Judging the Royals

How James Shields, Alex Gordon and the seventh inning changed the game

After six innings James Shields had thrown 85 pitches and was protecting a two-run lead; the top of the seventh inning might be the ballgame. Get through the seventh with the lead intact and Shields could hand the ball over to set-up man Wade Davis in the eighth inning and Davis could hand the ball over to closer Greg Holland in the ninth.

Get out of the seventh inning with a lead and the ball would go to the two best relievers in the Royals bullpen. The odds of winning would go up.

The seventh inning did not start well; Shields walked the first batter, Nick Markakis, on four pitches. The tying run—Manny Machado—now stood at home plate. Machado singled and now the winning run—Adam Jones—would take his turn at the plate.

As the best pitchers often do, Shields found a way to get out of it; he struck out Jones, got Chris Davis to ground out to Eric Hosmer and then finished the inning by getting a fly ball to centerfield from Nelson Cruz. Lead protected, the ball would go to Wade Davis.

But then came the bottom of the seventh.

Eric Hosmer walked, Billy Butler doubled and, with first base open, Alex Gordon hit his second home run of the day. The Royals went up 8-3 and Wade Davis sat back down. Kelvin Herrera pitched a scoreless eighth and Aaron Crow was sent out for the ninth; he faltered and Greg Holland eventually picked him up, but the game was largely decided after seven innings. Sometimes games are won or lost long before the final out.

Royals 8, Orioles 6.

Game notes

In the first inning we once again saw what is becoming Alcides Escobar’s signature play: a grounder up the middle that requires him to catch it, do a full 360 and throw the ball to first base. Eric Hosmer dug this throw out of the dirt to complete an outstanding defensive play.

In the bottom of the first Nori Aoki got into a 3-1 count and when Orioles third baseman Manny Machado played back, Nori laid down a bunt single to get things started. Aoki eventually scored the first run of the game. When a guy who can run and bunt comes to the plate, keep an eye on the other team’s third baseman; he’ll let you know what the defense is thinking .

In the sixth inning, Alex Gordon once again showed no fear of the wall. He caught a David Lough foul fly ball, banged off the wall and came up throwing to second base. Pay attention and you’ll see a lot of outfielders slow up once they hit the warning track. Alex doesn’t fear the wall, the wall fears Alex.

Jarrod Dyson came in to play centerfield in the eighth inning, Lorenzo Cain went to right and Nori Aoki took a seat on the bench. Before the game Ned Yost talked about using defensive replacements late in games in order to keep guys from sitting for long stretches. Let a player sit too long and he won’t be much help when you use him.

Ned also said he was much more comfortable with his backup catcher’s defensive abilities than he was the year before; which means he likes Brett Hayes catching skills better than what George Kottaras had to offer. Don’t fixate on Hayes’ batting average—right now he’s 0 for 16—because what a catcher does at the plate is much less important than what he does behind the plate.

With a five-run lead Aaron Crow came out to pitch the ninth, but struggled with his control. Crow walked the inning’s leadoff hitter Jonathan Schoop on four pitches, got a fly ball out, then gave up a single to Manny Machado and fell behind Adam Jones 3-1.

As pitching coach Dave Eiland pointed out, it’s not just getting a fastball in a fastball count; where’s it’s located matters. This fastball was temporarily located in the middle of the zone, then took up permanent residence on same fan’s mantel—Jones hit it into the right field seats.

Greg Holland then came in to close the game so I asked Ned Yost if using Holland on Sunday would affect his availability on Monday. Ned thought not. If Holland is used three days in a row—it’s been two—they check in on him and see how he’s doing. So if Holland is used on Monday, keep an eye on what happens on Tuesday. Because of what happened against the Orioles on Sunday you might not have a closer available two days later.

In the post-game press conference Ned Yost said he thought the starting pitching, the bullpen and the defense had been tremendous and everyone was just waiting for the offense to kick in. When it does, Yost thinks his team will go on a very nice run.

Is scoring first important?

The Royals are now 16-5 when they score first. So how important is it? Do you play for one run early? Do you win because you score first or do you score first because you win? (If you win, you scored more, so it seems likely that your odds of scoring first would increase.) Like all stats viewed in isolation, scoring first may be less significant than it seems; for instance, who’s actually playing might have something to do with the outcome.

Of course Ned Yost wants to score first in every game, but won’t play one-run baseball to do it. If the leadoff hitter gets on to start a game and the next guy bunts, the next guy probably did it on his own and would be bunting for a hit. If the Royals have a multi-run inning early, then you might see Yost play for one. With his pitching staff, Yost believes a three-run inning followed by tack-on runs will be enough most nights.

The trick is finding a three-run inning.

Today’s "Throwback" excerpt: Staying mentally tough

After your team scores, pay attention to the next half inning; it’s incredibly important. What you’re looking for is a shutdown inning: an inning where the opposing team doesn’t score. The pitcher can’t relax just because he got a few runs. He needs to come back out and put a zero on the board. If he does that—gets through the next half inning without giving up a run—the other team starts to think about getting beat. And thinking about getting beat often leads to actually getting beat. Let the other team put up a run in their half of the inning and your opponents believe they’re still in the game.

Pitchers have to stay mentally tough at all times. They can never start to feel good about the situation and ease up. The same thing applies to getting a tough hitter: a pitcher can’t think he’s over the hump because he got Miguel Cabrera, relax and then let the next guy beat him.

You’ll also see pitchers make the same mistake with two outs in an inning: they think they’re home free, relax and start messing around with the third hitter. With two outs I hate to see the pitcher ease up and give the third guy a curveball. Don’t fall behind in the count. Go after the hitter; make him earn his way on. Go for the kill.