By LEE JUDGE
The Kansas City Star
There are three kinds of hops in baseball: the long hop, the short hop and the dreaded in-between hop. The long hop is the easiest one to catch and ballplayers use it intentionally; if they’ve got a long throw to make and can’t get it there on the fly, they might intentionally bounce the ball on the way to the target. The guy catching the ball sees the bounce and has plenty of time to adjust to the ball’s trajectory.
The short hop is not quite as easy to deal with; in this one the ball bounces inches in front of the glove and the guy catching the ball tries to smother the hop by moving his glove forward; as close as possible to the spot where the ball will bounce.
And that brings us to the in-between hop. It’s just what it sounds like: too close for the guy catching the ball to have much time to react to the hop, too far away to smother. That’s the hop Salvador Perez had to handle Saturday night.
Let’s start at the beginning of the ninth inning: the Royals scored one run in the first and after that, the pitching on both teams went into lockdown mode. The score was still 1-0 when Greg Holland came in at the start of the ninth to try and get his 43rd save. Holland had to get Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez and Andy Dirks—but things didn’t go according to plan.
Prince Fielder could tie the game with one swing, so Holland started him with a slider. Hitters might try to ambush the first pitch of an at-bat, but they probably want to ambush a fastball. Pitchers know this, so they throw a weaker version of one of their breaking pitches—a version they can control—a get-me-over slider or curve. But Holland didn’t get this slider over; he missed. After that Prince got nothing but fastballs, the count moved to 3-0 and Fielder was given the green light. Detroit manager Jim Leyland also knew Fielder could tie the game with one swing and decided to let Prince try. Fielder fouled the ball off, but then walked on the next pitch.
Detroit had nobody out, the tying run on first base, but Jim Leyland did not pinch run for Fielder. There must be web sites devoted to the Tigers and I’m guessing there are people saying Leyland is incompetent for not pinch running in this situation. But, even though Prince is a big guy—OK, a huge guy—if you watch a few games with the Tigers, Fielder will impresses you with his athleticism. There must be faster guys on the Detroit bench, but if you’re not going to steal second—and remember Detroit had put sand around first base to slow down the Royals—Leyland must have figured Fielder was the best guy for the situation. I’m assuming Leyland knows his ball club better than anybody and for whatever reason, he stuck with Fielder.
With the 5’ 11" 275 pound tying run on first base, Holland got a fly ball from Victor Martinez for the first out. Greg then struck out Andy Dirks for the second out of the inning. The count then ran to 2-2 on second baseman, Omar Infante. Had the count run to 3-2, the Tigers probably tie the game because Fielder would have been running on the pitch. Holland hung that 2-2 pitch—a slider—but if he’d hung it one pitch later—on a 3-2 count—the Royals probably have to go to extra innings. With two outs and runners on, pitchers want to force the action before the count goes full. Holland did and that might have saved the game.
Infant banged the hung slider down into the left-field corner and Alex Gordon chased it down. Gordon came up throwing and hit shortstop Alcides Escobar, who had come over the left-field line to relay the throw home. Gordon’s throw hit Escobar on his glove side and that’s a big deal; hit a relay man on the glove side and he can turn and throw in one motion. Put the same throw on the relay man’s arm side and he’s got to redo his footwork and that takes time. Esky turned to make his throw while Fielder headed for home. Hold Fielder up at third and the Tigers would have been asking for another two-out hit off Greg Holland, not a good bet—better to take your chances by sending Fielder. Escobar had to get the ball to home plate as quickly as possible, but Fielder—a wide body—was in the way, so Alcides put the ball on the foul-territory side of home plate.
But Escobar gave catcher Salvador Perez an in-between hop—and that could have cost the Royals the ballgame.
