Let’s go back and look at a play from Tuesday night’s game against the Detroit Tigers. In the second inning with two outs and runners on first and second base, Jarrod Dyson hit a single down the left-field line. The runner on second was Kendrys Morales, who is not known for world-class speed. If Tigers left fielder Justin Upton made a good throw, Morales would be out.
Royals third-base coach Mike Jirschele sent Morales anyway.
The throw from Upton beat Morales to home plate by a lot. But the throw bounced in front of the plate and, with Morales bearing down on him, Detroit catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia missed the ball — which is exactly what Jirschele was hoping for.
The Royals believe in pressuring the other team’s defense, and you do that by getting the ball in play and taking an extra 90 feet on the base paths.
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On Thursday night, the Royals continued to pressure the Tigers defense:
▪ In the first inning with runners on first and third, Lorenzo Cain hit a line drive back to the mound. Detroit pitcher Mike Pelfrey couldn’t glove it cleanly and the ball rolled toward home plate. Alcides Escobar — the runner on third — broke for home while Pelfrey and his catcher scrambled to chase the ball. Both Pelfrey and Saltalamacchia wanted to pick the ball up and by the time one of them did, Escobar scored and Cain was safe at first.
▪ In the second inning with Jarrod Dyson on second and Escobar on first, the Royals pulled a double steal; both runners were safe. Pelfrey walked Mike Moustakas, loading the bases, but then Cain hit into an inning-ending double play. The Tigers defense bent but did not break — nevertheless, the Royals continued to apply the pressure.
▪ In the third inning, Eric Hosmer walked and Morales hit a deep fly ball. Hosmer tagged up and beat the throw to second. Two batters later the Tigers were out of the inning, but the Royals would continue to apply pressure and eventually the Tigers defense would make a mistake that would put the game on ice.
▪ In the fourth inning, Omar Infante doubled, Dyson bunted him to third and Escobar hit a sac fly; the Royals were up 2-0. With two outs in the inning Moustakas homered and the Royals were up 3-0. Then Cain walked and Hosmer singled. With Morales at the plate, the Royals pulled off another double steal. Saltalamacchia’s throw to third tailed to the right and with Cain bearing down on him, Tigers third baseman Nick Castellanos took his eye off the ball and missed it. Cain got up and scored and the Royals were up 4-0 — the margin they’d win by.
Some teams — and fans — are obsessed with offense and are willing to put up with players who have defensive limitations. The Royals are taking advantage of that philosophy by playing great defense themselves (if you haven’t seen Alex Gordon’s catch from Thursday night, make sure you do) and pressuring the other teams’ defense.
Apply enough pressure — and the Royals are currently 13th in the American League in strikeouts and fourth in the league in stolen bases — and teams will make mistakes. Play solid defense yourself — and the Royals are currently last in the AL when it comes to errors — and you will have an advantage.
But you have to know who you’re pressuring.
With two outs in the third inning, Detroit shortstop Jose Iglesias singled and when Ian Kinsler followed up with another single, Iglesias tried to go first-to-third — a foolish mistake.
Kinsler’s single was hit to Gold Glover Alex Gordon and the Royals left fielder threw Iglesias out at third and it looked pretty easy. Gordon was moving to his right and forward, which meant he was shortening the distance to third base. Gordon also has one of the quickest releases and most accurate outfield arms in baseball.
So when the Royals run and put pressure on a defense, they need to know who they’re pressuring; identifying the weak and strong defenders on the field is a must.
In Game 5 of the 2015 World Series, Eric Hosmer pressured Mets first baseman Lucas Duda and it worked. Thursday night, Jose Iglesisas tried to pressure Alex Gordon and it didn’t.
But when it doesn’t work, you can’t freak out
No tactic works 100 percent of the time and if the Royals push the envelope and count on other teams making mistakes, sometimes other teams will make the plays and then aggressive base running is going to look bad.
But the alternative is playing the game timidly.
And if you play station-to-station baseball you’re going to need three or four singles to score a run, pitchers won’t have to throw out of a slide step or feed hitters fastballs to stop a would-be base stealer, and the defense can stand wherever they want — they don’t have to worry about being close enough to a base to receive a throw if a runner takes off.
The Royals have been pressuring other teams’ defenses and they’ve won two American League titles and one World Series playing that way.
So don’t freak out when it doesn’t work — it’s how the Royals put pressure on a diamond.