If you want to know what went wrong in Tuesday nights 4-0 loss to the Seattle Mariners, take a look at the bottom of the third and top of the fourth inningthe Royals had an opportunity to change the game and didnt take advantage.
By LEE JUDGE
The Kansas City Star
Seattles leadoff hitter, Brad Miller, swung at the first pitch he saw and hit a groundball to Eric Hosmer. One pitch, one out. Seattles number-two hitter, Abraham Almontewho should have been taking a pitchbunted the first pitch he saw and Bruce Chen picked the ball up and threw Almonte out at first base. Two pitches, two outs. So whats the third hitter, Kyle Seager, going to do?
Thats right, hes taking pitches. Seagers teammate, starting pitcher James Paxton, probably didnt have time to towel off his face and get a drink of water before his teammates had made two outs. The Royals had a chance to put Paxton back on the mound with almost no rest in the top of the fourth inning, but that didnt happen.
Bruce did not throw strikes to a hitter who wasnt going to swing the bat. Kyle Seager had to know he couldnt be up there hacking and put his pitcher back on the mound after three pitches. Bruce threw Seager six pitches; Seager never took the bat off his shoulder and was rewarded with a walk. Kendrys Morales singled and Chen had to throw four more pitches to strike out Franklin Gutierrez. Bruce Chen had a chance for a five-pitch inning, but instead threw 14 and that gave James Paxton a chance to rest.
Now look at the next half-inning:
Eric Hosmer took a called strike to start things and two pitches later, struck out. Three pitches, one out. Billy Butler chose to swing at the first pitch he saw. Four pitches, two outs. Seattle Mariner Kyle Seager took pitches to give his guy a chance to rest; what did Salvador Perez do? Swung at the second pitch he sawthe first strike he sawand, boom, just like that, Paxton was the one with the easy inning. Six pitches, three outs; Bruce Chen was right back on the mound. He had a stressful inning in the fourth and gave up a three-run homer in the fifth.
In a game where the opposing pitcher was dealing, the Royals did not take advantage of an opportunity. They didnt get Paxton back on the mound with no rest and, in fact, made sure hed get to throw an extra inning by giving him an easy fourth inning. Paxton threw seven, got the ball to the back end of the Mariners bullpen and made sure the Royals went scoreless in Seattle. Seattle 4, Kansas City 0.
An opportunity to change the game was missed.
The Morales double
A long run, but you dont quite get therethat might describe the Royals playoff chances or Lorenzo Cains attempt to catch Kendrys Morales game-changing double. It happened in the fifth inning: Royals starter Bruce Chen got the first two battersAbraham Almonte and Kyle Seagerand had Morales in a 1-2 count. When pitchers are ahead of hitters and have pitches they can afford to waste, there are a few tricks they can try: throw a breaking pitch in the dirt and see if the hitter will chase it, throw a fastball inside, back the hitter off the plate and then get him out down and away, or you can try climbing the ladderthrow a fastball above the strike zone and see if the hitter will swing.
Bruce Chen tried climbing the ladder.
He threw an 89-MPH fastball at the top of the strike zone, but Bruce didnt get it high enough. Morales stayed on top of the ball and hit it to centerfield. Lorenzo Cain gave chase, but he didnt quite get there. TV announcer Rex Hudler thought Cain "alligator-armed" itslang for not getting the arms fully extended. That sometimes happens when an outfielder approaches the wall and wants to avoid a collision. After watching the replay several times it did appear Cain never got his arm fully stretched out, but he was also a couple strides short of the warning trackhe had plenty of room. It also didnt look like Cain was slowing down; another sign a guy is avoiding a collision. No way of knowing what was in Lorenzos headCain did say he should have made the catchbut Lorenzo has shown no fear of the wall on other occasions. Whatever the reason, the ball dropped just beyond Lorenzo Cains glove and the inning continued.
Next, Franklin Gutierrez walked on four pitches. Coming into Tuesdays game Gutierrez was 3 for 12 off Bruce, but the number that jumps out at you is half those 12 at-bats were strikeouts. It didnt make any difference; Bruce walked him and got to Justin Smoak, a guy who had even less success against Chen2 for 11but with only two strikeouts.
