Tori Hunter has been in the big leagues for 17 years; the guy knows a thing or two. You hear stories about Hunter deking base runners by pretending he will catch ball he won’t, or pretending he won’t catch a ball he will. Torii will take a bad hack at a pitch early in the game—when there’s no one on base—hoping to get that same pitch later in the game, when there’s a runner in scoring position. Torii Hunter is a veteran ballplayer who knows how to play the game and you won’t get a better example of that than the fifth inning of Friday night’s loss to the Detroit Tigers.
Let’s back up and see what happened in that inning.
Alex Avila led off with a walk—never a good thing. Next, Jose Iglesias hit a fly ball to centerfield and there was one out. With Austin Jackson at the plate, Bruce Chen bounced a pitch in the dirt and catcher Salvador Perez blocked it. That appeared to be important after Jackson doubled—if Sal doesn’t block the pitch, Avila would have scored on the Jackson double—as it was the Tigers had runners on second and third with one down.
First base was open, but here’s the problem: you’ve got to pitch to Torii Hunter when Miguel Cabrera is in the on-deck circle. Chen pulled a veteran move; in a 2-1 fastball count, Bruce threw Hunter an off-speed pitch—an 82-MPH slider. Hunter pulled a veteran move of his own; he stayed back and drove the off-speed pitch to right field—he wasn’t fooled. Avila came home from third, but right fielder David Lough had a shot at Jackson who was trying to score from second. Lough’s throw was way off line; both runs scored and Hunter read the bad throw and moved up to second base.
With first once again open, Chen intentionally walked Cabrera. With the Tigers, you have to pick your poison; Chen avoided a guy who has hit .410 off him to get to Prince Fielder, a guy who has hit .318. and had homered in his last at-bat. That’s when Hunter pulled another veteran move.
With Fielder at the plate, the Royals were playing a left-handed shift that had third baseman Mike Moustakas well off the line. While Bruce was staring in, getting the signs from Perez, Hunter took off for third—everybody was caught flat-footed. Perez jumped up and started waving his glove at Chen, but Bruce continued to stare in trying to figure out what Perez was doing. Chen finally figured out something bad was happening and tried to throw the ball to third, but there was no one there. The broadcast never showed a great view of Moustakas, but he appeared to get a late jump and Hunter beat him to third base. In the process of stepping off the rubber—or not—Chen balked and Cabrera was awarded second.
Ned Yost came out of the dugout and the umpires explained their ruling, but it appeared a veteran player had just taken advantage of a young and—at least temporarily—confused team. One bad thing often leads to another, so of course Fielder singled and drove in both runs. The Tigers scored their fifth and sixth runs, thanks to a veteran move by Torii Hunter.
The Detroit Tigers—a team that’s been there and done that—beat the Kansas City Royals, 6-3.
• Once again the Tigers appeared to dump a bunch of sand around first base, trying to slow down the Royals base stealers. The infield dirt was one color; the sand was much lighter: why make it obvious? Couldn’t they get the colors to match?
It may be the Tigerswant the Royals to know the footing over by first is bad. Put that in a player’s head and you may shut down his running game. Whether the sand had anything to do with it or not, Emilio Bonifacio was thrown out trying to steal and Jarrod Dyson was picked off. Alcides Escobar did steal third in the seventh inning, but no one stole second until the ninth. It was Dyson and that takes some nerve: down by three with one out in the ninth you better
be safe—Dyson was.
• In their last game the Royals ambushed Cleveland starting pitcher, Scott Kazmir. On Wednesday Alex Gordon hacked at the first pitch Kazmir threw and hit a home run. If the Gordon had any thought of doing the same thing to Justin Verlander, the Detroit starting pitcher messed up the plan by throwing the first pitch of the game—a 94 MPH fastball—on the outer half of the plate. When a hitter is ambushing he’s probably looking to do damage: he wants a pitch he can drive, not a pitch he can serve to the opposite field for a single. If a hitter is looking to ambush that first pitch, he’ll probably spit on a pitch away.
• Friday night it appeared the Tigers were the ones ambushing and they were doing it to Bruce Chen. In the first inning Austin Jackson swung at the first pitch he saw, doubled and moved to third on Alex Gordon’s error (more on that in a moment). Torii Hunter swung at the first pitch he saw and drove in Jackson on a groundout to short. Miguel Cabrera swung at the first pitchhe saw and hit a groundball to third. And, finally, Prince Fielder swung at the first strike
he saw and wound up striking out. But the Tigers got what they wanted: they came out swinging and grabbed a lead.
