Judging the Royals

A wild pitch helps White Sox sweep series against Royals

In the seventh inning of Thursday night’s game against the White Sox, Kansas City was ahead 3-2, but the Sox had the tying run on first base. Chicago’s third baseman Conor Gillaspie had hit a curveball and it landed just beyond the infield. Now the Sox had to figure out how to get Gillaspie around the bases. It turned out the Sox didn’t have to worry; the Royals would give them some help.

Catcher Josh Phegley was at the plate and he came into the game hitting .205. Pitcher James Shields started Phegley’s at-bat with an off-speed pitch and it was down and away from the right-handed Phegley. The ball wound up just outside catcher Salvador Perez’ right ankle and Perez tried to glove it.

That didn’t work.

Instead of dropping to his knees and blocking the pitch with his body, Perez took the easier route and tried to reach for the ball. Sal also turned his mitt the wrong way—it looked like he expected the ball to do something other than what it did—and the pitch glanced off his mitt and went to the backstop. Even though the ball hit Sal’s mitt before it hit the ground, it was scored a wild pitch and Gillaspie moved into second base.

Now Phegley could quit worrying about moving Gillaspie to second base and he could start worrying about moving him to third—which he did on the very next pitch. With a runner on second and nobody out, batters generally want to hit the ball to the right side of the field. That allows the runner to move from second to third base while the defense gets an out at first. Phegley hit the ball to the right side as much as it’s humanly possible: the ball went right down the right-field foul line, hit first base and shot into the air and over Eric Hosmer’s head. Gillaspie scored easily, Phegley moved into second with a double.

You never know what would have happened if Perez had blocked the pitch with his body, but Phegley might not have been trying to hit the ball to the right side and never hit the base. The next three batters made outs, but who’s to say the pitches thrown would have been the same pitches and the results would have also been the same?

But there’s a right way to play the game and baseball tends to punish you when you don’t play it correctly.

Unless you’ve been following every pitch of every game—and I’ve been doing that since mid-March—you can’t imagine what a grind this is. Over and over again situations come up and ballplayers have to react correctly, day after day, inning after inning, pitch after pitch—but that’s the job. Doing an endless procession of small things well is how you win ballgames and become a consistent winner. Let down for a moment—reach for a pitch instead of block it—and the game punishes you.

Conor Gillapsie went on to hit a 12th inning home run and that will get a lot of attention, but there’s was a wild pitch in the seventh that helped the White Sox win the series.

Chicago 4, Kansas City 3.

No shutdown inning in the sixth

In the bottom of the fifth inning the Royals scored three runs and sent starting pitcher, James Shields, back out to the mound for the top of the sixth. At that point, you want to see a "shutdown" inning. Ballplayers talk about the importance of scoring and then preventing the other team from scoring in the next half inning. It not only helps on the scoreboard—you scored, they didn’t—but it also helps psychologically. Let the other team score and they believe they’re still in it; shutdown them down and they might start to think it’s not their night.

The score changes the way the game is played.

With a three-run lead a pitcher can be very aggressive about throwing strikes; but Shields fell behind immediately. He threw a fastball and a cutter to Jordan Danks to start the inning, missed with both and then gave Danks a 2-0 fastball; Danks doubled. Shields fell behind Alejandro De Aza 3-1, threw him a fastball and he flew out to left. Shields got ahead of Gordon Beckham 0-1, but Beckham singled on the next pitch. James fell behind Alexei Ramirez 2-0, the count then moved to 3-2 and Ramirez singled, which scored Danks. Shields also fell behind Adam Dunn 2-1, moved the count to 2-2 and then Dunn hit into a fielder’s choice—the Royals narrowly missed getting an inning-ending double play—and then Dayan Viciedo did the final damage: a pop fly that landed between Alcides Escobar and centerfielder Emilio Bonifacio. That scored Gordon Beckham, the second run of the inning.

Even if a pitcher gets back in the count, falling behind allows the hitter to see more pitches and makes the pitcher do a hell of a lot of work for the same results. Shields threw 24 pitches in the sixth and the White Sox were right back in the game.

The Royals needed a shutdown inning and didn’t get one.

Game notes

*In the first inning Alejandro De Aza hit a pop fly to short; probably because he had two strikes on him. Some hitters look to take the ball the other way once they have two strikes; those guys can be jammed with a good fastball in on the hands and that’s what James Shields did.