Chen got Smoak into an 0-2 count and tried the same trickclimbing the ladderand once again Bruce didnt get the pitch high enough. It was 90 miles an hour coming in and something a little faster going out; Smoak hit a three-run homer and theres your ballgame.
• If the Royals didnt score at all, wouldnt the single run the Mariners put on the board in the first inning have been enough? Did the Justin Smoak home run really change the game? Yeah, it diddown by one run the Royals approach at the plate would be different than being down by four. Every Royals hitter who came to the plate in the top of the sixth inning took at least one called strike. Down by four with time running out, you need base runners and smart pitchers should take advantage of thatthey can pour in strikes knowing the hitters are more likely to be taking pitches.
• Seattle rookie pitcher James Paxton is 6 4" and throws over the top. That puts his ball on a downhill plane and that means hitters are seeing the top half of the ball and not much else. Hit the top half of the ball and youve just hit a grounder, and its hard to hit a ball for extra bases if its hit on the ground unless it goes right down one of the foul lines. Thats what Lorenzo Cains second-inning double did, but other than that, the Royals spent a lot of time either striking out or hitting groundballs.
• Chen tried to climb the ladder twice in the fifth and got burned both times. Hes made that trick work a lot, but in the big leagues everyone is paying attention, everyone is looking for patterns. Do the same thing too often and itll be in the scouting report and hitters will be looking for it. I dont if that was the case Tuesday night, but if I ever get to see a Mariners scouting report Ill let you know.
• The Royals didnt have a lot of opportunities, but Paxton looked like hed be hard to run on. Hes left-handed and looked quick to the plate the few times the Royals had a runner on first base.
• In the first inning Brad Miller was on second base with one down when Kyle Seager hit a fly ball to Lorenzo Cain in center. Miller went back to tag and after the catch was made, took a couple hard steps toward third base and then shut it down. You see this done ten thousand times a summer; the base runner is just making sure the outfielder makes his throw back to the infield under pressuremaybe hell throw the ball away.
• Kind of surprising that Chris Dwyer made his major-league debut in a game this important, but he did OKtwo scoreless innings, two hits, one walk, two strike outs. Generally speaking, guys making their major league debuts are a box of chocolates; you never know what youre going to get.
• In the fourth inning there was a pop fly hit down the right-field line and Justin Maxwell collided with the wall in an attempt to make the catch. You dont want to see a guy get hurt, but you do want to see that kind of effort. There arent 81 games left; the Royals are in the final sprint to the finish line. However slim, they still have a shot at the playoffs and guys should be hustling, diving for balls, breaking up double playswhatever it takes to win.
After the game Ned Yost was asked about his playoff chancesIm guessing hes a little tired of answering that questionand said the Royals would go just as hard as they could until someone tells them its over.
Putting my son to work
(Im staying up late, watching these West coast games with my son, Paul. Ive encouraged him to write for the web siteI aint doing this foreverand heres something he wrote after last nights game.)
Baseball games are won with runs; whoever scores more of them wins. So you might assume that scoring runs is the point of every at-batgetting runners on, getting them into scoring position, and getting them inthats the game plan. But how you go about scoring those runs and when you try to score them changes constantly.
Against an excellent pitcher, whos shown he wont give up many runs and will probably dominate a large percentage of his innings, the offense's approach might change. Scoring runs right now on a pitcher whos dealing is going to be an uphill battle. When your team is faced with this dilemma, another option presents itself : worry less about scoring runs right now, worry more about getting that pitcher out of the game.
Take pitches, work the count, drive up the starter's pitch total, and try to force him out of the game in the middle innings, before the other team can get to the back end of their bullpen. Even the most locked-in, on-fire version of Justin Verlander probably wont throw 20 pitches an inning for more than six inningsmanagers are unlikely to abuse an arm that valuableits a good way to lose a job. So get the starter out early and get the game to middle relief, then score the runs you need.
Middle relievers are generally the weakest part of any pitching staffthey werent good enough to be a starter or a set-up man or closerthese are the pitchers every offense wants to face. The quicker you get the starter out of the game, the quicker you get to face a team's most vulnerable pitchers.
