Judging the Royals

James Shields absolutely dominant in big game vs. Tigers

Starter James Shields struck out eight and gave up two hits in seven innings as the Royals beat the Tigers 2-0 on Wednesday night in Detroit to take a one-game lead over the Tigers in the American League Central.
Starter James Shields struck out eight and gave up two hits in seven innings as the Royals beat the Tigers 2-0 on Wednesday night in Detroit to take a one-game lead over the Tigers in the American League Central. The Associated Press

After the Royals lost the first two games in this series to the Detroit Tigers, Wednesday night’s game became one of the most important Kansas City has played since 1985. Two teams, which have gone back and forth for the lead of the American League Central all year, tied in the standings, and the winner gets a one-game lead to play with over the final three weeks of the season. It was only fitting that the Royals started “Big Game James” in their biggest game of the season, and on Wednesday night, James Shields showed us all exactly why he has earned that nickname.

Shields was absolutely dominant.

He came out aggressive from the start, looking to get ahead on Tigers batters with his fastball, which he threw with excellent location all night. He was locating those first-pitch fastballs (and even cutters) so well that he only fell behind in three at-bats in all of his seven innings pitched.

Once Shields got ahead, he could get to his breaking stuff. All night, his curve, change and cutter were downright nasty, forcing the Tigers’ lineup into mishits, rollovers and eight strikeouts. Shields gave up an opposite-field single to Ian Kinsler in the Tigers’ first at-bat of the game — and then didn’t allow a single base runner until the bottom of the seventh.

By keeping his pitch count low, staying ahead of hitters and attacking the batters at the right time with the right pitch, “Big Game James” turned in one of his best performances of the year and put his team in a great position to win this crucial game.

Porcello also threw well

On the other side, Tigers starter Rick Porcello also was having a very good night. Porcello also had some nasty breaking stuff going, with a nice slider/curve/change combo that forced the Royals’ lineup into tough at-bats and unproductive outs.

But Porcello’s most effective weapon on Wednesday night was his two-seamer, which was coming in around 89-93 mph and breaking in on righties. Porcello both front-doored Nori Aoki and back-doored Josh Willingham with the two-seamer to strike them both out in the first two innings. When the same pitch can freeze both righties and lefties, you know it’s a tough weapon to deal with.

So with two pitchers dealing in the biggest game of the year so far for both teams, the question became apparent: Who would make a mistake first?

The game turns in the fourth

Fortunately for the Royals, it was Porcello in the top of the fourth inning. Leading off the inning, Alex Gordon nearly squared up a 1-2 curve out over the plate, but he hit it right to Detroit’s Don Kelly in center field.

Willingham came up next and had just a beauty of an at-bat. He saw 10 pitches, fouling off the two-seamer away that struck him out in the second, and stayed alive long enough to hit a sharp grounder up the middle for a single. Willingham again showed his awareness as a hitter and a veteran two-strike approach at the plate, and he came through for his team.

Eric Hosmer came up next and got lucky. With a half-swing, he tapped a 2-1 slider into the ground but hit it right into the no man’s land between the pitcher’s mound and the shortstop. He reached first base with a bloop infield single.

With two on and one out, Sal Perez came to the plate. Although Sal has hit poorly in the last few weeks, chasing pitches and hacking when he doesn’t need to, his aggressive approach allowed him to pull a first-pitch fastball just through the gap on the left side of the infield, scoring Willingham and advancing Hosmer.

After Mike Moustakas flew out to right field for the second out, Lorenzo Cain hit a single up the middle, keeping his hands inside on a first-pitch two-seamer from Porcello and giving his team a 2-0 lead.

The top of the fourth on Wednesday night again showed a typical offensive rally from the Royals, stringing together hits, getting guys on, over and in. Willingham, Hosmer, Perez and Cain all did their jobs, took advantage of mistakes by Porcello, and suddenly Shields was working with a two-run advantage.

Shields makes it through the seventh

After his teammates handed him the lead, Shields kept dominating, throwing three straight 1-2-3 innings. He didn’t face any real trouble until the top of the seventh inning, when Detroit’s Torii Hunter came to bat.

Hunter has been an absolute pest this series. At one point in Tuesday’s game, he was 5 for 7 in the series, and almost all his hits to that point were sharp grounders that sneaked through gaps in the infield. Hunter had done an excellent job all series of hitting the ball where it was pitched and getting hits on both sides of the field.

