Always the sixth inning.
This has been the story of this World Series, this postseason, and perhaps, the Royals’ wild run in this most improbable October. During the last six months, the Royals have pieced together one of the most dominant closing machines in baseball history, a paint-by-numbers bullpen that puts manager Ned Yost on autopilot in the late innings.
Kelvin Herrera owns the seventh, Wade Davis owns the eighth, and Greg Holland takes the ball in the ninth. That leaves the sixth inning, the pivotal moment, the nightly minefield, intensified by the stakes of October. Too early to deploy HDH; too late to feel totally comfortable with your starter, often maneuvering through the opposing lineup for a third time.
The sixth is the inning that gave us the Aaron Crow game, the day in September when Yost refused to go to Herrera before the seventh and the results were calamitous. The sixth inning may ultimately decide whether the Royals, just two victories away from a championship, clutch the World Series trophy for the second time in franchise history.
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“It’s one of the most important innings of the game for us,” Yost said Saturday afternoon, before the start of game four. “It’s been like that for a while.”
Always the sixth inning. On Friday, Yost had let starter Jeremy Guthrie begin the sixth inning after allowing just two hits through five innings. Guthrie promptly allowed a single and a double, and Yost called on Herrera — a move that offered the latest evidence of Yost’s transformation into a pliable tactician. Herrera allowed the inherited runner to score, but the Royals maintained a 3-2 lead and survived the final three innings to take a 2-1 lead in the series.
Yost could have gone to rookie left-hander Brandon Finnegan or veteran righty Jason Frasor in the sixth, but he elected to allow Guthrie to start the inning — with Herrera on call to put out any fires.
“Sometimes we’ve got to mix and match the sixth,” Yost said. “The majority of the time this summer, our starters did a really, really good job of getting us through six innings.”
On Friday night, Herrera, Davis and Holland continued their historical dominance in the postseason. In a combined 33 innings this postseason, the trio has allowed just three runs while striking out 39 batters. For now, Yost has tagged Frasor and Finnegan as duel bridges to maneuver through a sixth-inning scenario. If the situation calls for it, Yost can call on Frasor to face a right-hander, or send Finnegan to attack a left-hander. But as the Royals prepared to play the second of three games in San Francisco, the bridge to the seventh has become a nightly turning point.
The sixth inning gave us the five-run debacle against the Oakland A’s in the Wild Card Game, a moment that nearly ended the Royals’ season. The sixth inning gave us the Royals’ own five-run outburst in game two of the World Series. On Friday night, the Royals struck for two decisive runs in the sixth, when Giants manager Bruce Bochy opted to stick with starter Tim Hudson during the Royals’ third trip through the order.
“It’s an extremely pivotal inning,” Yost said.
Entering game three, the Royals had allowed 37 runs in 11 postseason games — and nine (24.3 percent) of those runs were plated during the sixth. Yost, after being excoriated for his rigid bullpen use during the summer months, has softened during the postseason, calling on Herrera in the sixth and letting Davis throw more than one inning.
Yost, of course, would prefer to see his starter eat up six innings and then call on Herrera to begin the bullpen relay. But as the Royals sat just two victories from a championship, there’s really only one bullpen rule. Find a way through the sixth.
“This is me,” Yost said. “I just don’t want to take any chances in the sixth inning, if I don’t have to.”