Judging the Royals

Don’t take the Minnesota Twins lightly

Minnesota Twins' Joe Mauer, right, and a former teammate, Kansas City Royals' Josh Willingham, hug during warm-ups for a baseball game, Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Minneapolis. Willingham was recently traded by the Twins to the Royals.
Minnesota Twins' Joe Mauer, right, and a former teammate, Kansas City Royals' Josh Willingham, hug during warm-ups for a baseball game, Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Minneapolis. Willingham was recently traded by the Twins to the Royals. AP

In August of 2013 the Kansas City Royals played a four game weekend series against the Boston Red Sox. The stadium was packed, the crowds were enthusiastic and the Royals played well and took three out of four games. Then the lowly Miami Marlins came to town and the Royals got beat two out of three times. There’s a lesson to be learned from those two series: don’t take any opponent lightly.

After a big series against the Oakland A’s the Royals now play three teams with losing records: the Twins, the Rockies and the Rangers—but a loss to a losing team is still a loss and the Royals need to take care of business on the road. They made a good start on Friday night, beating the Minnesota Twins 6-5.

My son Paul watched the game and here’s his report:

The Twins try to ambush Duffy

Danny Duffy came out aggressively in the bottom of the first against the Twins on Friday night, and looked dominant. The Twins clearly were trying to jump on early fastballs from Duffy – Danny Santana and Brian Dozier both swung at the first fastball they saw, and after taking a fastball for a strike, Joe Mauer attacked the next two, eventually flying out to Alex Gordon in left.

The ambush didn’t work; even though they got the fastballs they were looking for, the Twins hitters let Duffy get out of the first inning after only six pitches.

Duffy breaks out his curve

Duffy continued to throw nothing but fastballs through much of the second inning and didn’t have to go to his breaking stuff until he got into a 1-1 count with Oswaldo Arcia. A 1-1 count is an important one: it’s a turning point in an at-bat that gives an advantage to either the batter or the pitcher, and with Kurt Suzuki on second base, Duffy didn’t want to give Arcia anything to hit. Arcia took the curve for a ball, but then swung and missed at the next two fastballs to end the inning.

In the bottom of the third, Eduardo Escobar led off with an excellent eight-pitch at-bat, finally hitting a 2-2 changeup back up the middle for a leadoff single. Jordan Schafer came to the plate next and worked another 1-1 count. Duffy threw another curve to Schafer, but it appeared Schafer was sitting on the 1-1 curve: he waited on it and took it the other way for a single down the third-base line.

After Santana’s sac bunt, a Danny Duffy throwing error and Dozier’s groundout put the Twins up 2-0, Joe Mauer came to bat and again worked a 1-1 count. Duffy again threw a curve to Mauer, who loaded up and took a vicious hack, but this curve stayed down and Mauer missed it. Even so the Mauer and Schafer’s at-bats seemed to indicate that the Twins had keyed in on the pattern of 1-1 curveballs that Sal Perez and Duffy were throwing.

This is the type of predictable pitch-calling pattern that has caused trouble for the Royals at times this year, and they were lucky that it didn’t cause them more trouble on Friday night. But to their credit, Sal and Duffy changed up their pattern throughout the game, mixing in Duffy’s change and curve in other counts, and this adjustment helped Duffy get the victory.

Willingham makes an adjustment

In the top of the second, Josh Willingham came to bat with Billy Butler on second and Alex Gordon on first. It was the Royals’ first at-bat of the game with a runner in scoring position. Willingham took a first-pitch slider from Twins’ starter Ricky Nolasco for ball one, then got a slider that stayed right over the heart of the plate. It’s the type of pitch that a power hitter like Willingham feasts on, but he took it to go 1-1, and he eventually struck out on a 1-2 slider that had a much nastier break. It was a frustrating at-bat that led to the Royals stranding their first two base-runners.

But Willingham is a veteran, and he made the proper adjustment in his next at-bat.

