Judging the Royals

The Royals win one of the most entertaining games of the season

Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez tagged out Pittsburgh’s Starling Marte at the plate after trying to score on a hit by Pittsburgh Pirates' Jung Ho Kang during Tuesday’s game.
Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez tagged out Pittsburgh’s Starling Marte at the plate after trying to score on a hit by Pittsburgh Pirates' Jung Ho Kang during Tuesday’s game. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

Bottom line: if you didn’t watch the Royals beat the Pirates 3-1 on Tuesday night, you screwed up — it was one of the most entertaining games of the season. Games like this are why you become a Royals fan, games like this are why you become a baseball fan. This was like watching two skilled boxers dance around each other for nine rounds and then start throwing haymakers in the 10th.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Ventura gets sent down

Tuesday afternoon the big news was Yordano Ventura’s demotion to the minor leagues. Ventura had another mediocre outing on Monday, Jason Vargas was coming back and the team needed to make room on their roster. The Royals chose to send Ventura down and keep Joe Blanton for long relief. And even though keeping Blanton was ridiculed by some of the geniuses that share their baseball wisdom on the internet, Royals fans should thank God and Dayton Moore that Blanton was available on Tuesday.

After Monday’s game I wrote a piece about Ventura’s reliance on his fastball; I’d been told one of his keys to success is establishing secondary pitches early. If Yordano can’t throw his curve and change-up for strikes, he will go to the fastball when he’s behind in the count and hitters will be ready for that. Falling behind in the count and then trying to blow fastballs by big league hitters who are looking for fastballs is not much of a game plan.

The other issue is Yordano Ventura’s temperament.

If they have a choice, players, coaches and managers will not throw a teammate under the bus. They could hate a guy and still call him a great teammate when the media’s around—and they should. You do your laundry in private.

The media was fed a bunch of BS about Ventura being unflappable and poised and confident and we swallowed it because we didn’t know any better and it made for a great story.

But the real story is even better.

Yordano Ventura is a very emotional player and if you take the blinders off you can see it. Yordano had a meltdown after he had a bad outing in the Wild Card Game, he tried to confront Mike Trout for no particular reason, he set off a brawl in Chicago, he just about killed Eric Hosmer’s love life when he threw a billion mile-an-hour pickoff throw over to first base because he was frustrated. Ventura will play with “bling” when he’s feeling good — he’s not above showing off a bit and other teams don’t like it much — and he’ll walk around like his dog just died when things aren’t going well.

Nobody has said a thing to me about it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if part of what Ventura was supposed to work on in the minors is emotional control; find a level that keeps you competitive without trying to start fights with guys who would kill you.

Let’s face it; if it’s Trout against Ventura, my money’s on Trout.

Vargas gets hurt

I’m not a doctor, but when a pitcher throws a pitch and then walks off the mound biting his glove because he’s in pain I’m going to go out on a limb and say that’s a bad sign. Jason Vargas is going to have his arm checked out today, but the news probably isn’t going to be good.

If it turns out Vargas is completely healthy I’ll give back my medical degree.

So once Vargas left the field Joe Blanton came in and saved the day. The guy that was getting ridiculed on the internet about an hour before the game began, struck out two batters with runners in scoring position and then went on to give the Royals three more shutout innings.

Once Blanton did his job in long relief and got the ball to the sixth inning with the game still tied, Ned Yost could start bringing in his other relievers; Ryan Madson, Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis.

Wade Davis is the Terminator

Before the game I was talking to Clint Hurdle about the Royals bullpen and Wade’s name came up; Clint made it clear he did not want the Royals to get the lead and hand the ball to Davis—right now, nobody in either league wants to face Wade Davis.

Madson had thrown a scoreless sixth, Herrera had thrown a scoreless seventh and for whatever reason—and I’m sure there is one—Ned Yost sent Herrera out for the eighth. I don’t know what that reason is because I’ve been going to Hurdle’s post-game press conferences and skipping Ned’s. I promised Clint I’d try to ask obnoxious, dumb questions and Clint said he’d expect no less of me. (The dude knows me pretty well.)

In the seventh inning Herrera threw eight pitches and seven of them were fastballs. Relievers have a better chance of getting away with blowing straight heat because hitters will face them once; there’s not much time to adjust. In the eighth inning Kelvin started switching it up a little more—18 pitches, 13 fastballs—but with the game still scoreless, had runners at first and second and two outs.

With Andrew McCutchen at the plate, Ned went and got Wade Davis.

