Breakdowns in four phases put final nail in Royals' coffin

09/26/2013 10:36 AM

09/26/2013 10:36 AM

Baseball comes in four parts: pitching, defense, hitting and base-running. Wednesday night, breakdowns in all four phases of the game ended the Royals postseason chances. A 6-0 loss to the Mariners combined with wins by other teams means the Royals will be watching postseason baseball on TV.

Here’s what happened Wednesday night:

Pitching:

Ervin Santana and Will Smith combined to give up six runs and, with the offense not hitting, that was approximately six too many. The game came apart in the fifth: Mike Zunino homered, Brad Miller doubled, Nick Franklin walked, Santana made an error on an attempted pickoff—which moved both runners into scoring position—and Kyle Seager hit another double. The Mariners went up 3-0.

After a leadoff double by Dustin Ackley in the seventh, Will Smith replaced Santana and made a throwing error on an attempted bunt and that scored Ackley all the way from second. If Royals fans were thinking a four-run deficit was still not too much to overcome, back-to-back homers by Michael Saunders and Mike Zunino in the eighth inning sealed the deal.

Defense:

The Royals made two errors, both by pitchers, both on plays where the pitcher had to spin around before throwing the ball. In the fifth inning Ervin Santana had Brad Miller on second base and Nick Franklin on first; that’s when Ervin tried to pickoff Miller.

When you throw a baseball, the front shoulder helps guide the throwing arm; if the shoulder flies open too soon, the release point is affected and the throw is likely to miss the target wide on the throwing-arm side. After Ervin spun around, he started to fall off the mound to his glove side and the throw to second missed on the right-field side of second base.

Something similar happed to Smith on an attempted bunt in the seventh: Smith picked the ball up, spun around to throw to first and his front side opened up. The ball missed Eric Hosmer on the fair territory side of first base and Hosmer couldn’t come off the bag in time to catch the throw. Eric gets some praise for his defense further along in this post, but this ball went off the tip of his glove.

When you wonder why position players want to take every play away from pitchers, remember these two throws.

Hitting:

When you don’t hit, you should ask if was you or the pitcher. Hisashi Iwakuma is 14-6 with an ERA of 2.66 and came into this game with a string of scoreless innings, and left the game with that string still intact. The dude is pretty good and that might be why he gave up only four hits and no runs. Monday night’s starter, Brandon Maurer, threw seven innings and gave up one earned run, Tuesday night’s starter, James Paxton, threw seven innings and gave up no runs and Wednesday night Iwakuma threw eight innings without giving up a single run. I also hear the Mariners have a guy named Felix Hernandez who’s pretty good.

Base running:

With one out in the fifth inning, Mike Moustakas was on second base when Jarrod Dyson hit a line drive to short. I don’t know what they’re teaching currently, but the Royals used to teach break back to the bag on a line drive. It might mean you only advance 90 feet, but that’s better than getting doubled off. But Moustakas broke for third and, after the ball was caught by shortstop Brad Miller, Moose made no attempt to get back to second base. No way to tell if he could have beaten Miller to the bag—and it kinda looked like he couldn’t—but it would have been nice to see the effort.

If you stayed up and watched this one, you probably thought the Royals looked lifeless and they did. If you have breakdowns in all four phases of the game, you’re probably not going to win.

They didn’t—Mariners 6, Royals 0.

Game notes

• Michael Saunders took an 0-2 emergency hack and hit a ball sideways into the crowd, directly above the third-base dugout. Apparently there was a little girl there and the game stopped while everyone made sure she was OK, and it looked like she was.

Fans sitting that close to the game should always play attention, but they should

really

pay attention once a hitter has two strikes—that’s when he’s more likely to take a late swing while protecting the strike zone. I’ve written thousands and thousands of words since starting this web site and the next words I write are, without a doubt, the most important:

Put down your damn cell phones and watch the game, especially if you have little kids with you.

Fans love to sit right behind the dugout, big-league ballplayers don’t want their families in those seats; they want them behind the screen at home plate. If you do bring a child with you, take the seat closer to home plate, put your body between them and the baseball; you can’t expect a kid to be locked in on every pitch—that’s your job.

• In the third inning Alcides Escobar went up the middle and made a terrific spinning play—and as we’ve seen, those are hard—on Dustin Ackley. There other half of the play was Eric Hosmer’s. Esky’s throw was high and Hosmer went up to get it and came back down on the bag in time.

