Tori Hunter has been in the big leagues for 17 years; the guy knows a thing or two. You hear stories about Hunter deking base runners by pretending he will catch ball he wont, or pretending he wont catch a ball he will. Torii will take a bad hack at a pitch early in the gamewhen theres no one on basehoping to get that same pitch later in the game, when theres a runner in scoring position. Torii Hunter is a veteran ballplayer who knows how to play the game and you wont get a better example of that than the fifth inning of Friday nights loss to the Detroit Tigers.
By LEE JUDGE
The Kansas City Star
Lets back up and see what happened in that inning.
Alex Avila led off with a walknever a good thing. Next, Jose Iglesias hit a fly ball to centerfield and there was one out. With Austin Jackson at the plate, Bruce Chen bounced a pitch in the dirt and catcher Salvador Perez blocked it. That appeared to be important after Jackson doubledif Sal doesnt block the pitch, Avila would have scored on the Jackson doubleas it was the Tigers had runners on second and third with one down.
First base was open, but heres the problem: youve got to pitch to Torii Hunter when Miguel Cabrera is in the on-deck circle. Chen pulled a veteran move; in a 2-1 fastball count, Bruce threw Hunter an off-speed pitchan 82-MPH slider. Hunter pulled a veteran move of his own; he stayed back and drove the off-speed pitch to right fieldhe wasnt fooled. Avila came home from third, but right fielder David Lough had a shot at Jackson who was trying to score from second. Loughs throw was way off line; both runs scored and Hunter read the bad throw and moved up to second base.
With first once again open, Chen intentionally walked Cabrera. With the Tigers, you have to pick your poison; Chen avoided a guy who has hit .410 off him to get to Prince Fielder, a guy who has hit .318. and had homered in his last at-bat. Thats when Hunter pulled another veteran move.
With Fielder at the plate, the Royals were playing a left-handed shift that had third baseman Mike Moustakas well off the line. While Bruce was staring in, getting the signs from Perez, Hunter took off for thirdeverybody was caught flat-footed. Perez jumped up and started waving his glove at Chen, but Bruce continued to stare in trying to figure out what Perez was doing. Chen finally figured out something bad was happening and tried to throw the ball to third, but there was no one there. The broadcast never showed a great view of Moustakas, but he appeared to get a late jump and Hunter beat him to third base. In the process of stepping off the rubberor notChen balked and Cabrera was awarded second.
Ned Yost came out of the dugout and the umpires explained their ruling, but it appeared a veteran player had just taken advantage of a young andat least temporarilyconfused team. One bad thing often leads to another, so of course Fielder singled and drove in both runs. The Tigers scored their fifth and sixth runs, thanks to a veteran move by Torii Hunter.
The Detroit Tigersa team thats been there and done thatbeat the Kansas City Royals, 6-3.
• Once again the Tigers appeared to dump a bunch of sand around first base, trying to slow down the Royals base stealers. The infield dirt was one color; the sand was much lighter: why make it obvious? Couldnt they get the colors to match?
It may be the Tigers want the Royals to know the footing over by first is bad. Put that in a players head and you may shut down his running game. Whether the sand had anything to do with it or not, Emilio Bonifacio was thrown out trying to steal and Jarrod Dyson was picked off. Alcides Escobar did steal third in the seventh inning, but no one stole second until the ninth. It was Dyson and that takes some nerve: down by three with one out in the ninth you better be safeDyson was.
• In their last game the Royals ambushed Cleveland starting pitcher, Scott Kazmir. On Wednesday Alex Gordon hacked at the first pitch Kazmir threw and hit a home run. If the Gordon had any thought of doing the same thing to Justin Verlander, the Detroit starting pitcher messed up the plan by throwing the first pitch of the gamea 94 MPH fastballon the outer half of the plate. When a hitter is ambushing hes probably looking to do damage: he wants a pitch he can drive, not a pitch he can serve to the opposite field for a single. If a hitter is looking to ambush that first pitch, hell probably spit on a pitch away.
• Friday night it appeared the Tigers were the ones ambushing and they were doing it to Bruce Chen. In the first inning Austin Jackson swung at the first pitch he saw, doubled and moved to third on Alex Gordons error (more on that in a moment). Torii Hunter swung at the first pitch he saw and drove in Jackson on a groundout to short. Miguel Cabrera swung at the first pitch he saw and hit a groundball to third. And, finally, Prince Fielder swung at the first strike he saw and wound up striking out. But the Tigers got what they wanted: they came out swinging and grabbed a lead.
