Saturday, November 1, 2014

One Base Away.

Like most of you, I'm not yet in the mood to fully dissect what just happened. But I did write about it the best I could for Grantland, which you can read here.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Game 7.

Game. Seven.

If you’re a baseball fan, there are no sweeter words in the English language. There’s a World Series every year, but a Game 7? In the last 25 years, there have been just five: 1991 (Jack Morris goes ten innings, Lonnie Smith gets deked by Chuck Knoblauch); 1997 (Jose Mesa blows save in ninth, Edgar Renteria hits walk-off single in 12th); 2001 (Mariano Rivera blows the save, Luis Gonzalez hits walk-off single); 2002 (Angels roll over Giants, 4-1, behind John Lackey), and 2011 (Cardinals roll over Rangers, 6-2, behind Chris Carpenter).

And now, 2014. A World Series Game 7 involving the Royals. At Kauffman Stadium.

The last two Game 7s weren’t particularly memorable, but they both followed legendary Game 6s – the Angels came back from a 5-0 deficit in the seventh inning against San Francisco, and the Cardinals were one strike away from losing to the Rangers in the ninth and tenth inning before David Freese hit the walkoff in the 11th. The other three Game 7s all involved a walk-off hit, two of them coming in games where the home team trailed entering the bottom of the ninth.

This has been a great series, but we haven’t had any great games yet. Game 3 is the only game that wasn’t decided by five or more runs, which is pretty incredible when you think about it. But I have a feeling – or maybe it’s just a fear – that Game 7 could make up for all the drama we haven’t seen yet. I’m not sure my heart can take it.

Because if you’re a fan of one of the teams involved, Game Seven is torture. It’s the sweetest kind of torture, maybe, but it’s still torture. Speaking as a Royals fan that just watched all the drama get sucked out of Game 6 by the end of the second inning, let me say: boring is HIGHLY underrated. Give me Game 7 of the 1985 World Series any day.

There’s not much to analyze about Game 6, except to say that it could not have gone better. I mean, I suppose it could have gone better, but I can’t really think of how. The Royals won. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland didn’t so much as stir from their seat in the bullpen until the ninth, when Holland got up and started warming up, threw a few pitches at what appeared to be max effort, and then sat down while Tim Collins was still pitching. It appeared to me that Holland needed to get a little bit of work in just to keep from being too rested – he hadn’t pitched in three days – and waited until he was sure he wouldn’t be needed before getting a couple of pitches in.

The upshot of this is that I see no reason why Herrera, Davis, and Holland can’t each throw two innings tomorrow. Herrera and Davis have already done this in the same game (Game 1 of the ALCS). Holland hasn’t gotten more than three outs – or entered a game prior to the ninth inning – since September 2012. But, again: IT’S GAME SEVEN. They are all fully rested. Before the game begins, you go to them and say: tonight, Kelvin, the fourth and fifth innings are yours. Wade, you pitch the sixth and seventh. Greg, you got the eighth and ninth. That’s six innings from the Triborg, six innings from three pitchers that all had ERAs under 1.50 during the season. Make that the plan, and the rest will figure itself out. If Guthrie is going well, he can pitch three innings – but as we saw in Game 6, if you don’t pull your starter at the first sign of trouble, you could get burned very quickly. I stand by this idea: tell Guthrie he’s facing five batters – he’s pitching through Hunter Pence. Or maybe seven batters, if Mike Morse bats seventh. Finnegan then takes over to face Ishikawa, Crawford, Blanco, and Panik – four left-handed batters in a row. At that point, well, you might be through three innings.

Really, the only bad thing about Game 6 was that the second inning rally went so well that after bringing in Yusmeiro Petit, Bruce Bochy quickly realized that the game was so out of hand that he was better off pulling Petit (who threw only 17 pitches) and saving him for Game 7. So now he has both Petit and Bumgarner to deploy. The Royals have the Triborg. It looks like the game could simply come down to which manager is more aggressive about pulling his starter and turning the game over to his immensely capable relievers.

I feel like we’ve reached a tipping point in the last couple of years. In previous Game 7s, managers would generally leave their starting pitcher in at least until he hit a spot of trouble. But the evolution of the game, and the importance of each team’s bullpens, means tonight could be the first time we see both managers name starting pitchers with a plan already in place to pull them after no more than two or three innings. Or maybe not; maybe one or both of these managers will play it straight, and Guthrie or Tim Hudson will be allowed to pitch five or six or even seven innings. But for the first time ever in a Game 7, I feel like both managers may have some trick up their sleeve.

The Royals seem to have all the little edges on their side. They have home field advantage, and they have recent history on their side – the last nine Game 7s were won by the home team. They have Herrera, Davis, and Holland at full rest. The Giants have Bumgarner and Petit available, but Bumgarner’s effectiveness on two days’ rest is a bit of a wild card, and Petit probably can’t go more than two innings given that he threw last night.

But what makes Game 7 so magical is what makes it so unpredictable: it’s just one game. It’s one game that decides an entire season, that separates the World Champions from the team that gets remembered simply as the best also-ran. It’s cruel. It’s brutal. It’s harsh and unforgiving. It’s everything. It’s baseball.

Don’t ask me to analyze it. Analysis with this team went out the window a month ago. Don’t ask me to enjoy it, or at least don’t expect me to enjoy it. If the game goes like last night’s did – or like the Royals’ last Game 7 did – then yes, I imagine I will enjoy it very much. But enjoyment of a Game 7 are for the fans who haven’t spent a lifetime rooting for one of the teams playing in it, for the fans who don’t have to deal with the knowledge that a win means a championship – and a loss means starting all over again next season, still staring at the very real possibility that their team will never again win a championship in their lifetime.

So I probably won’t enjoy Game 7 all that much. But if the Royals win, words may not adequately express how much I will enjoy the moment of victory, or the long, sleepless night to follow, or tomorrow, or November, or the winter to come.

There’s nothing left to analyze. There’s nothing left to say. There’s only one thing left to do.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Royals Today: World Series, Game 5.

Let’s start with the obvious: no matter what the Royals did in Game 5, no matter how well they played defense or how well Ned Yost pushed buttons, they probably weren’t going to win. Madison Bumgarner made sure of that. The Royals didn’t get a runner to third base all night. The only runner to reach second base was Omar Infante, who was credited with a double when Travis Ishikawa misplayed his looping fly ball and let it bounce past him when he dove fruitlessly. Bumgarner showed no signs of fatigue all night, retiring the last nine batters of the game.

That said…they sure did their best to eliminate what little chance they had of sneaking away with a win. Early on, it was the players who killed the Royals’ margin for error, or more specifically, the defenders. In the second inning, Hunter Pence led off with a scorching ground ball to the right of Alcides Escobar – but it was the kind of scorching ground ball that Escobar has been picking and turning into outs his entire career. This time, it skated just past his glove.

Brandon Belt followed with a perfectly placed bunt against the shift, which the Royals weren’t expecting – and given that Belt had one sacrifice bunt and no bunt hits in his career, I can’t come down too hard on them. With the shift on, Escobar fielded the ball – something a shortstop almost never has to do – and Belt beat it out by an eyelash.

