Judging the Royals

The Royals’ defense lets down Jason Vargas

Royals pitcher Jason Vargas retired the first 12 batters he faced, but he couldn’t make it through five innings.
Royals pitcher Jason Vargas retired the first 12 batters he faced, but he couldn’t make it through five innings. The Associated Press

After four no-hit innings, it looked as if Jason Vargas was cruising, but it all fell apart in the fifth. Vargas only got one out — and he made that play himself — before the roof caved in. Billy Butler whiffed on a pop fly, Mike Moustakas missed a potential double-play ball at third, and Alex Gordon made an error in left that helped clear the bases.

Only one of those plays was ruled an error, so the box score shows Vargas pitching four and a third innings while giving up seven earned runs. Don’t trust the numbers — he pitched better than that. The Royals defense let Jason Vargas down.

The Oakland A’s take the second game of the series 8-3.

Billy Butler at first base

Billy Butler missed a pop fly by Jonny Gomes in that nightmarish fifth inning. You can’t say Billy dropped it because he didn’t come that close to the ball. After the game, Ned Yost was asked whether Billy should have been wearing sunglasses and Ned said the sun didn’t come into play. Ned had another theory: “He screwed it up.”

Here’s probably what happened: The sun was over Billy’s left shoulder, the ball was to Billy’s right — he wasn’t looking into the sun. Because of the spin on the ball, infield pop ups drift back toward the pitching mound. If you’re standing directly underneath the ball at it its highest point, you’re in the wrong place. You have to move with the ball as it drifts back toward the center of the infield and Butler didn’t do that.

(I know all about this because I’ve missed a few pop-ups myself. I still can’t reliably catch a tough one, but now I know why I miss them.)

Later in the same inning, Butler got caught out of position on an Alberto Callaspo single to center field. Gomes scored from second on the play, and Lorenzo Cain threw the ball to home plate. When the hit is a clean single with a play at the plate, the first baseman goes to the middle of the infield to act as the cutoff man. If there’s no chance for an out at home plate, the catcher yells “cut,” and if there’s a play at another base, the catcher yells out the base where the ball should go, as in: “Cut, two!“

But Billy wasn’t where he was supposed to be, he was loitering around first base as the ball dribbled across the infield. If Callaspo had been paying attention — fortunately, he wasn’t — he could have moved up 90 feet and taken second base. It wound up not mattering; Alberto scored anyway, but it’s a breakdown in fundamentals the Royals can’t afford.

To top things off, Billy almost dropped a routine throw from Omar Infante in the sixth inning.

If the Royals are basing their game on pitching and defense, Billy Butler will be a problem at first base.

Jonny Gomes makes the wrong play, and it costs the Athletics a run

Lorenzo Cain led off the top of the seventh inning with a double and, after Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar made outs, Nori Aoki singled to Gomes in left. Third-base coach Mike Jirschele waved Cain home, probably because the right play was for Gomes to throw the ball to second base.

The score was 8-1 when Aoki hit the ball, so a run scoring would not have been a big deal. But Gomes chose to throw the ball to home plate. The throw beat Cain to the plate, but short-hopped the catcher and the ball got away. That allowed Aoki to move into scoring position and a single later, he did just that.

Make the right throw — keep Aoki at first base — and the Royals score one run in the inning, not two.

The third out of the bottom of the seventh

In the seventh inning, Josh Donaldson made the third out when he lined the ball to Lorenzo Cain. Watch an outfielder catch the final out of an inning, and if the outfielder comes up ready to throw, he doesn’t know how many outs there are. That’s what Cain did, and it’s not a good sign when you have outfielders unaware of the number of outs.

That Raul Ibanez home run: How older players ‘cheat’

When I talked with Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki about calling a game, he mentioned Torii Hunter. He said Hunter could still hit a good fastball, but he had to look for it to hit it. That meant Hunter couldn’t just react to a good fastball. He had to “cheat“ — baseball slang for starting early — to catch up to high heat. With hitters like Hunter, it becomes a cat-and-mouse game; when is Torii going to cheat on the fastball? If you can figure that out, you throw something off-speed in those counts.

So let’s go back to Raul Ibanez’ fifth-inning home run on Friday night:

In his first at-bat, Ibanez got a first-pitch fastball for a ball. Oakland starting pitcher Sonny Gray threw another fastball for ball two and once the count went 2-0, suspected Ibanez would be cheating on the fastball — and that’s probably why Raul got a 2-0 changeup, which he fouled off. Ibanez saw five more pitches and eventually struck out.

In his second at-bat, Ibanez was ready for the first-pitch fastball and homered.

In his third at-bat — and I’m guessing you can see this coming — Ibanez got a first-pitch slider. That makes sense unless Ibanez had decided to look off-speed, knowing he wouldn’t get another first-pitch fastball for a strike after homering on the last one.


With the veteran players it’s cat-and-mouse games.

John Jaso behind the plate

In Friday night’s game, catcher John Jaso set up away, and pitcher Sonny Gray spiked a breaking ball. Instead of sliding over and blocking the pitch, Jaso reached with his glove, swiped at it and missed. The ball bounced up and nailed home plate umpire Mike Estabrook. Umpires appreciate catchers who put their bodies in front of the ball and keep the umpire from getting smoked with a pitch. They don’t look as kindly on catchers who make half-hearted efforts.

Kansas City fans have gotten used to seeing good glove work and blocking from Salvador Perez. Pay attention to Jaso, and you’ll appreciate Sal even more.

Do players run hard out of the box?

Here’s another thing you can pay attention to. Watch hitters come out of the batter’s box. Do they run hard and put pressure on the defense, or do they break it down as soon as they realize they’re not going to get a hit?

If you don’t run hard, you put no pressure on the defense. Someone on infield will tell the guy making the play to take his time — the guy fielding the ball can relax. If a guy busts it down line, someone on the infield will tell the guy making the play he has to hurry — that creates pressure.

If a ball gets away at first base, the guy who loafed will get the next 90 feet. In Oakland the guy who hustles might get 180.