In baseball, "both sides of the ball" refers to offense and defense. In the top of the fifth inning in Thursday night’s game against the Baltimore Orioles, Alex Gordon made a difference on defense — in the bottom of the same inning Gordon made a difference on offense.
Cut to the top of the fifth with two outs, the score 3-0 and Henry Urrutia at the plate: the Orioles DH hit a sinking liner to right field and David Lough tried to make a diving catch. Generally, you might want to pull up and play that for a single. Keep Urrutia at first and the Orioles are still two hits away—most of the time—from scoring a run. If an outfielder is going to make a diving attempt at a catch, he has to do everything he can to knock the ball down if the attempt does not succeed. Lough missed the catch and the ball got past him for a triple.
Next, Brian Roberts doubled, so Urrutia may have scored even if Lough had kept him at first. On the next pitch—a 94 MPH fastball—Gordon made a difference on defense. Nowhe
made a diving catch to end the inning—sort of. Replays showed the ball may have hit the ground first, but it was awfully close and the call went Gordon’s way.
Afterwards, in the clubhouse, I asked Alex about the play and he said he was confident he could either catch it or knock it down. With two outs and a runner on second, if the ball dropped, that run would have scored and if the ball didn’t get knocked down, the tying run would have been in scoring position. So Gordo went for it and got the out that ended the inning with the score 3-1.
Now to the bottom of the fifth: with Jarrod Dyson on first base Gordon was down in the count 2-2 (even though the count is even, the pitcher still has a pitch he can waste) and that’s when a lot of pitchers like to throw a "bastard" pitch. A bastard pitch is something that starts in the zone and dives out. The hitter has two strikes so he’ll often try to protect the plate and wind up chasing the bastard pitch out of the strike zone. But with Dyson on first, it made it difficult for Orioles pitcher Miguel Gonzalez to throw a breaking pitch in the dirt. Should Dyson choose to run (and runners like to go in what they consider "breaking ball counts") catcher Matt Wieters would have a tough pitch to handle. Strike out Gordon and allow Dyson to steal second and youstill
So Gonzalez threw Gordon a changeup, but it was at the bottom of the zone, not below it. Instead of a bastard pitch Gordon got a hittable pitch and hit it. Gordon’s triple into the right field corner scored Dyson, Hosmer’s single scored Gordon, and before the inning was over the Royals were up 6-1. Afterwards, manager Ned Yost said Gordon’s triple blew the game open.
The Royals win the series 3-1 and this game 7-1.
• I’ve talked a lot about Royals hitters getting off-speed pitches in fastball counts, but that’s just what big-league pitchers do. In the first inning Jeremy Guthrie threw a 2-1 change to Manny Machado and got an easy rollover groundball to short. Young hitters need to study the scouting reports and know when a veteran pitcher likes to go soft in a fastball count. We do it to them, too.
• When a ball is hit to a spot where there are no defenders, often that’s a mistake pitch. In the first inning Gonzalez threw Billy Butler a slider on the outer half, but it was up in the zone. That allowed Billy to hit a soft grounder down the right field line, but since there was nobody on that line, Billy wound up with a double. You can kind of assume the slider wasn’t meant to be left in a hittable spot.
• In the second inning Alcides Escobar saved a run with a leaping snag of line drive. If you were watching on TV, you could see Esky immediately look up and off to the side. When you see a player do that right after making a great play, he’s looking at the scoreboard—he wants to see the replay. (I don’t blame them, if I could make awesome plays like that, I’d want to see them again, too.)
• Eric Hosmer hit a rocket to J.J. Hardy’s backhand and the Baltimore shortstop tried to make the same play that Hosmer tried the night before: a backhand snag of a short hop. Like I said, players want to keep their palm facing down on short hops—the ball has a better chance of sticking in the glove. Hosmer’s ball was scored a hit, the night before a similar play was scored an E3 on Hosmer.
• In the sixth inning Guthrie struck out Adam Jones with a 70 MPH curve. He also threw Jones a 94 MPH fastball and 24 miles an hour is a lot of territory to cover. Guthrie then struck out Chris Davis on a 93 MPH fastball looking. I don’t know what was going through Davis’ mind, but he might’ve gotten locked up because he was looking for that 70 MPH curveball with two strikes.
Everybody’s watching, so a smart pitcher can use a pitch to one guy to get another guy out. Put that curveball in everyone’s head and you just made your fastball better.
• Jarrod Dyson was hit by a 79 MPH slider and the crowd booed, but that’s not the pitch you throw if you want to drill someone. If a guy gets hit by a breaking pitch and makes a big deal of it, his teammates might think he’s an idiot—he should know enough to know the pitcher didn’t mean to do it. Plus getting hit by a 79 MPH pitch is a pretty easy base.
• Aaron Crow came into pitch the seventh and gave up a walk and a hit before getting out of the inning without giving up a run. That’s why Ned Yost prefers to give him a clean inning: Crow often gives up a hit or walk before getting three outs.
The last 20 games and the next 20
The other day, head groundskeeper Trevor Vance asked me about the "gauntlet" the Royals have been running. He was talking about the Royals schedule since July 2nd: a twenty game run against Cleveland (53-48), Oakland (59-42), New York (53-48), Cleveland again, Detroit (56-44) and Baltimore (57-45).
As I write this—Thursday before the game begins—the Royals are 9-10 over that stretch.
The next 20 games look a little easier: Chicago (39-59), Minnesota (43-55), New York Mets (44-53)), Minnesota again, Boston (61-42) and Miami (37-62).
(OK, Thursday’s game is over and the Royals went 10-10 against some very good teams and now go on the road with a chance to make up some ground.)
I’ve recently written about players losing bat speed during the All-Star break and how Rusty Kuntz positioned the Kansas City outfield on the theory that more ball would be hit to the opposite field by players trying to readjust to mid-nineties fastballs.
Then I recently wrote about George Kottaras and Kelvin Herrera throwing nothing but heat at a Baltimore player coming off the bench—Henry Urrutia—on the theory thathe
wouldn’t be ready to handle 100 miles an hour. So that made me think about pinch-hitters and bench players—guys who have to sit for extended periods and then be ready to hit: do they get pitched differently?
The answer is yes, pretty much.
Elliot Johnson said if you haven’t been playing, you also haven’t seen a slider in a week. Pitchers know this and will lob a "get-me-over" breaking pitch to the plate knowing the hitter isn’t looking for it and will probably take it for a strike. The hitter wants a fastball; that’s all he’s seen in batting practice. And if the pitcher gets that breaking pitch over and stays ahead in the count, the hitter isn’t going to see a fastball—at least not one that’s hittable.
According to Johnson, if the pitcher falls behind in the count, that’s when he might see something straight. That’s why you hear some pinch hitters say you better hit the first hittable fastball you see—you might not see two. Anytime a hitter sits, his timing will be off. Hitting a baseball may be the hardest thing to do in sports, but it gets even harder if you haven’t been playing.