But you better know your hitter.

Throw the same pitch to the wrong guy—a guy who’s still looking to catch a pitch out in front of the plate—and he can smoke it. Adam Dunn might continue to look for a pitch to drive, even with two strikes. A good pitch to De Aza might be a bad pitch to Dunn.

*Josh Phegley once again bounced his in-between inning warm up throw to second base. Some catchers will do it intentionally; if the umpire doesn’t take the ball out of play, the pitcher has a scuffed baseball in his hands. Home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi was right on it and switched out the balls before Jose Quintana threw a pitch. Phegley did it again in the third inning and Cuzzi once again switched baseballs. That’s three times in two games and I haven’t really been paying attention to every warm-up throw.

*Billy Butler struck out on the seventh pitch of his first at-bat, but thought he walked on the fifth pitch. His body language let everybody know what he thought; Billy stepped out of the box and let frustration show. After the strike out, Billy slowly walked away and I don’t know if he was talking as he walked, but Phil Cuzzi was staring him down. Sometimes we’ll see things erupt between a player and umpire and wonder where the hell that came from when the real problem started an at-bat or even a game earlier.

*Salvador Perez took another foul tip off the mask; this one high off the forehead which is less damaging than a shot to the jaw—or so I’m told. I don’t know if it’s happening more often or we’re just more aware of the damage concussions can cause so we’ve started noticing it more often.

*In the fourth inning Alex Gordon got picked off first base, but he was going on "first movement." When a left-handed pitcher is hard to read, runners might roll the dice and break on the first movement the left-handed pitcher makes—guess wrong and it looks horrible.

After the game I asked Alex about the play and he said he figured he’d try it; if it worked Billy Butler would get to hit with a runner in scoring position, if it didn’t Butler would get a new count—he was 1-2 at the time Alex went—and start the next inning fresh. Give Gordon credit: Billy walked to lead off the next inning and that led to three runs in the fifth—two of them scored on sacrifice flies. A big inning in the fifth started with an inning-ending pickoff in the fourth.

*Kelvin Herrera pitched the eighth which started with a spectacular catch in left by Gordon. (More on Gordon’s defense below.) Herrera then threw Adam Dunn a first-pitch curve at 81 miles an hour. Dunn took it—probably because he was looking for a fastball—and then Herrera gave him two: one at 100 miles an hour, the second at 101. Both were at the top of the zone and just about unhittable. It ain’t this easy, but when Herrera’s right he makes it look that way.

*Mike Moustakas made an error in the ninth inning and afterwards could be seen yelling into his glove. When ballplayers want to cuss they’ll cover their mouths so those of us who can lip read won’t catch them. Of course my lip reading is confined to F-bombs, but a guy could be speaking Portuguese and if he dropped an F-bomb in the middle of a sentence, I’d spot it.

That sign behind home plate

As far as I know Kansas City currently holds the world’s record for having a pitch go


a sign behind home plate. The sign is at field level and both Tuesday and Wednesday nights, a thrown ball punched through it and went out of play.

Thursday afternoon they were putting up a new one, so I wandered over to watch. It’s been my experience that guys who are doing actually work—sweating like crazy and wrestling with the task at hand—really appreciate somebody with nothing better to do wandering over and asking: "So, whacha doin" ?"

The two guys working on the sign restrained themselves from attacking me and patiently answered my questions. The sign that was being replaced was made of a mesh material; the two panels on either side appeared to be some kind of rubberized canvas. That material looked much tougher and thicker than the mesh, so why not make the offending sign out of the same material?

Because there are microphones behind the mesh sign and that’s how we hear the sounds made around home plate; balls hitting bats or umpires making calls. The mesh sign had lasted over a year in some cases, but for some reason wore out early this year.

Alex Gordon power shags

Some guys shag balls, some guys power shag them.

When a guy is standing in the outfield during batting practice, catching batted balls and throwing them back in, he’s shagging balls. When a guy plays those balls like it’s the middle of an important game—running hard routes, charging grounders, setting up behind fly balls so the catch can be made moving forward—that guy is power shagging. Alex Gordon power shags at least one round of batting practice every day. Gordon doesn’t run great routes by accident; he works at it.

The Royals have made a video of Gordon’s routine, show it to outfielders in the system and tell them if they want to know how to get a Gold Glove, this is how it’s done.

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