Judging the Royals

What happened to the Kansas City Royals’ offense Sunday?

The Royals’ Alex Gordon dived safely into third base after hitting a triple off Minnesota reliever Ryan Pressly in the seventh inning Sunday in Minneapolis. The Royals won the game 12-6.
The Royals’ Alex Gordon dived safely into third base after hitting a triple off Minnesota reliever Ryan Pressly in the seventh inning Sunday in Minneapolis. The Royals won the game 12-6. The Associated Press

On Saturday night, the Royals lost to the Minnesota Twins 4-1, and their offense looked anemic. They had a total of eight hits, struck out nine times, did not walk once and their only run came on an error. They didn’t have a single RBI.

Sunday afternoon, the Royals beat the Twins 12-6. This time, the Royals had 13 hits — three of them were home runs — had 10 RBIs and overpowered the Twins with their bats.

So what happened to the Royals offense? Good pitching on Saturday, bad pitching on Sunday.

When an entire team struggles at the plate, the common factor is the guy on the mound. When an entire team rakes, once again the common factor is the guy on the mound. Even bad teams can get a good pitching performance — and good teams can get a bad one.

There’s a reason longtime Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver said momentum is tomorrow’s starting pitcher. You can be smoking hot, and a pitcher on his game can cool you off. You can be scuffling, and a pitcher who hangs a bunch of sliders can get you going. On Sunday, the Twins’ pitching scuffled, and the Royals knocked the ball all over the yard.

The Royals and Twins wrap up this four-game series Monday, and the Royals have a chance to win their eighth series in a row.

Kurt Suzuki’s game-calling

When Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki talked about calling a game, he told me he often tries to establish the down and away fastball right away and that’s what he did in the first inning. Starter Tommy Milone pitched away, away, away and then once he was hitting that spot consistently, started mixing in changeups thrown to the same area. That’s the sequence that struck out Omar Infante.

The Royals seven-run second inning

The Royals had a big inning in the second and the three main factors seemed to be …

A wet field.

A couple of walks, a hit-by-pitch and an error. Possibly caused by a wet field. Key hits up the middle and the other way.

Trying to pull the ball and do major damage means you have to swing early, and that makes a hitter easier to fool. Wait and take the ball back up the middle or the other way, and you become a much tougher out. But it also means you have to string some hits together to get it done, and that’s what the Royals did.

Changing the hitter’s eye level

In the bottom of the second inning, with the count 0-2, Royals catcher Salvador Perez pointed down at the ground. He wanted starter Jeremy Guthrie to get the message: Bounce this pitch. Jeremy did, and Sal blocked it. On the next pitch, Sal held his glove high in the zone, and the message was the opposite: Throw this pitch above the strike zone.

When a pitcher does this — bounces one pitch and goes letter-high with the next one — he’s trying to change the hitter’s eye level. Don’t let the hitter see too many pitches in the same area. He might make an adjustment.

Pitching to a future Hall of Famer

In the third inning, the Twins’ Joe Mauer hit an opposite-field home run. The Royals were up 7-1 at that point, so baseball logic says you go right at him. If he hits a bomb, you’re still up by five runs.

But in the first inning, with a runner on third and one out, Guthrie walked Mauer on four pitches. The game was scoreless, and in that situation baseball logic says make someone who isn’t going to Cooperstown beat you. Minnesota’s Kennys Vargas did, but walking Mauer was still the right thing to do.

Don’t just look at a pitcher’s walks. Ask yourself whom he walked, when he walked him and why he walked him. All walks are not equal.

How an on-deck circle can screw up a play

In the fourth inning, Nori Aoki hit a pop fly behind home plate, and Suzuki had to run across a rubberized on-deck circle by the third-base dugout to make the catch.

Those on-deck circles are made of hard rubber. They are slick in the rain. Nobody stands in them, and the pine-tar rag and batting weight usually wind up elsewhere. Why have them?

The rain delay

In the bottom of the fourth inning, animals started going by two by two, a guy with a beard began constructing an ark and the umpires read the signs and decided to call a rain delay. When the game resumed, Guthrie went back on the mound and eventually pitched seven innings.

After the game, Royals manager Ned Yost said he will let young pitchers sit for 45 minutes before going to another pitcher, and the veterans get as much as an hour and 15 minutes. The rain delay was about 54 minutes, so Guthrie stayed in the game.

Guthrie’s performance and the Royals’ offense gave relievers Wade Davis and Greg Holland two straight days off, and that could be crucial rest over the next few days.

Pop-fly priority: Who’s in charge?

With two down in the fourth, a pop fly was hit into no-man’s land in right field, and four guys converged on it, Nori Aoki, Omar Infante, Alcides Escobar and Jarrod Dyson. The guy in charge was Dyson.

Any outfielder can call off any infielder. The infielders are going back on the ball. The outfielders are moving forward. The center fielder has priority over everybody. Dyson tried to make the catch but dropped the ball. He probably was distracted by Escobar giving him a “fly by,” which is baseball slang for a player who comes close to another player who is trying to make a catch.

Willingham’s monster home run

Josh Willingham hit a 3-2 slider into the top deck of Target Field, and the only thing more impressive than the home run’s distance was how Willingham ran it out. He put his dead down and jogged around the bases. It looked as though he had done it before.

Watch Lorenzo’s head

Saturday night, the Royals’ Lorenzo Cain struck out four times in a row, and if you watched his head, you probably could figure out why. When a hitter gets in pull mode, his head comes off the ball as he swings. A right-handed hitter like Cain will wind up looking toward the third-base coach. And if a hitter’s head is moving as he swings, he doesn’t have much chance.

You can see the same thing with other hitters. If lefty Mike Moustakas winds up looking down the first-base line, he’s doing the same thing and having the same problem.

You also can pay attention to a hitter’s hips. If they open too soon, the hitter won’t have any power to the opposite field. The rotation and weight transfer happened before contact was made, and the hitter had nothing left to power the ball but his hands and arms.

Watch Lorenzo Cain’s head. You’ll see what I mean.

Fans can have unrealistic expectations

Recently some fans have criticized Ned Yost for giving Salvador Perez, Wade Davis and Greg Holland days off. But the idea that ballplayers never need a rest is unrealistic.

Most relievers can pitch two days in a row and then need a day off to recover. Some relievers can throw three days in a row before they need a break. But all relievers need days off. It’s unrealistic to think otherwise.

It’s the same with catchers. It is the most physically demanding position on the field, and you often will see managers start their backup catchers in day games after night games. Catchers’ legs take a beating, and they all need to sit down at times.

And if Yost refused to rest these guys and then they came up hurt, I’m pretty sure fans would criticize him for running them into the ground.