Judging the Royals

The Royals sweep the series: Why this might have been a must-win

The Kansas City Royals celebrated after they defeated the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 8-3 on Sunday night to sweep the American League Division Series in three games. The Royals will face the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series.
The Kansas City Royals celebrated after they defeated the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 8-3 on Sunday night to sweep the American League Division Series in three games. The Royals will face the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series. The Kansas City Star

OK, the headline is a bit over the top. As Pirates manager Clint Hurdle once said, “World War II was a must win.” I think Clint was trying to say that baseball games don’t qualify. But winning Game Three and sweeping the American League Division Series against the Los Angeles Angels was important for Kansas City, and here’s why.

If the Royals had lost this game and gone to Game Four, they would have seen Angels pitcher Jered Weaver again. The Royals would have seen a different Weaver the next time around — a better pitcher.

Before Sunday night’s game, Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto said that if his team could win that night, they would have a real chance to take the series. Win Monday’s game with Weaver on the mound, and get the series back to Los Angeles. Then anything could happen.

Doug Henry, the Royals’ bullpen coach, said his team could not let up. The Angels were too good. If they had won Sunday’s game, momentum might have shifted back to the Angels. That was why the Royals needed to step on the Angels’ necks and not let them up off the mat. The Royals needed to win one out of three games, but they did it right away.

And it might have been a must-win.

Getting hot at the right time

If you have followed the Royals all season, you know they are a team with flaws. All teams have them, but the Royals also are a team that is getting hot at the right time. Dipoto said his scouts were telling him that over the last month, every time the Royals got a break, they took advantage of it.

Before the game, Dipoto said that everything the Royals were doing was working: Mike Moustakas lays down a bunt against the shift and it’s perfect? Moose hadn’t hit a homer since Aug. 25, and he gets hot in the playoffs? Nori Aoki looks as if he’s running a wide receiver’s down-and-out route and comes up with a circus catch?

Dipoto acknowledged that the Royals were on a hot streak, but he hoped it would stop Sunday night. It didn’t. The Royals won 8-3, swept the best-of-five series in three games and hope to stay hot when they face the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series.

Game notes

First inning: James Shields tried to go in on Mike Trout and missed by just a few inches, Trout hit the ball more than 400 feet. The Angels are a team that can get hot in a hurry, and a small mistake by Shields turned into an Angels’ lead.

Before the game, I asked Doug Henry whether the 12-inning wild-card game helped the Royals be mentally tough. The Royals were left for dead at least three times. Henry said yeah, if the Angels got an early lead, the Royals wouldn’t panic.

Bottom of the first: Angels starting pitcher C.J. Wilson was quick to home plate: 1.1 to 1.2 seconds. The average is about 1.4 seconds. That makes stealing bases tough, but being that quick to home sometimes means the ball stays up in the strike zone. The pitcher’s bottom half gets out in front of his arm, and the release point is missed.

With the bases loaded, Wilson left a slider up to Alex Gordon, and the Royals left fielder tripled, driving in three runs. Wilson did not survive the first inning.

Second inning: With the Royals leading 3-1, they needed a shutdown inning out of their starting pitcher, James Shields. If Shields had let the Angels answer with even one run, the score would have become 3-2, and the Angels would have been right back in the game. Shields threw a shutdown inning.

During the inning, Shields ran a cutter in on Josh Hamilton’s hands, shattered his bat and got a soft fly ball to right. Hamilton had a hole in his swing up and in, and Shields went after it.

Third inning: Eric Hosmer saved Omar Infante an error on a Mike Trout's groundball. Hosmer also scooped a bad throw by Mike Moustakas in the first inning. Later, Hos handled a bad pickoff throw by Shields. People will focus on Lorenzo Cain’s spectacular catches (they should), but they miss the fact that the Royals’ first baseman saved his teammates three errors.

Bottom of the third: With a runner on first base, the Angels’ Hector Santiago threw Hosmer a 2-0 fastball. Hosmer crushed it. The Angels pitchers were concerned about the Royals’ base runners and at least twice served up hittable fastballs to Hosmer. They threw fastballs to prevent stolen bases — fastballs get to the catcher more quickly — but Hosmer made them pay.

Billy Butler walked and stole second base. At first, I thought Butler stole the base off Chris Iannetta. The Angels’ catcher does not throw well. But after the game, a champagne-soaked Rusty Kuntz, the Royals’ first-base coach, told me that Butler actually stole the base off Albert Pujols. The Angels’ first baseman did not hold Billy and backed up so far from the base that Billy got a giant lead and took off.

Fourth inning: Pujols crushed a home run and reminded the Royals fans that they shouldn’t celebrate too soon. The score was 5-2.

In the bottom of the inning, the Royals answered with two runs of their own. One of those runs came on a fastball to Mike Moustakas, and Moose hit a laser beam to right, reminding everybody why the Royals stuck with him.

Fifth inning: Shields’ pitch count was manageable, but pitch counts can be deceiving in the playoffs. Pitchers are willing to throw more pitches, but those pitches are high-stress. Eighty-five or 90 pitches can feel like 120.

Lorenzo Cain made a great catch, and while I was tweeting about that catch, he made another one to end the inning. The Royals’ defense continued to rob Angels’ hitters.

Sixth inning: If I counted right, pitcher Brandon Finnegan was up for the third time in the Royals’ bullpen. If a reliever warms up three times, it might affect what he has once he comes in the game. Finnegan was not used. Shields made it through the sixth and got the ball to the back end of the Royals’ bullpen.

Seventh inning: Kelvin Herrera replaced Shields, and the Royals were almost home free. If they get to the ball to Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland with a lead, they almost always win.

This game was no exception. The Angels scored one run in the eighth, but that was as far as they got. The Royals won 8-3 and sweep the series.

The celebration afterward

The music was blasting, champagne corks were popping and John Wathan, George Brett and Jason Kendall watched from a corner. I walked over and talked to Kendall. Doug Henry spotted me, walked over and poured champagne on my head. What the hell? How often do you get to be involved in one of these celebrations?

I found Rusty Kuntz, and someone poured champagne over his head. They wanted to see his perfect hair messed up.

We talked about the upcoming series with the Baltimore Orioles. The Royals got lucky. The Orioles also swept their series, so everybody is in the same boat. The Royals need rest, but if your opponent keeps playing, they maintain their momentum. They don’t get stale while taking four days off. They keep their timing at the plate, and pitchers stay on schedule. But now both teams will have four days off. Neither one has an advantage.

Wade Davis walked by wearing ski goggles and holding a champagne bottle. Davis said he would have taken the four days off no matter what. Everyone is tired, and they need the four days to regenerate their bodies.

I left the clubhouse — I still had a story to write — but the party raged on behind me.

How scouts change the game

You see a player struggle in the playoffs, and the immediate conclusion is he is failing to rise to the occasion. He can’t handle the pressure. But maybe it is the advance scouting he can’t handle. Fewer teams are playing, a lot more eyes are on the players who remain and just maybe someone spotted something.

“In a 2-2 count, this pitcher throws a slider in the dirt 80 percent of the time. Run on him.”

Or maybe they say, “This guy will not swing at a first-pitch breaking ball. Throw him a get-me-over curve to start, then bust him in with a fastball in on the hands.”

Or maybe it’s the signs. “Hey, every time the bench coach takes his hat off, they hit and run.”

Everybody is looking for patterns, and the first team that spots one has an advantage — and that might be all it takes to win a series. Scouts can change the game, and you can bet the Royals had scouts on the Orioles and Baltimore had scouts here in Kansas City.

We might find out which scouts did a better job when the series starts Friday.