Judging the Royals

Wade Davis, Jason Kipnis and the curveball that changed the game

Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Wade Davis (17) throws in the eighth inning during Wednesday's baseball game against the Cleveland Indians on June 11, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Wade Davis (17) throws in the eighth inning during Wednesday's baseball game against the Cleveland Indians on June 11, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City Star

Wade Davis and Greg Holland—the Royals eighth-inning set up guy and ninth-inning closer—have been so good that most of the time it seems like games are only seven innings long. Give the ball to Davis and Holland with a lead and the game is pretty much over—most of the time.

On Wednesday afternoon starting pitcher Yordano Ventura did his job: he pitched seven innings against the Cleveland Indians and handed the ball to Wade Davis with a 4-1 lead.

Three batters later, the bases were loaded, the tying run was on first base and the winning run was at the plate. After the game Wade said he just "got stupid" and was throwing "non-competitive pitches" for the first three batters. Davis wasn’t locked in, he was rushing his delivery and before Wade knew it, the bases were loaded and he had a giant mess on his hands.

Let’s look at how that giant mess developed:

The first batter Davis faced was lead-off hitter Michael Bourn. The Cleveland centerfielder saw six pitches, three were off-speed—two knuckle curves and one cutter—and none of those off-speed pitches were thrown for a strike. With the count 3-2, Wade threw a fastball to make sure he could get the pitch in the strike zone and Bourn whacked it into centerfield.

Next up was Lonnie Chisenhall; he saw seven pitches, three were off-speed and only one—a cutter—was close enough to the strike zone to get him to swing the bat. The other two off-speed pitches were balls. By the time the third hitter came to the plate Davis had thrown six off-speed pitches and only one was a strike; if you were that third hitter—Michael Brantley—what would you look for?

Brantley was sitting on a fastball and got one 2-0. He lined it into centerfield and we’re back where we started: Wade Davis had the bases loaded, the tying run on first, the winning run at the plate and nobody out. He couldn’t throw his off-speed stuff for strikes and Cleveland hitters were teeing off on his fastball.

That’s when pitching coach Dave Eiland came to the mound. Wade said Eiland’s visit gave him a breather and allowed him to slow down—not just mentally, but physically. Slowing down meant his body wasn’t too far out in front of his arm and that meant he could get his breaking stuff into the strike zone.

Up until then it was clear the Cleveland hitters were going to spit on anything off-speed and hack at fastball strikes. Throwing a first-pitch curve to Kipnis guaranteed he’d take it. When Wade’s knuckle curve dropped into the zone for strike one, the game changed: suddenly off-speed pitches were back on the table and the Indian hitters would have to account for them. When Davis threw an 0-2 cutter for a called third strike on Kipnis, it put off-speed pitches back in the hitter’s minds.

Once the Cleveland hitters had to deal with three pitches and three speeds and three trajectories—not just one—the game changed. Carols Santana struck out swinging and David Murphy hit a routine grounder to Omar Infante.

I told Wade it probably wasn’t how he wanted to go about it, but his inning was highly entertaining. To see a guy scuffle, load the bases and then find his groove was exciting. It was like watching Casey at the Bat take two strikes and then knock the ball out of the park.

He pushed it as far as he could, but then Wade Davis threw Jason Kipnis a curveball that changed the game.

The Royals beat the Indians, 4-1.

How poor hitting leads to daring base running

In the third inning with one run in and one out, Alcides Escobar stood on third base. Omar Infante hit a pop up just beyond the infield and Cleveland shortstop Mike Aviles settled under it while Escobar went back to third to tag up—just in case.

It was clear Aviles was battling the sun, but he still caught the ball—he also fell on the seat of his pants while doing so. In a heads-up base running move, Escobar tagged up and went home. No way Aviles could make a strong throw while sitting on his behind and the Indians pitcher, Trevor Bauer, had to grab the throw and relay it home. Bauer overthrew the catcher, Escobar scored and Nori Aoki—the runner on first base—motored all the way around to third.

Here’s the point:

Had Bauer’s throw been on-line, Escobar probably would have been out. It would have looked bad, but Alcides made the right play. When your team isn’t hitting, you push it on the base paths—you can’t count on another hit; and in fact, the Royals didn’t get one. Hosmer walked and that was it. If Escobar hadn’t done some daring base running, the Royals wouldn’t have picked up an extra run.

How Greg Holland called the last pitch of the game

In the clubhouse after the game Greg Holland walked by with his pitching arm wrapped up and a plastic cup in his hand. I looked up and said: "I saw this"—and swiped my hand across my chest.

Holland started laughing.

With two down in the ninth inning and an 0-2 count on his old teammate Mike Aviles, Holland made the same motion to Salvador Perez. Greg was signaling for a letter-high fastball. The Royals closer had been down in the zone with a fastball, a slider, a fastball and a slider—the last two were fouled off. Now Holland wanted to change Aviles’ eye level by throwing a fastball up in the zone. But couldn’t Aviles see the same signal?

Not if a pitcher timed it right.

Hitters have to look away to get signs from the third base coach or they might want to look in the dugout to get a sign from a hitting coach. (Some hitting coaches signal the percentage pitch for the situation; if a hitter is 0-2 and pitcher has a history of throwing a slider in that count, the hitting coach can remind the hitter of that with a prearranged signal.)

Even if Aviles had looked at Holland in time to see the gesture, Greg didn’t mind. He figured knowing a high fastball was on its way would do as much to mess with Mike Aviles’ mind as not knowing a high fastball was on its way.

Either way, it worked. Aviles popped up to short and the Royals had a 4-1 victory over the Cleveland Indians.

They’re hanging in there

With the win over Cleveland the Royals have now won four straight and are one game over .500. Here’s the way optimists see things: coming into Wednesday’s game, Kansas City was ninth in batting average, thirteenth in runs scored and fifteenth in home runs—which is kinda bad because the American League only has 15 teams.

But on the other side of the ball the Royals were fourth in ERA and runs allowed. The offense is just starting to click, but pitching and defense has allowed the team to hang in there. So if the Royals can get some kind of offense going, the pitching and defense will give them a shot at making a run.

I’ve got to watch 97 more games so I’m going to choose to believe that.