But there was a defensive mistake made on the play, one that was missed by almost everyone (including myself). As C.J. Nitkowski points out here (with an assist from Eric Karros), Hosmer had his foot on the wrong spot on the bag, and was lined up in the wrong direction – if he had his foot on the corner and was pointed straight at Escobar, Belt might have been out. I continue to be unconvinced that Hosmer is the Gold Glove caliber first baseman that is his reputation, and the numbers continue to dispute this characterization as well.

Travis Ishikawa then hit a deep fly ball to centerfield, allowing Pence to tag up and move to third…and when Jarrod Dyson’s throw was off-line, Belt moved up to second as well. All credit to the Giants, who do the little things extremely well, but a better throw and Belt might have been out or retreated to first base. That would have kept the double play in order, but instead the Royals could only get one out on a ground ball.

Yost then decided to play the infield back, one game after he had played the infield in during a similar situation. I understand the thinking – with a runner on second base as well as third, a grounder that gets by the drawn-in infield would have scored two runs instead of one – but I thought it was curious that, facing Madison Bumgarner, the Royals wouldn’t put a premium on preventing the Giants from scoring first. Brandon Crawford grounded out to second base, which would have held the runner or likely been an out at the plate if the infield were in, but instead was an RBI groundout.

In the fourth, Pablo Sandoval led off with a single, but Shields struck out Pence and Belt. Ishikawa then hit a ground ball to Escobar’s right, and this time he was there in time to field the ball, and…it just went under his glove. He pulled up too soon, misjudged the bounce, whatever. It was a play he should have made easily.

And then Crawford blooped a pitch that Shields almost buried in the dirt and blooped it to centerfield. Dyson made one questionable decision and one undeniable mistake. The questionable decision was to lay up and play it on a hop instead of diving for it. He might have had a shot at it, and last night he made a brilliant catch on a similar bloop. Then again, the fact that he made that catch should give him the benefit of the doubt here, that he knew he didn’t have a shot at catching this one and didn’t want to let the ball get by him and two runners to score.

But the mistake was that, as Dyson seems to do about once a month, he bobbled the ball on the bounce. Sandoval had inexplicably slowed up after reaching third base – his third base coach was waving him in, there were two outs, and the pitcher was about to bat – but Dyson’s bobble allowed him to score. It wasn’t ruled an error, because in 2014 you don’t get charged with an error unless you throw a ball into the stands or physically kick it with your feet. But it was an error.

Dyson’s misplays in centerfield, coupled with him looking even more helpless than your typical hitter against Bumgarner – Dyson can’t hit lefties – made the decision to start him instead of Aoki appear to be another poor decision by Yost. At least until the bottom of the fifth, when with two on and two out, Hunter Pence crushed a pitch to right-center field, which Lorenzo Cain caught in full stride. I’m not sure there’s another right fielder in the game who keeps that from being a two-run double. Through no good work of his own – simply by allowing the Royals to have Cain in right field instead of Aoki – Dyson justified his starting spot on that play.

That was all the Giants would get against Shields. That was all they would need. With better defense – with just a typical game from Escobar alone – he would have matched Bumgarner zero for zero through six innings, given us the start that single-handedly justified everything given up for him and vindicated every defense made of him the last two years against the likes of me. It was not to be, but not due to anything Shields did wrong. He deserved a better fate in Game 5. We all did.

While it was the players that hurt the Royals in the first six innings, Yost found a way to make his presence known before the game ended. In the seventh inning, Hosmer led off with a single, and Salvador Perez lined out to deep left field – in retrospect, the Royals came damn close to tying the game right there. Mike Moustakas was up next, in a situation where a home run would tie the game, and Yost let him bat.

This was not at all surprising, although this seemed like the perfect time to roll the dice on a pinch-hitter, putting up a right-handed-hitting power bat like Josh Willingham against a potentially tiring Bumgarner. Hard as this may be to believe, Mike Moustakas did hit .212/.271/.361 this year, and he’s never hit left-handers, his double off Bumgarner in Game 1 notwithstanding. Yost left him in, and Moustakas flied out harmlessly to centerfield. Omar Infante followed with a groundout to end the inning.

And then, in the bottom of the seventh, as the script said and as everyone expected, Yost brought in Kelvin Herrera. As absolutely no one expected – because it was absurd to even consider – Yost chose to make a double-switch, bringing Jayson Nix to play second base, putting Nix in the #9 spot in the lineup, and putting Herrera in the #7 spot.

Twitter is not a perfect tool, and if you’re not careful you’re liable to use it to say something stupid that you will quickly regret, something I have learned from experience. But at a moment like this Twitter is an utterly perfect device, because it allowed me – and essentially every sportswriter who was paying attention – to express our incredulity with this move in real time. No one can accuse us of second-guessing. Okay, that’s not true – some people can’t handle people criticizing their favorite team very well, and will call any criticism second-guessing. But this was first-guessing. This was pointing out the stupidity of a move while it was in progress.

The point of the double-switch is to delay the pitcher’s spot in the lineup from coming up, so that a new pitcher can stay in the game longer. That should not have been an issue here. It was the bottom of the seventh, so unless the Royals tied the game, they only needed two innings from their bullpen. Herrera, Davis, and Holland had all taken Game 4 off; they were all ready to throw an inning.

But on top of that, Herrera was the least rested of the trio, by far. He had thrown 27 pitches in Game 3, after Yost inexplicably left him in to bat in the seventh inning, and then had to pull Herrera anyway with one out in the bottom of the inning. He had thrown 32 pitches in Game 2, when Yost called on him to get Yordano Ventura out of a sixth-inning jam and then let him pitch the seventh inning with a five-run lead. For whatever reason, Yost keeps going to Herrera for two innings rather than Davis; instead of pitching Herrera in the sixth and then Davis in the seventh and eighth, he’ll let Herrera stay on for the seventh and only bring in Davis in a jam. (And Holland, of course, hasn’t thrown more than one inning in a ballgame since September 13, 2012. Not only that, Holland has not entered a game prior to the ninth inning since that same date. You would think that at some point he would have pitched the bottom of the eighth inning in a blowout on the road just to get some work in.)

As a result, Herrera had looked a little less than 100% in his recent outings. The #9 spot in the lineup was due up 2nd in the top of the 8th. Perfect; let Herrera pitch one inning, then pinch-hit for him with whoever is most appropriate at that moment. Davis pitches the 8th, and if the Royals tie the game, he pitches the 9th. (There’s a slight chance that Davis might have to bat if the Royals batted around in the 7th or 8th, but that would be a good problem to have, and in all likelihood the Royals might have scored three runs and you could pinch-hit for Davis and bring in Holland anyway.)

Instead, Yost was so adamant about giving Herrera a chance to pitch a second inning – WHICH HE SHOULDN’T BE ASKED TO DO UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES ANYWAY – that in order to keep him from batting in the 8th, he brought in Jayson Nix, knowing that Nix would have to bat in the 8th. The same Jayson Nix who was 10-for-83 as a hitter during the regular season. The same Jayson Nix who had never gotten a hit in a Royals uniform.

The Royals were down to their final six outs, needing two runs just to tie the game. Yost was so adamant that Herrera pitch a second inning that he gave the role of avoiding one of those six outs to Jayson Freaking Nix.

This worked to absolute perfect imperfection. Herrera pitched a scoreless seventh, as he could have been expected to. Nix batted in the eighth inning and harmlessly flied out, swinging on a borderline pitch after Bumgarner had fallen behind him 3-1. Herrera then came out for a second inning – WHICH HE SHOULD NOT HAVE DONE – and gave up hits to the first two batters he faced. He was then pulled from the game in favor of Davis without having retired a batter in the inning.

