When manager John Gibbons and the Toronto Blue Jays were in town, Gibby said if the Jays got in a one-run game with the Royals, they’d be in trouble. The Jays can bang — only one team in the AL has hit more home runs — but get into the later innings of a one-run game, when the Royals were rolling out their best relievers, and home runs might be difficult to come by.
Not impossible — as the Blue Jays proved — but difficult.
The Jays don’t steal or bunt all that much so manufacturing single runs isn’t their thing, but manufacturing a single run is right up the Royals alley; that’s why Gibby said what he said.
Tuesday night’s game against the Miami Marlins provided an excellent example.
Going into the sixth inning, the game was scoreless, so the Royals knew a single run would matter; score a run and then protect that slim lead with the back end of the bullpen. Marlins pitcher Andrew Cashner made the mistake of starting the sixth by walking leadoff hitter Paulo Orlando and the Royals were in business.
Danged if you do, danged if you don’t
The Royals’ running game puts pitchers in a bind. If a pitcher wants to give his catcher a chance at throwing out a base stealer, the pitcher can slide step and throw a fastball; that gets the ball to home plate more quickly.
But slide steps can result in pitches up in the zone — the front foot gets down more quickly and the arm never catches up — and hitters like to hit fastballs. And the Royals really like to hit first-pitch fastballs. When they put the first pitch in play the Royals hit .363 and slug .594.
So Cashner jumped out of that fastball frying pan and into the off-speed fire; he used a full leg kick and threw a first-pitch slider. That meant the ball took just a bit longer to get to home plate and that allowed Orlando to steal second base without much trouble.
So how did the Royals know a first-pitch slider was on its way?
The first time through the order Cashner started every hitter with a first-pitch fastball. The second time through the order Cashner started every hitter — with the exception of Lorenzo Cain, Raul Mondesi and Yordano Ventura — with an off-speed pitch, mainly sliders.
Ventura’s a pitcher and Mondesi is currently hitting .195 so apparently Cashner felt no need to switch things up with them at the plate. I don’t know why he wanted to go first-pitch fastball to Cain three times in a row, but starting every other hitter with an off-speed pitch second time through the order is way too simple a pattern and a smart guy like Rusty Kuntz is going to pick up on that pattern very quickly.
Bottom line: Orlando stole second base on the first-pitch slider thrown to Cheslor Cuthbert and the Royals had the go-ahead run in scoring position.
Cuthbert has a bad AB
In the sixth inning of a scoreless game, Cuthbert’s job was to make sure Orlando made it to third base; get to third base with one down and you can score in a whole bunch of ways.
So Cuthbert wanted to hit the ball to the right side of the field — behind the runner — so Orlando could advance to third. Cashner wanted Cuthbert to pull the ball to the left side of the field — in front of the runner — so Orlando would have to stay at second.
In this situation, right-handed hitters see an awful lot of sliders (a slower pitch likely to be pulled) and very few fastballs (a faster pitch easier to hit to the opposite field). Cashner was already behind 1-0 after that first-pitch slider, but doubled down and threw another one.
This slider was in the dirt for ball two, so Cashner then gave in and threw Cuthbert a 2-0 fastball. The pitch finished up and away — a perfect pitch to hit to the opposite field — but Cuthbert took it for a strike. It was the kind of take that has coaches pulling their hair out; a hitter gets the perfect pitch to do the job he has to do, but doesn’t swing.
At 2-1, Cuthbert got yet another slider and then did exactly what Cashner wanted him to do; he hit a groundball to the Marlins’ third baseman. Orlando had to stay put and Cuthbert was thrown out at first base. (I imagine someone will talk to Cuthbert about that at-bat and point out where things went wrong.)
Lorenzo Cain and a 3-0 green light
Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain was up next and after three pitches Cashner was behind in the count 3-0. When pitchers are behind in the count 3-0 they tend to pipe a fastball down the middle and hitters tend to watch that hittable fastball go by.
But as Royals fans know their team doesn’t always play by the unwritten rules and giving their hitters a 3-0 green light is not unheard of. Small wonder; the Royals hit .625 and slug 1.125 when they put 3-0 pitches in play.
So Cain got the green light, singled and Orlando scored the only run the Royals needed for a 1-0 win over the Florida Marlins.
But manufacturing runs doesn’t work unless you get good pitching
I just used many words to describe how the Royals manufactured one run. The ability to manufacture a run is a great club to have in the bag and one of the reasons the Royals have done well in the postseason; the pitching gets better and the Royals know how to play that kind of game.
But manufacturing just one run doesn’t work unless your pitchers throw a shutout and Tuesday night the Royals pitchers did. The Royals are on this current hot streak because their pitchers have put up a 2.32 ERA in the month of August; lately their pitching has allowed the Royals offense to play their kind of game.
Do the math and the Royals’ chances of going to the postseason aren’t good, but this particular team has made a habit of beating the odds. Think about it: if you’re only going to score one run, what are your chances of winning?
On Tuesday night, the Royals manufactured one run, pitched their tails off and the chances of winning turned out to be 100 percent.