Top of the 10th was crucial in Royals' win

No, that’s not a misprint. Naturally the focus will be on what happened in the bottom of the tenth: David Lough singled, Miguel Tejada bunted him to second base and Alex Gordon drove him in with a game-winning single — but fans shouldn’t miss what happened in the top of the tenth, either.

Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward started the tenth inning by lining a 96-MPH fastball into the left-center gap. Off the bat it looked like a double, but left fielder Alex Gordon ran it down. Gordon kept the ball from reaching the wall, turned and fired the ball back to the infield. I’ve been told it’s not just Gordon’s arm strength that has runners refusing to take the extra base; it’s the quickness of his release.

So because of Alex Gordon, Heyward was on first base, not second.

Justin Upton stepped into the batter’s box and Aaron Crow promptly threw a slider in the dirt—blocked by Salvador Perez. Had Gordon not held Heyward to a single and Perez not kept Heyward from advancing on a pitch in the dirt, Atlanta would have had a runner on third base with nobody out. Because of good defense, Heyward was still at first base. Justin Upton worked the count to 3-2 and Heyward went in motion. The ball was hit to Alcides Escobar and he turned it into the first out of the inning—a 6-3. Without Gordon and Perez, that groundball to short might have scored a run.

Because Heyward was in motion, he was safe at second base. That opened up first and the Royals chose to walk the left-handed first baseman, Freddie Freeman. That set up a double-play situation and the Royals immediately got one: catcher Gerald Laird hit the ball to Mike Moustakas at third and he got it to pivot man Elliot Johnson in time to turn two.

The Royals played outstanding defense all night and some of the plays were spectacular: Mike Moustakas went into foul territory to make a play on Andrelton Simmons, Jeff Francoeur saved a run in the second when the Braves refused to challenge his arm on what could have been a run-scoring sacrifice fly and Alex Gordon ran forever to track down a slicing Freddie Freeman shot over his head. But I wanted to pick a couple plays that won’t make any highlight reel, but still saved two bases, a run and possibly a ballgame.

The Royals beat the Braves 4-3 in extra innings.

Game notes

* The Royals are now 6-1 in extra-inning games. Ned Yost has said he thinks he has an advantage when the game moves to the bullpens and Wednesday night he did.

* The 5-4-3 double play in the tenth was not an easy one and Elliot Johnson—who got picked off first base in the ninth—deserves credit for hanging in and turning two. That’s the great thing about baseball: good or bad you usually get another chance almost immediately.

* I was told that when Luis Mendoza had his good sinker going, shortstop Alcides Escobar would be positioned more toward third base and in this game he was. Mendoza’s sinker dives down and in to right-handers and down and away from lefties. The more movement, the further over toward third Escobar would stand. If the sinker wasn’t as sharp, Esky would be positioned more toward second base.

* Mendoza went six and two-thirds innings, gave up two earned runs, walked one and struck out six.

* In the bottom of the first Alex Gordon got a 2-0 fastball and hit it 413 feet. Big league pitchers will often throw off-speed stuff in fastball counts if there’s a runner in scoring position. Even though he was still in the batter’s box, turns out Alex was in scoring position.

* In the same half inning Billy Butler scored from second base when Salvador Perez singled. As I’ve said before, when there are two outs there are times a third-base coach will send a runner, knowing he’ll be out if the throw is a good one. Billy would have been out if catcher Gerald Laird had held onto the ball.

* In the third inning the Royals put on a hit and run with Gordon and Escobar. Alcides lined the ball up the middle—which is not ideal on a hit and run. I’ll tell you why later in this post.

* Jordon Schafer fouled a ball down off his front ankle and had to limp around for a while before he was ready to climb back in the box. When that happens, watch where the next pitch is: usually right where the last pitch was. Hitters are reluctant to foul another ball off their shin and can take a pretty half-hearted swing. Luis Mendoza went down and in again and Schafer struck out.

* When you think of all those diving catches Alex Gordon makes on sinking line drives in front of him, remember he can only catch those because he’s able to play shallow. He can only play shallow because he has the ability to go back on a ball so well. The Freddie Freeman catch was proof of that.

* Ned Yost said he went to Bruce Chen in the seventh because two lefties were coming up and Tim Collins needed a night off. Bruce didn’t get either of his guys—the Braves pinch-hit for one of them—and that brought Luke Hochevar in the game. Luke hung a curve and gave up a two-run single.

Without Kelvin Herrera, the eighth inning situation gets a bit more complicated. Hochevar came back out, pitched a scoreless eighth and got the ball to Greg Holland (who was absolutely filthy) and he got the Royals to extra innings and Aaron Crow.

The big-league hit and run

Three PM Wednesday afternoon, smoking hot in the K and Elliot Johnson, David Lough and Jarrod Dyson are working on the hit and run. Rusty Kuntz is standing off to the side of the batting cage watching and giving advice. I’m standing further off to the side of the batting cage, watching and learning.

OK, here’s your basic hit and run play: the manager waits until he thinks the hitter is likely to get a fastball for a strike and then calls for the hit and run. A fastball is the best pitch because it’s straight and the hitter is likely to make contact. The runner takes off from first base and the hitter has to swing. If the runner could steal on his own you’d probably be doing that instead, so you need the batter to make contact to protect the runner—swing and miss and it might be an easy caught stealing.

Favorite hit and run counts are 2-0 and 2-1, but if the manager has some information that suggests the pitcher is likely to throw a fastball in the zone in some other count that doesn’t include three balls or two strikes, you might see the hit and run. (You don’t do a hit and run with three balls because you don’t want the hitter swinging at ball four and you don’t do it with two strikes base you don’t want the hitter chasing a pitch that’s out of the zone. But you will see a runner put in motion on a full count; that’s a different play—the hitter does not have to swing.)

So that’s the basic hit and run, but in the big leagues it can get a little more complicated. For instance: a hitter does not want to hit the ball up the middle—like Escobar did in the third—because that’s where one of the middle infielders will be headed. The runner taking off from first base forces someone to cover second base and that opens a hole somewhere, but closes one up the middle. Rusty said hitting the ball to the right side is preferable because if you hit it to the left side—even if the shortstop is covering second—you might not be able to go first to third—left field is too close and the left fielder might throw the runner out. (Others would argue that it depends on the leftfielder: if Alex Gordon is out there you’re not going to be able to advance, with somebody else you still might take the extra base.)

Here’s another thing I didn’t know: because it’s preferable to hit the ball to the right side, left-handed hitters have to use more top hand on a hit and run; that helps get the bat head out and helps the lefty pull the ball. On the other hand—literally—righties need to use more bottom hand on a hit and run because that will drag the bat head and tend to send the ball toward the hole at second.

Rusty also said the hit and run varies by inning: early in the game the hitter is supposed to try to drive the ball. Teams are still looking for big innings and they don’t want the hitter giving himself up with a weak grounder. Later in the game, say the last three innings, getting the runner around the bases is more important—one run is probably a big deal or you wouldn’t be doing a hit and run—so hitting a sixteen hopper to move a runner is OK.

I thought I knew something about hit and runs, but in the big leagues, there’s always more to learn.

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