Judging the Royals

Jeremy Guthrie and eight pitches that changed the game

Updated: 2013-09-22T12:34:12Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

When a pitcher flies open that means his front shoulder—his glove-side shoulder—is rotating open too soon. That screws up his pitching mechanics and his throwing side is also affected; the ball tends to miss the strike zone. It happens so often, catchers have a sign for it: they tap their own shoulder to remind the pitcher to stay closed.

Apparently, Jeremy Guthrie was flying open in the third inning.

The inning started fine: Ian Kinsler grounded out on a 1-2 curve. Guthrie was throwing strikes, but then something went wrong; he threw eight straight balls. Guthrie threw Elvis Andrus a curveball, two changeups and a fastball; none of them found the strike zone. Next, Guthrie threw Alex Rios a slider, a changeup, a fastball and a sinker; none of them found the strike zone. The Texas Rangers had two runners on base through no fault of their own.

Good-hitting teams are like sharks; they can smell blood in the water. If Guthrie had suddenly lost command, a good-hitting team would let him work himself into trouble. Adrian Beltre took a sinker for a ball—Guthrie’s ninth in a row—and then a slider for a strike. And that may have changed Beltre’s thinking: if Guthrie had made the necessary adjustment to throw strikes, it might be time to hack with a runner in scoring position. We think we’re watching one game when we’re actually watching several; a team can go from being passive at the plate to being very aggressive at the plate in the space of one pitch.

Beltre took a sinker for ball two and then jumped on the next pitch; another sinker. The ball got past Guthrie on the mound, but seemed like it was going to be an inning-ending double play ball. It was headed right to Emilio Bonifacio—until it hit second base. The ball stayed down and continued on into centerfield. Elvis Andrus scored and Alex Rios went to third. Rios then came home on an A.J. Pierzynski sacrifice fly. The Rangers were up 3-0 and that was enough to win this one, despite Eric Hosmer’s ninth-inning home run.

The Rangers beat Kansas City by two runs and those runs came on walks and those walks came on eight pitches—eight pitches that changed the game.

Game notes

• In the first inning Ian Kinsler tripled with nobody out and Kansas City did not bring its infield in to prevent the run at the plate. Bringing the infield in that soon—one batter into a game—would tell you the manager on the defensive side of the ball thinks it’s going to be a low-scoring game and one run might really matter. You bring the infield in early when you have a couple studs on the mound.

Bring the infield in too early and you can give up a big inning when routine grounders become hits through a drawn-in infield. Kinsler scored when the next batter—Elvis Andrus—hit a groundball to short. It turned out the Royals could have covered that run, but not the two walks in the third.

• In the fourth inning Matt Garza walked Billy Butler on four straight pitches. When that happens it may not be a sudden loss of control; Garza didn’t walk anybody else all night, so it might have been a pitcher working around a hitter. Coming into the game Butler had hit .400 off Garza and lined out in his first at-bat. With two outs Garza may have figured it was better to walk Billy and let the Royals see if they could move him around the bases with two or three more hits.

Garza probably wouldn’t have done that with no outs—too many opportunities to move Billy around the bases—and in fact went right after Butler when he led off the seventh. Garza also couldn’t have worked around Butler late in the game—assuming Billy’s run meant something—because the Royals would pinch run. Big league pitchers use open bases to avoid certain hitters more often than I previously supposed.

• Texas closer Joe Nathan got his 40th save in 43 chances, so once the Rangers got the ball to him in ninth inning with a lead, the odds weren’t good. It’s the same thing we’ve seen with Greg Holland: when a team has a dominant closer, the important innings are the ones before the dominant close comes in the game—by then things are probably over.

• So where did the Royals have a chance to score before Nathan came in to close? They only had five hits and one walk, so their opportunities were limited, but they had runners in scoring position in the fifth and eighth innings.

With two outs in the fifth, Jarrod Dyson tripled, but Alcides Escobar struck out looking. With one out in the eighth, Esky doubled. Alex Gordon then lined out—can’t fault him there—but Emilio Bonifacio was called out looking. Both Escobar and Bonifacio took four-seam fastballs for called strikes. And that was pretty much it for scoring opportunities.

• One of the main ways a pitcher limits a hitter’s power is by pitching him away: most hitters have to pull the ball to hit it out of the park. Here’s what Matt Garza had to say about Eric Hosmer and his ninth-inning home run to left-field: "Left a fastball up to Hosmer, and it was impressive. He went opposite field—just a strong kid."

Matt Garza gets why that’s special and so should Royals fans. They should also enjoy Hosmer while he’s here; if he keeps hitting the way he did his first season and the last part of this season, it will be hard to keep Eric Hosmer in Kansas City. The Royals have a window of opportunity while they still control some of these young players.

• After the game Ned Yost was asked about the Royals post-seasons chances and it was suggested that, when you look at the math, they’re not good. Ned said he doesn’t look at the math; he just goes day-to-day. That’s a pretty common attitude among ballplayers. The media likes to ask about the future; players tend to focus on the moment. If they start thinking about what’s next, they screw up what’s happening now.

When he was still here I asked Elliot Johnson about this and he said ballplayers figure they need to win around 90 games against somebody and unless you’re trying to catch a divisional rival, it doesn’t much matter who you beat 90 times. Keep it simple: there’s a game tonight, go out and win it.

• OK, if you buy in to the ballplayer’s attitude—win today and don’t worry about anything else—that means they need to win today. It’s 6:15 AM on Sunday morning and Kansas City is currently three and a half games out of the wild card with eight games left to go. They need to win today because they’re running out of tomorrows.

Stay off the grass

(Today’s game is the last regular-season home game and that also makes it your last regular-season chance to P.O. a Kansas City Royals grounds keeper. Here’s one that’s been around a while.)

If you ever get to go down on the field at a big league ballpark, stay on the dirt area that separates the grandstands from the grass. If you’re talking to a player it’s OK to be on the grass, but mere mortals are expected to stand on dirt. If a member of the grounds crew sees you lollygagging on their green stuff, they’ll ask you to pass the time of day while standing on dirt because foot traffic wears out grass.

Any part of the field that sees a lot of foot traffic has problems and the guys who keep the grass green can tell you where those problem areas tend to be. The Kansas City dugouts have three openings on to the field. The catcher tends to use the first entrance, the pitchers use the one in the middle and the other seven players come and go using the dugout entrance closest to the outfield.

And a losing team beats up the grass more than a winning team. (I’ve written this before, but it’s been a while and it’s a pretty cool thing to know.) Losing teams make more trips to the mound to find out what the hell is wrong with the pitcher, so the grass between home plate and the pitcher’s mound and the pitcher’s mound and the dugout, take a beating. A losing team also plays the bottom of the ninth more often, so lose 18 home games and it’s like scheduling an extra game on the field.

During the All-Star break the Royals switched out the infield grass and it’s now Bermuda—a strain that likes the heat. The outfield grass is blue grass, doesn’t like the heat so much, but because the outfield is such a big area compared to the infield, the wear doesn’t show as much. But no matter where you’re standing—if you’re not a player—the grounds crew would appreciate it if you stayed off the grass.

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