Judging the Royals

Why the Royals ninth-inning meltdown was not all Alex Gordon’s fault

Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar misses a catch on a popup hit by the Minnesota Twins’ Jason Castro that landed in front of Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon in the ninth inning Thursday.
Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar misses a catch on a popup hit by the Minnesota Twins’ Jason Castro that landed in front of Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon in the ninth inning Thursday. jsleezer@kcstar.com

The last time the Royals got blown out was three days ago, September 5. After two innings the Detroit Tigers were ahead 7-1, the Royals chances of winning were miniscule and fans could turn their attention elsewhere; for all intents and purposes, the game was over by the third inning.

Those were the good old days.

On Thursday night the Royals lost a game to the Twins, but for the first eight innings, Royals fans thought their team would win and win in typical Royals fashion.

▪ The Royals got a decent start from newcomer Sam Gaviglio; five innings pitched, one run allowed.

▪ The Royals played good defense; the eighth inning ended when third baseman Ramon Torres skipped a throw to Eric Hosmer and Hosmer made a terrific pick.

▪ The Royals had just enough offense; they took a 2-1 lead in the fifth inning when Whit Merrifield hit an opposite-field, two-out, two-strike single.

▪ The Royals ran the bases aggressively; the Royals took that lead when Alex Gordon scored from second base by knocking the ball out of the catcher’s mitt.

▪ The Royals got three shutdown innings from their bullpen; Scott Alexander, Peter Moylan and Mike Minor put up zeroes.

And then, after the Royals had done everything necessary to win a close ballgame, they got to the ninth inning and brought in their closer.

The ninth-inning meltdown did not start with that pop up

If you’re wondering where things went wrong in the ninth inning on Thursday, you might go back to the ninth inning on September 1; that was the last time Kelvin Herrera pitched and it was against the Minnesota Twins.

That night Herrera came into close the game with a 7-4 lead, but things got off to a bad start when Whit Merrifield made an error.

Herrera then got two outs before walking a batter, hitting a batter, giving up a single, walking another batter and running the count to 3-0 on the next batter before leaving the game with tightness in his forearm.

Herrera also threw 22 consecutive fastballs.

On Thursday night Herrera once again started an appearance against the Twins by throwing nothing but heat. After two fastballs for called strikes, Herrera threw a third fastball, but whatever his intentions, did not throw an 0-2 chase pitch; Herrera threw that third fastball in the strike zone and Max Kepler singled.

With Eduardo Escobar at the plate Herrera tried one changeup, missed badly, went back to throwing fastballs and struck out Escobar.

After two more fastballs to Jason Castro, Herrera threw a third one and Jason Castro hit a pop fly down the left-field line.

The pop up

“Tweeners” are balls hit between the outfield and infield and whenever possible, the outfielder should take charge. The outfielder is moving forward and the infielder is moving back; the outfielder has a better angle on the ball.

When Castro hit that pop fly, left fielder Alex Gordon was playing “no doubles.” That means he was positioned deep in the outfield to prevent a ball being hit over his head and that also meant he had a long run to the ball. When the pop fly went up, Gordon and shortstop Alcides Escobar went in pursuit.

They both came close, but Gordon never took charge; he slowed up and let Escobar have the play – a difficult over-the-shoulder, sliding catch and Escobar missed the ball. It was a play that would have been easier for Gordon.

The ball dropped in fair territory and the Twins had the tying run on second base and the go-ahead run on first.

The walk

Next, Herrera tied two change-ups to Robbie Grossman, threw one of them for a strike and then went back to throwing fastballs.

After four more fastballs in a row, the count was 3-2 and Herrera tried another change-up and missed; Grossman walked, that loaded the bases and pushed the tying run to third base with only one out.

And that turned out to be a very big deal.

With Brian Dozier at the plate, Herrera threw one fastball for a swinging strike and then tried his first slider of the night; Herrera hung the slider and Dozier hit it to the warning track. Gordon made a running catch while banging off the left-field wall, but the tying run tagged and scored: Twins 2, Royals 2.

Joe Mauer, who already had three hits in the game, was intentionally walked to load the bases and Jorge Polanco came to the plate.

The go-ahead single

The last time Herrera pitched to the Twins he threw nothing but fastballs and on Thursday night he was having trouble with his off-speed pitches. Herrera had thrown four changeups, only one was a strike and the only time Herrera threw a slider, he hung it.

So if Jorge Polanco was thinking he’d get a fastball, it was a reasonable assumption.

Herrera threw two fastballs in a row and on the second one, Polanco hit a two-run single. The Twins went up 4-2 and after that, the game was pretty much over.

Alex Gordon is being criticized for not catching that Jason Castro pop fly and after watching the play half a dozen times, that criticism seems justified. But Gordon isn’t the only guy responsible for that ninth-inning meltdown.

Kelvin Herrera helped.