In fact, though Hunter was 0 for 2 when he came to bat in the seventh, he still hit sharp grounders in both at-bats. A nice stab by Shields in the first inning and an absolute web gem by both Moustakas and Hosmer in the fourth inning kept those grounders from sneaking through.

Unfortunately, the third time was not the charm in the seventh inning, and Hunter hit yet another sharp grounder through the gap on the left side of the infield for a one-out single. Suddenly, Shields was pitching from the stretch for the first time all night. Though Kinsler had gotten on base to lead off the game, Shields picked him off before throwing another pitch, so he never had to deal with a base runner or throwing out of the stretch.

Even for an ace like Shields, who was dealing, it can be a cause for worry when he has to change up the process. Shields’ first pitch to Cabrera, a 91-mph wild pitch that went halfway up the backstop, was an almost comical sign of trouble.

Shields fell behind to Cabrera and ended up walking him to the empty first base behind Hunter. With two on and one out, he had to face Victor Martinez and the possibility of a blown lead in one swing.

Shields threw Martinez a first-pitch change-up that stayed out over the plate. Martinez jumped on it, but he hit it to the deep part of right-center field, and Jarrod Dyson caught it for out No. 2.

With a little luck, Shields had regained control of the inning, but he still had to get past the third batter in the Tigers’ fearsome 3-4-5, J.D. Martinez. Shields struck out J.D. in his first two at-bats, both times with change-ups, and in the seventh inning he got ahead of Martinez to an 0-2 count when catcher Sal Perez visited the mound.

It’s impossible to know whether Shields was mad at mound visit, or just amped up. But he gave Sal a few stern words, sent him back to the plate and threw another two-strike change-up.

Martinez finally stayed away from this one to go 1-2, then watched a curveball outside to even the count. Shields came right back at him with another change —and this one got Martinez to hack over the top, striking out on a change-up for the third time.

Shields turned around and roared at his teammates, because he had just gotten out of the toughest situation in his biggest game of the year by going right at the same hitter with the same pitch for the third time.

Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis took over the game in the eighth and ninth innings, Lorenzo Cain was able to score a tack-on run, and the Royals retook the lead of the American League Central with 16 games left in the season.

— Paul Judge

How Dyson got picked off second

Let’s go back and set the scene from Tuesday night’s 4-2 loss to the Tigers. the Royals were trailing by two runs in the ninth inning. After two infield singles, Kansas City had the potential tying run on first base and the potential go-ahead run at home plate.

After the game, manager Ned Yost said that at that point he was inclined to let the hitters swing away. Gordon, Perez and Hosmer were due up, and each had the ability to leave the yard.

Gordon saw six pitches from Tigers closer Joe Nathan but struck out. With Perez at the plate. Yost changed tactics. He had already sent Terrance Gore out to pinch-run for Omar Infante at first base because Gore’s speed meant the tying run could score on a double.

But with one out, Yost decided to go for a double steal, and he sent Jarrod Dyson out to run for Nori Aoki at second base. A double steal would have meant the tying run could have scored on a single.

When Dyson steps on the field, everybody knows why he’s there, yet it’s hard to stop him. Even after getting picked off, sending Dyson out to steal a base has worked more than 82 percent of the time. It’s a solid baseball move.

But Dyson needed to go in the first couple of pitches. A hitter can take one strike to allow a base stealer to advance, but taking two strikes is a bad idea.

After the game, Dyson said he didn’t pay attention to the infielders. When trying to stealing third. a base runner takes his lead based on the pitcher. If the runner can get back, it doesn’t matter where the infielder is standing. And the bench doesn’t tell the runner when to go. He is the one who makes the decision. If the runner likes his lead and jump, he goes.

At that point, it was a guessing game, and Dyson guessed wrong. But sending him out to steal the base was not a bad move. The Royals were 1-10 with runners in scoring position. If they had hit a little better, the Dyson play might not have mattered.

Same old Royals?

By the way, the “same old Royals” complaint that fair-weather fans love to drag out at the first sign of trouble seems misguided and out of date.

The Royals have three Gold Glove defenders on the team and at least two more players who should be in the discussion. The Royals have a solid starting pitching staff and the best bullpen in baseball. They scuffle offensively at times — who doesn’t? — but have hitters up and down the lineup who can contribute. They lead the majors in stolen bases.

Back in spring training, if anyone had offered Royals fans the chance for their team to be tied for first place on Sept. 10, would anyone have thought that was a bad deal?

The Royals may fail to make the playoffs, but they have improved immeasurably as a team and they are playing exciting, meaningful baseball in September. They are not the “same old Royals.” and saying they are doesn’t make it so.