I once asked Clint Hurdle, manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, what he thought about manufacturing runs vs. playing for the big inning. Clint said that a team that wants to go all the way better know how to do both.
Let’s say you’re a team dependent on walks and home runs. That might be a great strategy over the course of a 162-game season, but once you get to October and the pitching gets better — you’ve eliminated the weaker teams — you have to play the game you’re in that night. And if you have two pitchers throwing well, waiting around for walks and home runs isn’t such a great plan — you better know how to manufacture what you need.
Sunday night with the score 1-1 in the tenth inning, the Royals did just that.
Alex Gordon led off and got hit by a pitch — actually his jersey got hit by a pitch, but since he was wearing it, Alex and his jersey got to go to first base. A wild pitch later and Gordon was on second. Salvador Perez was at the plate and did what good hitters do when the run at second base matters: he hit the ball to the right side of the infield.
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If the hitter can do it, moving the runner over by swinging away is better than bunting; it at least gives the hitter a chance of a base hit and Perez’s groundball almost snuck through the infield.
With Gordon on third and nobody down, Omar Infante’s job was to hit a fly ball to the outfield, and that’s just what he did. His sac fly scored Gordon and the Royals had the lead without benefit of a hit — that’s about as manufactured a run as you can get.
The Royals are second in baseball in runs scored, so they can light up a scoreboard on occasion, but when they needed to, Kansas City manufactured a run and a win.
Bases loaded in the 10th inning: what infield positioning told you
If you know what to look for, infield positioning tells you what a manager is thinking, and Sunday night’s game provided an example.
The Royals took their 2-1 lead into the bottom of the 10th inning, and three batters later the Tigers had the bases loaded. Hernan Perez was at the plate and before Greg Holland threw him the first pitch, Holland yelled at catcher Salvador Perez and pointed his thumb at his own chest and his little finger at Sal. That’s baseball sign language for: if the ball comes to me, I’m coming to you.
Baseball players have little time to think once a ball is in play, so they have to decide what they’ll do with the ball before it’s ever hit. And infield positioning tells you what that plan is.
If the infield is back, the play’s at first base; if the infield is in, the play’s at home. With the bases loaded or runners at first and third, you can split the difference. Bring the corners in for a play at the plate and leave the middle infielders back at double-play depth — and that’s what the Royals did.
So if the ball was hit to the first or third baseman, they were going to home plate to cut down the tying run. And if the ball were hit up the middle, the Royals were going to allow the tying run to score, but try to turn two; kill the Tigers rally, make it to the 11th inning and hope to win the game after that.
Holland threw an 87-mph slider down in the zone and got a ground ball to third base. Christian Colon came home with the ball and Perez threw to first base to complete a 5-2-3 double play; the best of both worlds — preventing the tying run from scoring and turning two.
Working around a hitter: the unintentional intentional walk
That double play left runners on second and third with first base open. Victor Martinez was at the plate and Yoenis Cespedes was on deck. According Andy McCullough’s game story, Holland was given the option of going after Martinez — who is struggling from the left side of the plate, but is still Victor Martinez — or intentionally walking Martinez and pitching to Cespedes. Holland chose to go after Martinez — sort of.
Big league pitchers work around hitters way more often than we realize; pitchers don’t want to just throw four wide ones and give the hitter a base, but that doesn’t mean pitchers are going to pipe one down the middle either.
Holland once told me with certain hitters he’d try to make perfect pitches a couple of times and if that didn’t work, to heck with it; if a base was open he’d use it.
Holland tried a first-pitch breaking ball and missed, then went to the fastball and that missed, too. With the count 2-0 Greg refused to throw a fastball to a hitter who was probably looking for one and threw a slider instead. Martinez took it and the count was 2-1. Holland threw another fastball and missed again. Greg was behind in the count 3-1 and after that he threw two sliders: one for a strike and one in the dirt. That last pitch put Martinez on first base.
Just in case you weren’t paying attention, here’s the pattern: Holland never threw Victor Martinez a fastball for a strike. When Greg got in a fastball count — 2-0, 2-1, 3-1 and 3-2 — he either threw a breaking pitch or a fastball for a ball.
Victor didn’t chase; Greg put him on first base and went after Cespedes. Yoenis was 0-3 off Holland and five pitches later, he was 0-4 and the Royals had a win and took the series from Detroit.