Royals fall below .500 as Guthrie struggles

The Kansas City Royals suffered their fourth straight one-run loss Monday night — they’re now one game under .500. The Royals took a one-run lead in the top of the fourth inning on Miguel Tejada’s three-run home run, but gave the lead right back when the Astros hit a three-run bomb of their own.

Jeremy Guthrie started the bottom of the fourth inning with a strikeout, but then walked Carlos Pena, on four pitches. Next Jimmy Paredes singled and then Matt Dominguez got a fastball in fastball count and hit it into cheap seats. Lots of fastballs are thrown in fastball counts — 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1 and at times 3-2 — but to get away with that it needs to be a good fastball in a good location. Guthrie left this one up and, even though it was slightly away, Dominguez was able to pull the ball into the Astros’ short left field porch.

After the game, Ned Yost said that Guthrie had struggled with command, finding the right arm slot and keeping the ball down. Guthrie walked three, two of them scored and the Royals lost this one 6-5.

Houston’s ballpark

Fox Sports' Joel Goldberg did a nice piece with the Royals' outfield coach, Rusty Kuntz, during the pregame show. Each field’s dimensions changes the games we see and Houston’s is no exception. If you look at a diagram you’ll see it’s short in the corners (315 in left, 326 in right) and enormous in center (435 feet). Centerfield also has an incline outfielders have to deal with, and at the top of the incline is a flag pole—it’s in play. I guess people like to watch players risk their careers dealing with that thing, but I just wonder why the Astros didn’t go whole hog and plant land mines.

Maybe they have and nobody’s stepped on one yet.

Rusty pointed out that the left field wall is made of steel, (I believe it’s a combination scoreboard and deathtrap) so the Royals will have Alex Gordon play deep. It’s only 315 feet away from home plate anyway and playing deep means Gordon will know exactly where the wall is. Play shallow, race back on a fly ball and Alex might crash into solid steel. There are nooks and crannies all over the Astros’ park and when we were in spring training, Rusty told me most players would rather play in a uniform outfield with normal dimensions. That puts the game back on the players’ skills; they’d rather not lose a game because a ball hit some weird corner and shot off at some unexpected angle.

Over the next two games, pay attention to how short right and left field are; that will determine how each team runs the bases—which happened several times Monday night.

Game notes

First inning: Houston starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel threw a 2-1 changeup to Lorenzo Cain. 2-1 is considered a fastball count, so when a pitcher demonstrates he’ll throw something other than a fastball in a fastball count; he gives hitters something else to think about. They can’t just sit dead-red and assume they’ll get the hard stuff, even when they’re in a hitter’s count. If they do, they can look silly when they get the changeup and swing too soon. The Royals have seen an awful lot of changeups in the last four games and that might have something to do with the way they’ve been hitting.

Keuchel also threw a first-pitch changeup to Billy Butler and the importance of that soon became apparent.

Second inning: Eric Hosmer was on first base and did not make it to third when Jeff Francoeur singled to right. Going first to third when the ball is hit to right is fairly common, it’s a long throw—but not as long in Houston. With runners on the corners and two down, Elliot Johnson singled to score Hosmer. When Elliot had a bad at-bat with the bases loaded in Oakland, I pointed it out. So it’s only fair to point out Elliot had a good at-bat here; Johnson expanded his zone with two strikes, took the decision out of the umpire’s hands and came up with a big hit.

In the bottom of the inning Jeremy Guthrie threw a 2-2 pitch to Chris Carter, but paused in the middle of the delivery. He doesn’t do it all the time, but that pause is another way Guthrie tries to throw off a hitter’s timing. Guthrie threw the pitch for a ball and ended up walking Carter and Carter ended up scoring. When a runner scores, don’t forget how he got on base to begin with.