• Jackson’s double was hit on an 83-MPH sinker. With Chen on the mound, the corner defenders need to be ready: Bruce is floating some pretty low-velocity stuff up there and when he has them out in front hitters are likely to pull pitches down the lines.
• Alex Gordon got his first error of the season and probably shouldn’t have. Austin Jackson jumped on Bruce Chen’s first pitch and pulled it down the left field line. Gordon raced over, tried to backhand the ball, but didn’t get there in time and it got past him. If that play’s an error, then it would seem every groundball just out of the reach of an infielder is an error.
• Billy Butler has owned Justin Verlander and—according to the TV guys—Verlander has said he doesn’t mind because Billy just hits a lot of singles and then clogs the bases. Billy hit two more singles off Verlander and the second one drove in Alex Gordon.
After Butler’s first single Prince Fielder looked toward his dugout, crossed his wrists then pointed down. Here’s what that meant: crossing the wrists meansplaying behind the runner
. Prince was asking if he should play behind Billy or stay on the bag (that’s what pointing down meant) and hold Butler on first base.
• Here’s part of the problem when facing Verlander: in the second inning David Lough got a 96-MPH fastball and fouled it straight back. That tells a pitcher the hitter’s timing was on, but he was under the ball. At that point a lot of pitchers willclimb the ladder
—throw the next pitch higher—or change speeds. Verlander changed speeds. Lough went from a 96-MPH fastball to an 81-MPH curve. That’s a lot of territory to cover and Lough rolled over the curve and hit a routine 4-3 groundball to end the inning.
• Andy Dirks singled on a ball to Emilio Bonifacio and Eric Hosmer saved 90 feet when he kept the bounced throw in front of him. That kept the double play in order, which should have mattered—but first base umpire John Hirschbeck missed a call.
Omar Infante hit a double-play ball to Alcides Escobar, Esky flipped the ball to Bonifacio at second base and Emilio’s throw came in high at first. Andy Dirks had something to do with that: Dirks can run and he got to second base fast enough to affect Emilio’s throw. Hosmer—who’s tall to begin with—has a pretty good wing span and went up on one toe to catch the ball. Eric left the bag temporarily, but replays show he came back down on it before Infante reached first base. It didn’t matter; Hirschbeck called Infante safe.
• Ballplayers say defense is about feet; if they get you to the right spot, catching the ball is easy. Watch Eric Hosmer around first base and you get more and more impressed with his footwork.
• They were throwing around Jarrod Dyson’s road average on the broadcast, but it’s always good to remember that when you talk about a player’s road average or what he hits at night or on alternate Tuesdays; you’re ignoring every other factor. The pitchers involved, the defense on the field, the conditions—etc. etc. etc.—they all matter. Every piece of information tells you something, no piece of information tells you everything.
• When a guy with speed comes to the plate; check the third baseman. He’ll tell you what the defense thinks the fast guy will do. If the third baseman is in, they’re worried about the bunt. In Dyson’s case Miguel Cabrera was in until Jarrod had two strikes, then Cabrera—no longer worried that Dyson would bunt—could move back.
• When Bruce Chen is pitching well, here’s the kind of at-bat hitters have: Torii Hunter was at the plate and the first pitch was an 85-MPH sinker for a ball. Pitch two was a 76-MPH changeup and Hunter fouled it off. Pitch three was 86-MPH and Hinter swung through it. Pitch four was 74 miles an hour, but a ball. Pitch five was another 74-MPH changeup and Hunter swung and missed. When Ned Yost says Bruce is a master of changing speeds—slowing hitters bats down, then speeding them up—this is what he means.
There may be fifteen games left in the season, but for all intents and purposes, the Royals are now involved in playoff baseball. They’re in the hunt and when teams are in a position to go to the post-season, they start to do things they might not do otherwise; pitchers are pulled earlier or asked to throw on short rest. Closers might be asked to get four outs, which is what happened in this game. Jim Leyland went to Joaquin Benoit with two outs and the bases loaded in the eighth. Benoit struck out David Lough to end the threat.
Pull your starters early all season and you’ll burn out your pen. Ask your closer for more than three outs on a regular basis and he may not be available as often as you’d like. But when you get down to the end, when there’s no longer eighty one games left to go, managers may start to do a few things differently. Long-distance runners keep a steady pace for most of the race, but still have a finishing kick. Bruce Chen stayed in this game long enough to give up six runs, after that the best bullpen in the American League was lights out. Watch and see if Ned Yost starts going to that pen sooner than normal in this final stretch.
That might have been a good move Friday night.