Judging the Royals

Lee Judge breaks down the Royals, game by game.

Don’t miss Elliot Johnson’s eighth-inning play

07/10/2013 10:27 AM

07/10/2013 10:28 AM

When the Royals lead after eight innings they’re now 34-2. So it’s pretty simple: allow Kansas City to get the ball in their hands of their closer, Greg Holland, and the game’s pretty much over. That means the real drama might be in the eighth inning.

Tuesday night the Royals had a 3-1 lead heading into the eighth with the number-nine hitter, Chris Stewart, the lead-off man, Brett Gardner and the number-two hitter, Ichiro Suzuki due up. Gardner and Ichiro are lefties, and manager Ned Yost went with left-handed reliever, Tim Collins.

Collins got Stewart to hit a foul pop up to first baseman Eric Hosmer for the first out. On a 1-1 count Brett Gardner singled. And then came a play that changed the eighth inning and possibly the game: Elliot Johnson had been brought in as defensive replacement for Johnny Giavotella and it paid off immediately. Ichiro hit a ball that seemed sure to find its way into right field for a hit, but Johnson went far to his left to field it, spun and hit Eric Hosmer in the chest with a bullet for the second out. Gardner advanced to second and Robinson Cano struck out to end the inning. Johnson’s play kept the tying run at the plate and denied Travis Hafner an at-bat with a runner in scoring position.

After the game I asked Elliot about the play and he said he was originally playing Ichiro up the middle because Ichiro had been late on the fastball. But as Johnson looked in to home plate, he saw the pitch was going to be a changeup; that meant Ichiro would pull the ball. As Collins delivered the pitch, Johnson shuffled a couple step to his left. Without those shuffle steps, Elliot said he never would have got there. Even if he dove for the ball, by the time he got to his feet Ichiro would have been safe.

Elliot still had to gun the ball to beat the runner and said a ball going 90 miles an hour delivered from that close to first base better be on target; miss high or low and Eric Hosmer would have no time to react. The throw hit him in the chest.

There were lots of heroes in the Royals 3-1 win over the Yankees, but don’t miss Elliot Johnson’s eighth-inning play.

Game notes

• Ned Yost made two late-inning defensive replacements: Johnson and Mike Moustakas. Johnson made that outstanding play in the eighth and Moose made a really tough catch on a twisting pop fly down the line for the final out in the ninth. Those two plays made Ned look very smart.

• I’ve been telling you about the danger of coming inside on left-handed hitters with Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch, but James Shields got away with it when he struck out Travis Hafner in the first inning.

Why?

Hafner had two strikes and was probably not trying to get the bat head out in front, so a pitch that bores in on the hands—like a cutter—can be very hard to deal with. Hafner took a half-hearted swing and carried his bat back to the dugout.

• I checked positioning on Lorenzo Cain right before Eduardo Nunez hit the second of two line-drive outs into right-center and—sure enough—Cain was playing Nunez over toward right. Had Cain been playing Nunez even close to straight up, neither catch gets made. A ton of plays are made because of where the defender started, not because of where the defender wound up.

• In the fifth inning James Shields turned around, looked at Johnny Giavotella and motioned for him to move a couple steps toward second base. Three pitches later the batter, Ichiro Suzuki, hit the ball right at Gio. It wasn’t the first time Shields has done that and it wasn’t the first time Shields has been right.

I asked James about it after the game and he said Ichiro had singled to Johnny’s right earlier in the game and he wanted that hole covered. Throw the same pitch into the same bat-speed and the ball will go close to the same place—both pitches were changeups.

Why there were three doubles and a triple to left Monday night

The gap in Yankee Stadium’s right-center field is 385 feet away from home plate. Look to the other side of the field—the left-center gap—and you see 399. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, pitchers stay away from left-handed hitters here in the Bronx; try to get inside on a lefty, miss and the ball only has to travel 314 feet to get to the right field wall.

Pitch the lefties away and they can do one of two things: pull the ball for easy rollover grounders to the second baseman, or they can take the ball the other way into that 399-foot left-center gap. That means it’s hard for hitters to get the ball out of the park to left-center, but it also means there’s a whole lot of ground out there for a centerfielder or left fielder to cover.

In Monday’s game Zoilo Almonte—who’s rumored to be short on range—let three doubles and triple fall in his territory and he has a lot of territory to cover. Brett Gardner played center and he’s very fast, but couldn’t get there either. Vernon Wells is also supposed to be short on range and will play deep whether he’s playing right or left. The size of left field is one of the reasons you might see Ichiro Suzuki play left when the Yankees are at home, they just don’t have anyone else capable of covering that big an area.

(In the eighth inning of Tuesday night’s game, Eric Hosmer hit another double into the left-field corner.)

Outfield communication

Rusty Kuntz was talking about outfield communication and how loud things get on a major league field. He said you can be shouting in someone’s ear and, when the crowd is cheering, it may be impossible to hear. So that means the outfielders have to communicate very quickly,

before

the crowd get excited by a fly ball to the track.

If you want the ball you better shout "I got it, I got it, I got it" right away. A couple seconds later, nobody can hear anything. That’s why many signs in the major leagues are visual: people can’t hear each other at key points in the game. Amateur ball is just the opposite: crowds are small or non-existent and players can just yell at each other.

The potential for a collision increases when Jarrod Dyson is in center and Lorenzo Cain is in right; both have centerfield speed and close on the ball very quickly. The problem isn’t as bad when the corner outfielder is a true corner outfielder; he may not have the speed to cause a problem. That being the case, if Rusty really wanted to avoid collisions, I suggested he send me out there; I’d be able to cover five feet in any direction and would never come close to running into his centerfielder.

I assume he’s thinking about it.

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