The Royals 8-2 victory over the Orioles on Sunday afternoon was the product of a solid day of pitching from James Shields, some timely Baltimore errors, and several key hits with runners in scoring position. But the biggest factor in Sunday’s game was Omar Infante: his two extra-base hits, sacrifice fly and RBI-fielder’s choice garnered him a career-high six RBIs and propelled the Royals offense all day.
Infante’s two-run homer in the seventh inning was the play of the game.
The Royals had just given up a two-run shot to Nelson Cruz in the sixth and their 4-2 lead was looking less comfortable. Infante’s home run was an interesting piece of situational hitting, especially when you consider this offense. Although the Royals’ much-discussed lack of power is often somewhat overemphasized—they play 81 games in one of the biggest parks in the league—it does create some difficult challenges for the team. One of those challenges is producing runs with two outs. Without power, the Royals have to manufacture runs through stringing together hits, stolen bases, and moving runners over. Of course, with two down, you have no outs to work with, so you’re often left with guys swinging away, hoping to drive the ball deep and get themselves in scoring position. And if there’s a runner on first, they have to drive the ball deep enough to score that runner.
In the top of the seventh with two outs Nori Aoki came up and placed a perfect bunt into the "Bermuda Triangle"—the zone down the first baseline between the pitcher and the first and second basemen. When the ball is placed in that no-man’s land, a fast runner like Aoki can simply beat the fielder to the bag and get on base. Infante came to the plate with Aoki on first and two down; a tough situation with limited options, and one that often sees the Royals racking up runners-left-on-base.
But Infante, as he did all day, adjusted his plate approach to the situation. With two outs and Aoki on first, Infante’s best bet of doing anything productive was to look for a pitch to drive. Infante got a 1-1 cutter up and in, loaded up and turned on it, driving it a few rows deep over the left center wall and getting his fifth and sixth RBIs of the day. In a situation with limited options, Infante adjusted his approach, waited for a pitch he could do some damage with, and ended up starting a two-out rally in which the Royals scored two more runs and put the game away for good.
For a guy who is not a power hitter, it was impressive to see Infante step up in an important situation, adjust his plate approach, and come through for the Royals.
Different stadiums, different results
However, it is important to note why Infante’s approach worked. Infante’s home run landed four or five rows deep over the left-center wall. In Baltimore, that wall is 364 feet—in Kauffman, that same spot is 390-plus. That same exact hit at home is probably a long, warning-track fly out. The Royals‘ lack of offensive power is in part due to the personnel ; we don‘t have an Adam Dunn or a Jose Bautista to just swing away with two outs and drive in any runners on base. But it is also a product of the park they play in.
James Shields stayed ahead in the count
James Shields pitched a solid seven innings for the Royals on Sunday, and one of the main factors that helped him get his third win of the year was his ability to stay ahead of batters and not fall into hitter’s counts. Shields consistently got ahead in the count, used his fastball, cutter and changeup to hit spots and rack up his six strikeouts, and generally had batters behind in the count all day, forcing the Orioles to swing at marginal pitches.
In fact, Shields only got into four hitter’s counts all day; and these were the only at-bats that really gave him trouble. In the second, Shields fell behind 2-0 to Steve Lombardozzi, who hit a sharp grounder to the right side that would have gotten through if not for an excellent defensive play by Omar Infante. Shields walked Nick Markakis in the fourth after falling behind 2-0, but was saved by an inning-ending double play. He also got Adam Jones to miss on a 2-0 cutter in the sixth, popping him up to right and getting the second out in a tricky inning. The only hitter’s count that made him pay was Nelson Cruz’s two-run homer in the sixth. Shields fell behind 2-1 and went to his changeup, which stayed out over the plate.
As fans, we hear so much in the media about the results of the game, but often very little about the process that went into producing those results. If you’re wondering why a certain pitcher or team won a game, one of the biggest factors you can look for is which pitcher fell into more hitter’s counts.
Good hitters do two things well; they have good mechanics, and they swing at good, hittable pitches. The best hitters in the world can’t do much with a pitcher’s pitch, and if the batter never gets into a hitter’s count, he is severely limited in what he can do offensively. Likewise, when a pitcher falls into a hitter’s count, he’s forced to throw strikes and the hitters know it. Much of the damage an offense does will come out of hitter’s counts. Limit those opportunities, and you limit the potential damage an opposing offense can do.
*It’s the one we’ll remember, but the key pitch in a strikeout is not always strike three. If a hitter gets a pitch to hit and fouls it off, you might see him show frustration; he got his pitch, missed it and now he knows what’s coming next. Once a hitter gets to two strikes and has to protect the entire strike zone, a breaking pitch that he would have spit on with one strike becomes a pitch he needs to swing at with two. The hitter can’t take any pitch that appears to be headed for the strike zone—that’s why you’ll see some bad chase swings for strike three.
*In the third inning with one out and Jarrod Dyson on third base, Omar Infante hit a sacrifice fly to right field. Dyson can fly, but the throw home came in on one hop and made the play just a bit closer than you might think.
The Orioles had the infield for a play at the plate and when the infield is in, the outfield is in. if you want to stop a runner on third from scoring the outfielders need to position themselves close enough to the infield that they have a shot at throwing out a tagging runner. Nelson Cruz didn’t get Dyson, but it was closer than you might think and that’s why.
*In the bottom of the third David Lough got his only hit of the series when he hit a pop up just to the left side of the pitcher’s mound. James Shields was under it, but Mike Moustakas could have got there. Moose didn’t call off James, James appeared to lose the ball in the sun and it dropped for a single. Position players are supposed to take every play they can away from pitchers. The Baltimore series shows why.
*In the fourth inning Mike Moustakas faced a left-handed shift—one defender between second and third—but Miguel Gonzalez was still throwing him fastballs away. What gives? A fastball away is the easiest pitch to hit to the opposite field.
A couple of those fastballs away were off the plate so maybe they thought Moose would chase and maybe they thought Mike would pull an outside pitch—it’s hard to do that and hit a ball with authority. The defensive game is changing while we watch and hitters are going to have to change with it. A hitter that can’t bunt or slap the ball the other way is going to pay for not working on those skills.
*In the bottom of the fourth James Shields made a throwing error—the eighth error this season by a Royals pitcher. Can PFPs—pitcher’s fielding practice—be far behind?
*Greg Holland was brought in to pitch the ninth inning in a non-close situation. Managers are generally reluctant to use their closers in non-save situations unless they need work; but the key here is probably the Royals off day on Monday. Most relievers need a day off after appearing two or three days in a row, but because of Monday’s day off Ned Yost does not risk losing Holland to overwork during the next series.