Sometimes Royals catcher Salvador Perez makes the call, other times it comes from the dugout. Either way, closer Wade Davis knew before he threw a pitch to José Altuve, he’d be throwing to first baseman Eric Hosmer.
The Astros trailed 5-4 with one out in the ninth inning of Game 2 of their American League Division Series on Friday, and Carlos Gomez had been summoned to pinch run for Preston Tucker.
What happened next proved to be a big moment in the Royals’ victory. Davis short-hopped a pickoff toss to Hosmer, who appeared to swipe at Gomez’s arm before Gomez could return to the bag. But first-base umpire Mike Everitt ruled him safe.
Hosmer immediately looked at the dugout, suggesting a replay challenge.
“I felt his arm graze my glove a little bit, but I wasn’t really sure,” Hosmer said. “I wasn’t really sure if we got him or not, but I definitely wanted to give the guys in the video room time to see what we had.”
After the review, Gomez was ruled out.
Royals scouting had paid off again. Controlling the Astros’ running game is a priority for the Royals in the series that continues with Game 3 at 3:07 p.m. Sunday on MLB Network.
“You go up and down their lineup,” Perez said. “They can run.”
For all the attention paid to the Astros’ power — their 230 regular-season home runs ranked second in baseball — their speed tends to be underappreciated. Not by the Royals, fully aware that Houston’s 121 stolen bases ranked third in the majors.
“It’s very, very important,” manager Ned Yost said. “And the best way to do it is to keep the top three off the bases.”
That’s Altuve, who led the American League with 38 stolen bases, George Springer (16) and Carlos Correa (14). Jake Marisnick (24) flashes speed and so does Gomez, who along with Mike Trout are the only major-leaguers with 100 steals and 50 home runs over the last four seasons.
Base-running defense starts with the pitcher.
“You have to vary your looks, vary the way you hold him on and vary your time to the plate,” said pitcher Chris Young.
Young was on the mound in relief in Game 1 when the Royals were trying to keep the Astros from building on a lead when Perez gunned down Altuve trying to steal second.
Friday’s play became one of the game’s critical moments. Davis doesn’t often throw to first. As one of the game’s top pitchers, with an 0.94 ERA and just 33 hits and 20 walks in 67 1/3 innings, Davis finds trouble fewer than most.
Davis’ mind-set is to not go to first if he doesn’t believe the runner has a lead. He hadn’t picked off a runner since Sept. 9, 2013.
“If I’m going to throw over there, it’s to get him out,” Davis said. “If he doesn’t have a lead you don’t think you can get him out on, slide step and go home.”
One of Davis’ most recent pickoff attempts ended in disaster when he skipped a throw past Hosmer in Detroit, allowing Ian Kinsler to reach third, where he scored the go-ahead run.
But the moment called for a play on Friday. Gomez is an aggressive base runner, and the Astros had to get him into scoring position.
The Royals knew this, and the call for a pickoff attempt came from the dugout and Pedro Grifol. Davis turned, fired and still needed a dugout challenge and reversal to record the out.
“I was sliding with confidence, I didn’t think it was going to be that close, but he got me,” Gomez said. “I know now what kind of move he has to first.”
And that the Royals take the Astros’ running game seriously.