Third inning: Left-handed Jason Castro homered on a ball to right field. Whenever people see a short porch in left, they assume it helps a right-handed batter—and it can—but it can also mess a hitter up if he keeps trying to pull the ball to take a shot at the left field wall. On the other hand, a left-handed hitter has to stay closed a long time to hit a ball off that wall and that can be very good for a leftie’s swing. Lots of left-handed hitters have great success banging the ball off Fenway’s Green Monster.

Fourth inning: With Salvador Perez on base Jeff Francoeur got his second hit of the game (he’d wind up with three). Before the game Frenchy talked about the pressure of not playing and trying to do something big whenever you get on the field, which is—of course—the wrong reaction. But when guys aren’t sure they’re going to be in the lineup the next day, they press. When guys are fighting for playing time, they might make a bad decision because they’re trying so hard to make an impression.

OK, remember that first-pitch changeup to Billy Butler?

Guys who have been around a while pay attention—that’s one of the reasons they’ve been around a while. Billy Butler got a first-pitch changeup, Lorenzo Cain got a first-pitch changeup, Alcides Escobar got a first-pitch changeup, Jeff Francoeur got a first-pitch changeup and, in his first at-bat, so did Miguel Tejada.

So what did Miggy look for on the first pitch of his second at-bat?

If he wasn’t looking for a changeup, Tejada did a great imitation of someone who was: he unloaded a three-run bomb to left. Good hitters will look for patterns—every time the pitcher throws a first-pitch strike he goes to his slider, he’s starting all the lefties with a curve, stuff like that—and if a hitter discovers a pattern before the pitcher breaks the pattern, the hitter can take advantage.

The next time up, Keuchel started Tejada with a fastball.

Fifth inning: Salvador Perez attempted to catch a pop fly by the first base dugout, banged his hip into a padded pole and eventually had to come out of the game. That might not have happened if the play were over by the third-base dugout. The Astros occupied the first-base dugout and the unwritten rules of baseball say you don’t help the other guy make a play on your turf. You don’t warn him or stand up or put your hand out or keep him from banging into a railing. If he misses the catch and then falls into your dugout, then you can help—before that, he’s on his own. The same thing might have happened over by the Royals dugout, but his teammates would have been trying to keep Sal from slamming into the railing and they’d also verbally let him know how close he was getting.

Another thing about Salvador Perez: you might have noticed him blocking a pitch with no runner on base. Why would a catcher do that? Getting hit by a well-thrown baseball hurts. Well, umpires dig it because they don’t like getting hit by pitches either. A catcher who keeps the ball off the umpire’s body is making a friend, and you never know when a friend will come in handy.

With two on and two outs, the count on Jimmy Paredes went to 3-2. With two outs and runners on, pitchers would rather force the action before getting to a 3-2 count. Once the count’s full, the runners will break with the pitch and get a head start on the next base. Paredes singled and Chris Carter tried to score from second. The fact that Alex Gordon was able to throw out Carter, even though he had a head start, means Gordon wasn’t as far away as he usually would be and Salvador Perez did a good job of pretending there was no play at the plate—Carter came in standing and got tagged out.

Sixth inning: Perez had to leave the game with a bruised hip and George Kottaras replaced him. A foul tip caught George in the throat and if he had to leave the game, the third-string catcher would have been Chris Getz. Three catchers is a luxury most teams can’t afford, so the third string-guy might have last caught in high school—that’s enough to earn you the job.

Eighth inning: Eric Hosmer doubled down the left-field line on a pitch up and in. There has been a lot of concerned expressed by fans and the media about the fact that Eric isn’t pulling the ball. But in the past, Eric struggled when he was getting pitched on the outer half and tried to pull the ball. Pull pitches on the outer half and most of the time you’re going to hit weak grounders to the right side or swing and miss altogether. Pitchers pounded him in off the plate, made him conscious of the inside pitch and then got him out away because he was in pull mode.

Hosmer’s now staying on the ball and hitting it to the opposite field, which may be step one in getting him back to where they want him to be. I’ll ask when they get back home.

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