Judging the Royals

Why can’t the best relievers pitch two innings?

Royals manager Ned Yost took the ball from reliever Scott Downs in the 11th inning of Kansas City’s 3-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Saturday night at Kauffman Stadium.
Royals manager Ned Yost took the ball from reliever Scott Downs in the 11th inning of Kansas City’s 3-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Saturday night at Kauffman Stadium. The Kansas City Star

A manager sends a reliever out to pitch the 10th inning, he blows the opposition away and then the manager pulls him after three outs. The next pitcher gets lit up, and fans want to know why the guy who was pitching well didn’t stay for another inning. Case in point: Several fans questioned why Royals manager Ned Yost had to go to Scott Downs in the 11th inning of Saturday night’s 3-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians.

Here is a typical comment:

Is there a reason why Herrerra or even Davis can't pitch two innings, especially with a low pitch count in their 1st inning of work?

Sure, you could send Herrera or Davis back out for another inning, but one of the reasons those guys have pitched so well is that they know they will pitch one inning. Why did Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar suddenly blossom when they were sent to the pen?

One of the reasons was they knew they were pitching one inning and they could hit the gas and throw as hard as they liked — they didn’t have to save anything. A pitcher who was throwing in the low 90s can suddenly be throwing in the upper 90s, and that makes a difference. Double his pitch count, and he may have to save a little something for that second inning. 

I asked Davis if it was like asking a sprinter who was used to running a 100-meter race to run 200 meters, and he said yes. You can do it, but you haven’t trained for it and you don’t know what the results will be. You also don’t know how your body will react the next day.

Davis also said the Royals were nowhere near the point in the season when you start doing that kind of stuff with your relievers. One week, or maybe two, to go, and you do what you have to do. But with a month of baseball left, you don’t want to risk jacking up your bullpen.

Everybody — fans, the media and ballplayers — needs to stay calm. This is what playoff baseball is like. It’s up and down, heartbreak and elation. This is a roller-coaster ride, and we’re all on it.

How bullpen roles help

If everyone knows when they’re pitching, everyone knows when to warm up. If a reliever has been told he has the eighth inning he knows when to get up and start stretching. He can time getting hot and be ready when the eighth inning begins.

If the manager changes his mind and has the guy who pitched the seventh come back out for the eighth, the guy who warmed up needs to sit back down. And if a guy warms up a couple times and doesn’t get in the game, he might be through for the night—even though he never threw a pitch that counted.

If you’re focused on the bullpen, you’re probably missing the point

In that Saturday night game the Royals pitching staff gave up one run through ten innings; then Scott Downs gave up two in the eleventh. Meanwhile, the Royals offense went 2 for 18 with runners in scoring position and struck out 13 times. The problem was the offense, that’s where the game was lost. So if you hit well enough to put that many runners in scoring position, what goes wrong after that?

It’s quite likely that hitters were trying to do too much. In the first inning the Royals had the bases loaded with nobody out; then Billy Butler, Salvador Perez and Raul Ibanez struck out. Were they thinking of driving in one run or all four? Were hitters trying to take the ball up the middle or hit the Royals Hall of Fame out in left field?

If guys are thinking big, the zone gets big and they’re swinging before they see the ball. In most pressure situations, the guy who can back off, take a deep breath and try easier wins.

Sunday night’s game

As I’m writing this, the game is in a rain delay, but here is what I’ve got so far:

Danny Duffy gave up a run in the third inning when Michael Brantley doubled, but the real problem was the two walks that came first. Danny walked Roberto Perez, got two outs and then walked Jose Ramirez. The Ramirez walk pushed Perez into scoring position, and even though Danny jammed Brantley with an inside pitch, the ball made it over Mike Moustakas’ head and went down the line for a double.

The second Cleveland run came when Yan Gomes singled and Duffy decided to pick him off first. Gomes — who has zero stolen bases in zero attempts — did not seem like much of a threat to run.

Duffy used his “A” move — the best pickoff move he has — and caught first baseman Billy Butler flat-footed. The throw was off-line. Butler could not react quickly enough to knock it down and then went after the ball at less-than-world-class speed.

Gomes challenged Billy’s speed and arm by going first to third and won the race. Butler’s throw was late and off-line. Getting to third allowed Gomes to tag and score on a Mike Aviles’ sac fly.

And if you watched the game, you know that a Butler error led to two unearned runs in the top of the 10th inning, and after that, the game was stopped for a rain delay. I’ll check in on this again later.

(Editor’s note: Sunday night’s game eventually was suspended and will resume on Sept. 22 with the Royals trailing 4-2 in 10th inning.)

Bruce Chen: class act

When Jason Kendall and I were working on the book “Throwback,” I mentioned something that a pitcher had said to me, and Jason — never one to mince words — said, “Where the hell did you get that?”

I named the pitcher who had given me the information — a rookie — and Jason said, “Why the hell would you talk to him?”

Me: “Because he’s a big-league pitcher.”

Kendall: “Not for long.”

Jason then said that if I wanted to know anything about pitching, talk to Bruce Chen. Bruce was not known for having the greatest stuff in the world, but he survived in the big leagues for 16 years. He pitched for the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, Montreal Expos, Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers and the Royals. He started and he relieved. Kendall had a point: Bruce Chen knows an awful lot about pitching.

When players are let go, it often is done when members of the news media are not around. The player might not feel like talking, and that allows him to slip out of the clubhouse without being questioned. Sometimes the first inkling we have that a player has been released is when we notice his locker nameplate is gone.

But Bruce stuck around and said goodbye publicly. He answered uncomfortable questions and did what he had always done: put the team first. In a Bruce Chen postgame news conference, you could count on two things: He would mention the effort of his teammates, and he would thank the Royals for the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues.

On the day he was designated for assignment, Bruce walked up to me and gave me a fist bump. I had no idea it was the last time I would see him for a while, so I didn’t get a chance to thank him for all the time he gave me and others in the media. So just in case he reads this blog — which I doubt — or someone close to him does and tells him about it, here it is:

Thanks, Bruce.

You’re a class act.

P.S. Don’t count out Bruce Chen; I asked about his future and was told “lefties live forever“. One theory I’ve heard is that Bruce cannot pitch in the middle of the zone with his stuff; he has to live on the corners. To do that he has to be sharp and to do that he has to pitch more often than he was pitching here in KC. If a team needs a situational lefty, we may not have heard the last of Bruce Chen.

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