Judging the Royals

Why the seventh inning was a big deal in the Royals’ 3-1 win over the Rangers

Luke Hochevar stopped a Rangers rally in seventh inning Friday.
Luke Hochevar stopped a Rangers rally in seventh inning Friday. jsleezer@kcstar.com

If you’re a regular reader you know we’ve spent a lot of time this season talking about the sixth and seventh innings. Those innings are important because most of the time the starting pitcher is running out of gas at that point and the Royals bullpen isn’t as deep as it has been the past two years.

In 2016 the Royals have two shutdown relievers: the eighth-inning set-up man Kelvin Herrera (1.65 ERA) and closer Wade Davis (1.14 ERA). Get a lead to those two guys and you’re in good shape. But unless the starter goes seven innings, someone else has to bridge the gap and that’s what happened Friday night.

Danny Duffy’s pitch count was climbing and he was just about through for the night. He had two outs, a runner on first base and left-handed hitter Nomar Mazara due up. Ned Yost wanted Duffy to face the lefty, but after Mazara singled Ned brought in Luke Hochevar. The Rangers countered with pinch-hitter Mitch Moreland and what happened in the next third of an inning would define the ballgame.

If Moreland walked or singled the tying run would move into scoring position and the Royals would have to deal with the top of the Rangers lineup. If Moreland doubled and Mazara got a good jump he could score from first base and the score would be tied. If Moreland homered the Rangers would have the lead and Herrera and Davis would not be used.

Hochevar threw Moreland eight pitches and he eventually lined out to end the seventh and that was pretty much the ballgame. Herrera and Davis threw scoreless innings and the Royals won their 48th game of the year and stayed one game above .500.

As you watch these ballgames, pay attention to what happens in the sixth and seventh innings; it’s a pretty big deal.

Rougned Odor has shown he will

For a moment, let’s compare baseball to prison.

I’ve never been to prison and I hope to keep that record intact, but as I understand it, if you go to prison you might have to show a willingness to fight if you’re going to survive.

To a lesser degree, the same thing is true in baseball.

If a runner hits you with a dirty takeout slide and you don’t do anything about it, you just invited the rest of the league to knock you into the outfield when breaking up a double play. As one veteran player told me, you might need to get into a fight just to show you will.

Earlier this season Jose Bautista tried a takeout slide on Rougned Odor and Odor clocked him. In this series Royals baserunners might not be inclined to flip the Rangers second baseman … because Rougned Odor has shown he will.

What infield positioning tells you

In the first inning with one down and Alcides Escobar on third base, the Rangers were playing their infield at regular depth. This meant that Texas planned on conceding the run if someone hit a grounder and that’s just what happened: Eric Hosmer hit a ground ball to first baseman Ryan Rua and Escobar scampered home to score.

Depending on who’s on the mound, teams might concede a single run early in games; they figure they’ve got lots of time to make up for one run.

By the fourth inning things had changed. It was clear Danny Duffy was throwing well and single runs would matter. So when Alex Gordon led off with a triple the Rangers brought their infield in for a play at the plate.

With a runner on third base and fewer than two outs, infield positioning tells you what the defense plans on doing:

If they play back, they’re going to get the out at first base; if they play in, they’re going to try to cut the run down at the plate.

If there are runners at first and third with fewer than two down you might see the corners in and the middle back; in that alignment if the ball is hit to first or third, those guys will throw the ball home if the runner tries to score, but if the ball is hit up the middle the defense will try to turn a double play.

Alex Gordon and hard-hit outs

If you’ve been looking for signs of life from Alex Gordon, the last two games have been encouraging. On Wednesday, Gordon was used as a pinch hitter and doubled. Friday night Gordon walked, tripled and lined out twice.

Hard hit outs are just outs in the scorebook, but ballplayers and coaches take note of them; hitting a ball on the screws — even if it results in an out — is a very good sign.

Alex Gordon is showing signs of life.