Judging the Royals

Alex Gordon and the Royals take Game One

In the eighth inning Alex Gordon took a 94-MPH fastball in the neck and had no visible reaction; unless you count hitting a home run in his next at bat. In the top of the tenth inning Gordon hit a pitch from Darren O’Day into the seats in right field. Three batters latter Mike Moustakas hit another bomb; this one was a two-run shot and Moose’s shot provided the margin of victory.

The Royals take Game One of the ALCS by a score of 8-6.

Game notes

*Baltimore’s Camden Yards is known as a launching pad and it proved to be one for the Royals in Game One. The pitch Moose hit—a 90-MPH fastball from Brian Matusz—was up in the zone, maybe because it was thrown out of a slide step.

The Orioles pitchers are very worried about Royals base runners, but the runner on first base was Salvador Perez; not much of a base stealing threat. Matusz could have delivered the pitch with a full leg kick and Sal still wasn’t going anywhere.

*The Gordon and Moustakas homers took Eric Hosmer off the hook; with the bases loaded and nobody out Hosmer swung at a slider off the plate. Orioles closer Zach Britton had walked the bases loaded and thrown 12 straight balls when Eric decided to hack. Hosmer went on to hit into a fielder’s choice—the runner was out at the plate—then Billy Butler hit into a double play and the Royals got nothing out of the inning.

*One of the keys for a Royals victory is to have their starting pitcher go six innings; then the starter can hand the ball to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Starter James Shields only pitched five, then turned the ball over to Brandon Finnegan. The Royals rookie didn’t have it and never got an out in the sixth.

*Fortunately for Royals fans, Herrera and Davis did have it and they each pitched two innings; long enough to grab a lead and give the ball to Greg Holland.

*In the fifth inning Lorenzo Cain stretched a single into a double when he saw the Orioles centerfielder, Adam Jones, moving laterally and away from second base to field the ball. When an outfielder is moving away from the base the runner is headed toward, the throw won’t be as strong.

Eric Hosmer moved Cain over to third with a groundball to the right side and that meant Billy Butler’s fly ball turned into a sacrifice fly. If Cain didn’t hustle on the bases and Hosmer didn’t hit the ball to the right side, the run doesn’t score and the Royals lose in nine innings.

*Billy hit his sac fly on 1-2 pitch; there was no reason to throw Butler a strike there. The mistake cost the O's a run and eventually the ballgame.

*In the seventh inning Jarrod Dyson pinch ran and stole second base—temporarily. Jonathan Schoop took the throw from catcher Nick Hundley and applied the tag to Dyson and just kept applying it. Infielder will use hard tags to shove runners off the base and it looked like that’s what happened on this play.

It’s probably why Dyson was complaining afterwards.

*By the way: Alex Gordon did a post-game interview and acted like he’d "been there and done that." No bragging, no chest-pounding; just a professional ballplayer talking about the game. Watch Wade Davis—who might be the best pitcher on the planet right now—when he comes off the mound; he’s another guy who behaves like a pro.

How Chris Tillman used high fastballs to get outs

(My son and part-time helper, Paul Judge, also watched the game; here’s his take.)

The Royals came to bat in the top of the third inning against the Orioles with the game still scoreless. With one down, Alcides Escobar faced Chris Tillman. The Orioles starter had thrown three straight fastballs to Escobar in his previous at-bat. Esky lined the third one—a fastball at the top of the zone—to Adam Jones in centerfield and, even though he was out, Esky was looking to turn on a high fastball from Tillman and squared it up.

In this next at bat Tillman fell behind 2-0 after missing with a changeup and fastball, then threw another elevated fastball to Escobar. Tillman attacked Royals hitters all night with fastballs up out of the zone. That will be something to watch for going forward, because in power-friendly Camden Yards, hitters are looking to jump on elevated pitches for possible home runs. Orioles pitchers like Tillman will be smart enough to know that, and elevate their fastballs just enough to get over-eager Royals hitters to hit fly ball outs. Tillman did a good job of elevating fastballs in the top of the fourth, forcing Mike Moustakas, Escobar, and Nori Aoki to hit fly balls.

But in the top of the third, Tillman didn’t quite get his fastball up enough, and Esky jumped on it, sending a blast over the left-field wall and giving his team the one-run advantage. It worked for Escobar to look for and jump on that high fastball, opening up the rally that would eventually be capped by Alex Gordon’s three-run double. But the battle between hitters looking to drive high fastballs and pitchers looking to get fly outs with those high fastballs will be an interesting one going forward in this series, and the risk-versus-reward of looking for and jumping on those elevated fastballs may be a deciding factor in these games in Baltimore.

Why pitchers have to bear down on every pitch

In the bottom of the fifth, Orioles right-fielder Nick Markakis came to the plate to face James Shields. Markakis is very talented player, and a pest of a hitter; he works the count, waits for pitches to hit, and takes the ball both ways. Markakis got a 1-0 cutter away from Shields and hit a bloop single the other way into shallow left. Alejandro De Aza came to bat next and hit a single through the gap created by Eric Hosmer holding Markakis at first. Neither hit was really a mistake from James Shields, just bad luck.

Adam Jones then grounded into a fielder’s choice that forced Markakis out at third and moved De Aza to second, bringing Nelson Cruz to the plate. Cruz is obviously the most fearsome hitter in the O’s lineup, and you never want to face him with runners on. Shields worked Cruz to a 1-2 count before leaving a changeup out over the plate, which Cruz smashed down the line. Luckily for the Royals, it hit off the wall, and Alex Gordon played it expertly to hold Cruz to a double and the Orioles to just one run.

After two bits of bad luck and one mistake, Shields was lucky enough to only give up one run, which cut the Royals’ lead to 5-2. After walking Steve Pearce to load the bases, J.J. Hardy, another talented, pesky hitter, came to bat and battled Shields to a 3-2 count. Shields threw a nasty cutter inside to Hardy that struck him out looking – it was a huge at-bat for Shields, getting the second out in a troublesome inning with a runner standing on third.

But ask some baseball vets and they’ll tell you: there is a danger, after getting a big out on a tough hitter, of having a "let down" at-bat against the next batter. As a pitcher, sometimes you are so pumped up, after getting a key out against a tough opponent, that you don’t put enough focus into the next at-bat, and allow a weaker hitter to get you into trouble.

Ryan Flaherty came to bat after J.J. Hardy, and though Flaherty was only a .221/.288/.356 hitter during the regular season, he hit .442 attacking first pitches. Shields handled Flaherty well in his first at-bat in the second inning, starting him off with a first-pitch changeup out of the zone - Flaherty couldn’t do anything with it. But in the fifth, Shields left that same first-pitch change out over the plate and Flaherty pulled it down into the right-field corner, driving in Jones and Cruz and cutting the Royals’ lead to 5-4.

Keep an eye on Flaherty and the first-pitch ambush

Flaherty and his first-pitch ambushes will be another factor to watch in this Orioles series – he was able to jump on another first-pitch fastball from Greg Holland in the bottom of the 10th, after another J.J. Hardy strikeout (again, for the second out of the inning). Flaherty’s first-pitch single in the 10th kept the O’s rally alive just long enough to scare every Royals fan watching the game, and it will be something the Royals’ pitchers will have to be wary of for the rest of the series.