Judging the Royals

You didn’t think this was going to be easy, did you?

In the later innings of Friday night’s 7-5 loss to the Seattle Mariners, I did something I haven’t done since I’ve been covering the Royals: I checked the out-of-town scoreboard.

I wanted to see if Detroit was winning; if the Tigers won and the Royals lost (and that’s what happened) Detroit would be back in first place. Instead of being upset about that, I thought it was kind of cool: I was scoreboard watching—just like the old days.

I was there in 1985 and if you think it was easy, you weren’t there. For a while it didn’t seem like the Royals would make the playoffs at all. And once they got there they danced along the edge of disaster. Having a competitive team doesn’t mean they win every game; it means they compete—and sometimes lose.

But Friday night, hearing a sellout crowd of 38,475 people go bats when Salvador Perez homered to left or Mike Moustakas homered to right or Wade Davis got the third out of the eighth inning was very cool—it was just like the old days.

But it wasn’t easy back then, either.

What makes Hisashi Iwakuma good

The Seattle Mariners starting pitcher came into the game with a 5-3 record and a 2.59 ERA. Ned Yost described what makes Iwakuma so good: every pitch appears to be headed for the middle of the plate, but then his fastball breaks in on right handers, his slider breaks away and his splitter goes straight down.

And for the first four innings Iwakuma was as good as advertised; three hits, no runs.

If you’ve been following the Royals you know the hitting coach, Dale Sveum, has been emphasizing getting pitches up in the zone, but there weren’t a lot of those to be found. The Kansas City hitters were taking pitches and falling behind in the count. Of the first 14 Royals hitters that came to the plate, eight found themselves in some sort of two-strike count. Get a hitter to two strikes and you can force him to chase bad pitches.

The Royals offense seemed to come alive in the fifth inning when they began to attack some of those early strikes.

The first Seattle run

Left-handed Endy Chavez led off for the Mariners and Royals centerfielder Jarrod Dyson was playing as shallow as I’ve ever seen him. Chavez is not known for power and certainly not power to the opposite field. But that positioning didn’t pan out when Chavez lofted a soft fly ball to left center and Dyson had to go back to retrieve it. Because Dyson was moving away from the infield Chavez could take two bases—Dyson’s throw would not be as strong as it would have been if he’d been playing deeper and was moving forward when he fielded the ball.

Chavez taking two bases allowed James Jones to bunt him over to third and Chavez being on third meant the Royals infield was playing in to cut down a run at the plate. The Royals infield playing in allowed Robinson Cano to shoot a groundball past Mike Moustakas—one thing led to another.

By Chavez’ third at-bat Dyson was playing deeper, but that positioning had already cost the Royals a run.

The third Seattle run

Mike Zunino had already scored the second Seattle run in the fourth inning when he crushed a James Shields changeup. The ball traveled an estimated 424 feet and it might have gone further if the Royals Hall of Fame hadn’t gotten in the way.

In the fifth inning James Jones singled and was then thrown out trying to steal—kind of. The throw from Salavdor Perez beat Jones, Alcides Escobar tagged him, but the force of Jones’ slide knocked the ball out of Esky’s glove. Robinson Cano doubled and drove in Jones—a runner who would have been out if Escobar could have held onto the ball.

Two shutdown innings by James Shields kept the Royals in the game

The Royals were down 5-0 when they scored three runs in the bottom of the fifth inning—they were back in the game. The last thing a pitcher wants to do when his offense has scored some runs is to give those runs right back. Shutdown innings are huge.

So James Shields needed pull it together and shut the Mariners down in the top of the sixth. He did it on nine pitches.

The Royals tied the game in the bottom of the sixth, so—once again—James Shield needed a shutdown inning in the top of the seventh. That would get the ball to Wade Davis and Greg Holland. This time Shields got it done in 11 pitches.

The Royals went on to lose, but it wouldn’t have been as close as it was if James Shields had not thrown two clutch shutdown innings.

Holly gives it up

Greg Holland—who has been phenomenally good—gave it up Friday night. He came into a tie game and gave up a home run to Brad Miller, then got two outs and started struggling to with his command. Holland gave up a single and two walks. One more single drove in a run and the third out of the inning came about when Jarrod Dyson threw Robinson Cano out at home plate.

Holland was up in the zone and, specifically, up and away to left-handed hitters. When a pitcher’s front shoulder opens too soon, his throwing arm will be late and the release point will be missed. Most of the time the pitcher will be high and outside the zone on his arm side.

If you see a catcher tap his front shoulder, that’s what he’s telling the pitcher: "You’re opening up too soon."

What we got right/what we got wrong

I rarely travel with the Royals so I can’t ask about certain plays until the team returns home. Well, they got back Friday and I checked up on a few things. Here’s what I learned:

Yeah, Omar Infante failed to cover second base on Monday night. What follows is part of the posting after that game:

In the fourth inning Omar Infante failed to cover to second base and it cost the Royals a run. Victor Martinez was the runner on first and Torii Hunter hit the ball to right. On balls hit to right field runners want to get to third base whenever possible, and that’s what Martinez was attempting to do. He made a big turn at second and shortstop Alcides Escobar cut off Nori Aoki’s throw to third. Esky then tried to throw behind Martinez and trap him off the base, but Infante was late arriving and they missed the chance to pick up an easy out.

(In just a minute we’ll talk about why little stuff like this matters more than ever.)

And, no, the Royals did not want Lorenzo Cain trying to run over the catcher when he was thrown out at home plate in the sixth inning of the same game. They had the contact play on (a runner on the third breaks for home on contact) but the Tigers had their infield in. it’s tough to make that work and when that’s the case, the throw will beat the runner easily—the infielder is positioned too close to home.

So Cain did the right thing by getting in a rundown and allowing Alcides Escobar—the guy that hit the ball—to scamper into scoring position while the Tigers chased Cain back and forth between home and third.

Now let’s go to Thursday’s game: The post talked about the need to take pitches and get starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez out of the game. The Detroit bullpen is scuffling right now so if you can get the starter out, you might be able to do some damage against middle relief—at least that was the theory.

Apparently, Detroit’s manager Brad Ausmus knows his bullpen is struggling and there was some thought that he would have left Sanchez in the game even if his pitch count was piling up. If that was true you could take pitches, fall behind in the count and it wouldn’t matter. When a team is five games in front they’ll protect a pitcher’s arm; when a team needs a win in the worst way, they’ll extend his pitch count.

You learn something every day—especially if you ask the right people.

Now it all matters

Let’s go back to Omar Infant failing to cover second base: little stuff like that matters more than ever. The Royals are not in last place, they are not 10 games under. They have a chance to do something special and they need to do all the little things right if they’re going to get that done.

There’s so much you can’t control in this game, so you’ve got to control everything you can; covering second base is on that list. It might have made you crazy when the Royals were playing bad baseball and making fundamental mistakes; it ought to make you crazier now.

Now it all matters.