Judging the Royals

The Royals take over first place; how they did it

Kansas City Royals' Norichika Aoki (23) bows to Mike Moustakas (8) after scoring on a single by Alcides Escobar in the seventh inning during Monday's baseball game against the Oakland Athletics on August 11, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals' Norichika Aoki (23) bows to Mike Moustakas (8) after scoring on a single by Alcides Escobar in the seventh inning during Monday's baseball game against the Oakland Athletics on August 11, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City Star

The Kansas City Royals beat the Oakland Athletics 3-2 and took over first place from the Detroit Tigers. There are 45 games left in the season and anything can still happen, but we’re watching the Royals in a playoff race for the first time in a long time. If you want to know how they beat the A’s, keep reading.

Game notes

First inning: Oakland centerfielder Coco Crisp makes the first out of the game when he pulls a 96-MPH and lines out to Billy Butler. Remember that Crisp pulled a high-nineties fastball; it will come up again later.

In the Royals half of the inning Jarrod Dyson singles between third and short; third base was in because Dyson will bunt and that makes it easier for Jarrod to slap the ball through the infield. Even though Dyson is faster than bad news on Wall Street, he does not attempt to steal—Oakland starting pitcher Sonny Gray has a very quick pickoff move to first base.

Omar Infante then singles to right field. Dyson is not going to try for third base; Josh Reddick has a very good arm. Then Reddick loses his grip on the ball, comes up with a throw that travels a good 10 to 15 feet at best and Dyson is off to the races—he takes third base. Because of Reddick’s bad throw, Dyson is on third and is able to score on a Salvador Perez double play ball.

Billy Butler ends the inning on a fly ball to Coco Crisp; you’re not going to hit it over Coco’s head—he plays extremely deep.

Second inning: With Alex Gordon on first base, Raul Ibanez takes a 3-1 pitch outside, thinks he’s walked and starts toward first base. Home plate umpire Chris Guccione has other ideas and calls Raul back to the plate. Raul then hits a fly ball for the second out of the inning.

Mike Moustakas hits a rope to right and Alex goes first-to-third. Had Ibanez walked, Gordon would have been on second and scored on Moose’s single. Just when it appears Guccione’s call will cost the Royals a run, Alcides Escobar hits an 0-2, two-out single and the Royals are up 2-0.

Here’s another thing to remember: Moustakas went first-to-third on Esky’s single and he did it right in front of Coco Crisp. The Athletics center fielder does not have a good arm and base runners can take advantage of that.

Third inning: In the second inning Raul Ibanez thought he walked and started toward first base; in the third inning Coco Crisp doesn’t think he’s walked on a called ball four and stays at home plate. Guccione’s strike zone seems to have the players confused. Crisp’s walk pushes John Jaso into scoring position.

Josh Donaldson also walks, but pitch two and five in a 5-pitch sequence appear to borderline strikes. The Donaldson walk pushes Crisp to second and Jaso to third and both score when Brandon Moss singles; the game is tied 2-2.

Fourth inning: At the end inning, Yordano Ventura’s pitch count is 76. Ned Yost has said he doesn’t like young pitchers—Ventura and Danny Duffy—to go much over 100 pitches, so the Royals will be into the bullpen by the seventh inning.

Fifth inning: Coco Crisp pulls another upper-nineties fastball foul and eventually hits a flare to Omar Infante which is caught in the air. Remember that Crisp is pulling good fastballs foul.

Sixth inning: Brandon Moss walks and pitch two and four appear to be borderline strikes. Guccione is squeezing the zone and running Ventura’s pitch count up.

Seventh inning: Kelvin Herrera is in the game and throws eight pitches to Stephen Vogt; all are on the outer third of the plate or outside the zone—all the pitches are away. The Royals have a left-handed shift on so fans might assume Vogt likes to pull the ball—and pull it he does. He hits a playable fly ball to right field because he pulled an outside pitch.

If a hitter pulls a ball on the outer part of the plate, it robs most hitters of any power; they roll over and hit grounders or weak fly balls to the pull side of the field.

The score is still 2-2 and the game is now headed for back end of the bullpens. That’s where the best relievers are, so if either team can take a lead, they’ll bring in their set-up man and closer and have a great chance at winning.

