Judging the Royals

June 18, 2014

A very good sign: The Royals show versatility

Wednesday afternoon, Detroit Tigers pitcher Drew Smyly was dealing. Seven innings pitched, two runs allowed and one of those runs was lucky. That’s good enough to win unless the team you’re facing pitches even better and plays great defense. Kansas City starter Jeremy Guthrie threw what Royals manager Ned Yost called his best game of the year.

Judging the Royals

Lee Judge breaks down the Royals, game by game.

Ask the people who do this for a living and they’ll tell you that for a baseball team to be really successful, it has to be able to score runs in a slugfest and play small ball in a pitchers’ duel. On Monday the Royals beat the Tigers 11-8, on Tuesday the score was 11-4. Wednesday afternoon the Royals won again, but this time the score was 2-1.

Over 162 games you might be able to slug your way into the playoffs. Hit enough to win 90 games and you’re probably pouring champagne over your teammates’ heads. But once you get to the playoffs you’ve got to win the game you’re in. Once you get to the playoff, you might face a pitcher who’s dealing.

Wednesday afternoon, Drew Smyly was dealing.

Seven innings pitched, two runs allowed and one of those runs was lucky as hell. That’s good enough to win unless the team you’re facing pitches even better and plays great defense. Jeremy Guthrie threw what Ned Yost called his best game of the year: one run in six and two-thirds. Relievers Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland pitched shutout ball and Alex Gordon saved a run with a spectacular diving catch in the fourth inning.

The first two games of this series were won with the bats; the third game was won with pitching and defense. That’s shows versatility — the ability to win in a variety of ways — and that’s a very good sign.

Game notes

First inning: When a runner has a hard time reading a left-handed pitcher’s pickoff move, the runner might roll the dice and go on “first movement”. It’s just what it sounds like: the runner gambles that the pitcher is going to throw the ball home and takes off on the pitcher’s first movement. If the pitcher throws the ball home it might work, if the pitcher throw to first base it looks awful.

Eric Hosmer got lucky when he broke for second base and Drew Smyly threw the ball to home plate. That luck continued when the pitch Smyly threw turned out to be an 84-MPH cutter; an off-speed pitch gives a runner a fraction of a second more time to steal a base and that fraction paid off when Hosmer slid in safely.

Then the luck got ridiculous when Alex Gordon hit a ball up the middle; the Tigers had an infielder positioned perfectly and it was going to be a routine grounder for the third out of the inning — until it hit second base and shot sideways, allowing Hosmer to score.

When a team wins 10 straight, they’re not only playing well, they’re probably getting some lucky breaks. Wednesday afternoon the Royals got a big one and made it stand up; that lucky break provided half the runs in Kansas City’s 2-1 beating of the Tigers.

Fourth inning: With two outs Salvador Perez went first-to-third on Lorenzo Cain’s single; it was probably a bad decision. Once a runner is on second base with two outs he’ll probably score on any base hit — he won’t have to wait to see a fly ball drop or wait for a grounder to get through the infield. There’s just not that much advantage being on third base with two outs.

The throw beat Perez, but the tag was late and he was safe. If you try to take third with two outs, you better be sure you can make it — it seemed unlikely that Perez was sure.

Fifth inning: Omar Infante hit a 2-2 slider over the left field fence, providing the Royal with a 2-0 lead and an insurance run.

Sixth inning: Once you have that insurance run you can’t be beat by the guy at the plate; he can hit the ball into the parking lot and you still have a one-run lead. So the last thing you want to do is walk a hitter and bring the tying run to the plate — now you can get burned with one swing. But Jeremy Guthrie did that just that; he walked Ian Kinsler and had to face Miguel Cabrera. Guthrie got out of it when Miggy flew out to centerfield.

Seventh inning: The Royals made use of that insurance run when J.D. Martinez pulled an up-and-in sinker — it didn’t appear to be that bad a pitch — down the left field line for a home run. KC was still up by one.

Nick Castellanos doubled and suddenly the Tigers had the tying run in scoring position. But Detroit was running out of time; they needed to score. If they didn’t take a lead in the seventh, there was a good chance they never would — Davis and Holland were getting ready in the pen. Coming into this game the Royals were 31 and 1 when they had a lead after seven innings. (I got that from Steve Physioc.)

Ned Yost brought in Kelvin Herrera to face left-handed hitter, Don Kelly. The Tigers’ centerfielder was 1 for 5 off Herrera, but that one hit was a home run. On the other hand, if Yost had brought lefty reliever Francisley Bueno in the game, Detroit manager Brad Ausmus could have countered with one of three right-handed hitters he had on his bench.

Herrera made it work; getting Kelly 0-2, then throwing a changeup that was hit to Jarrod Dyson for the final out of the seventh. That got the ball to Wade Davis and the Tigers’ chances for winning went way down.

The eighth inning: The Royals were up 2-1 and looking to score another insurance run. With one down and runners at first and second, Billy Butler was at the plate. The runner on second base was Jarrod Dyson and the Tigers were using their second baseman — Ian Kinsler — to keep Dyson close to the bag. They didn’t want Jarrod stealing third and they wanted to shorten his lead; that would make it harder for the Royals centerfielder to score from second on a single.

But having Kinsler stay close to second base in order to hold Dyson opened up the right side of the field; if Butler could hit a 16-hopper between first and second base, Dyson had a great chance to score. To prevent that 16-hopper to the right side pitcher Joba Chamberlain threw Billy nothing but curves; the Tigers wanted Butler to pull an off-speed pitch to the left side of the field so they could turn a double play and Butler obliged.

Billy chased two curveballs down, watched one bounce and then swung at the next curve, pulling the ball and hitting into a 6-4-3 inning-ending double play. If you’re going to swing at a curveball when you know they want you to swing at a curveball, you probably want to swing at a curveball up in the zone — at least until you have two strikes.

The best dirt he ever stood on

Just the other night Mike Moustakas took a bad hop groundball off the forehead and it reminded me of a story about Tim Bogar.

Tim is currently the bench coach for the Texas Rangers, but back when this story took place he was playing shortstop for the Houston Astros. Houston came to town and after Tim played his first game in Kansas City I asked him what he thought of the stadium.

“Best dirt I ever stood on.”

Fans think about what a stadium looks like, but players are more concerned with field conditions. I knew that, but had no idea what Tim meant by good dirt — so he explained. In other stadiums Tim would spend a great deal of time grooming the dirt in front of his position. Every time a runner sprinted in front of the shortstop position they’d leave divots and dirt clods. Between pitches, Tim would have to fill in the divots and remove the dirt clods.

After playing a three-game series in KC, Tim said he was still looking for a divot or dirt clod. He didn’t know how they did it, but the Kansas City grounds crew was working miracles with dirt.

The best dirt Tim Bogar ever stood on.

Kansas City Public Library appearance

This Thursday, June 19, Jason Kendall and I will be appearing at the downtown Kansas City Public Library. A reception starts at 6 p.m. The program starts at 6:30. We’ll be signing copies of our new book, “Throwback,” afterward. It’s a great chance to talk Royals baseball with a former player and current coach.

We hope to see you there.

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