OK, you’re Ned Yost and you’re managing the Royals; the score’s 1-0 going into the top of the ninth and your starter, James Shields, has pitched brilliantly, but he’s thrown 102 pitches and is about to face the two, three and four-hole hitters for the fourth time. The No. 2 hitter, Jeff Keppinger, was hitting .143 off Shields at the start of the game and is 0 for 3, the No. 3 hitter, Alex Rios, started the game at .311 against Shields and is also 0 for 3 and the four-hole hitter, Adam Dunn, started the game at .077 against James, but has walked, lined out and struck out.
You’ve also got your closer, Greg Holland, warmed up and ready to go. Holland has never faced Keppinger, Rios has hit .091 off him and Dunn has hit .200. Holland has also had nine straight outings without giving up an earned run.
So what do you do?
Ned went with his closer. He said if Shields had a two-run lead, he would have let him go back out for the ninth, as he did with Jeremy Guthrie on Saturday night. With a one-run lead, Yost wanted to go with his closer — Shields had done his job, now it was time for Holland to do his.
If it’s me, I’m going with Shields and pulling him if a runner gets on — but going with your closer who has had nine straight good outings isn’t exactly crazy, either. If a decision doesn’t work out, it’s going to get criticized. If Yost had let Shields go back out and he gave it up, critics could say why would you let a tired pitcher go back out there and face the order for the fourth time when you’ve got your closer available?
Fortunately, I get to sit in the press box six floors up and don’t have to face decisions like this or the consequences. Ned made a reasonable decision, but it didn’t work out. The White Sox won 2-1 in 11 innings.
With a runner on first base, pitchers will often throw using a full leg kick until they get ahead in the count because they’re more worried about the pitch than the runner. Once they get ahead in the count and they’ve got pitches to waste, pitchers will sometime switch to the slide step. Once they’re ahead in the count pitchers often throw off-speed stuff; runners know this and look to run. Pitchers will then go to the slide step to speed up their delivery and give their catchers a chance to throw out the runner.
Got all that?
OK, the count was 3-2, Billy Butler was at the plate and Alex Gordon was on first base. Ned Yost put Gordon in motion (manager’s often do this on a 3-2 count) and Chris Sale delivered the pitch with a full leg kick — Butler fouled it back. But now Sale knew Gordon was probably running on the pitch, so he delivered the next pitch — a slider — from the slide step. If Butler swung and missed, the slide step might allow his catcher to throw Gordon out at second; a strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out double play.
But slide steps also have a tendency to make the pitch go high in the zone. The slider wasn’t exactly high, but it wasn’t exactly down either and Billy doubled down the left field line. Gordon scored from first and a slide step might have been part of the reason.
Mike Moustakas made an out on two pitches and Jeff Francoeur did the same thing. Salvador Perez then swung at the first strike he saw. This is significant for a couple of reasons: when the first two guys make quick outs, the third guy might think about taking a strike or two to make the pitcher work and give his own pitcher a rest. Letting Chris Sale off the mound after six pitches was not ideal.
The second reason had to do with Sale’s overall pitch count. In the first inning Lorenzo Cain had a nine-pitch at-bat and Mike Moustakas saw 12 pitches before popping up (he didn’t run it out and he needs to). In the second inning Chris Getz had an 8-pitch at-bat. Going into the fourth inning Sale’s pitch count was 70; coming out of the fourth it was 76. Going into the fourth it looked like Sale might have a short outing, but a six-pitch inning and an eight-pitch inning in the fifth helped him stick around through 7 1/3.
(By the way, when Chris Sales came off the field, he got a nice round of applause from the Kansas City fans. He gave up one run in seven and third innings and deserved it. Class moves like that are how fans develop good reputations among players.)
Jeff Francoeur dropped a fly ball for an E9. It may be sacrilege to us old-timers, but the one-handed catch is here to stay. Gloves are bigger than when we played as kids and catching the ball one-handed allows the fielder to extend his glove further from his body. After Frenchy missed the ball, Shields got an inning-ending double play on the next pitch. That’s what they mean by picking each other up; Jeff was probably the most relieved guy in the ballpark — until the sixth inning.
Frenchy dove for a fly ball and had that one go off his glove as well. That probably could have been scored an error, but it was scored the first hit of the ball game off James Shields. Traditionally scorekeepers make sure the first hit is a clean one, and I imagine the scorekeeper was relieved when Shields gave up a clean single in the seventh — otherwise that first call is a prime subject on ESPN.
Greg Holland came in to close and fell behind the first three hitters he saw. When a pitcher falls behind, he has to throw the ball over the plate — he can’t nibble anymore. All three hitters Holland fell behind singled. With the bases loaded, Greg got a ball hit back to the mound and started a 1-2-3 double play. The guy coming home, pinch runner Tyler Greene, tried to prevent Salvador Perez from turning the double play by taking him out with a hard slide. It didn’t work and Perez and Greene had words. If something happens between these two guys in the near future, remember this play.
After an intentional walk the bases were loaded and Alexei Ramirez hit what looked like a sure single up the middle. Chris Getz got to it, but dropped the ball taking it out of his glove. It wasn’t scored an error, but it appeared Getz had time to force the runner at second and end the game. He didn’t, but the Royals caught Jordan Danks off base to end the inning.
