The Kansas City Royals’ formula for a win goes like this: Have the starting pitcher throw at least six innings, grab a lead before the seventh, then give the ball to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland.
Saturday night in game four of the World Series, starter Jason Vargas threw only four innings, and that meant the ball never got close to Herrera, Davis and Holland. Instead it went to Jason Frasor, Danny Duffy, Brandon Finnegan and Tim Collins — and those middle relievers gave up total of eight runs and the ballgame. If the starting pitcher does not throw six innings, things get complicated.
The San Francisco Giants beat the Royals 11-4 to tie the best-of-seven series at two wins apiece.
Why did Vargas only pitch four innings?
Vargas threw 82 pitches, and 82 World Series pitches can be extremely stressful. They can feel like 110. Vargas also was going through the Giants’ order for the third time. San Francisco’s Joe Panik lead off the fifth with a double, which brought the tying run to home plate.
Buster Posey was the hitter, and he already had walked and singled off Vargas, so Royals manager Ned Yost made the change and went to Jason Frasor. The Royals’ right-hander got Posey to ground out, but that grounder moved Panik over to third base.
How that changed infield positioning
Having a runner on third with one out or no outs forces a manager to decide whether to bring the infield in to cut off a run at the plate if the runner tries to score on a ground ball. But bringing the infielders closer to home plate means they have less lateral range. It makes it harder to field a grounder, so bringing the infield in usually is done when the runner on third is the tying, winning or lead-increasing run.
The Royals were leading by two runs, so Panik was not the tying run, but the infield still was playing “halfway” — not all the way in, not all the way back. Halfway positioning forces an infielder to make a choice. If the ball is hit right at him and the runner breaks for home, he can try to throw out the runner. Any other kind of grounder, and the infielder takes the sure out at first.
In this case, the Giants’ Hunter Pence hit a ground ball up the middle — a ball that shortstop Alcides Escobar probably would have gotten to if he had been playing back. But being halfway meant the ball got past him. Panik scored, and the Royals did not get an out. Three batters later, Pence — the out they didn’t get when the infield was playing halfway — scored the tying run.
The long top of third
Let’s go back for a minute to Vargas throwing only four innings. Vargas led off the top of the third inning, had a long at-bat and flew out to center field. Then his teammates batted around and scored four runs. Vargas came up to bat again in that third inning.
After that long top of the third, Vargas scuffled. He gave up a run and faced six batters in the bottom of the inning, then faced five batters in the fourth. Those were warning signs that he did not have his “A” game. When he started the fifth by giving up a double, Yost went to the pen.
So why not use your best relievers in the fifth?
You could go to Herrera, Davis and Holland early, but they all pitched on Friday night. Use them for one inning each on Saturday, and you still would have to cover the eighth and ninth innings with middle relievers. And if the middle relievers give it up in the eighth or ninth inning, you’ve burned your best relievers and didn’t get a win.
And if you ask those three guys to cover all five innings, you would be asking them to do something they haven’t done all year at a time when they already feel the wear and tear of a long season.
Managers tend to use their best relievers when their team has a lead late in games. You can’t throw them every day. Instead, throw them when their innings will do the most good. Most managers don’t want to burn up good innings and then still be an inning or two short of a win. When you use those guys, you want a W.
▪ Escobar ambushed the first pitch of Friday night’s game three and pulled the ball down into the left-field corner for a double. On Saturday night, Ryan Vogelsong’s first pitch was thrown to outer half of the plate. If Esky tried another ambush, the Giants didn’t want him to pull the ball for power.
▪ The Giants were making sure the base paths were nice and wet in an effort to slow down the Royals’ base runners.
▪ A light rain fell at one point. When that happens, expect base runners to be more aggressive about taking an extra 90 feet. The defenders will be handling a wet ball.
▪ With a runner on first base, Vargas tried a pickoff at first, but it wasn’t his “A” move. He really wanted to see whether the batter was going to square and attempt a bunt.
▪ Jarrod Dyson led off the sixth inning with a single, and at that point, the score was still tied. Nori Aoki pinch-hit and swung at the second pitch he saw, hitting into a 3-6-3 double play. Dyson did not attempt to steal, and Aoki did not attempt to bunt. If the game plan was for Nori to pull the ball through the hole on the right side of the infield (Dyson was being held), it almost worked, but the ball was hit right at the first baseman.
The bottom of the sixth: Where the game got away
With the score tied, the bases loaded and one out, the Giants had Hunter Pence at the plate. Pence hit the ball to Escobar, and Esky threw the ball to home plate for a force out. But catcher Salvador Perez never tried to throw the ball to first base to complete an inning-ending double play.
Pence is fast, and maybe there was no chance to get him, but even the slim possibility of throwing out Pence was lost when Perez looked down to see whether his foot was on home plate. Sal did not seem to know where he was, and checking that his foot was on the plate (it was) meant any chance at a double play was gone. The inning continued, and the Giants scored three runs to put the game away.
A pivotal game
With the Series tied at two games apiece, Sunday’s game five is huge and seems to favor the Giants. James Shields, the Royals’ starter, has not thrown well in the postseason. He is 1-1 with an ERA of 7.11. The Giants’ starter, Madison Bumgarner, has been outstanding in the postseason with a 3-1 record and a 1.40 ERA.
But don’t give up hope. People make adjustments, and that can change the results. And there will be adjustments made on Sunday.
The second time though the rotation: More scouts, more information
As teams get eliminated in the postseason, more scouts are available to watch fewer teams. More eyes on the opposition increases the chance that someone spots something and makes an adjustment.
If a pitcher dominates the first time he sees a team but gets knocked around the second time, that might be part of the explanation. When Bumgarner throws Sunday’s game, the Royals might make some adjustments, and ambushing his first pitch might be on the list.
In game one against the Royals, Bumgarner faced 26 batters and threw a first-pitch strike to 21 of them. Bumgarner threw 20 first-pitch fastballs, five first-pitch sliders and one first-pitch curve. If in game five the Royals’ hitters adjust and start hacking at those first-pitch fastballs, that might change the game.