So to sum up: Yost made Jayson Nix bat so that Herrera could pitch a second inning. Nix used up one of the Royals’ last six outs, and Herrera allowed both batters he faced in that second inning to reach. Oh, and since Wade Davis didn’t get to start with a clean slate, the random, logic-defying bomb he gave up to Juan Perez – about as far as a ball can be hit in baseball without being a home run – drove home two runs. Crawford followed with a bloop to left, and a 2-0 game was now a 5-0 game. Drive home safely.

Afterwards, Yost said that he wanted Herrera to be able to pitch a second inning so that their good relievers could go deeper into the game in case the Royals came back. But in doing so, he severely hampered the Royals’ ability to come back. If you don’t score two runs in the last two innings of the game, nothing else matters. Yost used hypotheticals to make a decision that made a comeback even more hypothetical.

To be clear: Ned Yost didn’t cost the Royals Game 5 – Madison Bumgarner made sure of that. But Yost’s decisions didn’t help, and this one decision in particular had next-to-no benefit while enduring a significant cost. The decision to double-switch Nix into the game was probably the most inexplicable decision Yost made in the entire postseason – and yes, I include the decision to use Yordano Ventura out of the pen. At least there, there was underlying principle guiding Yost’s move – Be aggressive with your relievers in a do-or-die game! Don’t be afraid to pull your starting pitcher! – that I agreed with, even if the execution itself was terrible. But this…I don’t get this at all. Frankly, giving up hits to the first two hitters in the 8th might have been the best thing for Herrera, because it got him out of the game sooner. Both Herrera and Davis threw 24 pitches; with a day off, they should be good for Game 6, although whether that means they can throw one inning in Game 6 and one inning in Game 7, or two innings each, or whether Yost will use them that aggressively, remains to be seen.

The Royals return to Kauffman Stadium now, thankful not just to be at home, but to be away from the NL rules, because Yost managed these three games in San Francisco as if he never managed a game in an NL park before. In three games, Jayson Nix (2) had more at-bats than Billy Butler (1) and Josh Willingham (0) combined. Kelvin Herrera had as many at-bats as Butler and Willingham combined. That should never happen.

The Royals now feel as far away from a championship as they have since the Wild Card game, which I know is silly, since they simply need to win their next two games to claim it. They have the better starter in Game 6, and if they get to Game 7, you hope they will unleash the full force of the Triborg, because you know Bruce Bochy will unleash as much Bumgarner as the man will give him on two days’ rest. (Although the decision to let Bumgarner throw the complete-game shutout, while sentimental, may not have been in the Giants' best interests. Bumgarner threw 116 pitches in Game 5, and he might want one or two of those pitches back if he gets pressed into duty in Game 7.)

And the Royals have home-field advantage. Since 1982, ten teams have come home for Game 6 down three games to two. Eight of them have won both games to win the title. The last nine Game 7s have been won by the home team; you have to go back to the 1979 Pirates to find a road team that won Game 7. In the whole history of the World Series, the home team is 41-23 in Game 6. Home field always matters a little, but perhaps never more than when everything is on the line, and every fan in the stands is engaged on every pitch like their lives hang in the balance.

God willing, I’ll be one of those fans tomorrow night, and (hopefully) Wednesday night as well. The Royals are two wins away from delivering us a championship I honestly never even contemplated as being within the realm of possibility, of delivering me a memory I never dreamed would be a reality. I expect them to do everything in their power to deliver it. It’s only fair that I hold myself to the same standard, and cheer them on from the stands, to give the same 100% I demand from them, until the final out. Until we are defeated. Or until we are delirious.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Royals Today: World Series, Game 4.

A century from now, baseball scholars will discover that there was a point during Game 4 of the 2014 World Series in which the Royals were strongly favored to win. No one will believe them.

Someone – I believe it may have been Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus – wrote earlier this month something to the effect that we’ve reached the point with baseball analysis where players no longer are blamed for failure: it’s either the fault of the manager for putting him in that position or the GM for not acquiring a better player. It’s hyperbole, but seeing the reaction to Game 4, I wonder just how much of an exaggeration it is.

Ned Yost didn’t have his best game. The Royals had a 4-1 lead in the middle of the third inning, and they lost. But at some point you have to hold the players accountable for their performance. It is possible for Yost to make the right move – or at least a defensible move – and have it not work out, either because the player he put in a spot to succeed didn’t, or simply because the ball bounced in favor of the Giants.

Let’s trace the anatomy of ten unanswered runs that turned a comfortable early lead into the Royals’ biggest loss since the Tigers’ pulverized them, 10-1, on September 19th:

- In the bottom of the third, Matt Duffy – pinch-hitting for reliever Jean Machi, because apparently it’s okay to do that sort of thing – led off with a single. Gregor Blanco grounded to Omar Infante, who pivoted to second base before thinking better of it and taking the sure out at first. It was probably the right move – Duffy is fast and might have been safe, but you want to stay out of the big inning there. After Joe Panik flied out, Buster Posey hit an RBI single. After Hunter Pence singled, Jason Vargas struck out Pablo Sandoval. Can’t fault Yost here – pulling Vargas at this point in the game would have been silly.

- After Vargas worked a scoreless fourth inning but allowed two hits – one to Yusmeiro Petit, who counting the postseason was 5-for-105 in his career as a hitter – I thought it was time to pull him. But given that the leadoff hitter in the fifth, Panik, batted left-handed, followed by right-handed-hitting Buster Posey and Pence, I could see the case for letting Vargas face Panik and the going to RHP Jason Frasor to face Posey and Pence.

That’s what Yost did. Panik doubled to lead off the inning, and Frasor came in. He got Posey to ground out, but Panik moved to third, causing the infield to move in just a little – and Pence was able to shoot a grounder up the middle to score the run. That brought up Sandoval – a switch-hitter who hits right-handers better than left-handers – followed by Brandon Belt (LHB), Juan Perez (RHB, but not much of a hitter in the majors so far), and Brandon Crawford (LHB).

Going to a lefty seemed like the right move here. Yost went to Danny Duffy. Duffy allowed a bullet to Sandoval to put runners on the corners with one out, then walked Belt to load the bases. Perez then hit a line drive that Jarrod Dyson made an outstanding catch on, but Pence scored to tie the game. Then Duffy struck out Crawford.

- Duffy was due up second in the top of the fifth inning, and given how erratic he looked, it made perfect sense to pinch-hit for him there. It made even more perfect sense when Dyson led off with a single. Nori Aoki pinch-hit…and hit into a double play.

Before the at-bat, I argued that given Aoki’s bat control and Dyson’s speed, it was a waste to bunt Dyson there, and that Dyson should steal second, allowing Aoki to move him over to third with one out at the very least. Yost did not put on the bunt. But Dyson did not attempt to steal on the first two pitches – perhaps he felt the need to read Petit’s move, as he had never faced him before – and on the second pitch, Aoki put the ball in play. Had Dyson stolen second, Aoki’s grounder to Belt would have moved him to third. But I can’t fault Yost for not putting on the bunt, and I can’t fault Yost because Dyson didn’t light out for second base on the first or second pitch.