In the top of the fourth, after Nolasco loaded the bases by hitting Gordon on the foot, Willingham came to the plate. Nolasco started him off with another slider, and again left it up, right over the plate. Willingham jumped on it and ripped a double down the left-field line. That cleared the bases and gave the lead back to the Royals. Though he said after the game that he wasn’t specifically sitting on the slider, he knew Nolasco would try to get strike one in on him, and he looked to be aggressive early. It was a good adjustment from a veteran hitter, and by making it, Willingham was able to blow open the Royals’ fourth-inning rally and give his team the lead.

Duffy’s error; the outfielders do their jobs

In the bottom of the third, after the singles from Eduardo Escobar and Schafer, Santana came to the plate and laid down a bunt that died right between the mound and home plate. Duffy sprinted forward and fielded it, but Santana’s speed made Duffy rush the throw over to Butler at first, and it sailed over Butler’s head and into the first-base side foul territory. Fortunately for the Royals, Nori Aoki was doing his job out in right field by backing up the throw to Butler, just in case this exact thing happened. Aoki fielded the wild throw as Escobar scored, and tried to throw out Santana at second base. But Aoki’s throw sailed over Alcides Escobar’s head out into left field. Again, fortunately for KC, Alex Gordon was doing his job, rushing in to back up Aoki’s throw. Gordon fielded the wild throw in shallow left, which kept Schafer at third and Santana at second.

Though Schafer eventually did score on Brian Dozier’s groundout, if Alex hadn’t been doing his job, he probably would have scored on Aoki’s wild throw, and Santana would have moved up to third, setting up a possible three-run inning for the Twins. But both Aoki and Gordon did what they were supposed to do: a mundane job that usually doesn’t matter and most people never notice, but a job that becomes necessary in an instant, when your team needs you most. The Royals got into a jam in the third, and Aoki and Gordon, by fulfilling their responsibilities, helped get them out of it.

Runners on third, but no runs

In the top of the third, Jarrod Dyson hit a one-out triple to the right-center gap. Aoki came to bat next, looking to get something up to score Dyson. Aoki worked to a 3-0 count, then took a fastball on the outside corner for strike one. It was a good take – not a pitch that he could drive, and close to being ball four. But Nolasco placed the next fastball a little bit closer to the outside edge, and Aoki again took it for strike two. Aoki appeared to disagree with the call, but it was too close to take after the previous pitch. Aoki then got a slider in on his hands and struck out on a check-swing.

With no outs in the fourth, after Escobar’s bases-clearing triple, Dyson grounded out to first and Aoki popped out to shallow left – both unproductive outs that couldn’t score Escobar. Omar Infante ended the inning by rolling over into a 6-3 groundout.

In the seventh inning, Dyson again got to third base with one out, on a wild pitch to Infante. Infante struck out on the next pitch, and Sal struck out looking in the next at-bat.

Again, in the ninth, Lorenzo Cain got to third with one out after a nice opposite field groundout by Infante. To his credit, Sal, next at the plate, got a good pitch to score Cain on a sac fly – a 94-mph fastball up in the zone – but he couldn’t square it up and popped out to Dozier at second base. Butler ended the inning by grounding out to short.

It’s hard to complain about how the Royals win, especially when they’re the hottest team in baseball - but that’s four times they had a runner on third with less than two outs, and zero times they were able to get him in. In what turned out to be a one-run ballgame, those four missed opportunities become a pretty big deal. The Royals’ offense has been excellent and highly productive lately, but at some point the production will inevitably slow down – and when it does, you need to be able to generate runs in these situations. Though it didn’t end up hurting them on Friday night, the Royals will have to take advantage of these opportunities going forward.

—Paul Judge

The human element

According to MLB.com Danny Duffy’s first pitch to Kennys Vargas in the third inning was a ball. But a look at the strike zone reveals that pitch was pretty much down the middle. So why didn’t Duffy get the call?

Because Salvador Perez was set up inside and the pitch missed out over the plate. Sal had to reach across his body and catch it outside his right knee; it was still a strike, it just didn't look good and home plate umpire David Rackley called it a ball. This why you can’t look at that pitch and say Salvador Perez did a bad job of framing the ball; the way Sal received it had nothing to do with Rackley’s call. Duffy missed his spot badly and—whether you agree with it or not—a lot of umpires won’t call that pitch a strike.

There’s still a human element to the game and if you don’t acknowledge that, you’re missing something.