Plenty of pitches changed Tuesday night’s showdown between the Royals and Colorado Rockies, but in a game that featured 254 pitches, some of those game-changers were obvious and some were not.
Someone hits a home run on a 2-1 fastball and we focus on that pitch, but that at-bat might’ve turned on a 1-1 count. Throw a strike and the count’s 1-2 and the hitter gets a slider in the dirt; throw a ball and the count’s 2-1 and the hitter gets a fastball he can crush. The pitch that changed that particular at-bat came before the home run was hit.
Some game-changing pitches are obvious and some are not; this is the story behind one of those less-obvious pitches.
Herrera and the ninth inning
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On Tuesday night, the Royals were leading the Rockies 3-2 going into the ninth and brought in Kelvin Herrera to close the game. Herrera got two outs on four pitches and his first three fastballs were all over 97 mph.
Keep that in mind because it will come up again shortly.
Herrera then threw a 3-2 fastball to Jonathan Lucroy and the Rockies catcher lofted a soft fly ball down the right-field line.
Royals right fielder Melky Cabrera had a long run to get there and dove for the ball but missed. After diving and rolling across the ground, Melky wound up in foul territory and made the mistake of assuming the ball was foul.
Melky came up, stood still for a moment and looked back at the infield; meanwhile, the ball was rolling away. The pause by Cabrera gave Lucroy time to leg out a triple.
Two down, tying run on third might not be the most stressful situation a human being can face — giving birth and waiting in line at the DMV immediately come to mind – — but it’s up there.
When pitchers get over-amped, they can get too quick in their windup; their lower half gets out in front too soon, their arm never catches up, the release point is missed and the pitch is too high.
Herrera was still throwing in the upper 90s but walked the next batter he faced, Carlos Gonzales, on four pitches. All four pitches were high; the tying run was on third base and the go-ahead was on first.
Herrera then walked the next batter, pinch-hitter Gerardo Parra, on seven pitches; the bases were loaded, tying run on third, go-ahead run in scoring position and no place to put another batter.
One way or another, the next at-bat would change the game.
Herrera comes out
The guy at the plate was Pat Valaika. Herrera threw him two fastballs, both missed badly and Herrera’s velocity was down in the low 90s. He’d dropped from throwing fastballs at 98 mph to throwing fastballs at 92 and couldn’t get the ball to go where he aimed.
Salvador Perez signaled to the Royals’ bench that someone should come out and look at Herrera: Something was wrong. Everybody gathered at the mound and Herrera admitted his forearm felt tight and left the game.
So manager Ned Yost called on Scott Alexander.
Alexander comes in
Here’s the situation Alexander faced: a one-run lead, bases loaded and the hitter ahead in the count 2-0. Walk Valaika and the game would be tied; give up a hit and the Rockies would probably take the lead.
Because Herrera left the game with an injury, Alexander was given all the time he needed to warm up; that gave everyone plenty of time to decide what to do when the game resumed.
The Rockies and Valaika had a couple options:
Alexander had to throw a strike, he didn’t want the count to go 3-0, so Valaika could ambush that first pitch and hope for a base hit.
Or Valaika could take that first pitch and hope Alexander threw a ball.
And even if Alexander threw a strike, the count would be 2-1 and Alexander would have to throw at least one more strike before the at-bat was over. Maybe the pressure would get to Alexander and he’d walk in the tying run.
Valaika took a sinker for a strike and that was the pitch that changed the game.
Because Alexander threw a strike, Valaika had to be aggressive on the next pitch; he didn’t want the count to go 2-2 because he’s hit .161 in two-strike counts. If the count went 2-2, the at-bat would shift into Alexander’s favor.
Alexander throwing a 2-0 strike put Valaika in swing mode, and on the very next pitch, that’s what Valaika did.
After the count went 2-1, Alexander threw a very good pitch — a sinker at the bottom of the zone — and Valaika swung; groundball to short, 6-4 fielder’s choice, game over. And Alexander gets the save.
Go to MLB’s Gameday, look up the highlight videos, and the very first highlight is Alexander’s final pitch. That’s the pitch that made the highlight reels, but it was the pitch before that last pitch that made that last pitch possible.
Sometimes game-changing pitches are obvious, and sometimes they’re not. Alexander’s 2-0 pitch to Pat Valaika changed the game.