Judging the Royals

Detroit Tigers take Game Two: How trying too hard can get you beat

The Royals’ Omar Infante batted in the fifth inning against the Tigers on Tuesday night in Detroit. The Tigers beat the Royals 4-2, and the two teams are now tied atop the American League Central.
The Royals’ Omar Infante batted in the fifth inning against the Tigers on Tuesday night in Detroit. The Tigers beat the Royals 4-2, and the two teams are now tied atop the American League Central. The Associated Press

The Royals’ best chance to break through against Detroit starter Max Scherzer came in the fifth inning. With one out, the bases loaded and Salvador Perez at the plate, the Royals needed a fly ball to pull within one run of the Tigers. A single would have tied the game. The Tigers needed a ground ball to get out of the inning with a double play.

Perez swung at a pitch at the top of the strike zone, then chased a pitch well down in the zone. When you’re chasing pitches, it’s hard to square up a baseball, but Perez did. He lined out to third base for the second out. That got Eric Hosmer to the plate with the bases loaded and two down.

Earlier in the game, Hosmer had lined a ball to left field, staying on the pitch, swinging easy and picking up a single for his efforts. A similar swing in the fifth would have tied the game, but in this at-bat, it appeared Hosmer was trying to pull the ball. He got a couple of pitches away, pulled them foul and eventually struck out.

Trying to do too much in big situations usually turns out poorly. When the Royals get in big at-bats with runners in scoring position, watch the hitters’ pitch selection. Do they swing at good pitches or expand the strike zone? Do they try to go up the middle or swing so hard their looking down the first- or third-base lines?

Good ballplayers will tell you that in a big situation, the guy who can back off a bit usually wins. Tuesday night, the Royals went one-for-10 with runners in scoring position. It wasn’t for lack of trying. It might have been a case of trying too hard.

The Tigers beat the Royals 4-2.

The odds are KC is a half-game out of first

The standings say the Royals and Tigers are tied for first place in the American League Central, but don’t forget about the Aug. 31 game against the Cleveland Indians that was suspended. When that game is resumed at 5:05 p.m. Sept. 22 in Cleveland, the Royals will come up down by two runs in the bottom of the 10th inning.

Unless the Royals come back and win that game, the Tigers will gain a half-game on the Royals.

Game notes

First inning: Nori Aoki got caught stealing when he ran in a fastball count. If the pitcher is quick to the plate, it’s better to attempt a steal in a breaking-ball count whenever possible. The pitcher is more likely to throw something off-speed. It buys the runner just a bit more time.

In the bottom half of the first, Royals starter Jason Vargas minimized the damage by walking Victor Martinez. You can’t just look at a pitcher’s walk totals and think you know what happened. You also need to know who was walked, why they were walked and when they were walked. Some walks are bad. Some are smart.

Second inning: Detroit’s Alex Avila walked, and Andrew Romine tried to lay down a sacrifice bunt. The ball was too close to the mound, Vargas picked it up and threw the ball to shortstop Alcides Escobar, who was covering second base. Avila took out Escobar with a good, hard slide, and Esky jumped in the air as Avila arrived. Keep your feet planted, and a takeout slide can get you hurt. Get up off the ground, and the takeout slide just flips you.

Avila’s slide guaranteed there would be no double play turned, and that meant Romine scored in front of Rajai Davis’ home run. And that homer came when catcher Salvador Perez and Vargas were doing a lot of worrying about Romine over at first. A runner on base can get the guy at the plate better pitches to hit.

Fourth inning: Perez and Hosmer made two outs on three pitches, so designated hitter Josh Willingham started working the count. He took two called strikes and eventually walked. That gave his starting pitcher a chance to rest.

Sixth inning: Lorenzo Cain chased a slider down and away for strike three, something he does a lot. Cain can lay off that pitch when he’s looking to go the other way, but when he gets in pull mode, he swings at it.

In the bottom half of the sixth, reliever Aaron Crow picked off Davis with some help from Hosmer. Crow bounced the throw, but Hosmer was able to glove it and make the tag.

Eighth inning: Nick Castellanos hit a ground-ball single up the middle, and Escobar did not dive for the ball. When the Texas Rangers were in Kansas City, Tom Bogar, who is now the Texas manager, told me he got a great piece of advice when he was in the minor leagues from his manager, Clint Hurdle.

Tim let a ground ball go without diving, and Clint pulled him to one side and said, “If you don’t dive, I’ll never know whether you could have caught it.” After that, Tim started diving for everything close.

Ninth inning: The Royals got the potential tying run on first base and the potential go-ahead run at the plate against Detroit’s closer, Joe Nathan. Pinch-runner Jarrod Dyson was on second and pinch-runner Terrance Gore was on first. With one out and Perez at the plate, both runners broke. If they could have successfully pulled off a double steal, Kansas City would have been a single away from tying the game.

But Dyson got picked off.

Jarrod was going on his own. A runner on second base has to have a good jump to make it, and he’s the only one who knows how his jump felt. If it isn’t good, the runner shuts it down.

Dyson fell for an inside move when Nathan picked up his front foot as if he were going to the plate, then pivoted back toward second. With that, the air went out of the Royals’ rally. Perez finished things by swinging at a pitch well out of the strike zone — something he’s been doing a lot lately — and Nathan and the Tigers were off the hook.

A reader’s question

I was wondering how often the players choose to steal bases and how often they're sent. It kind of seems like Ned trusts them enough to make their own decisions, whether warranted or not, but I was curious. Do you know the answer?

My answer

Some of the players have a green light. They can go when they choose. The Royals also have a “must-go” sign and a “don't go” sign. First-base coach Rusty Kuntz will remind the base runner of the situation. How quick the pitcher is to the plate, whether he will throw over to first base more than two consecutive time, what “key” tells the runner when the pitcher is going to home plate. Stuff like that. When you see Rusty lean in and whisper to a player, that is the kind of information he is giving him.

In the big leagues, players often decide things for themselves, much more so than in any other level of baseball. If a player has shown the smarts to know what to do and when to do it, the manager and coaches will give that player some freedom. If he shows he can’t handle it, that freedom may get taken away.

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