Let’s start in the bottom of the first inning, and then let’s start with the first pitch of the bottom of the first inning.
If you’re a Royals fan, you already know leadoff hitter Alcides Escobar is not a patient hitter. He likes to swing at the first pitch of the game if it’s a good one.
In the good old days (when dinosaurs roamed the earth and leadoff hitters always took at least one pitch to start a game), pitchers would pipe a fastball down the middle, knowing the hitter was going to stand there and watch it go by.
Escobar doesn’t play that game.
The Royals and hitting coach Dale Sveum think it’s hard enough to hit in the big leagues without letting hittable pitches go by, so the Kansas City hitters have been turned lose: If you like the pitch, swing … even if it’s the first pitch of the game.
The White Sox and starting pitcher Miguel Gonzalez know about Escobar’s aggressive tendencies, so they started Escobar off with a slider … which he swung at and hit into left field for a single.
Over his career, Escobar has hit .262 and slugged .342, but those numbers jump up to .318 and .440 on the first pitch.
So what’s a pitcher to do?
You could try not throwing him a strike on the first pitch, but if Escobar takes the pitch you’re in worse trouble than ever. You've got to throw him a strike at some point, and there’s a real good chance Escobar will be swinging when you do.
Next, Whit Merrifield singled. (I could run through all the reasons that happened, but Merrifield’s a rookie so he doesn’t get the same treatment as veterans. Plus I haven’t watched him play enough to have a lot of insight into his game.)
Anyway … we have finally arrived at the point I wanted to make about that first run of the game: The Royals get the ball in play.
They’re one of the hardest teams to strike out because they’re aggressive about swinging the bat, and that means they avoid some of those pesky two-strike at-bats.
With runners on first and second, Lorenzo Cain put the ball in play (fly ball to right) and Escobar tagged up and went to third base. With runners on first and third, Eric Hosmer got the ball in play (soft grounder to first) and Escobar scored. Escobar advanced 180 feet and scored a run on two outs. If the Royals don’t get the ball in play, that doesn’t happen.
If you think striking out is no worse than any other kind of out, I know a bunch of baseball players who think you’re wrong.
Don’t get beat on your third-best pitch
For 5 1/3 innings, Danny Duffy looked awesome. he was throwing a no-hitter and everyone in the press box was very careful not to say so. (If you mention a no-hitter and a pitcher loses it, you’ll be called a jinx.)
Duffy was throwing in the mid-to-upper 90s and appeared to have a good change-up going as well. But if I counted right, Duffy only got one swing-and-miss on his breaking pitch.
I say breaking pitch because the MLB scoreboard called it a curve and Duffy has told me they misidentify his breaking pitch.
Whatever it is, when Duffy threw his breaking pitch it was either taken, fouled off or put in play, the one exception being Melky Cabrera in the fourth inning. Duffy threw Cabrera a breaking pitch to start the at-bat and Cabrera swung and missed.
Salvador Perez and Duffy tried the same trick in the sixth inning with the bases loaded. They threw Cabrera a first-pitch breaking pitch, it was hung and Cabrera hit a grand slam.
If you have a pitch that isn’t so hot that night, you can keep throwing it, but throw it out of the zone or in spots where throwing a bad one won’t hurt you. On Friday night, Duffy’s breaking pitch appeared to be his third-best pitch ... and that’s the one he got beat on.
Sixth inning: opposite-field power
When a hitter has power, one of the ways a pitcher takes that power away is by pitching the hitter away.
Most hitters have to pull the ball to hit it out of the park. Hosmer doesn’t and that makes him very dangerous.
Hosmer got a fastball in a fastball count and hit it over the left-field fence.
Seventh inning: Know your runner
With one out, Brett Eibner doubled and Jarrod Dyson walked. That’s when one of the game’s key moments took place … a moment that will not get a lot of headlines.
Jimmy Rollins was playing shortstop for the White Sox when Alcides Escobar hit him a soft grounder.
It appeared that Rollins thought he could go to second base for the force out on Dyson.
Rollins has played most of his career in the National League, so he might not be as familiar with American League players. It sure looked like Dyson’s speed caught him by surprise.
Dyson had a huge lead at first base because he wasn’t being held on. He hit the afterburners when Escobar put the ball in play and arrived at second base too quickly for Rollins to make a play. By the time Rollins realized he had no play at second base, he had no play at first base, either. Everybody was safe and Escobar had an infield single.
That turned out to be a big deal after Merrifield singled and drove in two runs. Next, Cain struck out, and if Rollins had been ready to go to first base on the Escobar grounder, that would have been the end of the inning.
Instead, Hosmer got another at-bat. The White Sox pitched to him with first base open and Hosmer made them pay with another two-run single. The Royals had a one-run lead.
Eighth inning: an insurance run
Late in games, one-run leads are nice, but two-run leads are better.
If you can tack on that “insurance run,” the opposition can’t beat you with one swing of the bat, and that means pitchers can be very aggressive about throwing strikes.
Paulo Orlando started things with a single, Cheslor Cuthbert followed with another single, and that meant the rookie Eibner had a key plate appearance.
Ned Yost does not call for too many sacrifice bunts. When we see one, odds are the player was doing it on his own. Eibner looked down at third base coach Mike Jirschele and thought he saw the bunt sign. He didn’t, but he bunted anyway.
Afterward, Yost joked that it was OK. Nobody else on the Royals knows the signs, either. But it’s no joke: you’d be surprised how many big-league players do not know their own team’s signs. And the Royals aren’t the only team that has that problem.
Nevertheless, Eibner got his bunt down, moved Cuthbert to second and Escobar to third, and Dyson drove Escobar in with a sac fly. (There’s that getting-the-ball-in-play thing again.)
That made the score 7-5 and meant Wade Davis had some breathing room when he came out to pitch the top of the ninth. Wade did what Wade does and the Royals won the first game of the series.
Now let’s hope the Royals win 1-0 today so I don’t need 1,356 words to explain what happened.