Here’s the situation: the Royals are stumbling as they go down the stretch and have recently suffered several late-inning, walk-off losses. There’s talk that team has lost its mojo or rhythm or whatever the heck it is winning teams have going for them. Go into the postseason playing like this and the Royals have a good chance to go home early.
Something has to change.
The Royals rally and tie the game 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning, which is good, but lose yet another extra-inning game and the loss will be even more devastating than usual.
But here in the 10th inning, the Royals have a chance to beat the Mariners: Alcides Escobar starts the inning by hitting a fly ball to left field for the first out, but then Alex Gordon singles. Ben Zobrist is hit by a pitch; Zobrist goes to first and Gordon moves up 90 feet.
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Both managers then make a move: the Mariners change pitchers and the Royals send Paulo Orlando out to second base, pinch-running for Gordon. The extra speed matters; score a run and the game is over.
Lorenzo Cain steps to the plate.
Lorenzo admits he’s a better hitter when he hits the ball to right field or up the middle, but he also admits his emotions sometimes get the better of him and he tries to do something big; like pull a ball for a home run. When Cain gets in pull mode, he’s vulnerable to a slider away; he’ll chase that pitch, swing too early and miss it — but tonight a single will do the trick.
Lorenzo gets a 1-0 slider, but does not try to pull it. He waits back and hits a soft line drive to right field for a single. The ball bounces twice and is then caught by Seattle’s right fielder, Seth Smith.
Smith is charging forward, so he’ll have momentum behind his throw; if Smith were moving sideways, the throw would not be as strong. To make matters worse, Orlando gets a bad read on the ball and hesitates before heading for third base. But Paulo turns on the jets and is going full speed when he hits third. Meanwhile, Seth Smith is retrieving the ball and throwing it to home plate.
Third base coach Mike Jirschele has a decision to make.
There are a lot of reasons for Jirschele to put up the stop sign: the Mariners outfield is playing shallow so they’d have a chance to make a play at the plate, Smith was charging forward so he’d have momentum behind his throw, Smith also has an above-average throwing arm and Orlando got a bad jump.
Despite all these reasons to stop Paulo at third, Jirschele still sends Orlando home and Paulo slides in under the tag — the Royals win, 4-3.
An exclusive interview with Mike Jirschele
“Exclusive interview” sounds pretty cool, but it just means Mike Jirschele and I stood in a hallway and talked after the game.
When the media is allowed into the clubhouse after a ballgame’s over, you rarely see a coach. They have a room of their own and even players are not allowed in the coaches’ room. Nobody is eager to talk to the media, so if a coach stays in that off-limits area, he doesn’t have to talk to reporters.
I asked Mike Swanson — the Royals guy who rides herd on the media — if Jirsch would be willing to come out of the coaches’ room and talk; Mike was a key figure in the Royals extra-inning win and I wanted to know why he sent Orlando home when just about everyone in the stadium who hadn’t consumed 10 beers thought he’d stop Paulo at third base.
Swanson said he’d ask, but once Mike found out I was the one that wanted to talk to him, he’d probably say no — this is baseball humor. (I think.)
A minute or two later, Mike Jirschele came down the hallway wearing a Royals T-shirt, shorts and a smile. Third-base coaches rarely get any attention unless they get a runner thrown out and making a tough decision that helps win a ballgame is about as good as it gets for a coach — even if nobody pours ice water on you afterward.
OK, so why did Jirsch send Paulo?
That was my first question. Mike smiled and asked a question of his own: “Are we scoring a lot of runs?”
Here’s what Mike meant: when a team is not hitting you need to push it on the base paths. Despite the fact that the Royals ended up with 12 hits Wednesday night, they left 16 runners on base and before Lorenzo hit that 10th-inning single, were one for 11 with runners in scoring position. The Royals were having trouble coming up with a big hit.
Stop Orlando at third and the bases would be loaded with one out and a double-play grounder would take the Royals out of the inning and the way things were going Wednesday night, that seemed like a distinct possibility.
Baseball uses a 20 to 80 rating system; 20 is the worst, 80 is the best and 50 is major-league average. Seth Smith has a 55 arm; slightly above major-league average. But Jirsch pointed out that when a game is on the line, an outfielder will tend to rush his throw.
Smith might have a 55 arm most of the time and Mike admitted a good throw would have gotten Orlando, but with the pressure to make a perfect throw or lose the ballgame, Smith might make a less than perfect throw and that’s what happened.
Despite being shallow and moving forward, Smith bounced his throw near the pitcher’s mound and threw the ball slightly up the third-base line. By the time Mariners catcher Jesus Sucre caught the ball and turned to make the tag, Orlando had scored.
Mike also figured that if Orlando was thrown out at the plate, it would only be the second out of the inning; they’d have another shot at winning with Eric Hosmer at the plate and Ben Zobrist in scoring position — but he had a shot at winning the game on Cain’s single and wasn’t going to count on another hit.
And Mike had yet another reason for sending Orlando: “I thought if I stopped one more guy at third I was going to get booed out of the stadium.”
Jirsch was kidding, but he had to throw up the stop signs a couple times when guys without good footspeed came into third base; with Orlando, Mike knew Paulo’s speed might make the difference — and it did.
A possible turning point?
There was at least one other guy who asked Mike Jirschele about sending Paulo Orlando home; Royals GM Dayton Moore. Jirsch explained it to Dayton this way: “Sometimes you gotta live dangerously.”
The Royals have been scuffling in the month of September, but sometimes a big, emotional win like this one can ignite a team; remember last year’s Wild Card Game? It primed the Royals for everything that came after.
If you follow this website you know I’m not much for predicting: but if the Royals go on a good run, don’t forget Mike Jirschele’s gamble and how it paid off.
Mike Jirchele’s decision to send Paul Orlando home might be a turning point.