Judging the Royals

Royals endure a second-inning breakdown

Royals left fielder Paulo Orlando (16) can't get a glove on a two-RBI double by the Red Sox's Blake Swihart during Friday's game in Boston.
Royals left fielder Paulo Orlando (16) can't get a glove on a two-RBI double by the Red Sox's Blake Swihart during Friday's game in Boston. The AP

Here’s what we’re going to do: last night I went out to dinner — my first Friday night off since March — and my son Paul watched the Royals-Red Sox game live. He then wrote what follows. Saturday morning I got up and watched the plays he wrote about and then wrote what I saw. I figure it’s kind of like watching a traffic accident and getting the witnesses to describe what happened — and a traffic accident is a pretty good metaphor for the bottom of the second inning.

Paul’s version of events

The Boston Red Sox may be in last place in the AL East, but it seems like nobody has told them that. The Sox offense has been the hottest in the league recently, and after knocking off the Royals 4-1 on Thursday night, Kansas City needed a dominant effort from both their defense and pitching to slow the Boston offense down and even the series.

On Friday night, that didn’t happen.

Things started going wrong for Kansas City’s defense in the bottom of the second, when the game was still scoreless. After getting Hanley Ramirez to ground out for the first out of the inning, Johnny Cueto faced the red-hot Travis Shaw. Shaw fell behind 1-2, but Cueto left a changeup high in the zone and Shaw pulled it to right field. It was a solid liner to Alex Rios in right, but it stayed in the air for a while. Rios decided early in the ball’s trajectory to pull up and play it off the wall, instead of aggressively sprinting to the warning track and trying to make a play.

Royals fans have become spoiled the last few years by how great the defense has been, especially in the outfield. Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson routinely turn in unbelievable highlight plays and save their pitching staff from hits and runs that almost any other outfield in the league would give up. It often feels like if it’s not a screaming line drive, and it’s not a home run, it’s going to get caught. But Rios has not shown that same aggression and talent in the outfield this year.

Dyson, Gordon and Cain all make incredible highlight plays, banging off the wall and saving runs (and wins) for their team. With Rios, he seems to decide early that these balls are going to be hits, and he tries to limit the damage by playing them conservatively.

After Shaw’s double, things only got worse for the Royals. Against the next batter, Rusney Castillo, Cueto left another pitch up in the zone, and Castillo dropped a single in front of Cain in center field, moving Shaw to third.

Cueto again left a pitch up to the equally hot Blake Swihart, who ripped a double down into the left field corner, which scored Shaw and moved Castillo from first to third. Paulo Orlando appeared to initially think about trying to make a play on Castillo coming into third, but then thought better of it, double clutched, and threw it to the cutoff man, Alcides Escobar at short.

But Orlando’s throw short-hopped Esky, who didn’t do much to try and knock it down, swiping at it with his glove. Both Cueto and Sal Perez were covering home and nobody was in the middle of the infield to cut the throw from left. The ball slowly trickled all the way home, giving Castillo enough time to recognize the situation and take off, scoring Boston's second run of the night.

Josh Rutledge came up next and hit a grounder between short and third. Judging from Sal’s position behind home plate, Cueto hit his spot with the pitch and Rutledge basically rolled over on it, but the ball still made it through the infield, moving Swihart to third base.

Mookie Betts came up next and got a 2-1 cutter from Cueto that stayed up in the zone, which Betts lined to left field. Orlando tried to make a sliding catch but whiffed on the ball, deflecting it to Cain, which again moved Rutledge first-to-third and scored Swihart, putting the Sox up 3-0.

Luckily, Cueto recovered with a nice changeup that Pablo Sandoval rolled over in the next at-bat, grounding into a double play to end the inning. But the damage had been done.

The Royals have the best record in the American League primarily because they dominate defensively and with their bullpen, and though their offense is second in the league with a team batting average of .269, they rank only ninth in runs scored. So they have to win games by keeping opponent offenses at bay. Getting into a slugfest with the red-hot Sox offense was not going to be the answer, and after some more bad defensive plays by Lorenzo Cain, and Cueto leaving the ball consistently up in the zone, the Sox strolled to a 7-2 victory.

Friday night’s game was a good reminder for Royals fans: even though KC may be the best in the AL, if they don’t get great performances from their pitching and defense, they can get beaten by anyone.

My version of events

After watching the plays Paul wrote about, two thoughts came to mind:

1.) Wow, the bottom of the second inning was a mess, wasn’t it?

2.) The game looks a lot easier when you slow it down and watch plays frame by frame.

