Judging the Royals

Royals need to get hot by Oct. 8 — and Friday didn’t help

The Royals' Kendrys Morales (25) was caught for an out by Mariners shortstop Ketel Marte (4) after rounding too far around third on a single by Alex Rios during Thursday's baseball game at Kauffman Stadium.
The Royals' Kendrys Morales (25) was caught for an out by Mariners shortstop Ketel Marte (4) after rounding too far around third on a single by Alex Rios during Thursday's baseball game at Kauffman Stadium. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

We’ve reached the part of the year where my friends and co-workers start asking me how the Royals will do in the postseason. I tell them that my years of experience and access to inside information allow me to say with complete confidence that I really have no idea.

The Royals are clearly a very good team and this has clearly been a very good year; but that doesn’t mean jack-squat when they start playing postseason baseball. Read The Star (I’m begging you) and you’ll see that playing well in September does not guarantee postseason success.

As Star columnist Vahe Gregorian pointed out Sunday morning, you don’t have to look far to find evidence that having home-field advantage does not necessarily guarantee success; the San Francisco Giants won the World Series last year without having home-field advantage in any of the series they played. And since 1995, six wild-card teams — teams without home-field advantage — have won the World Series.

Playing well in September is no guarantee either: in the last 20 years nine teams with losing records in the month of September have reached the World Series. (And if any of those numbers are wrong, blame Vahe — I know I will.)

OK, so if playing good baseball in September and having home-field advantage isn’t that big a deal (I’ll argue the other side in a moment), what does matter?

Getting hot at the right time

All teams have hot and cold streaks and the team that gets hot in the postseason has an advantage. Unfortunately, ballplayers do not have off-on switches so nobody knows how to make a hot streak happen; but they do happen.

After Wednesday night’s extra-inning win against the Seattle Mariners — an exciting comeback victory — I asked several players and coaches if that was the kind of game that could flip the switch and start a hot streak; everybody said yes.

The next night the Royals came from behind again, won the game and clinched the division — they were on a two-game roll. On Thursday night the Royals partied, on Friday night they fielded a lineup with two of their regular starters, bench players and rookies and nearly got no-hit.

If you’ve watched the movie Bull Durham (and if you haven’t, what is wrong with you?) you’re probably familiar with Crash Davis’ belief that you do not screw around with a hot streak.

I get celebrating after winning a division and there’s a good argument for giving players the next night off; I just happen to disagree with it. The Royals have been resting players all through September and they’ll have three days off when the regular season ends. If Ned Yost had filled out his Friday lineup card with a bunch of hungover ballplayers, trust me, it wouldn’t be the first time a ballplayer played with a hangover.

Some of them play better with hangovers.

Saturday night the Royals once again did not play well and got beat by the Cleveland Indians 9-5. If you accept the idea that playing well in September or having home-field advantage does not necessarily indicate postseason success — and I do — then you might not be too worried about what’s going on with the Royals right now.

But if you also accept the idea that getting hot at the right time is important — and I do — then you know the Royals need to get hot by Oct. 8 and last Friday night’s game didn’t help.

Does home-field advantage matter?

The numbers might say no, but here’s why you might ignore the numbers: numbers can tell you what happens most of the time, but you’re making a mistake if you think those numbers are telling you what will happen all the time.

Games are played with specific people on specific teams in specific stadiums and when the Royals played in Houston and New York — two ballparks more conducive to home-run hitting than fly-ball pitching — they got swept. If the Royals face one of those teams, having an extra game at home might matter.

For a moment, forget dimensions, outfielder athleticism and how the Royals are constructed to play in a large ballpark. On Saturday afternoon former Royals outfielder and current coach Mitch Maier talked about playing in front of a stadium full of your fans; fans that are going nuts every time you do something good. Mitch said it energizes a player — it makes a difference.

I’ve never played in a big league ballpark full of my fans — my fans could fit in a phone booth — so I’ll take Mitch’s word for it. Home-field advantage isn’t everything, but it is worth something.

And giving games away late in the season doesn’t help you get it.

Game stuff

Let’s forget the big-picture stuff for a moment and look at some small stuff from recent games:

Go through Saturday night’s game and you see the Indians beating the Royals on way too many fastball counts: if a pitcher falls behind 2-0, 2-1 or 3-1, hitters are revved up for the fastball they think they’ll get on the next pitch. So the pitcher has to make a heckuva pitch with a fastball to get it past a hitter who’s looking for it, or throw something off-speed. These are stressful counts for a pitcher and good counts for a hitter. Royals pitchers need to avoid these counts, and they haven’t been doing it often enough.

And when they were ahead in the count, Royals pitchers were still making mistakes: getting beat when you’ve got a hitter 0-2 should rarely happen. If you’re going to throw an 0-2 curve, make it a chase curve. Leaving off-speed pitches in the zone to hitters who once again are able to predict what pitch they’ll get next is a good way to get beat — and Saturday night the Royals got beat.

Salvador Perez has got to help: Kris Medlen got tagged with a wild pitch and a run scored when he bounced an off-speed pitch with a runner on third base. Sal went down to block the pitch, but then came up too soon and the ball went under his glove — and it’s not the first time Sal has done this. Stuff like this needs to get cleaned up before the postseason.

Speaking of cleaning things up: Thursday night Kendrys Morales cost the Royals a run when he got picked off third base. Kendrys started the play on second base, Alex Rios singled and Kendrys overran third and got tagged out before he made it back to the bag. I went back and watched that play and third-base coach Mike Jirschele got the stop sign up in time, Morales was nonchalant about hustling back. God bless Kendrys Morales — without him who knows where the Royals would be — but once again this is the kind of thing that needs to get cleaned up.

OK, that’s it for now. Time to get cleaned up and head to the ballpark for the Royals last regular season home game — and one last chance to eat John’s cooking. John is the Royals dining room chef, and he’s personally responsible for 19 of the 20 pounds I should lose.

When the playoffs start the press box will be jammed and the dining room menu will probably be reduced to hot dogs and hamburgers. (Oh, the things we baseball writers have to suffer.)

Let’s just hope they keep the soft-serve ice cream machine in working order or there might be a riot.

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

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