Saturday night when Wade Davis came out to pitch the eighth inning against the Cleveland Indians, Royals manager Ned Yost was gambling. The Royals were down 1-0, and you rarely use your best relievers when you’re behind late in the game. You want to save those quality innings for games where you’re ahead in the later innings.
But Ned was gambling that his best relievers could hold the Indians scoreless and his offense would score two runs somewhere in the eighth, ninth or 10th innings.
They came close. They scored one.
But once the game moved to the 11th inning, Yost had used his best relievers and had to give the ball to Scott Downs and Jason Frasor. The left-handed Downs got the call because the Indians had two switch-hitters and a lefty due up in the inning. Downs gave up a lead-off triple, and things unraveled from there. The Indians scored two runs in the 11th and beat the Royals 3-2.
Poorly-timed punch-outs doom
The Royals had chances all night but went 2-18 with runners in scoring position. Thirteen strikeouts were part of the problem. With the bases loaded and nobody out in the first inning, Billy Butler, Salvador Perez and Raul Ibanez struck out.
In the eighth inning, with the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position, Perez chased pitches out of the zone — which he’s been doing a lot lately — and struck out.
In the ninth inning, Jarrod Dyson struck out looking with the game-winning run in scoring position.
When you’re watching a game, think less about hitter’s mechanics — most of us can’t tell when a swing is jacked up anyway — and concentrate on the pitches the hitter chooses to swing at or take. Saturday night, the Royals showed bad pitch selection during some crucial at-bats.
Speaking of strikeouts …
The Indians’ Michael Bourn fouled a ball off his leg and spent quite a bit of time hobbling around, trying to walk off the pain. The odds were very good that Royals starter James Shields would throw the next pitch in the exact same place — and he did.
Veteran pitchers will do that because hitting a ball off your leg hurts like hell, and a lot of hitters will take that pitch. They don’t want another bruise to go along with the first one. Shields’ tactic worked: Bourn took the pitch for a called strike three.
Raul Ibanez sets an example
In the sixth inning, Butler and Perez made two outs on a total of four pitches. Shields barely had time to get a drink of water before the opposing pitcher was two-thirds of the way through his inning.
Raul Ibanez walked to the plate, and you could have bet your house he would take a strike and still feel pretty safe. A professional hitter is not going to swing at the first pitch, make an out and put his pitcher back out on the mound after the other guy throws just five pitches.
Raul took a strike, saw six pitches and eventually walked. That kind of team-oriented approach sets an example for young hitters — as long as they were paying attention.
By the way, Shields got his rest and threw a shutdown inning in the top of the seventh.
How to steal signs at second base
With a runner on second base, the catcher can’t just give one sign. The runner will see it and pass it along to the hitter. So catchers use a series of signs, but the second sign is a very popular choice.
Focus on the signs (you can see this at home on TV), and watch for the second sign in the series. If the second sign is one finger and the pitcher throws a fastball, you’re on to something. But if they are using a more complicated system, stealing signs can be difficult. Stealing the location is much easier.
Say there is a right-hand hitter up, and the catcher sets up on the inside part of the plate. The runner at second can take a quick glance to his right — toward third base — and that head movement lets the hitter know the pitcher is coming inside. If the catcher sets up on the outside part of the plate, the runner takes a glance to his left, toward second base. Now the hitter knows the next pitch will be away.
But get caught doing it, and the next pitch might be right at the hitter’s ribs. The rule of thumb goes like this: A runner can peek in at home plate, but don’t stare. Otherwise, someone might get drilled, and it might be the runner the next time he comes to bat.
Catchers try to avoid all of this by setting up a location as late as possible. But umpires prefer catchers to set up early. They don’t like it when the catcher sets up on the inside part of the plate and then slides away to the outer half. The umpire had the catcher in front of him for protection, and with that late move, the umpire finds himself exposed to foul tips.
At the lower levels of baseball, if the catcher doesn’t move to a corner, it probably is a breaking pitch. The pitchers at those levels don’t have the control to throw change-ups or curves away. They throw for the middle of the plate and hope for the best.
Next time you’re at a game, check the runner on second base and see if he does anything different. Does he look to his right on one pitch, his left on another? Does he put his hands on his knees on the first pitch and his hands on hips on the second? You might be seeing a runner stealing signs.
And if someone gets drilled by a pitch, you know he was stealing signs.