(After the game Holland was asked about his relative inexperience as a closer and whether games like this provided a learning experience. Holland didn’t think he needed any more experience, saying: “I’ve been givin’ up games since I was 12 years old.” Greg didn’t make excuses, but didn’t seem devastated, which is probably the perfect attitude for a closer: he didn’t get the job done today, but is ready to go get ‘em tomorrow.)
Jeff Francoeur got another outfield assist when he threw out Dewayne Wise trying to stretch a single into a double. Wise at first appeared to be safe, but then over-slid the bag. Alcides Escobar put a tag on Wise and kept it on. Some middle infielders will use a firm tag to push a runner off the base, but I’m not saying that’s what Esky did. Just be aware that it happens.
An inning later Alex Rios got thrown out trying to steal and he kept his foot on Escobar’s glove throughout the tag (Esky got spiked on the play). Some base runners will try to kick the ball out of the glove when they’re being tagged, but I’m not saying that’s what Rios did. Just be aware that it happens.
Meanwhile, Kelvin Herrera had fallen behind the guy at the plate, Jordan Danks. The count was 3-1 — a fastball count — and even though the fastball was traveling 97 miles an hour, Danks hit it out of the park. That made the score 2-1, White Sox avoid the sweep.
Times they keep a’changin’
If you’ve been watching the Royals lately you’ve probably noticed them signaling each other after a big hit: the guy that got the hit will turn to the dugout and wave his hand in front of his face (Jeff Francoeur got that from WWF wrestling) or the guys in the dugout will wave their hands behind their heads (the sign that tells the outfielders to back up), Sunday afternoon guys were pointing two fingers at the hitter. In fact, they’ve done everything but break out semaphore flags and I’m afraid to mention it in the clubhouse or that’ll be next.
That kind of on-field celebrating used to get you drilled.
Can you imagine what Bob Gibson would do if he looked over and a guy was signaling his buddies in the dugout? But before we go too far down the “what’s-wrong-with-kids-today?” road, let me tell you a story: I was watching a game a while back and a former player described himself as “old-school.” When this guy played he had long hair, sideburns and wore his stirrups high. The old-school guys of his era had crew cuts and wore their stirrups low — they probably thought he was a punk.
Every generation tends to think the one that follows it is screwed up.
The old-school guys of today were the punks of yesterday. Guys who drove people crazy with long hair, Afros, mustaches, jewelry and high stirrups are complaining about floppy pants, tattoos and on-field signaling — and I’m right there with them. I’m not crazy about the on-field signaling either, but I still recall wearing my hair like Mick Jagger, bellbottoms and flowered shirts — I drove the generation that came before me nuts and now it’s payback time.
Bullpen coach Doug Henry and I talked about it. I asked him what he did that drove the older ballplayers crazy when he first got to the big leagues. Doug said he didn’t do anything; he didn’t want to make any of the veterans mad. But Doug said he was a 27-year old rookie and kind of old-school from the beginning. The first time he saw baseball pants all the way to the shoe tops, Doug thought it looked stupid — until he tried on a pair. I knew just what he meant: when I was started playing amateur baseball everyone still wore stirrups and the way you kept stirrups up were with elastic garters just below the knee. They cut into your skin and left a red mark after games. Long pants eliminated the need for stirrups and that eliminated the need for those uncomfortable garters. The first time I walked on the field with long pants I thought, “Damn, this is comfortable.” Doug Henry thought the same thing — suddenly the new fashion didn’t seem so stupid.
Doug also took an enlightened view on today’s signaling: the players aren’t doing it for us; they’re doing it for each other. They’re not posing and asking the crowd to dig them — like standing at the plate after a big home run — they’re celebrating with their teammates, they’re enjoying each other’s success. And Doug thinks that’s a good thing.
So Does Jeff Francoeur. Frenchy said he didn’t like it at first, but the game has changed — if signaling brings the team together it’s a good thing. Jeff also said if the score was 9-0 he’d be the first tell teammates to cool it, but if Jose Valverde or Billy Butler want to celebrate a big play in a close game, he doesn’t mind. Players are pumped and so are their teammates.
You’ve probably already heard about the “Texas Heart Shot” neon sign in the clubhouse (it a deer with a target on its rear end — shoot it there and you’ll eventually hit the heart) and how the Royals light it up after a win and pick a player of the game. After Sunday’s extra-inning win, the media came into the clubhouse and there was smoke drifting around the ceiling. I asked Mike Moustakas if they had now taken to lighting up celebratory spliffs and he said no, but they did add a fog machine and strobe light to the clubhouse. After a win they turn up the music, light up the neon sign, and get the fog machine and strobe light going. I might be older than dirt, but that still sounds like fun.
That’s how these guys are celebrating. In the old days, teams might have had a few beers together after a big win, but let’s face it: we’ve ruined that for them. These days, guys don’t want to be seen by the media having a cold one because someone will write about it and say that’s why they took an 0-fer the next day. So they celebrate with a clubhouse disco instead. (Although I still kinda like my idea of lighting up spliffs — they might not play good baseball the next day, but no one would care.)
Anyway, the next time you see Frenchy wave his hand in front of his face, remember that signaling is this generation’s sideburns. And if it makes you feel any better, think of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas at the end of their careers talking to some young punk about whatever he’s doing with his pants that’s driving them crazy: “In our day we wore them long and floppy.”
Message to the players: I’m taking a tolerant view here, but the base coaches have to wait until you’re done celebrating to give you signs — if you’re going to signal, make it quick.
(This bit would have seemed a lot timelier if they’d won, but the White Sox didn’t seem to take my problems into account.)