Ned Yost is not much for reminiscing because what’s the point when there’s another baseball game to win tonight and the next night and the day after that?
But, man, his job as Royals manager used to be so much easier: have faith, fire up the guys, make a joke, fill out a lineup, wait to be tied or leading in the seventh inning and then watch the cyborg relievers get the last nine outs.
Many nights, Yost didn’t even have to walk out to the mound. Pitching-changes were done between innings, clean innings, innings so reliable you could start to make plans for afterward.
Now? With this team? Those last nine outs are most of what Yost thinks about. The lineup is fairly easy, and by now the clubhouse mostly runs itself. But trying to figure out which relievers to use and exactly when to use them takes up most of his day.
“The majority of it,” he said. “Yeah.”
So you want to be a big-league manager, with hours and hours spent on decisions you might never make, decisions you might get right but watch blow up, and decisions you might get wrong but watch work out?
If you’re going to spend a night in Yost’s head with this stuff, you couldn’t do much better than the Royals’ 6-4 win over the Mariners on Thursday. He needed every minute of preparation. The decisions started early, and didn’t end until late.
One quick point: Yost was thrown out in the second inning for arguing a call he later realized was correct, the second consecutive night he’s been tossed, but he’s never far from the dugout and every move made was his.
“Absolutely,” he said.
So, onward. Trevor Cahill, the Royals’ starting pitcher, is a bit of what’s sometimes referred to as a five-and-dive guy. He’s now made 13 starts, and finished six or more innings in just four of them.
This is game No. 107 of 162, so we’re not yet at the all-hands-on-deck part of the season, but the Royals are in the middle of a playoff race with a bullpen that lacks stars but has depth. Brandon Maurer threw 30 pitches the night before, so Yost didn’t want to use him, but everyone else was available.
Cahill gave up two solo home runs early on Thursday night, one on a hanging change-up and the other on a just-don’t-walk-him fastball, but was throwing well. The curveball was biting, the change-up was strong, and the fastball was down.
But when he gave up consecutive singles ahead of Kyle Seager, who hit one of those homers earlier, Yost had every reason to be aggressive with his bullpen and begin a night of walking the tightrope while hoping an offense that had suddenly gone dry in Baltimore found its groove in Kansas City.
When Cahill came out with two outs in the fifth, that meant the best scenario required 13 outs from the Royals’ relievers. That’s the best-case, just for a chance to beat a fellow contender in a playoff race bunched below the wild-card spot that Kansas City holds at the moment.
Mike Minor was the first man through the bullpen, and that made sense. Minor is basically a horror movie for lefties — they are hitting just .113 with two extra base hits all year against him.
He got Seager on a 94 mph fastball, so the Royals were out of the jam, but that was only the beginning of what they needed from Minor. Thirteen outs is a lot to ask from a bullpen, even relatively rested, and Minor and Scott Alexander are the only ones who regularly go two innings or more.
“We’re monitoring him,” Yost said. “But he’s done a good job staying strong, staying healthy.”
Minor gave up a run in the sixth, but got into the seventh with two outs, the score tied, and right-handed slugger Nelson Cruz due up. The Royals signed Peter Moylan for exactly this situation. He’s a sidearmer, almost exclusively throwing sliders and sinkers, making him one of the league’s better and most extreme specialists — righties hit .158 against him; lefties .393.
Yost calls Moylan the group’s fireman, but not all the right moves work, so Cruz hit Moylan’s first pitch to right for a double. Yost had planned on Moylan ending the inning, but there’s no way he was going to let Moylan face Seager, so he brought in Ryan Buchter.
Buchter came over with Cahill in the San Diego trade, still new enough that Yost pronounces his name Buchner, but his size and fastball command to both sides of the plate make him effective against righties and lefties. He’s a bit of a safety blanket in that way, and in one of a dozen or so moments that swung the game, got Seager to hit a soft grounder to first to end the inning.
At first, Yost wanted Buchter back out in the eighth, too. The score was tied, and he wanted to save arms. But the Royals scored twice in the bottom of the seventh, so it became Joakim Soria’s game.
Soria is good enough that he’s the first choice for the eighth, but not so reliable that he’s the only choice. He has 55 strikeouts and 14 walks in 45 2/3 innings with stuff that works against all hitters, but in his last two outings he has given up the winning run. Maurer was actually San Diego’s closer, so he’s another viable option there, but threw 30 pitches the night before.
“We feel good about Jack there,” Yost said.
Soria needed just nine pitches for the first clean inning since the first, with help from Melky Cabrera, who sprinted over and did a sort of leaping ninja kick against the right field wall in catching a foul ball.
After that, finally, a decision Yost didn’t need any prep for: Kelvin Herrera, with baseball’s best walk-in song, in to finish the ninth. Exhale. One game, at least, when the moves worked and nobody can blame the manager.
The next night’s preparation starts by noon.