The Royals are 51-1 when leading after seven innings, but 4-45 when they trail going into the eighth; whoever scores first, will probably win the game.

Seventh inning: Sonny Gray walks leadoff hitter Lorenzo Cain and that proves to be the Athletics undoing. Raul Ibanez hits a groundball to the right side, but it’s hit too softly to turn two. Lorenzo is forced at second, Raul is safe at first.

Nori Aoki comes out to pinch run for Ibanez, but—as we’ve already seen—Gray is tough to steal on and Nori is unlikely to run. Moustakas swings at the first pitch and once again, it’s hit too softly to turn two, but this time the out is at first base and the winning run—Aoki—moves into scoring position.

With two strikes Alcides Escobar comes through again; this time a single up the middle on a curveball down in the zone. Mike Jirschele is definitely going to send Aoki home—remember Crisp’s arm—and Nori scores easily. Alcides Escobar stands over at first base, doing a fist pump; he knows it’s likely he just hit a game-winner.

Eighth inning: With a one-run lead, set-up man Wade Davis faces Eric Sogard and strikes him out, then does the same to Coco Crisp. With the count 0-1 Wade throws a cutter in on Crisp and Crisp pulls it foul for strike two. It’s a neat trick for getting ahead of hitters with quick bats: go inside with something off-speed and let them pull the ball foul. After Crisp strikes out, Josh Reddick hits a fly ball to Alex Gordon to end the inning.

Ninth inning: With the score 3-2, Greg Holland comes in to get the final three outs of the game. On Sunday, Holland pitched a scoreless inning while facing six batters and if you do the math, you figure out that’s just about as many hitters as you can face and not give up a run.

Holly starts things off by giving up a single and walk. There’s nobody out and things do not look good. After the game Ned Yost says the great thing about Holland is that he’s unflappable; no matter what’s going on he bears down and makes a pitch—and that’s what he does here. Derek Norris hits a chopper to Mike Moustakas and he steps on third and turns a 5-3 double play.

Holland gets the last out of the inning and the game when Stephen Vogt hits a fly ball to the right center gap and Jarrod Dyson—who was playing in—runs a long way to make the catch.

The Royals beat the A’s 3-2 and take over first place—in August.

Wade wasn’t celebrating

Last Friday night Wade Davis pitched a scoreless inning against the San Francisco Giants and yelled something as he came off the mound. A photo of that moment appeared in the Kansas City Star the next day; the caption said Wade was celebrating. I’ve gotten to know Davis a little bit and I was pretty sure Wade wasn’t celebrating—I thought he was mad at himself.

Here’s what happened:

Wade gave up a lead-off single to Pablo Sandoval, another single to Michael Morse, struck out Joe Panik and got out of the inning when Matt Duffy hit into an inning-ending double play. He didn’t give up a run, so why was Wade mad?

Because he thought he made some "non-competitive, stupid" pitches. He’d gone over how to pitch each hitter, but once Wade got on the mound, he went away from the game plan. So how does that happen? As one coach put it, "With 30,000 people screaming at him, you think a kid remembers what we told him at 3 o’clock that afternoon? Sometimes they forget."

And if you’re thinking that these are big league ballplayers and there’s no way they should have a brain cramp like that, let me ask you a question: ever forget your cell phone somewhere? You know you need it—how could you forget it?

Stress; it makes all of us do goofy things.

And even if a young guy remembers what a coach told him at 3 o’clock, he might ignore the advice. Wade started laughing about a pitcher who was told not to throw a certain hitter a slider, but responded by saying: "He hasn’t seen my slider." And then, when the hitter did see that guy’s slider, he hit it out of the park.

At that point Jason Vargas, sitting at the next locker, chipped in: "You don’t know until you know."

Here’s what that means: someone can give you all the good advice in the world, but if you don’t believe it, you won’t follow it. And a pitcher has to believe in himself and his stuff. As Vargas put it, a pitcher has to believe he’s a "beast" out there. In his mind the pitcher better think his fastball is 98 and his curve is unhittable.

It was time for Wade to head to the field and as we walked along he said that if he had bad stuff and got whacked around, he’d admit it—that’s baseball and sometimes it happens. But to have good stuff and then do something stupid with it was frustrating. That’s why Wade was mad at himself—and he definitely wasn’t celebrating.

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