The Royals hunt pitches up in the zone — and find some

06/04/2014 12:01 AM

If hitters were hunting pitches up in the zone, it was open season Tuesday night.

James Shields gave up nine hits; six of them were on off-speed pitches. The scoring started in the second inning when Kolten Wong hit a grand slam on a changeup and stopped in the sixth inning when Peter Bourjos hit a cutter out of the park. It looked like Shields was struggling to get the ball down in the zone all night.

Fortunately for the Royals, the Cardinals starting pitcher, Jaime Garcia had the same problem; especially in the fifth inning. Mike Moustakas doubled on a slider, Alcides Escobar tripled on a fastball, Shields doubled on a slider, Nori Aoki singled on a fastball and Alex Gordon homered on a curve. All the pitches were up in the zone; all the pitches got hammered—Dale Sveum’s advice seems to be working.

Pitchers who pitch down can use the whole plate, pitchers who pitch up have to hit corners. Tuesday night the only thing getting hit was the baseball.

The Royals beat the Cardinals, 8-7.

How getting a hit can get a pitcher beat

If a pitcher gets on base and has to run hard, pay attention to what happens in the next half inning—and don’t be surprised if the pitcher gets lit up.

Jaime Garcia reached base in the second inning, was pushed to second base by a walk and came around to score when Kolten Wong hit a grand slam—Garcia never had to run hard after reaching first base and got time to rest after Wong homered.

The fourth inning was a different story: Garcia singled, was bunted over to second base and then got doubled-off base when he broke too soon on a line drive to Alcides Escobar. That was the last out of the inning and Garcia was right back on the mound. He got the first out in the top of the fifth by striking out Lorenzo Cain—that took six pitches—and then proceeded to get whacked all over the yard. Garcia gave up six runs, threw 38 pitches and did not come back out for the top of the sixth inning.

Now check out James Shields:

The Royals starting pitcher singled in the third, but never advanced to second. Nori Aoki made an out on the first pitch he saw, so Shields time on base was limited.

But in the fifth inning Shields doubled and went second-to-home on Nori Aoki’s single. Shields got some time to rest—four more batters came to the plate after he scored—but when he went back to the mound he had trouble. He walked Matt Holliday on four pitches, should have had at least one out when Allen Craig hit a grounder (Mike Moustakas made an error), got a groundball out of Yadier Molina, gave up a run on a sac fly by Oscar Taveras, then hung a cutter to Jhonny Peralta and Peralta doubled .

A starting pitcher is running a marathon and throwing a sprint into the middle of that marathon can eat up energy. Both pitchers struggled in the half-inning after they ran the bases.

When the Royals were in spring training Rusty Kuntz estimated that forcing a pitcher to sprint to a foul line a couple times to pick up bunts might knock 12-15 pitches off his pitch count—that’s an inning’s worth of energy eaten up by short sprints. In this game James Shields threw five and a third innings, Jaime Garcia only went five.

I wasn’t there so I couldn’t ask if running the bases and the heat—the game-time temperature was 90 degrees—had any effect on the starting pitchers, but it sure didn’t help. Getting a hit might sound good, but a pitcher running the bases might get him beat.

Game notes

First inning: Cardinals starting pitcher Jaime Garcia showed everything he had in the first inning: fastball, slider, curve, cutter and change. Back in the day pitchers tried to get through the order the first time on two pitches, then added a pitch the second and third time through.

Showing everything right away might explain why hitters only have a .185 average against Garcia first time through the order and .154 the second time, but showing everything right away might also explain why hitters average .368 against him the third time through—they’ve seen everything Garcia has.

In the bottom of the inning Alex Gordon’s reputation saved a run when the Cards third base coach declined to send base runner Matt Carpenter home. Daniel Craig singled with Carpenter on second, but the stop sign went up as Carpenter approached third.

The outfielders with the best arms may not have the most assists—people don’t run on them.

Third inning: Alcides Escobar had the first of four good at-bats in this game; he got into a good count and drove the ball deep to center. Even though the ball was caught, that’s what hitters are supposed to do. Alcides did the same thing in the fifth when he tripled and did it again in the sixth when he flew out to the left field warning track.

