Judging the Royals

How Aaron Crow saved the game by backing up a base

Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Aaron Crow (43) throws in the seventh inning during Sunday's baseball game against the New York Yankees on June 8, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Aaron Crow (43) throws in the seventh inning during Sunday's baseball game against the New York Yankees on June 8, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City Star

After one inning Kansas City Royals starting pitcher James Shields had thrown 22 pitches. After two innings his pitch count was 49. There are teams that sometimes try to make a starting pitcher work hard, get him out of the game early and then do damage against middle relief.

The New York Yankees are one of those teams.

After those two long innings the Yankees still hadn’t scored, but James Shield had used a lot of energy while shutting them down. He was on a pace to pitch five innings and that would leave the Royals two innings away from their best relievers, set-up man Wade Davis and closer Greg Holland.

But Shields gutted it out, using 110 pitches to get through six innings. When he left the field, Shields and the Royals were still ahead, 2-1. The way Davis and Holland have been pitching, the seventh inning would be the ball game.

Ned Yost brought in Aaron Crow and the Yankees started the inning by hitting a line drive. Fortunately, second baseman Omar Infante was standing in front of it and the guy who hit the ball—Kelly Johnson—was out; a good start for the Royals, an unlucky one for the Yankees. Then Brett Gardner hit a triple and Aaron Crow saved the ballgame by doing something very simple.

Aaron Crow backed up third base.

It’s the kind of thing taken for granted, but doesn’t always happen. The throw to third baseman Mike Moustakas was high and Crow was there to catch the ball. If the ball had gone out of play or caromed off the dugout screen, Gardner would have scored. It’s easy for pitchers to mope after they get a pitch whacked and they sometimes forget to carry out their defensive assignments. Aaron went to where he was supposed to be and that saved a run and ultimately, a ballgame

With a runner on third, one down and Derek Jeter at the plate, Ned Yost brought his infield in. Jeter hit a weak grounder to shortstop Alcides Escobar and Gardner had to stay put. Two down and Jacoby Ellsbury was hitting. Crow struck out Ellsbury looking and that was the ballgame.

Davis and Holland did what Davis and Holland do and the Royals won this one 2-1.

But it wouldn’t have happened that way of Aaron Crow hadn’t backed up third base.

Why the Royals had to get to Hiroki Kuroda early

Look up his splits and you see that New York’s starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda: tends to get better as the game goes on. The first trip through the order is crucial and that’s where the Royals got him; they had five hits all day and four of them came in the second inning. The Royals scored two runs and made the lead hold up with pitching and defense.

Lorenzo Cain goes the other way

Lorenzo Cain had three hits Saturday night and all of them were to the right side of the field. Sunday afternoon Cain had another hit to right and two lineouts—one back to the pitcher’s mound—the other was hit at the second baseman. I asked Lorenzo if he was consciously trying to hit the ball to the opposite field and he said he’d been getting a lot of breaking pitches and was trying to stay on the ball and not pull off.

He also said pitchers would see what he’s doing and if he keeps hitting the ball hard to right field, they’ll start throwing fastballs inside—that’s why it’s called game of adjustments.

The eighth and ninth innings

Wade Davis came in to pitch the eighth and got the 500th strikeout of his career. He immediately added strikeout 501 when he caught Brian McCann looking. Wade threw 17 pitches, 13 strikes and all of them were nasty.

In the bottom of the eighth, the Royals failed to score an insurance run for closer Greg Holland, so he didn’t have a lot of room for error—and Holland used up all the room there was. The tying run stood on third base when the game ended and here’s how that happened.

Let’s start with the note I wrote myself at the beginning of the inning:

"Holland’s got bottom of order, but includes Ichiro just the kind of pest who can get on and score"

The Yankees right fielder swung at the first pitch he saw and singled to left. A wild pitch later, he was in scoring position with nobody out. Holland got a fly ball from Brian Roberts that was too shallow for Ichiro to tag and advance and that was the first out. Then Greg got a grounder to the right side out of pinch hitter Mark Teixeira; two outs, but Ichiro moved up to third base.

The final batter was Brett Gardner and Holland struck him out, stranding that "pest" Ichiro on third base—third out, a save and a win for the Royals.

That wild pitch

If you were thinking Salvador Perez needed to do a better job blocking the wild pitch that allowed Ichiro to advance to second base, you should remember that it was a 96-MPH spiked fastball—too quick for a catcher to block unless he gets extremely lucky.

Catchers have time to shift their bodies when a pitch is off-speed; otherwise they have to stab at a fastball and hope. In this case, Sal missed it.

Today’s Throwback excerpt: Unwritten rules

If you’re allowed on the field during batting practice, they’ll probably keep you on the dirt that separates the playing field from the stands and dugouts. Even if you stay on the dirt, you should not go beyond first or third base. Visitors and the media should stay around the dugouts; the territory beyond the bases is for the players. Players who don’t want to deal with the media or fans can escape to the outfield. Another reason not to go beyond the bases is safety: the batting cage wraps around the hitter so the only balls that leave the cage are going forward. But get beyond first or third base, and you’re now in an area where you can get smoked by a line drive.

You don’t think it happens intentionally?

If I saw a reporter wandering down the line, you don’t think I’d send a little wakeup call his way? A media guy says something bad about me the night before and now he’s wandering down the third base line? I’d hook one his way. I never hit a media guy, but I scared a few.

("Throwback" is the book I co-authored with Jason Kendall. It’s now available in stores and on-line.)