On Tuesday night, Kansas City lost 11-3 to the Oakland Athletics after having won eight games in a row. Wednesday afternoon in the clubhouse, a reporter wanted to know how the Royals were going to keep that single game from turning into a losing streak.
Wednesday night, the answer seemed pretty simple: Put Jason Vargas on the mound.
The Royals left-hander held the A’s to three hits, threw a complete-game shutout, used only 97 pitches to do so and did it all in two hours and six minutes. As a matter of fact, Vargas pitched so quickly, some of his teammates sat around afterward in the clubhouse, wondering what to do with their night off.
The Royals’ one-game losing streak is over.
The Royals have 43 games left. They probably are going to lose a couple more, and when they do, we should all try our best not to panic. This is baseball. If you win five out of every nine games, you’re probably going to the playoffs.
The Royals beat the A’s 3-0.
First inning: Vargas threw a curveball down in the zone to Josh Donaldson, but the A’s third baseman went down and got it, lifting the ball into the left-center gap. Because the pitch was a 75-mph curve, no one was there to catch the ball.
Outfielders are positioned to catch fastballs put in play because the fastball is the most common pitch — Vargas throws his a little more than 57 percent of the time — and they can’t reposition themselves each time the catcher calls for something off-speed.
After Donaldson’s double, Alcides Escobar saved a run when he kept a Jonny Gomes ground ball on the infield. Esky dived but couldn’t throw Gomes out at first. But Alcides did keep Donaldson from making the turn at third and heading for home. Donaldson never crossed the plate, and the score remained 0-0.
Bottom of the first: Nori Aoki singled and then did the right thing on an Omar Infante line drive to the Oakland first baseman: Aoki headed back to first base. Had Nori hesitated, the A’s would have turned a double play. He eventually wound up at third base, and the Royals got a shot with a runner in scoring position. They didn’t cash in, but you had to appreciate the effort.
Second inning: Josh Willingham walked, and at least two of the pitches looked well within the borders of the strike zone, but both pitches were curves. Curveballs can fool hitters and umpires, so a pitcher needs to think about that before throwing one in a crucial situation. He might throw a great one and still not get the call.
Third inning: Infante homered on a 2-0 fastball. It’s a bit of a simplification, but good pitchers come into the zone early in the count, get ahead and then move to the corners. Pitchers who are scuffling tend to nibble at the corners, fall behind and then come into the heart of the zone later in the count.
Fourth inning: Vargas fell behind to Donaldson, but when Jason threw a 3-1 fastball, it was lifted to center field, 410 feet away. A smart pitcher can use the big part of the ballpark to his advantage as long as he has a center fielder who can go get it. Lorenzo Cain did, and Donaldson was out.
Fifth inning: Christian Colon bunted for a single, and then Aoki bunted him over to second base. Infante hit a soft ground ball to short for an infield single, but the other significant thing that happened on the play was Colon advancing to third. That allowed Colon to score on a Salvador Perez sac fly.
Go back over the game, and you realize that Escobar knocking that ball down in the first inning and Colon picking up an extra 90 feet in the fifth totally changed the game. Without those two plays, the score would have been 2-1 going into the later innings, and manager Ned Yost probably would have had to use relievers Wade Davis and Greg Holland.
It’s small stuff like this that determines the outcome in tight ballgames, and if you don’t pay attention to this stuff, you’re missing something.
Ninth inning: Holland was warming up in the bullpen just in case he was needed, but when the crowd saw Vargas come out of the dugout to pitch the inning, it roared its approval.
Vargas got Alberto Callaspo out in two pitches. He popped up to catcher Salvador Perez. Vargas got the second out with one pitch, forcing a fly-ball hit by Coco Crisp. Sam Fuld delayed the inevitable ending by taking a pitch, but Vargas poured in a strike.
When a pitcher is dealing, you might as well take a hack at the first hittable pitch you see. A pitcher on his game will rarely make two mistakes in one at-bat, and he isn’t going to walk you. Fuld swung at the second pitch he saw and grounded out to first. Game over.
Vargas and Chen save the pen
In the postgame news conference, Yost talked about the importance of Vargas throwing a complete game. It allowed the bullpen to get two days’ rest in a crucial part of the season.
But don’t forget how they got that first day off: On Tuesday night, Bruce Chen came into a game in which the Royals were behind, did not pitch well, but stuck it out. Bruce bought the bullpen a day off with his effort. Once again, if the back end of the bullpen comes into play for the next three days — Thursday, Friday and Saturday — that Saturday effort was possible because of what Vargas and Chen did on Tuesday and Wednesday.
If an outfielder shows you a great arm, why would you run on him?
Because some guys only have one bullet in the gun.
Say you know a player has shoulder problems but can pull it together and make one good throw a game. After that, his shoulder will start throbbing, and he won’t have much on subsequent throws. He will need to ice that shoulder to get the swelling down, and he can’t do that until the game’s over.
So you see a guy make a great throw from the outfield and think, “You wouldn’t want to challenge that guy again.” But the coaches with inside information think, “OK, he’s shot his one bullet. Let’s start taking the extra base.”
How pitchers and runners bait the opposition
Some pitchers — and Oakland’s Scott Kasmir is one of them — will show a potential base-stealer a slow delivery to home plate for a pitch or two, then, when they think the runner has taken the bait, deliver the next pitch out of the slide step.
A runner who thought the pitcher was going to get the ball to home plate in 1.5 seconds gets surprised when the pitcher delivers it in 1.2.
It also works the other way. Base-runners will pretend to have a hard time reading a left-handed pitcher’s move. They will break the wrong way and stumble around first base. Then, when the pitcher has decided he can quit worrying about the runner, that runner who wasn’t really fooled will take off and hope to get a slower delivery to the plate.
(When I learn stuff like this, I despair of ever really knowing what’s going on during a ballgame. I get glimpses, but that’s about it.)