Judging the Royals

The Royals grab a lead in the seventh inning … barely

The Royals’ Nori Aoki slid safely into home plate against Colorado Rockies catcher Michael McKenry in the seventh inning Tuesday night in Denver.
The Royals’ Nori Aoki slid safely into home plate against Colorado Rockies catcher Michael McKenry in the seventh inning Tuesday night in Denver. The Associated Press

With two out in the seventh inning, Kansas City manager Ned Yost decided that starting pitcher James Shields’ night was over and sent pinch-hitter Josh Willingham to the plate. Willingham dribbled a grounder through the middle, and the Royals rally was on.

Nori Aoki narrowly avoided striking out — he came close on a check swing — but wound up walking.

Then Omar Infante hit a 1-2 slider down the right-field line and nicked the wall that juts out toward the field. Right fielder Charlie Blackmon was headed toward the corner but had to change course when the ball caromed sideways.

That carom allowed Aoki to score from first base, which gave the Royals the lead. Once the Royals had the lead, Yost could go to the best relievers in his pen: Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and, even though he tried to avoid it by bringing in Francisley Bueno, Greg Holland. Once the Royals took the lead, they never looked back, eventually beating the Colorado Rockies 7-4.

But if Willingham had not sneaked a grounder through the infield, if Aoki had not held up on that check swing and if Omar Infante had not hit that right-field wall, things might have come out differently.

Right now, the Royals are living right.

It’s never over in Coors Field

It’s big: 347 in left, 350 in right and the deepest part of the park is 424 feet from home plate. But the ball carries well, and there seems to be a jet stream in right-center. The infield is also fast so pitchers have problems whether the ball is hit in the air or on the ground. That may be why the Rockies’ pitching staff is near the bottom of the league in a lot of stats.

Back when Clint Hurdle was managing the Rockies, I asked how a Colorado pitcher was supposed to approach the game when he pitched at home. Clint said everyone knew a pitcher was going to give up home runs in Coors Field. Just don’t walk two batters first.

So just like in every other ballpark, the goal in Coors Field is to limit the damage.

It’s never over in Coors Field, as we saw in the ninth inning. Bueno came in with a five-run lead and turned it into a save situation by hitting a batter and giving up a two-run home run to Drew Stubbs.

That makes two nights in a row where a Royals middle reliever came in to pitch the ninth with a sizeable lead, could not get out of the inning and made Yost use his closer, Holland. That might come in play the next two nights. The Royals might need Holland, and he might not be available.

It’s never over in Coors Field.

How the fourth inning might have led to a fifth-inning home run

James Shields worked hard in the bottom of the fourth inning. He faced six batters and threw 23 pitches, a lot of them with a runner or runners in scoring position. The fourth was a high-stress inning, but he got out of it.

Or did he?

When a pitcher has a very tough inning, it’s like sprinting for 100 yards in the middle of a marathon. The effort may catch up to him. In the bottom of the fifth, Shields gave up a home run on a breaking pitch down in the zone. You never know if the two were connected — Shields might not know — but pay attention when a pitcher has a rough inning. Even when he gives up no runs, he might get whacked around an inning later.

Aoki’s base-running mistake

In the fifth inning, Nori Aoki was thrown out trying to steal third base with two outs. If a runner is going to steal third with two down, he has to know he can make it. He already is in scoring position and will probably score on any hit to the outfield because he won’t have to see the ball hit the ground before taking off.

The ball beat Aoki fairly easily, and he made it interesting with a fadeaway slide, but his base-running mistake cost the Royals an at-bat with a runner in scoring position in what at the time was a tie game.

How the game has changed

Ask old-school pitchers and catchers — and I have — and they will tell you the game has changed. Back in the day, a pitcher wanted to go as deep in a game as he could with his fastball. If he had to, he would mix in some change-ups. Pitchers wanted to save sliders and curves for the later innings. Have a pitch the hitter hadn’t seen yet, and break it out in that third trip through the order.

Nowadays, pitchers and catchers throw everything right away. Tuesday night, James Shields threw his fastball, change-up, cutter and curve before the first inning was over. That allowed everyone on the other team see all his pitches. Ask why catcher and pitchers have changed the way they call a ballgame, and you hear a variety of answers.

And money is right up there.

Starting pitchers make a lot of money, and they’re not expected to go as deep in games as they used to. Six innings is considered a quality start. And relievers, at least the really good ones, are making more money, and managers are eager to use their arms.

And some pitchers are avoiding contact. Throw nothing but fastballs to start a game, and you probably won’t strike out a lot of hitters. You’re relying on the ball being put in play and the defense behind you making plays. But if you want to rack up a lot strikeouts, you probably need that slider or split finger to do so.

I’ve written about this before and mentioned that Royals catcher Salvador Perez uses every club in the bag right away. But ask around, and you find out everybody’s doing it.

The game has changed.

Jumping on the bandwagon

The Royals are featured on a regional cover of Sports Illustrated. USA Today just had an article about Ned Yost. A Sunday day game has been moved to Sunday night so it can be featured on a national broadcast. And more and more fans are showing up in Royals gear when Kansas City plays on the road. It might be a tough adjustment for some Royals fans to make: Their team is becoming popular.

Of course, if Kansas City goes on a losing streak, people will be just as fast to jump off the bandwagon.