• Jacksons double was hit on an 83-MPH sinker. With Chen on the mound, the corner defenders need to be ready: Bruce is floating some pretty low-velocity stuff up there and when he has them out in front hitters are likely to pull pitches down the lines.
• Alex Gordon got his first error of the season and probably shouldnt have. Austin Jackson jumped on Bruce Chens first pitch and pulled it down the left field line. Gordon raced over, tried to backhand the ball, but didnt get there in time and it got past him. If that plays an error, then it would seem every groundball just out of the reach of an infielder is an error.
• Billy Butler has owned Justin Verlander andaccording to the TV guysVerlander has said he doesnt mind because Billy just hits a lot of singles and then clogs the bases. Billy hit two more singles off Verlander and the second one drove in Alex Gordon.
After Butlers first single Prince Fielder looked toward his dugout, crossed his wrists then pointed down. Heres what that meant: crossing the wrists means playing behind the runner. Prince was asking if he should play behind Billy or stay on the bag (thats what pointing down meant) and hold Butler on first base.
• Heres part of the problem when facing Verlander: in the second inning David Lough got a 96-MPH fastball and fouled it straight back. That tells a pitcher the hitters timing was on, but he was under the ball. At that point a lot of pitchers will climb the ladderthrow the next pitch higheror change speeds. Verlander changed speeds. Lough went from a 96-MPH fastball to an 81-MPH curve. Thats a lot of territory to cover and Lough rolled over the curve and hit a routine 4-3 groundball to end the inning.
• Andy Dirks singled on a ball to Emilio Bonifacio and Eric Hosmer saved 90 feet when he kept the bounced throw in front of him. That kept the double play in order, which should have matteredbut first base umpire John Hirschbeck missed a call.
Omar Infante hit a double-play ball to Alcides Escobar, Esky flipped the ball to Bonifacio at second base and Emilios throw came in high at first. Andy Dirks had something to do with that: Dirks can run and he got to second base fast enough to affect Emilios throw. Hosmerwhos tall to begin withhas a pretty good wing span and went up on one toe to catch the ball. Eric left the bag temporarily, but replays show he came back down on it before Infante reached first base. It didnt matter; Hirschbeck called Infante safe.
• Ballplayers say defense is about feet; if they get you to the right spot, catching the ball is easy. Watch Eric Hosmer around first base and you get more and more impressed with his footwork.
• They were throwing around Jarrod Dysons road average on the broadcast, but its always good to remember that when you talk about a players road average or what he hits at night or on alternate Tuesdays; youre ignoring every other factor. The pitchers involved, the defense on the field, the conditionsetc. etc. etc.they all matter. Every piece of information tells you something, no piece of information tells you everything.
• When a guy with speed comes to the plate; check the third baseman. Hell tell you what the defense thinks the fast guy will do. If the third baseman is in, theyre worried about the bunt. In Dysons case Miguel Cabrera was in until Jarrod had two strikes, then Cabrerano longer worried that Dyson would buntcould move back.
• When Bruce Chen is pitching well, heres the kind of at-bat hitters have: Torii Hunter was at the plate and the first pitch was an 85-MPH sinker for a ball. Pitch two was a 76-MPH changeup and Hunter fouled it off. Pitch three was 86-MPH and Hinter swung through it. Pitch four was 74 miles an hour, but a ball. Pitch five was another 74-MPH changeup and Hunter swung and missed. When Ned Yost says Bruce is a master of changing speedsslowing hitters bats down, then speeding them upthis is what he means.
There may be fifteen games left in the season, but for all intents and purposes, the Royals are now involved in playoff baseball. Theyre in the hunt and when teams are in a position to go to the post-season, they start to do things they might not do otherwise; pitchers are pulled earlier or asked to throw on short rest. Closers might be asked to get four outs, which is what happened in this game. Jim Leyland went to Joaquin Benoit with two outs and the bases loaded in the eighth. Benoit struck out David Lough to end the threat.
Pull your starters early all season and youll burn out your pen. Ask your closer for more than three outs on a regular basis and he may not be available as often as youd like. But when you get down to the end, when theres no longer eighty one games left to go, managers may start to do a few things differently. Long-distance runners keep a steady pace for most of the race, but still have a finishing kick. Bruce Chen stayed in this game long enough to give up six runs, after that the best bullpen in the American League was lights out. Watch and see if Ned Yost starts going to that pen sooner than normal in this final stretch.
That might have been a good move Friday night.