In fact his worst at-bat of the night might have been the one that tied the game; his rear end was going one way and his bat was going another when he flared in a single that drove in the seventh run of the game.

In the bottom of the third Eric Hosmer saved Mike Moustakas from making an error with a leaping catch and tag. Mike had an off night defensively, but without Hosmer, it would have been worse.

Fifth inning: After Garcia gave up six runs and threw 38 pitches, you figure his team would be taking pitches in the bottom of the inning—that would allow Garcia to rest. But if manager Mike Matheny knew he was pulling Garcia in the top of the sixth that might be something he’d want his hitters to know; no point in taking fastballs down the pipe if the guy you’re allowing to rest isn’t coming back in the game.

Eighth inning: The Royals almost had a huge base-running mistake that could have cost them a run. Salvador Perez was on second and Jeremy Guthrie—pinch-running for Billy Butler—was on first, when Alcides Escobar hit that bloop single into centerfield.

Perez got a good jump because there were two outs and he didn’t have to wait to take off running, but Sal started to slow down as he approached home plate. Meanwhile, Jeremy Guthrie decided to go first-to-third—probably not the best decision since he was already in scoring position with two outs.

The throw came in to third and Guthrie had to make a last-second slide. Perez glanced back over his shoulder, saw what was happening and tried to get back up to speed: if Guthrie had been thrown out at third base before Perez touched home plate, the tying run wouldn’t have counted.

But when the tying run scored that got Wade Davis in the game to pitch the bottom of the eighth. Davis got two outs, gave up a single and then got the third out to lower his ERA to 1.37.

Ninth inning: The Royals scored in the top of the ninth and that meant Greg Holland came out of the pen to get the save. Nobody is completely automatic, but Davis and Holland have been pretty damn close. When you have two guys like that at the back end of the bullpen, pay attention to the relievers who pitch in the sixth and seventh innings—that’s where these games are often decided.

Do the media want the Royals to win?

The other day I was sitting in the Royals dugout when batting practice ended. That means all the pitchers who had to stand in the outfield shagging fly balls can leave the field and they usually waste no time in doing so.

But on this day Wade Davis came over and sat down next to me; he wanted to talk and the conversation went all over the place. We covered a lot of topics—all interesting—and then we began to talk about the media covering the team; do we want the Royals to win?

The official media position is that we don’t care if the teams we cover win or lose, we just want to see good games—in my case, the official media position is BS.

I find it much more interesting to cover a winning team. The games are more compelling, the things that happen matter more, the players are in a good mood and more willing to talk and more people care about what you write. Why in the world wouldn’t I want the team I cover to win?

There’s also the personal side; you get to know these guys and most of them are good people—you pull for them to do well. It doesn’t mean you don’t point out mistakes; I’ve never met a more likeable person than Jeff Francoeur, but when Frenchy missed the cutoff man I’d write that Frenchy missed the cutoff man. And it doesn’t mean you wouldn’t pull for guys on another team if you were working in another city. Wanting likeable people you know to do well is only human.

And Wade Davis is a likeable person; seeing him do well in the set-up role is a pleasure. If he wasn’t doing well I’d have to write about it, but all things being equal, I’d rather see Wade Davis pitch lights out—and he has.

As we talked about the media’s role, Wade said a really interesting thing: "If we go to the playoffs, we all go to the playoffs." He meant players, media, fans, the grounds crew, the front office, the ticket takers and the beer vendors—everyone involved with the team.

When he was with Tampa Bay, Wade got to start a playoff game against the Texas Rangers in Arlington. The stadium was packed and when he threw the first pitch—ball one—the place erupted. The crowd went nuts because the first pitch of the game was a ball. Wade said it was so loud he felt a vibration in his chest—after one pitch. He smiled at the memory and told me it was the most fun he’d ever had playing baseball: "I was in and out of trouble all night." And every pitch was greeted with a cheer or a groan—everything mattered. Wade Davis got to experience the incredible excitement of playoff baseball and now he wants the rest of us to get the same chance; including the media.

How do you not pull for a guy who thinks like that?

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