Judging the Royals

September 21, 2013

The Royals win it in the bottom of the eighth

Get the ball to Greg Holland with a lead and your chances of winning are excellent. So Friday night the Royals needed to find a way to scratch out one run in the eighth inning, break up a 1-1 tie and give Holland a shot at closing the game out against the Texas Rangers.

Judging the Royals

Lee Judge breaks down the Royals, game by game.

Get the ball to Greg Holland with a lead and your chances of winning are excellent. So Friday night the Royals needed to find a way to scratch out one run in the eighth inning, break up a 1-1 tie and give Holland a shot at closing the game out against the Texas Rangers.

The eighth inning did not start well.

Texas reliever Jason Frasor struck out Billy Butler and Salvador Perez, then got two strikes on Lorenzo Cain. Despite being down in the count 2-2, Cain hit a bouncing ball up the middle for a single. Frasor threw Cain six fastballs in a row, so maybe that wasn’t the best job of changing speeds. Frasor got Mike Moustakas to hit a soft flare to left field, but it fell in front of David Murphy for another single and Cain went first to third.

With David Lough pinch-hitting for Justin Maxwell, Moose stole second. After seeing eight pitches Lough walked and that loaded the bases for Royals shortstop, Alcides Escobar. The Rangers brought in Neftali Feliz to face Escobar and that move worked out very well—for the Royals. Feliz walked Escobar on four pitches and that ain’t easy; Escobar had a total of 18 walks all season.

A stadium full of people chanting "Let’s go Royals" probably didn’t help Feliz focus on the strike zone. The bases-loaded walk gave the Royals the run they needed and Greg Holland came in to get his 44th save while the crowd roared with approval, howled with disappointment or oohed and aahed after every pitch.

I was there when the Royals won the seventh game of the World Series. There’s nothing like a huge crowd, focused on every pitch and play of a tight ballgame. This isn’t the World Series and it isn’t playoff baseball, but these are meaningful games in late September. For one night at least, that old feeling was back.

The Royals beat the Rangers 2-1.

Game notes

• After the game Ned Yost was asked if he considered pinch-hitting for Escobar in the eighth inning and he said no, Esky had been locked in for the past two weeks and when he’s locked in, Esky’s a different hitter. Between September 6th and Friday night’s game, Alcides has gone 15 for 42 at the plate—a .357 average. But in that same time period Alcides does not have a single walk.

We often focus on a player’s overall numbers, ballplayers also want to know what a player is doing

right now.

The overall numbers may be poor, but the player might be hot as a pistol that night.

• Kind of surprising Lorenzo Cain was still on first base when Mike Moustakas hit that eighth-inning flare. Texas reliever Jason Frasor is right-handed and didn’t appear to be that quick to the plate. If Cain had swiped second before Moose hit that single, Cain would’ve scored easily and saved everybody a lot of anxiety.

• The defense was spectacular all night and it started with a great 4-3 in the first inning. Emilio Bonifacio made a diving stop and Eric Hosmer made a pick on the other end.

• In the bottom of the first Alex Gordon had a 2-1 check swing and fouled the ball off. Afterwards, you could see Gordon was upset and here’s why: he went from 2-1 hitter’s count to 2-2 pitcher’s count and after that, Gordon got a slider, rolled over and made an out. The pitch that

decides an at-bat is not always the pitch that ends

an at-bat. Gordon’s at-bat went south on the 2-1 check swing.

• After Salvador Perez singled to lead off the second inning, the Rangers did not want Lorenzo Cain to hit the ball to the right side of the field—Sal was being held on first base and there was a big hole on that side of the infield.

That’s why the Rangers threw Lorenzo two changeups down and away. Cain should have been looking for a pitch on the outer half and if he didn’t pick up the fact that the pitches were changeups, he’d swing and pull the ball to the left side of the field where the defense was set up.

The Rangers got exactly what they wanted: on the fourth pitch of the at-bat Cain hit a changeup to the left side, but hit it so softly that Adrian Beltre, the third baseman, had no play. The best laid plans of mice and men…

• Mitch Moreland hit a pop-up in the second inning and Alcides Escobar caught it—and that doesn’t begin to describe what a tough play it was. The ball was hit directly over Esky’s head and he was running away from the infield. All you can do is look straight up, wait for the ball to appear above the bill of your cap and hope it comes down in your glove. Alcides made the catch and probably saved a run by doing so.

