Judging the Royals

Bad defense, inconsistent strike zone hurt the Royals

For starting pitcher Jason Vargas (left) and second baseman Omar Infante, the Royals’ 3-1 loss to the Texas Rangers on Sunday in Arlington was a disappointing finish to a 10-day road trip.
For starting pitcher Jason Vargas (left) and second baseman Omar Infante, the Royals’ 3-1 loss to the Texas Rangers on Sunday in Arlington was a disappointing finish to a 10-day road trip. The Associated Press

According to the box score, starting pitcher Jason Vargas gave up three runs Sunday to the Texas Rangers, two of them earned. Look closer and Vargas probably deserved to give up only one earned run. So if the Royals defense had played better baseball, the score would have been tied 1-1 going into the bottom of the ninth. And who knows what might have happened after that?

The Rangers beat the Royals 3-1. Here’s how that happened.

Game notes

First inning: Daniel Robertson hit an 0-2 change-up into right-center field, and it looked as if the ball would — and should — have been caught, but both center fielder Lorenzo Cain and right fielder Nori Aoki pulled up and let the ball fall between them. The center fielder makes the call on that play, but if Cain had called for it or told Aoki to make the catch, the message did not get through. The ball fell untouched.

After that, Vargas walked Elvis Andrus but got squeezed on at least two pitches. At that point, it appeared that if home-plate umpire Toby Basner would not open up the strike zone, it would be a long day for Vargas. Basner didn’t, and it was.

With two runners on and one out, Adrian Beltre doubled, Robertson scored and Andrus tried to. If not for an outstanding play by left fielder Alex Gordon and relay man Alcides Escobar, two runs would have scored, but Andrus was thrown out at the plate.

The Rangers led 1-0.

Second inning: Lorenzo Cain hit a flare to shallow left-center field, and the ball fell and rolled away. But Lorenzo, who loafed out of the batter’s box and down the first-base line, had to stop at first base. Cain made up for it by stealing second base, but running hard out of the box would have been a better idea. Mike Moustakas walked, but Alcides Escobar followed up by hitting an infield pop-up, one of the seven the Royals would hit Sunday.

In the bottom of the inning, the Rangers’ Leonys Martin singled on a bunt ground ball to Vargas, but to make matters worse, Vargas threw the ball past first baseman Billy Butler, and Martin moved into scoring position.

When playing first base, the ball is more important than the bag, and a good first baseman has to know when to come off the bag and go get the ball. Butler made no attempt to come off the bag and keep the ball from going into right field, and that allowed Martin to get to second base and eventually score on a double by Adam Rosales.

After two innings, defensive mistakes had cost the Royals two runs. The Rangers were up 2-0.

Third inning: Vargas hung a curve to Rosales, who doubled. One out later, J.P. Arencibia singled, Rosales moved to third and the next batter, Robinson Chirinos, also singled, and Rosales scored. It was the only legitimate run that Vargas gave up all day. The Rangers were up 3-0.

Fourth inning: Butler did the thing he does well: hit a baseball. He put a slider into the left-field seats, and the score was 3-1.

In the bottom of the inning, Texas’ Rougned Odor took advantage of Vargas’ follow-though. Being left-handed, Vargas falls off the mound to the third-base side, so Odor bunted the ball to the wide-open first-base side. The only player with a shot at making a play was second baseman Omar Infante. He charged the ball, made a desperation throw to first base and Butler could not get off the bag in time to knock down the off-target throw. Odor wound up on second base, but this time an error did not cost the Royals a run.

Vargas walked Robertson again and was again getting squeezed by the home-plate umpire. Pitchers without great stuff make a living by hitting corners and keeping the ball low in the strike zone. And if umpires won’t give those corners or pitches low in the zone, they force control pitchers to come further into the zone. Then bad things tend to happen.

At one point, Royals manager Ned Yost came out to the mound and waited for the home-plate umpire to break up the meeting. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but that can be a way of talking to an umpire without showing him up by yelling from the dugout.

Fifth inning: Basner did open up the strike zone, but it hurt the Royals. With Infante at the plate, Basner called a pitch in off the plate a strike, which moved the count to 1-2 and forced Omar to swing at a high fastball. Omar popped out to second base.

In the bottom of the inning, Vargas got squeezed once again — Basner’s strike zone was inconsistent — and fell behind Robinson Chirinos 3-1. Chirinos got a fastball in a fastball count and singled. Rosales doubled to left field, but after the earlier play made by Gordon and Escobar, the Rangers decided not to send Chirinos home.

Seventh inning: Jason Frasor came on in relief and walked the lead-off hitter. Frasor was not getting squeezed, he was just missing home plate. He got out of the inning with a double-play ball, and Billy Butler did a nice job of scooping a short hop to complete the play.

If you’re going to point out the plays Butler didn’t make, you need to point out the plays he made.

Process over results

If want to understand big-league baseball — or any professional sport — pay more attention to the process than the results. If a team plays poorly but the other team plays worse, the process was bad but the results were good. If you play well but the other team plays better, the results were bad, but the process was good.

The best coaches and managers focus on the process.

The Royals recently have made some fundamental mistakes but got away with them. Not knowing the number of outs, failing to make routine plays or missing defensive assignments are not OK. Assuming all’s well that ends well is also a mistake. If the mistakes aren’t corrected, they will come back to haunt you.

And on Sunday afternoon, they did.