Judging the Royals

KC's Jeremy Guthrie out-pitches Oakland's Sonny Gray, but not by much

Oakland Athletics pitcher Sonny Gray works against the Kansas City Royals in the first inning at O.co Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, August 1, 2014. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group/MCT)
Oakland Athletics pitcher Sonny Gray works against the Kansas City Royals in the first inning at O.co Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, August 1, 2014. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group/MCT) MCT

The series opener between the Royals and the Athletics turned out to be a classic pitching duel between Jeremy Guthrie and Sonny Gray. Both pitchers were sharp from the start; each threw four scoreless innings to open the game. Both Gray and Guthrie did a good job of stifling their opponent’s offense by being aggressive, staying ahead in the count and forcing hitters into tough counts. It was a tightly contested, exciting game that was clearly going to be a low-scoring duel, decided by a small margin of error.

Gray got ahead with his fastball

Sonny Gray was consistently able to get ahead in the count by being aggressive with his fastball, getting two strikes, then making the Royals hitters chase his breaking stuff.

Gray also showed a clever trick a few times: he would throw a fastball in the zone for strike one, then throw another fastball just a few inches off the same spot, which hitters would consistently foul off, getting them into a two-strike count.

Guthrie was also sharp

On the other side, Guthrie had an equally dominant night. He had good command and location of his pitches, and he also stayed aggressive, looking to keep his breaking stuff down in the zone and get ahead in the count. When Guthrie’s on like he was Friday night, the trio of his fastball, cutter, and changeup can limit opposing offenses. All three pitches come out of the same arm slot, but all three have different break and speeds. Guthrie and Sal Perez did a good job of varying the pitches called and getting A’s batters mixed up on speed and location with those pitches, and Guthrie was largely able to dominate the A’s offense.

The Royals miss an opportunity

Though Gray had an excellent outing, the Royals nearly got to him in the top of the first. With a pitcher like Gray, sometimes your best bet is to get him early; jump on any mistakes you see out over the plate before he settles into a rhythm and starts dominating. Nori Aoki did just that in the first, ripping a second-pitch fastball down into right field for a double. Omar Infante tried to bunt Aoki over to third but fouled off the first pitch, a fastball right down the middle. Gray dropped a curveball in for strike two, taking away the bunt option from the Royals and forcing Infante to get a hit to move Aoki to third.

But the Royals got lucky: Gray’s 0-2 curveball to Infante bounced in the dirt and got away from catcher John Jaso, moving Aoki over to third. Though the count was 1-2 and Infante needed to protect the plate, he could now drive Aoki in with a pop-fly , but Gray threw his nasty two-strike curve again, this time near the zone, and struck out Infante. Alex Gordon came up and showed patience, working a 2-0 fastball in the zone out of Gray, but he didn’t quite square it up and hit a grounder to second, which held Aoki at third. The Royals had gone from an ideal situation (runner on third with no outs) to a tough one (runner on third with two outs), and they needed Sal to get a hit to score him. Sal fouled off a first-pitch curve away, then took a fastball in the zone to go down 0-2. Gray gave Sal a couple curveballs to chase getting the count back to 2-2, then threw a fastball low and away, which Sal watched for strike three. Though it was borderline it was too close for Sal to take, and the Royals wasted a golden opportunity in the first against an ace pitcher and the league’s best team.

A very thin margin of victory

It may be an old baseball cliché, but it’s so often true – the line between winning and losing is very thin. In a pitching duel like Friday night’s game, that line gets even thinner, and it’s no surprise that this game was decided by just one swing of Raul Ibanez’s bat. Ibanez is obviously one of the older players in the game, and older batters will often have trouble getting around on faster pitches. Ibanez has struggled at times this year staying on top of mid-to-high 90s fastballs, and smart opposing pitchers like Gray know that’s the formula to get him out.

But as TV announcers Steve Physioc and Rex Hudler discussed on Friday night, Ibanez has made an adjustment to combat this by looking to pull the ball more. By getting an earlier jump and looking to hit the ball out in front, Ibanez can stay aggressive on these fastballs and defend against the pitcher’s plans to overpower him.

Ibanez came up in the top of the fifth and Gray threw him a 93-mph fastball, middle-in. It’s the type of pitch that Ibanez has struggled with, but Raul made the adjustment, jumping out a bit earlier on the pitch and pulling it over the wall in right-center. By recognizing Gray’s game plan and making an adjustment, Ibanez was able to give his team the one-run edge.

The A’s just miss a three-run bomb

Though the one-run lead was an advantage, it didn’t give Guthrie and the Royals much margin for error. In the bottom of the sixth inning A’s left-fielder Brandon Moss came to the plate with runners on first and third. After working a 2-0 count, Moss got a cutter from Guthrie that stayed up out over the plate, and he pulled it hard right down the first-base line. Luckily for the Royals, it landed just barely to the right of the foul pole in the upper deck, and Guthrie went on to strike Moss out. Both Ibanez’ solo shot and Moss’ near-homer showed just how thin the line between victory and defeat was in this one – both batters got hittable pitches, and both did their job, jumping on their pitches and driving them hard. Moss couldn’t keep his fair and Ibanez could, and that difference was just enough to give the Royals the series-opening victory against the A’s.

—Paul Judge

The umpire strikes back: Mike Estabrook changes the game

In the fourth inning with the score 0-0, two outs and runners at first and third, Oakland shortstop Jed Lowrie took a 3-1 pitch. Lowrie assumed it was ball four, flipped the bat away and started toward first base. Home plate umpire Mike Estabrook disagreed and the count went to 3-2.

After a hitter shows up an umpire by flipping the bat and starting toward first base, it’s a bad idea to depend on the umpire being generous on the next pitch and Estabrook wasn’t. He called the next pitch—which didn’t appear to be in the zone—strike three and Lowrie made it clear he didn’t like the call.

I once asked a former umpire about that situation; what would he do after a hitter had shown him up?

He said: "Just give me a pitch I can work with." That meant he wasn’t going to call a ball well out of the zone a strike, but if the pitch was close—a pitch he could work with—the hitter was in trouble.

Estabrook had other hitters upset about the zone; Alex Gordon—usually the least demonstrative of players—flipped his bat in frustration after being rung up on strikes in the top of the sixth.

In the sixth inning Lowrie was once again called out on strikes with a runner in scoring position. Clearly, Estabook wasn’t going to give Lowrie a break and with his strike zone took the bat out of the hands of the Athletics’ five-hole hitter twice. In a 1-0 game, that was huge.

How Jarrod Dyson may have cost the Royals a run

In the third inning Jarrod Dyson singled, then advanced to second on a wild pitch. In Oakland there’s a lot of foul ground. Catcher John Jaso did not set any land speed records going after the ball and Dyson could have possibly made it to third base—possibly. But Jarrod started shutting it down as he approached second base and that cost him the chance of picking up an extra 90 feet. After that, Nori Aoki hit a ground ball to second base for the second out of the inning. No way to tell for sure if Dyson could have scored from third base, but it would have been nice to have the opportunity.

Watch balls in foul territory during this series: base runners should be thinking about taking two bases, not one, on an overthrow at first base or wild pitch to the backstop.