- Brandon Finnegan came on to pitch the sixth, facing the pitcher’s spot followed by two lefties. Joaquin Arias pinch-hit and blooped a single into shallow right field. Gregor Blanco then batted, and tried to bunt twice – the first time he drew the bat back but had a strike called on him on a pitch that was high, and the second time he fouled it off. So with two strikes, he was forced to swing away – and blooped a single over Escobar’s head into left field. This allowed Panik to bunt the runners to second and third.

This brought up Buster Posey, who crushes lefties, and Yost called for the intentional walk. Yost is as conservative with intentional walks as any manager in baseball – the Royals only issued 14 of them all season, the fewest of any team. And calling for one here was debatable, because it loaded the bases and meant that a walk would score a run, and it didn’t obtain the platoon edge. On the other hand, it did set up the double play and a force at every base. This came in handy when Hunter Pence hit a hard groundball to Escobar. With the infield playing halfway, and with Pence having already beaten out a potential double play ball in the first, Escobar chose to go home rather than try the 6-4-3 double play. Arias was out, and the game was still tied with Sandoval at the plate.

But Sandoval, for the second time in the game, hit a ringing single off a left-handed pitcher, driving in two runs and essentially icing the game. Belt – a left-handed hitter – followed with another single to make the score 7-4.

It was the pivotal 6th inning – it’s always the sixth inning – and I’ve seen a lot of people argue that this is where Yost screwed up, that Kelvin Herrera or even Wade Davis should have been in the game. I’m not disagreeing completely. But a couple of things to consider:

1) Herrera had thrown 27 pitches the night before, two days after he threw 32 pitches. He was available, but probably not for more than an inning. If he pitched the sixth, then Davis would have had to pitch the seventh and eighth, meaning both Herrera and Davis would be out for Game 5.

2) Yes, Yost could have gone to Davis right there in the sixth inning. Yes, it was probably a mistake. But out of 30 major league managers, I’d be surprised if more than three would have done that. If it was a mistake, it wasn’t an uncommon one.

3) After Arias – a utility infielder leading off – all the damage in the inning was done by Blanco (LHB), Sandoval (SHB who hits RHP much better than LHP), and Belt (LHB). The two big right-handed bats that Finnegan faced, Posey and Pence, were disposed of – Posey by the intentional walk, Pence on a groundout. Unless you think that Davis or Herrera should have started the inning, the inning came down to Finnegan getting beaten by hitters that he had the advantage on. And, frankly, getting beaten by two fluke hits.

If Blanco gets the bunt down, the Giants might not have scored in the inning. He didn’t, he blooped a single instead, and they scored three runs. That’s baseball. That’s not Ned Yost.

The Giants would score four runs in the seventh inning to run up the score off of Finnegan and Collins, but the game was already iced at that point, and you’re not going to burn a member of the Triborg – and potentially keep them out of Game 5 – when you’re already down three runs.

- I’ve seen it argued that Duffy should have started the fifth inning. I could see that, I suppose, but then you let Posey and Pence face a left-handed pitcher. Duffy had a huge platoon split this year, and three of the first four hitters he would have faced would have batted from the right side. And given how he performed in the game once he came in, you’re going to have a tough time convincing me that what the Royals needed was to call on Duffy sooner and use him more. It’s clear he’s not completely healthy – his fastball is 92-93 in relief – and we can’t just assume he’s the same guy who put up a 2.53 ERA this season.

- Yost could have gone for the jugular in the top of the third inning, and pinch-hit for Vargas with the bases loaded and two outs. But aside from the fact that he would have needed seven innings from his pen, Vargas is a pretty good hitter – not as good as his lifetime .262 average, but one of the better-hitting pitchers around – and had flied out to deep center field his first time up. Vargas, unfortunately, lost track of the count, and started walking to first base when the 2-2 pitch was outside. Did that lead to him being called out on a borderline 3-2 pitch? Maybe, maybe not. But was that Yost’s fault?

- The only other mistake you could argue Yost made was not pinch-hitting for Mike Moustakas against LHP Jeremy Affeldt with two outs in the seventh and Eric Hosmer on first base. This was the time to use Billy Butler or Josh Willingham – neither of whom has appeared in either game in the NL park, mind you. Moustakas grounded out, and then to add salt in the wound, was double-switched out of the game in the bottom of the inning anyway when Collins came in for Finnegan.

This was probably the least ambiguous mistake Yost made. A walk in that situation brings the tying run to the plate; a home run brings the Royals to within one. The game ended with neither Butler nor Willingham getting off the bench. It was a mistake. But it was not, in all likelihood, a decisive one.

Sometimes, you just get beat. Sometimes, the ball doesn’t fall your way. Sometimes, it’s not the manager’s fault, even when you blow an early lead in a game that would have given you a decisive 3-games-to-1 edge in the World Series. The game sucked, and Ned Yost didn’t help. But I don’t think the Royals win that game if Earl LaRussa Showalter had been managing them.

I sense some panic among Royals Nation at the moment, and understandably so, since Madison Bumgarner is up next. I would just like to remind everyone that the series is still tied, that Games 6 and 7 are in Kansas City, and that Bumgarner won't start either of those games. (Although I suppose he can relieve in Game 7, but let’s cross that bridge later.) It is, in fact, possible that James Shields outduels Bumgarner in Game 5. Stranger things have happened. Herrera, Davis, and Holland will all have had a day’s rest; there’s no reason why Shields has to pitch more than five innings anyway.

And if not…well…there’s nothing quite like the home field advantage of Games 6 and 7 of the World Series. In the last 15 years, the home team is 8-1 in Games 6 and 7; the only loss came in the 2003 World Series, when the Yankees lost at home in Game 6 to Josh Beckett. The Giants don’t have anyone the caliber of Beckett starting in Games 6 or 7. The 2002 Angels and the 2011 Cardinals both came home down 3 games to 2, and both teams followed legendary comebacks in Game 6 with a commanding win in Game 7.

I know it feels like the sky is falling, but it’s not. Sometimes you just get beat. That’s what the Giants did to us tonight. The thing is, even if they beat us again, the series won’t be over. It’s a best-of-three series now. And if they’re going to steal the world championship away from us, they’re going to have to do it in Kansas City. I’ll take my chances. At this point, that’s all we can do.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Royals Today: World Series, Game 3.

Well, we might as well start by talking about Ned Yost, because so much of what happened in Game 3 – good and bad – had his fingerprints on it.

And if it's alright with you, let’s start by talking about the one mistake that he made, not because I want to dwell on the bad in a game that the Royals won – making Ned Yost just the second manager ever to win 10 of his first 11 postseason games – but because I want to get it out of the way.

As soon as Jarrod Dyson grounded out to end the top of the fifth inning, meaning that the pitcher’s spot in the lineup would lead off the sixth, I tweeted out that Jeremy Guthrie should pitch the bottom of the fifth only, and then get taken out for a pinch-hitter to lead off the sixth.

Guthrie, to that point, was cruising, but only if you focus simply on the end result of the at-bats against him and not the process that led to the outcome. Guthrie had allowed just two singles, one of them of the infield variety, in four innings. However, he hadn’t struck out a single batter. His defense had made several strong plays in support of him. As if to underscore the point, Guthrie threw a perfect fifth inning – but only after Hunter Pence lined out hard to Omar Infante, and then Brandon Belt did the same thing, this time with Infante perched in short right field as part of the shift. Through five innings, Guthrie had a line of 5 2 0 0 0 0, which is completely unsustainable. His BABIP was .125. He was pitching effectively, but he wasn’t pitching well.

