Judging the Royals

Kelvin Herrera’s four-out save shows Royals are putting pedal to the metal

Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera celebrated closing out the ninth inning for an 8-5 win over the New York Yankees on Monday.
Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera celebrated closing out the ninth inning for an 8-5 win over the New York Yankees on Monday. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Right now, every game’s important.

Baseball players, coaches and managers are unlikely to say a game isn’t important — it sounds bad —but here’s the truth: maneuvering your way through a 162-game season is like running a marathon.

No, wait … I’ve already used that metaphor. This time let’s say it’s like a NASCAR race (I’m guessing manager Ned Yost would approve): you have to decide when to cruise along with the pack and when you’re close enough to the finish line to punch it and go for the lead.

Monday night the Royals punched it.

Going into the top of the eighth inning, the Royals had a seven-run lead. Chris Young was brought into pitch and Drew Butera replaced Salvador Perez behind the plate. The Royals were planning on coasting across the finish line.

But Young, who had a streak of eight scoreless appearances going, had an off night; the first batter got on by catcher’s interference, the second batter walked and Young hit the third batter with an 0-2 pitch.

Hitting a batter 0-2 means the pitcher really doesn’t know where the ball is going, it’s the last thing a pitcher wants to do. Nevertheless, Yost let Young face one more batter and that batter doubled; two runs scored.

When you have a seven-run lead and need six outs to win, a manager wants to finish the game using as little pitching as possible. But Young’s lack of command forced Ned to bring in Peter Moylan. The Awesome Aussie (I just made that up and I hope Moylan appreciates it … or maybe I heard it somewhere else and it’s just now coming to the surface) gave up a sacrifice fly and a run. Moylan then got an out, but allowed an RBI single and walked a batter.

Just in case you haven’t been paying attention, that meant the score was 8-5 and the tying run was at the plate.

That’s when Ned Yost put the pedal to the metal.

Set roles and the stretch run

Most managers and most relief pitchers prefer set roles; they simplify everybody’s life. Relievers know when to warm up and what’s expected of them once they get in the game. But in the playoffs or the stretch run up the playoffs, roles can change.

With the finish line in sight, managers might ask for more out of their best pitchers. Do that too soon and you might run out of gas on the last lap of the Pocono 400 (the NASCAR metaphor returns).

So a manager has to decide when it’s time to go into playoff mode and ask for more from his best pitchers and last night Ned Yost asked Kelvin Herrera for four outs. The Royals closer du jour got the final out in the eighth and three more in the ninth. Ned has not asked Kelvin for more than three outs since June 17 and back then Wade Davis was the closer. And Ned has not asked Wade Davis for more than three outs all season.

Right now every game really is important and asking Kelvin Herrera for a four-out save proves it.

The down-side of using Herrera might show up on Wednesday

People who don’t have to manage real bullpens with real people advocate using your best reliever whenever you need him, but real-life managers have to give it a little more thought.

Asking Herrera for four outs meant he had to go through an “up-down” (sitting through the bottom of the eighth and then pitching again) and that can have a negative effect on a pitcher’s recovery time.

Using Herrera on Monday, when he should have had a day off, might mean he won’t be available on Wednesday; it all depends on whether Herrera pitches on Tuesday. So if the Royals need him on Wednesday and he’s not available, think back to Monday’s game.

Did Jacoby Ellsbury pull a (jerk) move?

The word “jerk” is very close to the four-letter word I really want to use, but for now, jerk will suffice.

After Ellsbury led off the eighth inning by reaching first base on that catcher’s interference (his swing hit Drew Butera’s mitt), Ellsbury took second base. The Royals were up by seven runs and Ellsbury’s move to second was ruled as defensive indifference.

So was taking second a “jerk” move?

Nope; the Royals weren’t holding Ellsbury on. If he doesn’t move up to second and then the Yankees hit into a double play and go on to rally — which they did — not taking second would make Ellsbury look like a jerk. It’s not Ellsbury’s job to make the Royals happy; if they didn’t want him to take second base, the Royals needed to hold him on first. That would give Ellsbury an excuse for not moving up 90 feet.

If the Royals wanted the advantage of playing Eric Hosmer back, they had to accept the disadvantage of letting Ellsbury move into scoring position.

Why the Royals were so aggressive in the first inning

The Royals and third-base coach Mike Jirschele were extremely aggressive on the bases in the first inning of Monday night’s game and here’s why:

Like a lot of pitchers, New York’s Michael Pineda tends to struggle in the first inning, then settle down. In the first inning opposing batters hit .297 off Pineda, in the second inning it’s .217 and in the third inning it’s .193. The Royals wanted to get all the runs they could before Pineda found his groove.

And it was good thinking; Pineda allowed three runs in the first inning and then didn’t give up a hit until the seventh.

Tuesday night’s Yankee starter — Masahiro Tanaka — doesn’t seem to have that first- inning problem, but at least this season Edinson Volquez does. Opponents hit .274 off Volquez in the first inning, but that drops to .219 in the second.

So on Tuesday, pay attention to the top of the first inning: if Volquez cruises through it, the Royals have a better chance of winning.