It’s kind of like getting into a playground fight and bringing your big brother along to protect you—which actually sounds like a great idea. Davis struck out McCutchen and stalked off the mound to one of the loudest ovations I’ve ever heard in Kauffman Stadium.

P.S. For all those young pitchers out there who want to look like a bad-ass (I figure I can say bad-ass cause no editor is actually going to read this far into a story), study Wade Davis. No fist pump, no scream, no bling; just a guy who looks like he figured he was better than you and isn’t overly surprised to find out he was right.

The best was yet to come

So now we’re heading into the bottom of the eighth inning and the game’s still tied 0-0, but the tension dial was being turned up. The Pirates starting pitcher, Gerrit Cole, had been brilliant — the Royals bullpen had matched him.

Salvador Perez began the eighth inning by lining out and Omar Infante hit what appeared to be the second out to Pittsburgh second baseman, Neil Walker — until the ball went right through Walker for an E4. I’m not sure how the ball got past Walker and I’m guessing he was in the same boat: he did everything but build a brick wall at the edge of the grass and somehow the ball still ended up in right field.

Omar Infante was on base and in a game so evenly matched, the Royals had the break they needed.

Alex Rios singled, Infante went first to third and Rios moved up to second base on the throw in from the outfield. With a runner on third base and one down, the Pirates had to bring their infield in.

So when Jarrod Dyson got jammed and flipped the ball just beyond the infield, that made a difference; maybe the ball still gets caught if the infield was back, but by playing in, the ball was sure to drop. The Royals went up 2-0 and Dyson moved up on an error by right fielder Gregory Polanco — and that turned into another run.

It didn’t take long for Dyson to steal third and once again the Pirates had to bring their infield in. Another Royals hitter—this time it was Alcides Escobar — hit a soft liner to just about where the second baseman would normally stand and the Royals were up 3-0 and headed for the ninth inning — what could go wrong?

Holland comes in to close

In his previous 14 appearances before Tuesday night Greg Holland had thrown 13 1/3 innings and given up four runs — not bad. But we’re so used to seeing Holland be untouchable, when he scuffles at all, people get concerned.

And even Holland feels like he’s a bit off.

I talked to him after the game and he said it was mechanical, not physical. On some pitches when his front foot hits down, his arm is not in the right position and that can cause a number of problems. One of those problems is aiming for the outside corner and having the ball leak back over the heart of the plate. So Holland was protecting a three-run lead and because he was not at his best, things got interesting.

The Pirates get in their own way

Starling Marte led off with a single and then Jung Ho Kang hit a ball over Lorenzo Cain’s head. Cain broke the wrong way and then had to chase the ball down on the warning track.

The Pirates had already made two errors in the eighth inning and now in the ninth, they’d make another.

Down by three runs with nobody out, third base coach Rick Sofield sent Marte home — and Marte was thrown out at the plate. The Pirates needed three runs minimum, taking a big chance to score one run made no sense. The game is based on risk and reward: what do you risk, what’s the reward?

Sofield risked losing a runner in scoring position and one of the three outs his team had left. The reward was losing a game by two runs. Risk did not match reward and Marte should have been stopped at third.

After the game Clint Hurdle was asked about the Pirates mistakes and he described them by saying the Pirates were getting in their own way; a gentler way of saying we screwed up. But he also said when you make mistakes you go over them the next day and figure out what you’ll do differently next time.

When asked if he’d talked to his third base coach, Clint said right then was not the time; the third base coach was already kicking himself about his decision and didn’t need to have someone in his face right away.

Responses like that are part of why Clint Hurdle is considered a good manager. It might feel good to yell at someone who screwed up — let everyone in the stands know you’re unhappy — but it isn’t going to improve the situation. Let the guy think about it and talk in private when things have calmed down.

But the game still wasn’t over

After Sofield’s mistake Holland struck out Pedro Alvarez, but anyone who left the park thinking there were two outs and it would be a good idea to beat the traffic was dead wrong.

Pinch hitter Travis Ishikawa singled and Kang scored; Royals up 3-1. Chris Stewart walked and the tying run was on base. Sean Rodriguez hit a ball so weakly Mike Moustakas had no play and suddenly the Pirates had the tying run in scoring position and the winning run on first base.

The K was rocking.

Gregory Polanco was a base hit away from tying up the game, but Greg Holland struck him out on four pitches. There were 38, 163 people there; I don’t know how many were Pirates fans, but the ones who weren’t, heaved a sigh of relief.

They’d just seen a great ending to one of most entertaining games of the season. If you didn’t watch it—to quote Clint Hurdle — you got in your own way.