But even if he was, the plan should have been for him to get pulled in the top of the sixth. The Royals had a 1-0 lead, and while it was unlikely that Kelvin Herrera could go two innings just two nights after he had thrown two innings and 32 pitches, he was good for one. So was Wade Davis and Greg Holland. That left just the sixth inning – it's always the sixth inning – and the Royals had several options to pitch. Brandon Crawford was scheduled to lead off the bottom of the sixth, followed by the pitcher’s spot, then Gregor Blanco and Joe Panik – three left-handed bats and a pinch-hitter. Even if Danny Duffy was still unavailable to pitch after throwing 59 pitches in Game 1, Brandon Finnegan hadn’t appeared in the series yet. The formula seemed pretty simple.

And remember: it’s not simply a question of whether Guthrie or Finnegan was the better option for the sixth. It’s whether Guthrie was sufficiently better to justify letting him bat when he led off the top of the inning, a high-leverage spot. Even if Guthrie pitched well, he was going to throw one more inning, tops. The difference between even an elite starter like Clayton Kershaw and a good reliever for one inning is not worth letting a guy with a .121 OBP lead off an inning in a 1-0 game.

Guthrie led off the sixth, and grounded out. The next two hitters singled and doubled, meaning if a pinch-hitter for Guthrie had reached base, he would have scored an extra run. And then Guthrie took the mound to start the sixth, gave up a single to Crawford and an RBI double to pinch-hitter Mike Morse, and was pulled without recording an out. Both runners scored. Making the decision to let Guthrie bat and start the inning even worse was that Yost then replaced him with Herrera, meaning that he was willing to use Herrera with no one out in the sixth inning, but wasn’t willing to do so 15 minutes earlier when Guthrie was due to bat.

 After all this time, the sixth inning remains a minefield, because Yost just isn’t willing to concede that he can pull his starter after just five innings even if his starter is pitching well. (The one time he did do it, in Guthrie's last start - Game 3 of the ALCS - it worked to perfection.) His decision to stick with Guthrie put the Royals’ victory in jeopardy, and only four sterling innings from his bullpen prevented that from happening. It was a mistake. I hope Yost will not repeat it in the series. I am afraid that he will.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about all the things he did right.

Much to my surprise, and in yet another piece of evidence that Yost is a vastly better manager than he was even six weeks ago, his announced lineup before the game 1) had Jarrod Dyson in CF and Lorenzo Cain in RF and 2) had Alex Gordon batting 2nd.

And both moves paid off in a big way. The Royals went with the Golden Outfield alignment, and Cain made two terrific defense plays to end the first and second innings. It’s unlikely Nori Aoki makes both plays, and he might not have made either. Starting Dyson paid immediate dividends in the field.

And Gordon, batting second, did exactly what you want your #2 hitter to do when the leadoff hitter reaches base. In the top of the sixth, after Alcides Escobar singled with one out, Gordon got a fastball up and drove it to the base of the wall in center field, allowing Escobar to score from first base on the double. Gordon then came around to score on Eric Hosmer’s two out single, giving the Royals a 3-0 lead and enough cushion to weather Yost’s mistake of sticking with Guthrie for too long.

And for all the crap I gave Yost for sticking with Guthrie to start the sixth, Bruce Bochy did the same thing, which is why both teams scored two runs in the sixth inning. Guthrie had retired ten straight going into the sixth, and Tim Hudson had retired 11 straight, and neither of those streaks meant a damn thing. Hudson retired Guthrie to start the sixth, but then the lineup turned over for a third time, and wouldn’t you know it, the first two batters to face Hudson for a third time singled and doubled. Hudson was allowed to retire Cain before he was pulled with two outs and a man on second, but the damage was done. Yost made the same mistake, and I excoriated him for it. But like a lot of questionable things that Yost does, he’s far from the only manager who does them. At the very least, Yost managed Bochy to a draw in Game 3. That’s all we can ask for.

There were a couple of other curious decisions that Yost made, but they worked out as well as could be expected. He called upon Herrera to bail out Guthrie in the sixth, which Herrera did, although he allowed Morse to score after a couple of groundouts first. He then let Herrera bat after Dyson singled with two outs in the top of the seventh, a really curious decision given that Herrera had never batted in his professional career, either in the majors or the minors. The argument in favor of it is that with a one-run lead, if Herrera just pitched a scoreless bottom of the seventh you could turn the game over to Wade Davis and Greg Holland at that point. But Herrera walked Pence to lead off the top of the seventh. He then struck out Brandon Belt, blowing a 97 mph fastball right by him on a 3-2 count, possibly the most important pitch of the game – if he throws ball four, the Giants have men on first and second and no one out.

And then Yost takes him out in favor of Finnegan. This is weird on several levels: 1) if you trust Finnegan in such a key spot, why didn’t you trust him to start the sixth inning against a bunch of left-handed batters; 2) having just let Herrera face a left-handed hitter – and strike him out – why would you bring in Finnegan to pitch to another left-handed hitter, especially since that hitter (Travis Ishikawa) was likely to be pinch-hit for by Juan Perez, who in addition to batting right-handed was a far superior defender?

But Finnegan got Perez to line out to Gordon in left, and then struck out Brandon Crawford on a nasty 3-2 fastball down and in. He might have gotten lucky – Crawford swung at ball four – but the pitch had a lot of movement on it as well. The kid who became the first player ever to appear in the College and Real World Series in the same year showed off his huge cojones once again. Wade Davis did Wade Davis things in the eighth, Greg Holland did Greg Holland things in the ninth, and the Royals improved to 5-0 in one-run games during the postseason.

The other questionable decision Yost made was to bat Hosmer and Moustakas back-to-back, making the lineup go R-L-R-L-L-R-R-L, and giving the Giants an opportunity to attack the Royals with lefty and righty specialist for two batters at a time. There’s no good reason to do this – Yost said before the game that he batted them back-to-back because “they’re both swinging the bat well”, which is irrelevant. If he had simply flip-flopped Moustakas and Infante, the lineup would have been essentially perfect – I had advocated Salvador Perez fifth and Infante seventh, but given that Infante appears healthy and had two extra-base hits in Game 2, I wouldn’t have had an issue with Infante fifth instead.

But Yost chose to bat Moustakas right behind Hosmer, and as everyone predicted before the game even started, Bochy attacked the back-to-back lefties with Javier Lopez in the sixth inning. Just one problem for Bochy – it didn’t work. Hosmer had an incredibly impressive at-bat, fouling off five two-strike pitches and working back from an 0-2 count to a 3-2 count, then lining a bullet to center field on the 11th pitch of the at-bat to drive in Gordon from second base with two outs. That run would prove the winning margin.

I don’t know that I’d give Yost any credit for baiting Bochy into bringing in Lopez there – Lopez was probably going to come in to pitch to Hosmer even if there was a right-handed batter on deck, only in that case he would have faced just one batter. And Lopez then struck out Moustakas. I see no evidence that batting them in this order helped at all, and I sincerely hope that Yost changes his mind for Games 4 and 5. But at least in Game 3, thanks to a gorgeous piece of hitting by Hosmer, it didn’t hurt at all.

