabric and go through it. The ball simply disappeared and everyone stood around looking at each other, trying to figure out what the heck had just happened. Konerko—who was not trying to score on the passed ball—eventually headed for home. Garcia who had moved to second on the passed ball, came all the way around to third base.

The umpires figured out what happened, ruled a dead ball and awarded the runners one base—Konerko scored and Garcia was sent back to second. But the weirdness continued: Conor Gillaspie lined out to right fielder Justin Maxwell and Justin threw the ball home. But there was no runner on third tagging up. Somehow the fact that Garcia had been sent back to second base didn’t register and Maxwell made the wrong throw—but Garcia wasn’t tagging up at second base either.

Next Dayan Viciedo hit a groundball to Alcides Escobar and Garcia decided to try for third when he clearly had no chance. Esky flipped the ball to Jamey Carroll at third base and Garcia was out. The weirdness then continued in the third inning—Chris Getz was doubled off—and the eighth inning—Chris Getz was picked off. Afterwards manager Ned Yost talked about his team’s frustration at not playing better when it mattered. The Royals are running out of time and when their pitching holds a team with a losing record to just one earned run, they need to take advantage. They didn’t.

The Royals lose a weird one to the White Sox, 2-0.

Game notes

*Santana hung a slider to Beckham and then threw a couple great sliders to the next hitter, Alexei Ramirez. Pitchers will sometimes lose the feel for a pitch and then regain it an inning or two later. If you ever wonder why a guy doesn’t throw a certain pitch in a certain situation it may be because he just doesn’t have the feel for that pitch at that moment.

*In the second inning Josh Phegley had an eight-pitch at-bat and flew out to center field. In the third inning Alejandro De Aza had a 12-pitch at-bat and struck out. In the fourth inning Paul Konerko had a nine-pitch plate appearance and walked. In the sixth inning Avisail Garcia had nine-pitch at-bat and struck out. Even though those plate appearances only gave the White Sox one runner, they were doing damage. Ervin Santana was throwing too many pitches to stick around for long.

*After the game Ned Yost talked about Santana making it through six innings when that seemed unlikely early on. Ned pointed out that Santana making it through six saved his bullpen an extra inning of pitching for Wednesday’s game. Ned probably ought to thank the White Sox.

Even though they were running up Santana’s pitch count in almost every other inning, the Sox saw a total of seven pitches in the fifth. De Aza saw three, Beckham saw two and Ramirez walked to the plate and hacked at the first thing he saw. When a pitcher gets through the first two batters so quickly, it’s usually a good policy to take at least one strike.

*Kelvin Herrera was one of the relievers who came out of the pen and had a very good inning. He threw a 98 MPH fastball to De Aza and then followed that with an 87 MPH changeup. That produced a pop fly to Alcides Escobar. A couple fastballs followed by a couple changeups also got an infield pop out of Gordon Beckham. And it only took one pitch—and 81 MPH curve—to get a groundball out of Alexei Ramirez.

When Herrera throws all his pitches hitters have to cover three velocities, three trajectories and whatever location Herrera hits. That’s much easier than hitting a bunch of fastball all thrown at the same speed.

*If you wondered about Jarrod Dyson coming out to run for Billy Butler in the ninth inning—Jarrod did not represent the tying run—the move was made to stay out of the double play. Dyson stole second, but even if he’d stayed on first base he gave the Royals a better chance of breaking up a double play.

A good day at the plate, a bad one on the base paths

Chris Getz went two for three and the one out he made was a line drive—but he also made two outs on the base paths. In the third inning with nobody out and Jamey Carroll at the plate, Getz took off for second base and got a great jump. It was not a hit and run, it was a stolen base.

When a runner takes off and the hitter has two strikes, the runner needs to look in to the plate—with two strikes a hitter probably won’t take a pitch, no matter how great the runner’s jump is. So the runner needs to be aware that the ball may be put in play. The jump had Getz almost all the way to second and the ball was hit to right center and Getz had difficulty picking up the ball. At first it looked like it was going to be down for a hit, but because the Sox were playing shallow on Carroll, centerfield Alejandro De Aza made the catch and doubled Getz off first. Afterwards Getz said he could live with that play—his jump got him too far off first—but said he was beating himself up over the next one.

