On Wednesday afternoon the Royals had 14 hits, five walks and scored 8 runs. Thursday night the Royals had four hits, two walks and scored no runs. So what happened to the Royals’ bats?
Fans tend to focus exclusively on their team: if their team loses it’s because their team played poorly, and if their team wins it’s because their team played well. It’s as though the other team isn’t a factor—but it is. It’s not like everyone forgets how to hit at the same time; it’s usually because the other pitcher is dealing. And even though people like to say hitting is contagious, it’s usually poor pitching that’s gets a team’s offense going. And on Thursday night there wasn’t a lot of poor pitching to be found—on either side.
Mariners starting pitcher Hishashi Iwakuma threw strikes and better than that, he threw low strikes. When a pitcher keeps the ball down in the zone, hitters tend to hit the top half of the ball. Hit the top half of the ball and it’s hard to do anything but hit grounders. Hit grounders and it’s hard to hit anything but singles—the ball has to go right down a foul line to turn into extra bases. And when the Royals weren’t hitting grounders they were striking out.
Danny Duffy kept up his end of the deal: he pitched six innings, gave up two hits and only one run. Kelvin Herrera pitched two scoreless innings: the seventh and eighth. When your pitching and defense give up one run, you should win the game, but the Royals offense had a problem: Hisashi Iwakuma.
Mariners 1, Royals 0.
*In the second inning with no runners on base, Iwakuma threw a ball in the dirt and the Mariners catcher, Mike Zunino blocked it.
Why? If there’s no runner on, why put your body in front of a baseball moving at high speed?
According to former catcher Jason Kendall (I hear he’s got a book coming out) umpires appreciate it. If a catcher keeps the ball off the umpire’s body maybe the umpire will remembers that and the catcher’s sacrifice will pay off down the road. Well, if blocking that pitch is going to eventually pay off, Zunino’s going to have to wait a little longer; he was called out on strikes in the fifth inning. Maybe he should let the next ball in the dirt get through.
*On a close play at first base Lorenzo Cain rolled an ankle when he hit the side of the bag. Cain hit the side of the bag because Iwazuma was covering and planted his foot in the middle of the base. Pitchers are supposed to hit the edge of the base, then curl away toward the infield. That way they avoid collisions.
*In his first at-bat Mike Moustakas got a center-cut fastball and fouled it off. In the big leagues you might get one pitch to hit and when you get it, you better hit it. After that you might not see another mistake. Mike’s at-bat was five pitches long, but may have been decided on the third pitch. On the fifth pitch Moose got a sinker away and pulled it. That produced an easy rollover grounder to Robinson Cano at second base. That sinker away to a lefty probably needs to be hit to the opposite field, something Moustakas was working on in spring training.
When a hitter gets a good pitch to hit and fouls it off, watch his reaction. He might show frustration because he knows the at-bat just got harder.
*In the third inning, when the Mariners got a runner on third base with less than two outs, manager Ned Yost brought his infield in to cut the run down at the plate. When you see a manager bring his infield in early in a game, it means he thinks the game will be low-scoring. Ned was right; games don’t get much more low-scoring than 1-0.
*Every time Kyle Seager got one strike on him the Royals put on a left-handed shift. Seager tried to bunt the ball to the left side several times, but could never get a bunt down—why not?
Think about it: if you made it to the major leagues you were probably the best player on your high school and/or college team, so a lot of these guys have never had to bunt—they were the guys who got to swing away. And if you get to the big leagues and you’ve never bunted much, it’s hard to practice; it’s one thing to do it in BP with a 55-year old coach lobbing fastballs at you, it’s another thing to do it against a big league pitcher who throws in the nineties and has movement.
*With two outs in the seventh inning Alex Gordon singled, then got thrown out trying to steal second base. The Royals guessed right—Alex tried to steal on an off-speed pitch—but it still didn’t work. But if Gordon stayed at first the Royals would probably need two more two-out hits to score him and they hadn’t had two hits in an inning, much less three. The Royals rolled the dice and lost.
*In the seventh inning Seager got hit with a Danny Duffy curveball and the crowd reacted like it was intentional. But if you mean to hit a batter, you don’t do it with an off-speed pitch—you do it with a fastball.
*Down 1-0 Ned Yost played for one run in the ninth; using Nori Aoki to bunt Alcides Escobar into scoring position. But don’t you play for the win on the road and the tie at home?
Not if you like your bullpen. Ned’s done this before; the Royals pen was rested and he must have liked his chances if he could get the game to extra innings. Didn’t happen so we don’t know how that might have worked out.
"Throwback: A Big League Catcher Tells How the Game Is Really Played" is an inside look at our national pastime, co-authored by Jason Kendall and Lee Judge. The book will be in stores on May 13th, but can be pre-ordered right now.