Yost didn’t manage a perfect game by any stretch. But in the end, his plusses outweighed his minuses, especially when compared to his competition in the other dugout. Yost at least managed Bochy to a draw in Game 3. He outmanaged Bochy in Game 2. And the managers had essentially no bearing in Game 1. Yost isn’t the main reason the Royals are winning. But he’s not holding them back from winning, and I am deeply grateful that he has progressed to this point as a manager at the perfect possible time.

- The defense, just to reiterate, was terrific once again. Cain was exceptional. Perez threw out Pence trying to steal second base in the second inning, which saved a run when Belt following with a single. Pence reached on an infield single, but Escobar almost made an exceptional play to throw him out, barehanding his chopper but pulling Hosmer off the bag with his throw. Even Holland got in the act, snagging Pence’s hot shot up the middle with two outs in the ninth, flipping to Hosmer to end the game.

- Ned Yost didn’t call on a pinch-hitter in the entire game – played under National League rules. That can happen when the starting pitcher throws a complete game, but the Royals used five pitchers in the game. Somehow, their pitchers batted all three times that spot in the lineup came up. Somehow, Yost got away with it. I would kindly ask that he refrain from trying to repeat it.

- The first run of the game was Royals baseball at its best. Escobar ambushed Hudson, jumping on the very first pitch of the game for a double off the left field wall. Gordon then grounded out to the right side, allowing Escobar to move to third, and then Cain – after the 2-1 pitch was called a strike on one of the very worst ball/strike calls I’ve seen all season – the pitch was at least six inches low – rebounded to put a ball in play with two strikes, grounding out to Crawford as Escobar scored.

Once again, with a man on third base and one out, the Royals stayed away from the strikeout, and once again it led to a run. And this time, that run was the margin of victory. Put the ball in play. Run hard. And trust that good things will happen.

- Speaking of good things, the Royals are two wins away from the best thing of all: a world championship. They are guaranteed to be back in Kansas City on Tuesday, either for Game 6 of the World Series, or for a parade. My brain does not have the capacity to comprehend either of those possibilities. But they’re going to happen all the same. Go crazy, folks. Go crazy. I know I am.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Royals Today: World Series, Game 2.

Well, that didn’t suck.

On Tuesday night, in Game 1 of the World Series, the Royals had exactly the game I had feared they would have…in the Wild Card game against Oakland. That day, I was terrified that 15 minutes after their first postseason in 29 years began, it would be effectively over. And it certainly looked awfully precarious early, when James Shields gave up a two-run home run to Brandon Moss in the first inning. But the Royals answered quickly and even took the lead in the third inning before the A’s five-run sixth meant that their first postseason in 29 years effectively lasted about two hours.

Or not. The one thing that kept me calm as Madison Bumgarner mowed down batter after batter late into the game was that the last time the Royals were in that position, they had a miraculous comeback in a game they could not afford to lose. They didn’t need a miraculous comeback Tuesday night. They just needed to win Wednesday night.

And they did, in a game which – while certainly more dramatic and longer in doubt than Game 1 – was nearly as lopsided at the end.

I’m used to writing about individual Royals games in depth. I am not used to writing about Royals games that have already been picked apart by literally dozens of the best sportswriters in the country. There isn’t much I can add here, so I’ll just focus on a few details:

- After giving up a bomb to Gregor Blanco – Gregor Blanco?! – to lead off the game, Yordano Ventura did what James Shields could not: prove it was a fluke. Ventura was effective, if not particularly dominant, into the sixth inning. His velocity was regularly in the upper 90s, perhaps not as fast as it was during the salad days of summer, but better than in his last start – and after leaving that start with a tight shoulder, the return of some velocity was a welcome surprise. He only struck out two batters, which would be concerning except Ventura’s strikeout rate has trailed his pure velocity all season. He struck out 20.3% of batters he faced this year, just a little above league average, even though he was one of the three hardest-throwing starting pitchers in baseball. He got a two-strike count on nine batters, and just had trouble putting them away.

But he also didn’t walk anyone, limiting the damage. He’s not perfect, but I don’t think there’s a Royals fan alive who wouldn’t take Ventura over Shields right now in a game with everything on the line. In all likelihood they’ll both get another start; if the Royals do get to a Game 6, they’ll either be playing to clinch a championship or to save their season, and either way, I’m glad they’ll have the guy who right now is their best starting pitcher on the mound.

- It is quite possible Billy Butler just made his final appearance at Kauffman Stadium as a member of the Royals. If he did, he couldn’t have gone out with a better memory to leave fans with: a single in the first inning to tie the game, and another one in the sixth to give them the lead they wouldn’t relinquish. According to Baseball-Reference’s win expectancy chart, they were two of the four most important plays in the game.

I’m not really analyzing here. I’m just really happy for Butler, the longest-tenured player on the team (he has more service time than Alex Gordon by ten days), who suddenly seemed to lose his ability to hit when the Royals finally needed him to, and who seems to be the one player that Ned Yost isn’t willing to protect and defend like one of his own children. Butler has taken a lot of crap over the years, from the fans, the media, and the team, some deserved and some not. He’s ungodly slow, he doesn’t hit for enough power, he can’t play defense. But at his best he’s always been a line drive machine. Wednesday night, when the Royals badly needed a line drive, he delivered. Twice. It was kind of special.

- At his best, Nori Aoki plays defense the way he hits – awkwardly but surprisingly effectively. At his worst, he’s just awkward. Last night he was just awkward, and as amazing as the Royals’ defense is when they have an Alex Gordon-Jarrod Dyson-Lorenzo Cain configuration, having Aoki out there puts a significant dent in its value.

This is particularly an issue now because the Royals move to San Francisco, where AT&T Park is nearly as spacious as Kauffman but with the added dimension of having, well, added dimensions: the outfield wall juts out in weird directions, the ball takes different bounces off the wall depending on where it hits, and the wind from the bay occasionally does unnatural things to the flight of a baseball. As I wrote before the series began, how the Royals’ outfielders handle the park in San Francisco is one of the hidden keys to this series.

I hadn’t given much thought to it before this afternoon, but Soren Petro brought it up on my weekly radio hit with him, and he succeeded in convincing me: the Royals need to start Dyson instead of Aoki in Games 3 and 4. (Against Madison Bumgarner in Game 5, Aoki clearly starts, since Dyson can’t hit lefties at all while Aoki has hit them better than right-handed pitchers in his career.)

Not only does starting Dyson give you the best possible outfield defense for the first six innings instead of just the last three, it makes Aoki a very useful pinch-hitting option. Because the Royals lose the DH in the NL park, Butler is only going to get one at-bat in all likelihood, meaning the Royals need additional bats on the bench. Josh Willingham is one of them. It’s probably not for no reason that Ned Yost pinch-hit for Butler with Willingham with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 1, and that he pinch-ran for Butler with Terrance Gore in the sixth inning, guaranteeing that spot would come up again and that Willingham would pinch-hit for Gore. Yost pretty clearly wanted Willingham, who prior to Game 1 had just two plate appearances in the previous 22 days, to get some reps before the games in the NL park started.

If the Royals start Dyson, then they now have three quality pinch-hitting options in Butler, Willingham, and Aoki. And they all do different things. Butler is the best hitter overall, but in a double play situation, you would go to Willingham if you want to prioritize power (no outs, man on first), and Aoki if you want to prioritize contact and singles (one out, men on first and third).

