Judging the Royals

Luke Hochevar, the infield fly rule and how the Cincinnati Reds screwed up again

Cincinnati Reds center fielder Jason Bourgeois was tagged out at home plate by Kansas City Royals catcher Drew Butera as part of a double play on Wednesday.
Cincinnati Reds center fielder Jason Bourgeois was tagged out at home plate by Kansas City Royals catcher Drew Butera as part of a double play on Wednesday. The Associated Press

Games like Wednesday night’s 4-3 win over the Reds are why people who don’t like baseball don’t like baseball. Things got off to a roaring start with a 97-minute rain delay and even after the Royals and Reds started playing, the pace didn’t pick up all that much.

Cincinnati’s starting pitcher — Keyvius Sampson — used 26 pitches to get through the first inning; Kansas City’s starter — Jeremy Guthrie — used 33. In that first inning, 12 batters came to the plate and five of them went to a 3-2 count. I don’t know if that description adequately explains how slow things were moving, but somewhere along the way I felt like I’d taken an overdose of NyQuil.

And after the first inning, the glacial pace continued: Sampson used 95 pitches to get through 3 1/3 innings, Guthrie 115 to get through 4 1/3. When Jeremy left the game in the fifth inning, the bases were loaded and there was one out — that’s when something interesting happened.

Ryan Lefebvre is wrong about pitchers and pop flies

I’ve heard Ryan Lefebvre — the guy who tries to keep Rex Hudler on the straight and narrow — say pitchers ought to be able to catch a pop fly. It’s a reasonable position; but after last night I think Ryan was rethinking that stance.

With the bases loaded in the fifth inning, Jay Bruce hit a pop fly between the pitcher’s mound and the first-base foul line. Luke Hochevar wandered under the ball with the look of a guy who shows up at a party and doesn’t recognize any of the people there: “Am I in the right place?”

Ryan’s correct; pitchers ought to be able to catch pop flies, but time has shown running them off the play and letting a position player make the catch is a wise policy. But with the bases loaded, first baseman Eric Hosmer was playing back behind the runner and had a long run to the ball. Hosmer was checking Hochevar’s position — Luke was under the ball — but Hochevar was looking around for help; you’re not going to let me try to catch this thing, are you?

If you’ve never stood under a mile-high pop fly, I’m here to tell you catching them is harder than you think. Big-league players make it look easy, but the ball does not come down in straight line; it’s spinning like crazy and that means it curves as it descends.

Working as a team, Hochevar and Hosmer managed to let the ball drop between them — but it really didn’t matter.

First I’ll explain the infield fly rule, then the theory of relativity

I lied; I don’t understand the theory of relativity, unless it means if you cover a baseball team your relatives think you can get them free tickets. I’m assuming that’s not the right explanation, so let’s move on to the infield fly rule. Here’s the short version:

An INFIELD FLY is a fair fly ball (not including a line drive nor an attempted bunt) which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, when first and second, or first, second and third bases are occupied, before two are out.

So with the bases loaded and one out, when Jay Bruce hit that pop fly, the infield fly rule applied. Here’s the next part of the rule that applied:

When it seems apparent that a batted ball will be an Infield Fly, the umpire shall immediately declare Infield Fly for the benefit of the runners. If the ball is near the baselines, the umpire shall declare Infield Fly, if Fair.

So the umpire yells out that it’s an infield fly so everybody knows the rule is in effect. Now here’s another bit that pertains to last night’s play:

Rule 2.00 (Infield Fly) Comment: When an infield fly rule is called, runners may advance at their own risk.

So to sum up: they created the infield fly rule so fielders could not intentionally drop a pop fly and then turn a double play on runners who have gone back to their base to tag up. Once the infield fly rule was declared, Jay Bruce was out and the runners did not have to advance because even though the bases were loaded, there was no longer a force on.

But when the ball dropped, the runner on third — ex-Royal Jason Bourgeois — appeared to think there was still a force on, broke for home and was tagged out. After the game his manager Bryan Price said Bourgeois knew the rule, but had the wrong reaction.

Fair enough, but just like the night before (when four Reds players managed to screw up one bunt play; one threw the ball away, a second did a lousy job of trying to catch the ball and two more failed to back the play up), Jason Bourgeois did not mess this play up on his own.

When the ball was popped up third-base coach Jim Riggleman stood with his hands on his hips watching. He never ran over to the base, he never got in Bourgeois’ ear to let him know what to do; in short, he did not do what a base coach is supposed to do — help a base runner.

Bourgeois ran into a double play and the Reds fifth-inning threat was over.

How to spot good and bad teams

If the past two games are any indication the Cincinnati Reds have some problems with fundamentals. Good teams take care of the small stuff that can change a ballgame and if you know where to look you can see whether a team is doing what needs to be done; but you have to take your eye off the ball.

Look for people backing up plays: when the catcher makes a throw down to second base, is the center fielder on the move in case the throw gets away?

When the batter singles to right, does the left fielder back up second base?

With nobody on, does the catcher run down the line and back up first base on an infield grounder?

If someone makes a mistake, does anyone put his arm around the guy and talk to him about it in the dugout?

You’ve got to stay on top of the small stuff

When a team is losing — and the Reds are 51-67 and 25 games back in the standings — it’s easy to let the fundamentals slip; what difference does it make? We’re a losing ball club and we’re not going anywhere. And a team with that attitude you can wind up just going through the motions and playing out the string.

But it’s also hard to get people to focus on fundamentals when a team is winning.

Before Rusty Kuntz developed the mother of all sinus infections, he and I were talking about the need to “clean up” mistakes, even if you win the ballgame. A mistake that didn’t hurt you in a 6-1 win might kill you in a 3-2 loss. But if players take an “All’s well that ends well” attitude — hey, we won, what’s all the griping about? — those mistakes don’t get fixed.

To give the Royals credit — even though they have the best record in the American League — they don’t look as if they’ve put things on cruise control. They still appear to be playing hard and maybe coming that close to winning a World Series will do that to you.

The Royals are 73-46 an taking care of the small stuff is one of the reasons why.

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