Judging the Royals

How the Royals took a series from the best team in baseball

Royals outfielders (from left) Alex Gordon, Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain celebrated Kansas City’s 4-2 defeat of the Oakland Athletics on Sunday in Oakland, Calif.
Royals outfielders (from left) Alex Gordon, Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain celebrated Kansas City’s 4-2 defeat of the Oakland Athletics on Sunday in Oakland, Calif. The Associated Press

The people who play this game for a living will tell you that baseball is about pitching and defense. You can do everything else right, but if you don’t pitch well, you’re still going to lose a lot of games. That’s why you couldn’t find anyone in the Royals clubhouse who was upset about the Wil Myers trade. The players think pitching is the name of the game, and this series against the Oakland A’s — the best team in baseball — shows why.

On Friday, the Royals pitched and defended well and won 1-0. On Saturday, they pitched OK, played defense poorly and got beat 8-3. On Sunday, James Shields threw eight innings, surrendered four hits and only two runs and the Royals took the series with a 4-2 win.

A position player affects the game on balls hit to him and the four or five times he steps to the plate. A starting pitcher affects the game for 100 or more pitches. There’s no comparison.

Shields comes back out for the eighth inning

Shields had a comparatively low pitch count and came back out for the eighth inning. Manager Ned Yost said that if Shields had allowed two base runners, he was going to bring in Wade Davis. But after Josh Reddick hit his second home run and Jed Lowrie singled — generous scorekeeping by the Oakland scorekeeper, it could have been called an error on Christian Colon — Yost did not bring in Davis.

The Royals have a day off tomorrow, so Davis would get rested for the series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, but Yost stuck with Shields, and James got out of it with a groundball to second base.

By the way, you don’t want to give up home runs, but credit Shields with limiting the damage. He didn’t walk anybody, and both homers were solo shots.

The Royals’ four-run fifth inning

Christian Colon got things started with a double and, in a scoreless game, Jarrod Dyson failed to move Colon to third base. Dyson struck out looking.

Alcides Escobar walked, and then Nori Aoki doubled past the A’s drawn-in third baseman. Aoki will bunt for a hit, so third basemen play in, and that gives Nori a better chance of slicing the ball past them. Colon scored, Escobar made it to third, and Aoki pulled into second base. Two runners were in scoring position. Omar Infante doubled, two more runs scored and then Infante stole third base. That allowed him to score easily on a Salvador Perez single.

The Royals hit well in the four-run fifth, but don’t miss how their aggressive base running paid off.

Why not pinch-hit for Jarrod Dyson?

In the top of the eighth inning, with Jarrod Dyson coming to the plate, Oakland manager Bob Melvin brought in left-handed reliever Fernando Abad. Lorenzo Cain was on second base. Another run would have been nice. Why not pinch-hit for Dyson?

Because the Royals had the lead.

When your team is up, you worry about your defense. When your team is down, you worry about your offense. If you shut down the other team with pitching and defense, you already have all the runs you need. (Dyson struck out looking.)

Good and bad base running

In that eighth inning, Alex Gordon did some smart base running: Alex was on second, and Lorenzo Cain was on first when Christian Colon hit a ground ball to the Oakland third baseman, Josh Donaldson. Gordon stopped before he got to third and started backpedaling. That forced Donaldson to chase him back to second base before making the tag. If Alex had kept going toward third and had Donaldson made a quick tag, the A’s might have had a shot at an inning-ending double play.

In the seventh, Alcides Escobar got doubled off first base when he went too far on a Nori Aoki fly ball to right. Esky was all the way around second base when the ball was caught and couldn’t make it back to first base in time. With nobody out, you run the bases conservatively. If Alcides had taken a shorter lead and the ball had gotten over the right fielder’s head, at worst the Royals would have had runners on second and third with nobody out. Not a bad deal.

Billy Butler makes some plays

Some of them looked a little shaky, but give credit where credit is due: Billy Butler made some plays on defense in this game. If you’re going to point out plays Billy didn’t make, it’s only fair to point out plays he did make.

Why Christian Colon moved to right field with one strike

Left-handed hitter Brandon Moss was at the plate, and once he got one strike on him, Royals third baseman Christian Colon moved over to the right side of the field.

Why not move into the left-handed shift right away?

If the defense thinks the hitter might bunt against the shift, it will play semi-straight up. Once the hitter has one strike, the bunt is less likely, and the third baseman can move over to the right side.

Why swing at a first-pitch curve?

In the first inning of Friday night’s game, Salvador Perez came to home plate with two outs and a runner on third. The pitcher, Sonny Gray, threw a first-pitch curve, and Sal swung and fouled it off.

Why? Shouldn’t a hitter wait for a hittable fastball?

It depends on the pitcher and the situation. With a runner in scoring position, the better pitchers are doing everything they can to avoid giving the guy at the plate a hittable fastball. One of the tricks they use is to throw a get-me-over breaking pitch to start the at bat. Drop a curve or slider in the zone while the hitter looks fastball and count on the hitter to take the pitch — now the pitcher is 0-1.

Then the pitcher tries to throw a borderline fastball and hopes the hitter expands the zone and swings. That often will produce a weak ground ball, and the pitcher is out of the jam. That was what Sonny Gray did when Perez fouled off that curve. The next pitch was a fastball down and away, and Gray got the call.

So waiting on a hittable fastball that isn’t coming while the pitcher gets ahead in the count isn’t a great game plan. What should the hitter do?

If a pitcher has a history of doing this, sit on that first-pitch breaking ball and knock the hell out of it. Do that a couple times, and the pitchers around the league will see and adjust. The hitter then will start seeing those first-pitch fastballs he was looking for at the start.