All season long we’ve been seeing outstanding footwork around first base by Hosmer; he uses the bag to extend his reach. If the ball is being thrown from third base, he’ll have his foot on the home plate side of first. If the ball is coming from deep in the hole at second, he’ll shift over to the outfield side of first base. If the throw is high, he’ll go back over the bag—and has to be careful not to get hit by the runner while he does it—and make the catch with his foot on the foul territory side of the bag. On the throw from Escobar Hosmer used the height of the bag to his advantage. The rest of the infield can attempt difficult plays, knowing Hosmer will take care of them if the throw is off-line.

• I couldn’t tell you what was going through Mike Zunino’s mind right before he hit his fifth inning home run, but he did jump on a first-pitch fastball. It’s possible he was looking for it because that’s the pitch he got in his first at-bat. In his third at-bat he got another first-pitch fastball and took it. And

that might be because he was thinking there was no way they’d give him yet another 0-0 fastball. I can’t tell that’s what was going on Wednesday night, but I can tell you that kind

of stuff goes on every night.

• Each season I learn something different about the game and this year I became more aware of the importance of a starting pitcher getting a chance to rest between innings. When a pitcher gets whacked around, look back to the previous half inning: did his team give him a chance to catch his breath?

Ervin Santana threw 17 pitches in the bottom of the fourth inning; Hisashi Iwakuma threw eight pitches in the top of the fifth. Santana was right back out there for the bottom of the fifth and gave up three runs before the inning was over. Once again, I don’t know for sure that’s why Santana had a rough fifth, but short rest didn’t help.

• Alex Gordon ended the fifth inning with a sliding catch of a Raul Ibanez fly ball. The ball was hit into the left-field corner and Gordon slid before he really had to. That might have been because Alex wasn’t exactly sure where the wall was. When an outfielder gets to play 81 games at home, he should have a very good feel for how many strides he can take before he gets to the wall. Play three games on the road and an outfielder will be less sure of where he is. Add that to your list of what constitutes home field advantage: outfielders should play better defense at home.

• Not to pick on Raul Ibanez, but when guys get to his age—over 40—they often develop what called a

slider-speed bat.

That means they can’t catch up to the good fastball any more (and I really don’t know if that’s true of Ibanez—I haven’t watched him enough to have a worthwhile opinion) and pitchers should be careful about giving a guy with that kind of bat-speed hittable off-speed pitches.

• There are moments that tell you something important about a player and one of those moments came in the fourth inning of this game: Eric Hosmer hit an 0-2, 88-MPH pitch the other way for a single. Guys who can take the ball the other way—especially with two strikes—have a big advantage: they can wait longer to hit the ball and are less likely to get fooled on off-speed pitches. Hosmer ended the night at .303 and if I were Ned Yost there’s no way I’d let Hosmer go to the plate in these last four games if Hosmer had a chance to fall under .300.

Condensed baseball

(We’re down to the last few games and I’m going to start posting some of the stuff I’ve written during the season, but never got around to using.)

Talk to pinch-hitters and relievers about baseball and you’ll hear about a condensed version of the game. Here’s an example:

A position player who starts a game can figure on four or five plate appearances. That means he might take a pitch in certain situations—say it’s a less than crucial at-bat and he wants to see the movement on a pitch—knowing he’s got three or four more plate appearances to make taking that pitch payoff. A pinch-hitter doesn’t have that luxury: he’s got one plate appearance, it will probably be crucial and he’ll probably be facing one of the better relievers that other team has. Take a hittable pitch in that situation and you may be done. That’s why most pinch-hitters are up their hacking; they may get one pitch to hit and nobody’s trying to run up a reliever’s pitch count—the reliever won’t be around that long.

This condensed version of the game also applies to the relievers: starting pitchers can warm up as long as they like. Relievers have a good idea of when they might get the call—one of the reasons teams have defined roles in the bullpen—so they get up, move around and stretch at the appropriate time. Once they get the call they might have time for five or six pitches in the pen and then finishing warming up once they come on the field and get those eight warm-up pitches each pitcher is allowed.

After that, it’s game on.

Like the pinch-hitter who can’t afford to take a pitch, a reliever doesn’t have the time to get the feel of four different pitches. Although there have been exceptions, most relievers concentrate on throwing two or three pitches. They don’t try to set hitters up—they come right at them. Spend time talking to relievers and pinch-hitters and you get the feeling they’re playing a different version of the game in those last few innings.

It’s condensed baseball.

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