In the eighth inning with Getz on first base, the Royals had a hit and run on. Pitcher John Danks caught Chris leaning the wrong way and picked him off. Getz was asked if the pick off was a balk, but he wouldn’t use that as an excuse. Chris said that with left-handed pitchers you have to wait a long time before breaking for second and he made his move a beat too soon. Getz said that Danks caught him flat-footed.

The Royals didn’t have much going against Danks all night long and the two plays on Getz cost them a couple chances to get an inning going. Even though Ned Yost said Getz is one of his most reliable base runners, he also said those plays just can’t happen.

Luke Hochevar’s mind games

During the last home stand Luke Hochevar pitched an inning against the Boston Red Sox. He got the third out of the inning when he struck out Mike Napoli on a 98 MPH fastball. 98—as in two less than 100. The next morning I told Luke that was the hardest I’d ever seen him throw and he grinned and said the sell-out crowd had him pumped up. Things were rocking and he really let that one go.

The conversation drifted all over the place and wound up in the vicinity of Jason Kendall; Luke said Kendall had taught him a lot of baseball in the short time they worked together. When Kendall first came over to the Royals, Luke ran into him in the video room and asked Jason what he looked for when he watched videos of hitters. An hour later Hoch’s head was hurting form all the information Jason had stuffed in it. Jason knew what hitters did when they were ahead, behind or even in the count. He knew what they’d done in the previous series, when you could go back and throw the same pitch to the same hitter, who you had to adjust on, when you could use a guy’s aggressiveness against him and who you might want to work around. Luke had never seen anyone with that kind of pre-game preparation. It didn’t take long before Luke told Jason: you just put the fingers down and I’ll throw whatever you call.

I said I thought Jason’s attitude about pre-game preparation came from his dad, Fred Kendall. Jason’s dad played over 10 years in the big leagues and was the Royals bullpen coach when Luke made his debut. Luke was about to pitch in the big leagues for the first time and had finished his warm ups in the bullpen. He flipped Fred the ball and headed for the mound. As Hochevar was leaving the bullpen Fred Kendall said: "Hey, kid, do me a favor—don’t look up."

Hoch jogged out onto the field wondering what the hell that meant, got to the mound, took his position on the rubber and then did exactly what Fred Kendall told him not to do: he looked up. The size of the crowd and the stadium was overwhelming. Hochevar had never pitched in front of that many people. Fred Kendall wanted Luke to focus on the task at hand; hitting the catcher’s mitt. By looking up Luke had let his mind wander and focus on the size of the crowd.

So you can screw up by allowing your mind to wander off the task at hand. Just to make things more complicated; you can also screw up by getting too focused on the task at hand. Hochevar has had his struggles so he would make an adjustment and that would work—for a while. Then it wouldn’t. That had Luke totally confused.

After a few bad starts in a row, Luke went to Jason Kendall and asked what he should do. Jason told him to drive a different way to the ballpark the next day. The advice didn’t make sense to Hochevar, but he had come to trust Kendall. The next day Luke spent an hour getting to Kauffman Stadium. He was lost and looking at his GPS to figure out where the hell he was. Once he got there, Kendall asked him to describe the route he took—don’t think about the game, tell me how you got here.

Luke pitched seven shutout innings that night.

Finding the right mindset isn’t easy. The drive to the park got Luke to quit thinking about his mechanics. Thinking about when his hands separated wasn’t helping: once again he was thinking about the wrong thing. His mind was in the wrong place.

So what’s he doing now?

He’s decided to focus on what he’s seeing: visualize a curve snapping down and hitting the mitt. Forget about how it’s going to happen, just make it happen. Keep it simple: focus on the mitt and then put the white thing you’re holding into the brown thing behind the plate. Let your body do what it’s been trained to do.

Whatever he’s doing, right now it’s working: Luke Hochevar currently has a 1.94 ERA. And not thinking about how that’s happening is part of the secret to making that happen.

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