In fact, Esky spent a major part of his evening robbing the Rangers of hits. Ned Yost once said Escobar’s RBIs were in his glove. Guys who play up the middle can stick in the big leagues by playing defense, they handle the ball so much they can make a difference. Guys who play in the corners generally have to hit.

• In the sixth inning with two down and Alex Gordon at the plate, Justin Maxwell was thrown out trying to steal third base. After the game Yost was asked if Maxwell did that on his own and Ned said yes. Ned was then asked if it was a good play and Ned said, "Nope."

With two down the runner is already in scoring position and will probably score on any hit that leaves the infield, with a lefty at plate the catcher has a clear throwing lane to third base.

• The Royals have now won 81 games and cannot have a losing season. Win one more and they’ll officially have a winning season, and that hasn’t happened since 2003. As always; enjoy the moment.

The importance of Yordano Ventura’s 1-6-3

Let’s go back to the second inning of last Tuesday’s game against the Cleveland Indians; rookie pitcher Yordano Ventura was on the mound and everyone—the Royals and the Indians—were watching to see if Ventura could keep himself under control. Ventura was making his big-league debut and the chances were good he’d be over-hyped and overthrowing. And in fact, Yordano walked the first batter he faced on four pitches. He then got a double play ball and struck out the next guy.

Cut to the second inning:

Ventura once again walked the leadoff batter, Carlos Santana. Next Ventura faced Michael Brantley and threw him six pitches; Brantley hit the sixth pitch back to the mound and that’s when something happened that most of us missed—we saw it, but may not have grasped its importance.

Yordano Ventura did not throw the ball into centerfield.

The people I’ve talked to since that play happened thought it was about a 50-50 shot that Jarrod Dyson would catch Ventura’s throw. Here’s why: when pitchers field the ball and turn to throw it to second base, they’re usually throwing uphill—if they’re still on the mound they’re going up an incline as they stride toward second. When that happens, it’s easy to launch a ball over a middle infielder’s head. Mix in a gallon and a half of adrenaline and it would have been easy for Yordano to throw a rocket to Dyson, but he didn’t. A lot of people in the Royals dugout probably breathed a big sigh of relief. A lot of people in the Indians dugout probably figured the Royals rookie was a little more under control than they’d hoped.

The Indians started the game taking pitches, hoping Ventura would work his way into trouble. At the beginning of the game, every Cleveland hitter who got a fastball for a strike took it. The only guy who didn’t take a fastball for a strike was the game’s first hitter, Michael Bourn—because he never got one. After Ventura demonstrated he had himself under control by throwing the ball accurately to second base, the next hitter—Asdrubal Cabrera—teed off on the first fastball strike he saw. In the next inning Ryan Raburn took a fastball for a strike, but after that, the Royals started mixing in first-pitch curves. Ventura had demonstrated he was going to throw strikes and the fear was that the Indians would start trying to ambush fastballs early in the count.

I saw Ventura’s 1-6-3 and also wondered if he was going to throw a SCUD missile into centerfield, but missed the significance of him making an accurate throw; I didn’t fully understand what it meant—now I do.

Minor-league field dimensions

(The Royals honored a bunch their minor-league pitchers and players before Friday’s game against the Rangers and it reminded me to run this piece.)

A fly ball out hit to the warning track in Kauffman Stadium is probably a long home run In Omaha’s Werner Park. That’s another reason fans have to take minor league numbers with a grain of salt—different parks; different results. After I wrote about that, some people wanted to know why the Royals don’t have all their minor league parks built to the same dimensions.

Turns out the Royals don’t control that. They have agreements with different cities to host teams and the Royals can ask that certain standards be met when it comes to the clubhouse, workout facilities, etc., but if Omaha wants to build a park that produces home runs, they’re free to do so. When the agreement between a city and the Royals is up, the Royals are free to look for another facility in another city.

Bottom line: don’t assume the numbers you see at a lower level of baseball will automatically translate into big-league numbers.

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