On Tuesday night, the Royals did not do a good job of forcing Mariners' starter James Paxton out of the game early.
Alex Gordon led the game off five-pitch single, but Emilio Bonifacio and Eric Hosmer both had three pitch at-bats, and both swung at the first strike they saw. Bonifacio grounded into a double play and Hosmer got a hit, butas alwaysits process over results. Bonifacio's results were bad, Hosmer's good; but neither really at-bat pushed Paxton's pitch count.
In the second inning, Salvador Perez had another three pitch at-bat, grounding out on the first strike he saw. In the 4th, Hosmer had a three pitch at-bat, Billy Butler grounded out on the first pitch he saw, and Perez again swung at the first strike he saw, grounding out after a two-pitch at-bat. A six-pitch inning in the 4th more or less guaranteed another inning of work from Paxton later, giving him the opportunity to hang around longer and dominate the Royals offense for a larger portion of the game. And Paxton was dealing: he was able to get through seven shutout innings, handing a four-run lead to relievers Yoervis Medina and Danny Farquhar, who combined to finish off the shutout and seal the 4-0 Mariners' victory.
You probably cant say that the Royals should have come in to this game with a full-on "take" mindset. Paxton is a rookie who made only his fourth major-league start on Tuesday night and if Paxton had shown early signs of weaknessmissing spots, getting behind, or leaving pitches upthe Royals would be right to jump on an opportunity and take advantage of it.
But those three previous starts by Paxton were indicative of the talent that the Royals saw on Tuesday night: wins against Tampa Bay and St. Louis, and a good showing against Detroit that was lost late by Seattle's relievers (Paxton was forced out after only five innings pitchedmaybe those Tigers know a few things about offense). Paxton gave up only four earned runs combined in those three starts against elite teams. Add that to the fact that he's relatively unknown to the league, has never faced the Royals and doesn't have much video for the league to studyand then throw in the fact that he came out dealing against the Royalsand it becomes clear that Kansas City had trouble on their hands.
It might be an overused cliché, but its still true; baseball is a game of adjustments. With Paxton pitching aggressively and efficiently at the start of Tuesday's game, the Royals needed to make the adjustment and realize that runs would come much easier against Seattle's middle relievers. The six-pitch fourth inning, the early hacks at first pitches orat bestfirst strikes, the fact that no Royal saw more than six pitches against Paxton all night; all those factors combined to keep Paxton in the game longer. The longer Paxton stayed, the slimmer the Royals' chance of another comeback win became.
You never go into a game expecting to get dominated by the opposing starter, passing up cookies and mistakes pitches; but Paxton's small, yet significant, track record, and the much more important fact that he was dealing right here, right now, indicated that the Royals needed to make an adjustment on Tuesday night to try and force Paxton out of the game early.
Teams like the Yankees and Red Sox have been known to use this approach against good pitching. You're likely to see a slow-paced, three hour-plus game that features a lot of batters taking first pitches, working the count, fouling off pitchesall to drive up the opposing ace's pitch count. They recognize how good the pitcher is, how unlikely it is that he'll give up enough runs to lose the game, and they react accordingly. It's a slow, grinding, often unglamorous approach to offensebut it works. Boston and New York have been elite teams for a long time.
If those early swings result in 400-foot bombs, it looks great. But most nights, against a good pitcher like Paxton, that will not happen. Most nights, you will be scrapping and struggling to put together runs. Even if the Royals had gotten positive results out of those early swings, it wouldn't change the fact that the process of their plate approach was flawed, and went unadjusted throughout Paxton's seven innings.
The people who understand sports on a deeper level all say the same thing: it's process over results, every time. If you focus only on the resultswin or loss, hit or groundout, flyout or home runyou will never learn from your mistakes, and you will never get better. If you improve the process, good results will eventually come. The Royals may have just missed the playoffs because of Tuesday night's game and that game exposed a flaw in their offensive process against dominant pitching. The difference between going home early in 2013 and playing in October 2014 will lie in whether or not they can improve their process going forward.