Judging the Royals

Cold weather and two curveballs that cost the Royals the ballgame

Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Joakim Soria watched Joe Mauer’s two-run double in the eighth inning Friday.
Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Joakim Soria watched Joe Mauer’s two-run double in the eighth inning Friday. jsleezer@kcstar.com

When the Royals-Twins game started Friday it was 56 degrees and it only got colder as the night went on. When it’s that cold, baseballs feel dry and slick and that affects a pitcher’s grip.

The curve is a touch and feel pitch, so it wasn’t surprising when Royals pitcher Ian Kennedy’s first curve of the night was up in the zone.

In the bottom of the first inning, Twins pitcher Kyle Gibson also had trouble with his curve: he threw three of them and all of them hung.

But starting pitchers can’t always abandon a pitch that isn’t working — they might need it later in the game — so Kennedy and Gibson kept throwing curves with mixed success.

In the second inning Kennedy, hung a couple curves to Robbie Grossman, but got away with it when Grossman lined out to Whit Merrifield.

In the bottom of the second Gibson tried a couple more curves, but couldn’t throw them for strikes.

By the third inning Kennedy seemed to get a feel for the curve and threw some good ones. Gibson appeared to say the heck with it and pretty much stopped throwing curves; he only threw two of them after the second inning.

The middle relievers also scuffled with the curve

Buddy Bosher replaced Gibson and threw some good curves; Ryan Pressly replaced Bosher and hung three of the four curves he threw.

Craig Breslow replaced Pressly and couldn’t control his curve either.

Matt Belisle pitched the eighth and also had trouble getting his curve down in the zone.

Taylor Rogers threw one curve and hung it badly.

On the Royals side Peter Moylan replaced Ian Kennedy, but did not struggle with the curveball, mainly because Moylan doesn’t throw one.

Matt Strahm threw one curve, hung it well above the zone and never threw it again.

If you’re not sensing a pattern, have another cup of coffee and go back and read this thing from the beginning.

Joakim Soria, C.B. Bucknor, a long delay and two hanging curves

If it’s dawning on you that it was a cold night and just about every pitcher that stepped on the mound had trouble controlling his curve, I’ve done my job.

Going into the eighth inning the Royals had a 4-2 lead and set-up man Joakim Soria came in to pitch. Soria didn’t have much luck with his curve, either.

Soria’s first curve hung up in the zone, but Eddie Rosario swung and missed.

Eventually, Rosario singled, Byron Buxton walked, Brian Dozier struck out and Max Kepler reached on an error when a line drive went off the heel of Jorge Bonifacio’s glove.

The bases were loaded, Miguel Sano was at the plate and Soria started him with a fastball.

As luck would have it, Sano fouled the ball straight back, right into home plate umpire C.B. Bucknor’s facemask. Bucknor had to leave the game and that meant second-base umpire Fieldin Culbreth had to leave the field to go put on his gear so he could finish the game behind the plate.

That meant everyone had to stand around in the cold, waiting for Culbreth to reappear. After a long delay, Soria took a few warmup pitches and, with the count 0-1 on Sano, the game was ready to resume.

So what pitch do you call?

I’ve been dropping clues all over the place, but just in case you’re still uncertain, here’s another one:

Soria threw that hung curve to Rosario and then threw 16 pitches without throwing another curve. Soria then had a very long wait in the cold before he got to throw another pitch to Sano.

Now here’s one final clue:

Kurt Suzuki — considered one of the smartest catchers in the game — once told me that when in doubt, throw a fastball down-and-away.

If the hitter stays back and hits it to the opposite field, it will probably be limited to a single unless it goes right down the foul line. If the hitter gets out in front and hooks the ball, it will probably be a grounder to the pull side of the field. And a fastball is the easiest pitch to control.

Soria was 0-1 and could take at least two shots at down-and-away before he had to come back into the zone.

So what did Soria and Perez decide to throw?

A curve; the pitch everyone had been struggling with all night.

Soria was supposed to bounce it, but as you probably already know, he hung it instead. Sano hit it off the top of the wall for a double and if he’d hit it in almost any other park it would have been a grand slam.

That curve didn’t work, so let’s throw another one

After that hung curve the score was tied 4-4, Sano was at second base, Kepler was at third, Joe Mauer was at the plate, Robbie Grossman was on deck and first base was open.

Look up Mauer’s numbers against Soria and he’s now hitting .563 and slugging .688. Look up Grossman’s numbers against Soria and he’s now hitting .200 and slugging .200. And Mauer has been hot over the last week, hitting .333, while Grossman has been cold over the same time period, hitting .133.

So pitching to Mauer does not seem like a good idea and throwing Mauer a curve seems like a worse one.

Soria hung it, Mauer doubled, the Twins took a 6-4 lead and there’s your ballgame.

A golden opportunity gets wasted

What makes Friday’s loss so discouraging is this was the kind of game the Royals have won so often in the past; grab a lead and give the ball to a killer bullpen.

On Friday the Royals defense let them down — Whit Merrifield said he should have made the play on Rosario and Jorge Bonfacio made an error — but both guys were at least trying to make plays and failed.

The pitch calling falls into another category.

When it’s obvious every pitcher is having trouble controlling their curves on a cold night, expecting Joakim Soria to stand around for ten minutes and then throw a good one to Miguel Sano seems foolish.

And then to throw yet another curve to Joe Mauer to lose the game seems inexplicable.

The Royals have gotten off to a rough start and can’t afford to let golden opportunities slip through their fingers, no matter how cold and stiff those fingers happen to be.