Judging the Royals

Alex Rios does a big thing on the basepaths

Royals right fielder Alex Rios
Royals right fielder Alex Rios AP

Every once in a while you’ll hear some baseball fan dismiss a player that excels at doing the “small” things — the meat-and-potato stuff like backing up throws, getting down bunts or running the bases well. The scornful fan will say something like: “After all, they are small things.”

Well, if you think that, the people who play the game have some news for you: in baseball, there are no small things.

And Monday night Alex Rios proved that by doing a big thing — he took an extra 90 feet with some heads-up base running and that changed the rest of the game. In the top of the second inning the Seattle Mariners had a 1-0 lead after Robinson Cano hit a home run. With one down Salvador Perez doubled, Alex Gordon made the second out, and that brought Alex Rios to the plate.

Rios found a Felix Hernandez sinker that didn’t sink and hit a groundball up the middle; Perez made the turn at third and headed for home. Mariners center fielder Austin Jackson charged the ball and let loose an unguided missile in the general direction of home plate.

On a play like that — one runner scoring, another rounding first — the first baseman acts as the cutoff man; he positions himself on the outfield side of the pitching mound so the throw can be cut if it’s going to hit that mound. The catcher covers home and the pitcher backs up the catcher.

If the throw home is low enough, the first baseman can fake cutting the ball off and freeze the runner that hit the ball — but Jackson overthrew the cutoff man by about 10 feet. Perez scored to tie the game and Rios saw the high throw, alertly took second base and moved into scoring position.

So when Omar Infante singled, Rios was able to score, and the Royal took the lead, 2-1.

How that changed the game

When a pitcher is given a lead he can pitch more aggressively, and Joe Blanton did; after the Royals took the lead Blanton threw a higher percentage of strikes. As long as Blanton kept runners off base, all the guy at the plate could do was tie the game no matter how far he hit the ball.

Blanton got an insurance run in the third inning and with a two-run lead he could be really pour in the strikes; now the guy at the plate couldn’t even tie the game. Blanton struck out seven batters and six of those strikeouts came after he was handed a lead and could pitch very aggressively.

There aren’t enough future Hall of Famers to go around

Guys who hit 30 home runs and give you 100 RBIs are nice, but not every team can have one. So in reality you have a bunch of players who are something less than future Hall of Famers who have to do the “small” things right so those small thing add up to a big thing: winning.

And there ain’t nuthin’ bigger than that.

Hitters hit mistakes

When we were working on the book “Throwback” I got a look at the bat Jason Kendall used to collect his 2,000th hit. I said something about how hard it must be to get 2,000 hits in the big leagues and Jason said: “Yeah, but about eighteen hundred of them came on pitches right down the middle — that other stuff is hard to hit.”

And there’s a baseball lesson for you.

Big-league hitters do not make a living by hitting borderline pitcher’s pitches. Royals fans have been treated to a number of at-bats where the hitter swung at the pitcher’s pitch, so Royals fans know how that usually turns out. Smart hitters wait for the pitcher to make a mistake and then don’t miss it when they get it.

Monday night the Royals faced the Seattle Mariners and their ace, Felix Hernandez. Most of the time it’s hard to see the movement on a pitcher’s fastball; it’s too subtle for the camera — or the eye — to pick up.

Most of the time.

Monday night viewers could see the wicked movement on Hernandez two-seamer from halfway across the county. Swing at a two-seamer with good movement and it’s pretty easy to miss the center of the baseball. But in the second inning Salvador Perez got a two-seamer that didn’t move and he doubled to left field.

Hernandez made a mistake, Perez didn’t miss it, and that led to a two-run inning. The guys who hit Hernandez did so because they hit mistakes — not pitcher’s pitches.

Why throwing strikes can help a hitter

Andy McCullough asked Eric Hosmer about facing Felix Hernandez, and this is what Hosmer had to say:

“The only thing that’s comforting is you know he throws strikes,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “You don’t really know what he’s going to throw at any time, but you know it’s going to be a strike. So he’s a guy you really don’t plan on taking — not that we take pitches anyway, as a team. But he’s a guy you’ve got to be aggressive with.”

And that leads me to a story of my own:

When major-league players went on strike in the mid-nineties I was managing a men’s amateur team here in Kansas City. I knew some guys who played in the big leagues, and they started calling me to see if they could get some playing time with my team.

Unfortunately the answer was no; guys who could throw the ball 90 mph or hit it 400 feet were going to stick out like sore thumbs in a men’s amateur league.

But then our season ended and another team wanted to play my team in a practice game. The other team was going to a national tournament and wanted to get some innings in to get ready. At first I said I didn’t think I could get a team together — after the season ended my team split up like the cops were looking for us — and then I heard the magic words: “You can bring anybody you want.”

Bingo.

My starting first baseman was from the Florida Marlins, my starting shortstop was from the Los Angeles Dodgers, my centerfielder was a minor-leaguer from the Texas Rangers, I had two ex-Baltimore Orioles minor-leaguers, and the guy on the mound was a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians.

I’ve got to say I did a masterful job of managing that night: I made out a lineup and then shut the hell up and let those guys play. As you might expect, we won, but what you might not expect is what the guy from the Dodgers said after the game: “This is a hard league to hit in.”

I asked what the hell he meant and he said the first pitch he saw was at his head and the second one was a foot outside: “And that one was called a strike.” The inconsistency of amateur pitching and umpiring made it hard for him to know what to swing at. He said that in the big leagues you just looked middle-in or middle-away and the pitcher would be around the zone.

That consistency is what Hosmer was talking about; Felix Hernandez is tough, but at least he’s around the zone — and Monday, Hernandez was around the zone enough for the Royals to beat him.

West coast games on a Midwest schedule

Obviously the games are later this week and so is my column. I’m staying up late and writing in the mornings, but sooner or later I’ll get something online the day after a game.

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

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