After the game Perez said he couldn’t see the ball; Fielder was in the way. Perez stuck his glove out in the area where he hoped the ball was going—it hit his mitt and stuck. Ballplayers who can do this—handle all kinds of hops successfully—are said to have sweet hands. Perez handled the toughest kind of hop you can get, secured the ball and dove back toward home plate to tag Fielder. Game over: the Royals beat the Tigers, 1-0.
But only because Sal’s sweet hands saved the day.
• In Saturday’s post I wondered if Ned Yost would start going to the pen earlier in the final 15 games. Saturday night, he did. A manager can’t go to the bullpen early all season; he’d wear them out. But in the last two weeks—with a playoff spot on the line—a manager can change his approach. Ned pulled Santana in the seventh after 83 pitches.
• I don’t know that all managers would agree, but when I was trying to learn how to handle pitchers, Clint Hurdle gave me this bit of wisdom: better an inning too soon than an inning too late, better a batter too soon than a batter too late, better a pitch too soon than a pitch too late. If you’re thinking about it, do it. You’re thinking about it for a reason; if you don’t trust your gut, you’ll probably regret it.
• Emilio Bonifacio was picked off first base and was then ejected from the game by first base umpire, James Hoye. Sometimes an ejection stems from an earlier play and earlier in the game Hoye appeared to miss a call that robbed Bonifacio of extra bases. Emilio lined a ball toward Prince Fielder and it appeared to tip Fielder’s mitt before landing foul. Hoye had turned to follow the flight of the ball and appeared to miss the fact that Fielder touched it—if he did. And it also appeared (lots of appearances in this one) that Bonifacio was safe on the pickoff. So it wouldn’t be surprising if Bonifacio said something, although Emilio says he didn’t—he just threw his helmet and started toward the dugout. If that’s all Bonifacio did, that’s three bad calls by umpire James Hoye.
• That was yet another pickoff in this series by Detroit pitchers. That sand they put around first base works both ways; it makes it hard for runners to take off for second, but also makes for bad traction if the runner’s headed back to first.
• Chris Getz came out to replace Bonifacio in this game, but don’t be surprised if Bonifacio replaces Getz long-term. I have no idea what the Royals are thinking, but it appears that Emilio is getting a long look at second base.
• Getz has been banged up a lot and that brings us back to Prince Fielder: if I heard the TV guys right, last night was Fielder’s 491st consecutive game. Staying healthy is a big deal; no matter how good you are, if you can’t stay on the field, you’re not helping the team.
When I was still using Ron Polk’s player evaluation system some readers would get mad that it awarded points for just playing—it didn’t, you had to do something while playing to get system points—but, obviously, guys who stayed on the field had a better chance to end up with points than guys sitting on the bench. In a big-league, 162 game season staying healthy is a major factor. I talked to Ron about scoring his system and asked: what if your best player is hurt all the time?
Ron gave me an old-time baseball guy answer: if he ain’t on the field, he ain’t your best player.
• Torii Hunter was at the plate and called for time with an 0-2 count, but did it very late—but Hunter still got time called. When a batter calls for time late, you might want to think about how long he’s been in the big leagues: a veteran is more likely to get late time called. A rookie who calls for late time might not get it. It may not be fair, but it still happens.
• Eric Hosmer is currently hitting .305 with 76 RBIs. The MLB TV guys thought Hosmer would be having an MVP-type year if not for his cold start in April and May.
Beware of catchers late in the game
The other day I got a call from Russ Morman. Russ is now the hitting coach for the San Francisco Giants’ Triple A team and had finished his season and was now looking to kill some time by talking to me. Trust me, I can kill some time for you and Russ knows this.
During an hour-long conversation Russ said a lot of interesting stuff, but here’s the one I want to share: beware of catchers late in a ball game. They’re tired as hell and really don’t want to go to extra innings. Russ said he’s seen catchers do amazing things late in games: they’ll get a big hit, drop a bunt, break up a double play or run over the other catcher—anything to avoid putting that gear back on and playing another inning.
They might even make a great play at the plate.