Aoki has particular value as a pinch-hitter because he has no platoon split to speak of, and in the late innings – when pinch-hitters get called upon – Bruce Bochy will be in his bullpen, and as we saw in the sixth inning last night, he can be extremely aggressive about calling on a reliever to face just one batter if need be. Aoki is essentially immune to these shenanigans – while Javier Lopez is a sidearming left-handed pitcher and has the extreme platoon splits characteristic of them, Aoki is better equipped to handle Lopez than any other left-handed hitter on the roster.

In AL parks, with the DH in play and less need to pinch-hit, having two pinch-runners in reserve is an effective strategy. But in an NL park, pinch-hitters are a necessity. Starting Dyson over Aoki would improve the defense and improve the bench, because it swaps in a pinch-hitter that the Royals definitely need for a pinch-runner who was simply a luxury.

And amazingly enough, Yost is hinting – according to Andy McCullough – that he might actually do just that. For a guy who has literally written out the exact same lineup for over a month, he is once again picking the perfect time to not be dogmatic about his approach and to make subtle but crucial changes to his approach. Yost is not a tactical genius, but he might be something even more rare, and more impressive: a manager who is improving in real time under the glare of the postseason spotlight. Genius, after all, is a gift. Improvement is earned. Yost’s improvement this month is earning him a fresh look from those of us who were skeptical he’d ever learn this side of the game well enough to succeed.

Or, you know, he might start Aoki anyway. I guess we’ll see.

With Butler out of the lineup, starting Dyson also opens up the possibility of a really interesting lineup change that would keep the R-L-R-L dynamic going:

R Escobar SS
L Gordon LF
R Cain RF
L Hosmer 1B
R Perez C
L Moustakas 3B
R Infante 2B
L Dyson CF

You get Gordon’s OBP ahead of your postseason hit machines, and anyway your best hitter should usually bat 2nd. Maybe he’s not their best hitter right now, but for the season as a whole Gordon was their best hitter, and that’s not something you can just ignore.

And yes, keeping the R-L-R-L dynamic going is critical. As we saw Wednesday night, Bochy will use his relievers for one batter if the situation is important enough. You don’t want someone like Lopez getting the platoon advantage for consecutive batters; if he wants to face two left-handed batters, he’s going to have to go around at least one right-handed hitter in the process.

- Was I the only one who saw some similarities between the sixth inning last night and the eighth inning of the wild card game? Both involved a single by Lorenzo Cain, then a full-count walk by Eric Hosmer in what I feel was the crucial at-bat of both innings, and then an RBI single by Billy Butler. The innings devolved from there, but the core of the inning – what made the big innings possible – is the same. Hosmer’s walk in the Wild Card was the most underrated moment in the inning, if not the game. I would say the same thing about his walk last night.

- Herrera, Davis, and Holland combined for 3.2 innings last night. If only the regular season had two off-days every week. The Royals might have won 90 games. (And lost only 40.)

- I don’t really get starting Jeremy Guthrie over Jason Vargas in Game 3. Not because of who starts Game 3 or 4 – they’re both starting in the same ballpark, and it doesn’t matter who goes first. It matters because whoever starts Game 3 starts Game 7. And the decision of who your starting pitcher should be for Game 7 of the World Series is kind of big.

The Giants start as many as six left-handed hitters in their lineup. That’s not a big reason to start Vargas, who doesn’t have a huge platoon split, but it is a reason not to start Guthrie, a right-hander who lefties hit pretty well. I honestly, truly don’t get the move.

Unless. Unless the reason is that the Royals have already figured out that in Game 7 of the World Series, all the rules get thrown out the window, and your “starting pitcher” is simply your first reliever. Unless they think that by starting Guthrie against the Giants, they might entice the Giants to load up their lineup with left-handed bats. Unless they then plan to pull Guthrie at the first sign of danger – and I mean the first sign, like in the second inning. Unless they tell Guthrie ahead of time that look, you’re not going five innings tonight, and you might not even go three, so just air it out for as long as you can go and we’ll pull you as soon as you falter even a tiny bit. Unless they then plan to go to lefties Danny Duffy and Brandon Finnegan as soon as the second or third inning, either garnering a big platoon edge – with Herrera, Davis, and Holland ready to take over as soon as the fifth inning – or forcing Bochy to pinch-hit with his right-handed bats that early in the game, locking those bats in against the three-headed cyborg (or Triborg, as brilliant Twitter follower Dean Lytton called it) for the rest of the game.

Honestly, I don’t think that’s what the Royals are thinking. I don’t think that they would have set up a trap for the Giants in Game 7 before the series even began. I’m terrified that they named Guthrie their Game 3 starter because they’d honestly rather have him on the mound in Game 7 than Vargas.

But if they are setting a trap…hot damn. I would love that.

- My wife flew down to join me for Game 2 of the World Series, just her second time at Kauffman Stadium, and her first time since shortly after we got married in the summer of 1997. (This is the game we attended. It turned out to be the first game in a 12-game losing streak that got Bob Boone fired and ushered in the Tony Muser Era.) So…yeah, this was a different experience for her. A much better experience.

I sprung for some nice tickets in Section 117, just past third base – as a medical professional, I am quite aware that you can live a full and normal life with just one kidney. We sat (well, stood more than sat, like everyone else…) next to a family that had chartered a flight from Tennessee that day to watch Game 2, and were flying back the next day. I didn’t think much of it other than, “well, they’re loaded.” But in the sixth inning, as the Royals came to bat I started talking with the gentleman next to me, who told me that he had attended all the Royals’ home games in the 1985 World Series, and his family had a connection to the Royals. I was curious.

“Do you remember the guy who was co-owner of the Royals in the 1980s?” he asked me, as the Royals mounted their rally. “Avron Fogelman, sure,” I replied. Fogelman is a mostly-forgotten part of Royals history, but in 1983, Royals owner Ewing Kauffman, who was concerned about his own mortality and lacking any heirs that wanted to run the team, had been looking for a potential successor, someone younger but wealthy enough to own the club. He found Avron Fogelman, a Memphis real estate tycoon who owned the Double-A Memphis Chicks. He sold Fogelman 49% of the team, with an option to buy a majority stake later.

In 1985, when the Royals won the World Series, both Kauffman and Fogelman were presented as co-owners. My most vivid memory of Fogelman is seeing him during the Royals’ championship celebration after Game 7. But the Memphis real estate market nosedived in the late 1980s, Fogelman needed cash, and his only liquid asset was his stake in the Royals. He sold his stake back to Kauffman – well creditors demanded his stake go up for auction, but there were no serious bidders other than Kauffman – in 1990, and disappeared from Royals history. Three years later, Kauffman passed away, with no owner to take over the reins, and the Royals were set adrift.

“Avron Fogelman, sure,” I replied. “Yeah, he’s my dad,” he told me, as the Royals piled on five runs in the inning, their biggest inning of the playoffs.

The Fogelmans were in the house. They weren’t there for Game 1, when the Royals lost, but they were there for Game 2. He was there for all four home games in 1985, including the most dramatic game in Royals history in Game 6, and the greatest celebration in Royals history in Game 7. Needless to say, as we said our goodbyes after the game, “you have to come back next week.”

-  “You don’t have to treat me like that. Look at Omar. Omar hit the bomb. I didn’t hit the bomb. I hit a double.”