The advantage of watching a game that’s been recorded on TV is the ability to watch plays over and over or slow the plays down until you feel like you have a decent idea of what happened. The disadvantage is you can only see what the TV shows you. So what did the TV show me?

The Alex Rios play

Paul thought the changeup Travis Shaw hit was high, to me it looked like it was around the knees — so it could’ve been lower and was probably meant to be — but it was out over the plate. Salvador Perez set his target away, but then had to reach to his right as the pitch was coming in.

I don’t think anyone could have caught the ball Shaw hit, but Paul’s right; Rios gave up early. Slow the play down and it looks like he got a late break on the ball — line drives right at you are hard to judge — but Rios does not go back particularly well and the ball one-hopped the wall.

If anyone had made the catch, they would have hit the wall going full-speed and I’m pretty sure you don’t want that at this point of the season. But I would agree with Paul that Rios does not play defense at the same level as the rest of the Royals outfield.

The Rusney Castillo play

If that ball had been hit two feet farther or two feet shorter, it might have been caught. It dropped in-between Omar Infante going back and Lorenzo Cain coming forward. Cain could not dive for the ball because he would have collided with Infante. Omar did not peel off in time to give Lorenzo a clear shot at the ball.

The Blake Swihart play

An outfield has two gaps and two lines. According to Rusty Kuntz, a good set of outfielders can protect three out of those four areas, but at least one of the gaps or one of the lines will be unprotected. And when a ball is hit into the unprotected area that’s usually the pitcher’s fault.

It looked like Johnny Cueto was trying to come inside on Swihart, but left the ball up and out over the plate. So when Cueto missed his spot and Swihart hit the ball down the left field line, Paulo Orlando wasn’t there; he was playing over toward the left-center gap and had a long run to the ball.

The Alcides Escobar error

Paulo picked the ball up, double pumped and then threw the ball toward Alcides Escobar. Esky missed the ball and got slapped with an error, but watching the play in slow motion it looked like the ball hit the grass, some dirt flew up and then the ball took a weird, low bounce — staying down and going under Escobar’s glove. Alcides could have done more to keep the ball in front of him, but you’re not supposed to get errors on bad hops and Alcides got a bad hop.

The ball then trickled across the infield toward home plate. Rusney Castillo was on third, so no one was going to be able to get to the ball in time and Castillo headed for home, scoring easily. After watching the play over and over and consulting a baseball manual, here’s what I think happened:

Don’t take this as gospel because different teams set up their defense in different ways and Fenway Park’s weird dimensions change where you want people to go.

According to the manual I consulted, on a sure double down the left field line with a runner at first base, the left fielder retrieves the ball, the shortstop goes out to act as the cutoff man, the second baseman goes out to set up a double cut and back up the shortstop, the third baseman covers third, the first baseman goes to the left side of the infield and acts as the infield cutoff man about even with the mound, the catcher covers the plate and the pitcher backs up home.

You hardly ever see it, but the right fielder is supposed to come in and cover second base just in case the guy who hit the double makes too big a turn.

But that’s not how the Royals played it.

Where everybody was

Everyone was pretty much in the right spots with the possible exceptions of Omar Infante and Eric Hosmer. Infante was covering second base and that might be because the Green Monster is so close, the Royals feel no need to run a double cut when a ball is hit to left field.

But Eric Hosmer was not acting as the cutoff man in the middle of the infield; he only came into the picture as the ball trickled toward home. Once again, Fenway’s weird and I don’t know if he had time to get across the infield, but had Hosmer been there the run would not have score. I also think Escobar did not make a better effort at knocking the ball down because he thought he had someone behind him. Someone who would have a better play than the short hop he was dealing with.

But, as always, I could be wrong.

The Mookie Betts play

First of all, is there anyone named Mookie who doesn’t play baseball? I’m sure there must be, but right now I can’t think of anyone.

Second, Betts hit a sinking line drive to left field and Paulo Orlando did a baseball slide while trying to catch the ball. It appeared —t o someone who’s sitting on his couch at home watching the play in slow motion — that the slide was unnecessary. If Paulo just kept running forward it looked like he’d get there in time.

It also appeared the slide messed things up: if Paulo kept running forward and reached out, he could watch the ball go into his glove. But because he slid, Paulo’s glove ended up down at his side and his head couldn’t move fast enough to watch the ball hit leather.

Basically, I think Paul got it right

Like I said, I had the advantage of getting in a good night’s sleep and watching these plays in slow motion — over and over — and Paul had to keep moving with the game. Even so, I think he got it right; the Royals played poor defense Friday night — especially in the bottom of the second inning — and when they do that, Kansas City can get beat by anybody.

Even a last-place team.

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