Judging the Royals

How the Royals fell into second place

The Chicago Cubs' Chris Coghlan ran to first after hitting a one-run single during the seventh inning against the Royals on Sunday in Chicago.
The Chicago Cubs' Chris Coghlan ran to first after hitting a one-run single during the seventh inning against the Royals on Sunday in Chicago. AP

The final play of the game — a David Ross pop fly that dropped — will get a lot of attention, but let’s look at why the Royals were playing extra innings in the first place: They pitched to Chris Coghlan in the seventh inning.

The Royals pitched to a hot hitter and paid the price

Sunday afternoon the wind was blowing in at Wrigley Field; that usually means a low-scoring game — and 1-0 is about as low-scoring as you can get. That was the score when the seventh inning started, and Kansas City had the only run of the game.

Yordano Ventura was pitching well and had given up a total of three hits in six innings; but two of those hits were to Chris Coghlan. With one down in the seventh, Yordano walked Miguel Montero. Then Yordano threw a wild pitch and Montero advanced to second base. Pinch runner Jonathan Herrera replaced Montero, but Ventura struck out Jorge Soler for the second out.

With two outs, first base open and the guy who already had two hits against Ventura at the plate, the Royals chose to pitch to Coghlan. The Cubs left fielder picked up his third hit of the day, drove in a run, tied the score and eventually sent the game to extra innings.

Since I started this job, one of the things I’ve heard over and over is that what a hitter is doing right now is more important than his overall numbers. Chris Coghlan’s overall batting average might be in the low .200s, but coming into that third at-bat against Ventura, he was 6 for his last 17, a .353 average. And on Sunday afternoon he was seeing the ball well and barreling up Ventura’s pitches. With first base open, the Royals chose to pitch to a hitter that was hot right now and paid the price.

And a bunch of stuff went wrong on that pop up

Bottom of the 11th inning, one down, bases loaded: If the Cubs scored, the game was over. Jason Frasor got David Ross to hit a pop up. But with the wind blowing in, the ball stalled out somewhere between shortstop Alcides Escobar and left fielder Alex Gordon.

Here’s the rule on tweeners: the infielder goes out until the outfielder calls him off. You want the outfielder to make the play if at all possible because he’s moving forward and that will make for a better throw after the catch. But after the game Alex said he couldn’t get to the ball and never called Escobar off.

The runner on third base — Kris Bryant — was caught in no-man’s land: If the ball was caught, he needed to tag up, but his chances of scoring would be much better if Escobar caught the ball while moving away from the infield. Gordon had already thrown a runner out at home ,and Alex would be very close to the infield if he was the one that made the catch.

If the ball fell untouched Bryant still might be in trouble because he had to stay close to third to see if he needed to tag up. If nobody made the catch, it would then turn into a force play at home plate — and Alex Gordon would have an excellent chance of making that throw. So Bryant took a lead — somewhere around the grass cutout — and waited to see what would happen next.

And what happened next was the worst of all possible things for the Royals and the best of all possible things for the Cubs: Neither player caught the ball, and when they both reached for it, Escobar rolled into Gordon’s legs. Alex tripped over Alcides, the chance to make a throw to home was gone, and Bryant scored.

Why the Cubs safety squeeze didn’t work

The Cubs attempted what looked like a safety squeeze in the ninth inning with Wade Davis on the mound. In a suicide squeeze the runner on third base breaks for home as soon as the pitcher’s front foot come down; in a safety squeeze the runner waits to see if the bunt is a good one — and this one wasn’t.

David Ross bunted the ball to the third base side of the mound, and that brought Davis toward the left-field foul line. If the runner broke for home, Davis could pick up the ball and tag him. The bunt needed to be on the first-base side of the mound, which would have taken Davis away from the third-base line and given the runner a clear path to home plate.

But with the bunt put down to the wrong side of the mound, the runner had to hold and the bunt was wasted.

Alcides Escobar and the first-pitch ambush

Ambushing the first pitch of a game can be a good tactic; pitchers assume the leadoff hitter is taking that first pitch, pipe a fastball down the middle, and the leadoff hitter ambushes that fastball. Leadoff hitters do this every once in a while just to keep pitchers honest.

Alcides Escobar has now done it in three straight games.

On Friday Esky’s ambush worked: It was warm and the wind was blowing out at Wrigley Field — Alcides homered. Sunday it was cold and the wind was blowing in, so the ambush had less chance of being successful, and it wasn’t.

And when an ambush doesn’t work and Escobar makes an out, the next hitter — in this case Omar Infante — pretty much has to take a strike; he can’t let the pitcher get two-thirds of the way through the first inning by throwing only two pitches, and the pitcher knows it. Because he knows the second hitter is now taking, the pitcher pumps a fastball down the middle and the two-hole hitter starts off his at bat behind in the count; that’s what happened to Omar on Sunday.

The first-pitch ambush can be a good tactic when used at the right time — like when it’s warm and the wind is blowing out at Wrigley — but when it fails it can screw up two at-bats.

And speaking of screwing up…

If you’re a certain age you remember the Ed Sullivan Show and the goofy acts he would bring on stage. One of the goofiest acts were the plate spinners; they’d get a bunch of plates spinning at the same time while balanced on the top of some sticks. The act consisted of the guy racing around, trying to keep the plates spinning and avoid having them fall off and smashing on the stage floor.

Sunday afternoon I broke a plate — and it wasn’t the first one I’ve smashed.

Covering a baseball game now has me going in about five directions at once; I’m trying to watch the game closely, checking MLB.com for pitch type, velocity and location, scoring the game, taking notes to be used for the article to be written later and making timely comments on Twitter. And some people want to ask questions and have a social media conversation while the plates are spinning.

So Sunday I failed to note in my scorebook that Miguel Montero had been replaced by a pinch runner and then failed to note that the pinch runner was replaced by David Ross. So when Montero’s spot came up again in the order I tweeted his matchup numbers against Wade Davis — which would have been interesting had Montero actually been hitting.

Anyone working in the newspaper business is multitasking like crazy, and as a result it’s easier to screw up. It’s not an excuse — that’s the job now — but it is and explanation. So when I send out the next dumb tweet you’ll probably know what happened.

Online chat today

I’ll be doing my best to answer questions in my first online chat Monday at noon at Kansas City.com. If you want to know what’s going on with the Royals Double A team or what will happen when Danny Duffy comes back, I won’t be much help — I don’t cover those issues. But if you want to know how catchers scuff a baseball for their pitcher, or how to tell who’s a tough guy and who’s just posing, I might be able to answer those kind of questions.

Check in at noon and find out.

To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to ljudge@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @leejudge8.

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