I’m hoping to create a wall of pictures of the seminal moments of this postseason, either for my house or my office – or maybe both. (If they lose the World Series, it will likely be muted. If they win…I will probably spend a truly irresponsible amount of money making it happen.) There are many seminal moments to choose from.

But I think I might have to find a spot on my wall to frame this quote from Salvador Perez as well. So much win here. Perez body-slams Hunter Strickland so effortlessly I’m not even sure he meant it.

“Look at Omar. Omar hit the bomb.” I'm innocent, dude. Someone stole your lunch money, but it wasn't me.

“I didn’t hit the bomb. (I hit a double.)” OHHHHHH SNAP

- Perez could have made this incident into something much bigger than it was, and he would have been entirely justified in doing so. I’m not referring to him going after Strickland or anything. I’m referring to the fact that after the game, Perez explained what happened by saying that:

“After Omar hit the bomb, and I get close to home plate, he start to look at me,” Perez said. “So I asked him like, ‘Hey, why you look at me?’ So he was telling me, ‘Get out of here, whatever.’”

Except that even an amateur lip-reader can deduce that what Strickland said was, “get in the dugout, boy,” something about a dozen of you tweeted to me when I asked (since we didn’t know what had instigated the brouhaha) about what had happened.

I hope I don’t have to explain to you the potential implications of a white guy from Georgia calling a dark-skinned immigrant “boy”. This could be a much bigger story. Frankly, maybe it should be, and it’s a little curious that it isn’t. But that’s at least in part because the guy who was the recipient of those thoughtless words either heard something different than what the rest of us read, or chose to take the high road and ignore it.

Perez has had the worst season of his career at the plate, a terrible second half, and a generally awful postseason punctuated by the biggest hit of the season and his big double last night. But I don’t care. He’s still my bae.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Royals Today: World Series, Game 1.

Well, that sucked.

Salvador Perez, amazingly enough, came through again after I dared him to find me, hitting a home run angled directly at us into the left field bullpen; another twenty feet of distance and I might have an incredible souvenir. Unfortunately, that was literally the only positive thing that happened tonight. James Shields was, let’s be blunt, terrible, and he was terrible from the first batter. For the third time in four playoff starts, he surrendered a first-inning home run.

The Royals came back when he allowed a solo homer to Mike Trout, and they came back – barely – when he allowed a two-run homer to Brandon Moss. But they couldn’t come back when he allowed a two-run homer to Hunter Pence after allowing an RBI double to Pablo Sandoval, even after Giants’ third base coach Tim Flannery gifted him an out by foolishly sending Buster Posey home from first base. Shields faced 16 batters in total, and allowed seven hits, including two doubles and a home run. He struck out one batter. He threw just 39 of 70 pitches for strikes. There’s nothing good you can take from his performance.

Shields took the crowd out of the game in the first inning, and Madison Bumgarner refused to let them back in. They had their shot in the third inning, getting men on second and third with none out, but Bumgarner struck out Alcides Escobar and Nori Aoki. Ever since Perez struck out against Luke Gregerson in the Wild Card game, the Royals have been terrific about making contact with a man on third base and less than two out, which has led to more than one crucial run. When neither Escobar nor Aoki – Aoki being the best contact hitter on the team – could put a ball in play with the Giants playing the infield back, you knew we were in trouble. After Lorenzo Cain worked a tough walk, Eric Hosmer did what you knew he would do and swung out of his shoes at the first pitch – and when Bumgarner changed speeds on him, the result was a soft grounder to second base and the end of the Royals last, best chance to come back.

There’s not much to analyze here. The game lacked drama, which means it lacked any key managerial decisions. You could argue that Ned Yost should have pinch-hit for his lefty bats against sidearming Javier Lopez in the eighth inning, subbing Jayson Nix for Mike Moustakas and Josh Willingham for Nori Aoki. My friend Joe Sheehan certainly did. If the Royals had been down by two runs, or even four runs, I’d feel more adamantly that Yost made a mistake. But the Royals were so far down that, in order to finish off a six-run comeback, those lineup spots would have come up again, and the Royals would be locked into Nix against a right-handed reliever of Bochy’s choosing. Having Willingham in the game wouldn’t be such a disaster, but Aoki has hit LHP better than RHP throughout his career. I see Joe’s point, and he’s probably right, but…I just can’t get too upset about it. This game wasn’t decided by the managers; it was decided by the players. Madison Bumgarner pitched like an ace; James Shields pitched like a guy who was about to cost himself a fair amount of money in free agency.

The silver lining from Shields’ start was that it forced the Royals to use Danny Duffy in a game, and after a rough start – not surprising for a guy who had pitched once in over three weeks and came in with men on base – he was very effective, getting a lot of swinging strikes from Giants hitters in the fifth and sixth. After the sixth inning, he had thrown 50 pitches, and I thought it was time to pull him, because having established that he was effective, and with the Giants having six left-handed bats in their lineup, having two effective left-handed relievers in Duffy and Finnegan would be a huge asset going forward. They needed to pull Duffy there so that he could realistically pitch on two days’ rest in Game 3.

Instead Yost let him start the seventh, although after nine pitches, a walk, and some terrible defense by Aoki that turned a single or double into a triple, he was gone. That’s the one mistake I think Yost should own. The only reason to stretch Duffy there was if you were legitimately thinking that he should start later in the series. And I know a ton of people wanted him to take Shields’ next start after Shields threw up his fourth mediocre to bad start in a row. But…seriously, people, that was never going to happen. You really think that, in his last start in a Royals uniform, Shields was going to have the ball taken away from him? Short of an injury, that just seems impossible. Yost said as much after the game, making it clear that Shields was still his Game 5 starter.

Which is fine, if Shields is on a really tight leash in that game. But if that’s the case, if Duffy isn’t going to start later in this series, then you need him to be available out of the bullpen as soon as possible. Letting him throw extra pitches there, when you had six other relievers who hadn’t pitched in five days and an off-day looming on Thursday, was silly.

The good news is that the Royals lost the Giants’ best pitcher, which could have happened under any circumstances. If the Royals had lost 2-1, it wouldn’t have been as deflating, but it would have been just as damaging to their World Series chances. Tomorrow they face Jake Peavy, who was dominant for the Giants but had a 4.72 ERA with the Red Sox – back when he pitched in the AL – before getting traded at the deadline. In Game 3 they get Tim Hudson, with a 3.57 ERA; in Game 4 they get Ryan Vogelsong, with a 4.00 ERA. If they win tomorrow, they’ll be fine.

But they have to win tomorrow. Let’s not forget – Yordano Ventura left his last start with shoulder tightness, and while he’s had ten days to rest, that’s not something you can just wave away. It’s the World Series. The Royals are down 1-0, and they’re about to start a pitcher who pulled himself from his last start. In Nick Kenney We Trust, but that would make me nervous under the best of circumstances. In a game that would put the Royals in a 2-0 hole if they lose, with three games in San Francisco to come…that makes me borderline terrified.

Let’s not make too much of this. Three weeks after the Royals were six outs from being eliminated, they are 81 outs from being eliminated. As appealing as the dream of going 12-0 was, it was just a dream. There’s nothing wrong with losing a game after winning eight in a row. They just need to win four of their next six, which doesn’t seem like a terribly tall order. But if 24 hours from now they need to win four of their next five…now we’re in trouble.