If I may quote my White Sox beat writer friend from a few years ago…how the hell did we win this game?
Things certainly started out well enough, the exact opposite of Friday night’s death by a thousand singles. Teahen poked one up the middle,
With one out Gordon drew a walk – he already has more walks this year than last – to load the bases, but Olivo struck out and John Danks was threatening to wiggle out of the inning. Until Ross Gload came through with a two-run single. 4-0, Bannister hasn’t even taken the mound – what could go wrong?
Well, Hillball could make an appearance. With two outs, men on first and third, and German at the plate…Gload lit out for second. He was only about by about ten feet.
I realize I’m spitting in the wind here – nothing against any of you fine readers, but none of you are flashing signs at first base – but can someone get through to Trey Hillman that the only threat Ross Gload poses on the bases is to his own team? Gload has now attempted 7 steals this season, and has been nailed on more than half of them. He’s 11-for-
The situation made the decision to run even worse. For one thing, there was a runner at third base – which raises the risks of getting caught stealing, because you end the inning with a man in scoring position already, but does not raise the rewards. You can calculate the break-even point for a stolen-base attempt using the run expectancy matrix. For instance, this season when there are men on first-and-third and two outs, the average team scores 0.458 runs the rest of the inning. With men on second and third and two outs (i.e. after a successful steal of second), that number rises to 0.616 runs. But if the runner is caught stealing, the number drops to zero, as the inning is over. If you do a little algebra, you can calculate that the break-even point for a basestealing attempt in this situation is 74.3% - you have to be successful more than 74.3% of the time to make the steal attempt worthwhile.
By comparison, with a man on first only and two outs, the break-even point is 67.3%. You already have a man in scoring position – why put two runners at risk of dying on the bases so that one runner might advance?
The second point has nothing to do with math and everything to do with psychology. John Danks has already given up four runs, and two men are on base – he’s obviously laboring, and you have a chance to ice this game against a struggling pitcher. Why hand him a free out? Hillman did, and it would hurt the Royals even more when German led off the second with a double into the gap – a double that probably would have scored Gload from first base anyway.
Ah, but the fun was just getting started. DeJesus was caught leaning the wrong way on first base, and got picked off (officially a caught stealing because he got caught in a rundown) to end the second. And in the fifth, Billy Butler – who I swear is trying to set the all-time record for most boneheaded baserunning outs in one season – casually assumed that Gordon’s line drive would get through the infield, and was almost to third base when Orlando Cabrera reached up and caught it. He could have crawled to the bag and had time to double up
So in the span of five innings, the Royals had made the final out on the bases three times. Meanwhile, Bannister’s transition to becoming a power pitcher hit another roadblock. He gave up two runs in the first inning (and left the bases loaded), and a game-tying three-run homer to Joe Crede in the third. Remarkably, he started both innings by retiring the first two batters. There’s a lot of good things to take from this outing – he struck out four batters, and aside from Swisher’s homer every other hit was a single. Much like Greinke, he just seemed to be giving up a lot of well-placed batted balls.
But there are still some adjustments he has to make. He threw 77 pitches in just three innings, and reached a full count on five batters. He seems to be trying to up his strikeout rate by nibbling at the corners – Bannister has not thrown strikes on more than 62% of his pitches in any of his last eight starts. By comparison, he threw more than 62% strikes in ten of his first 12 starts.
Meanwhile, the Royals couldn’t touch their old teammate D.J. Carrasco, but Horacio Ramirez was equally effective in the bottom halves of the inning. In the seventh, DeJesus took off for second base on a 2-2 count to
In the bottom of the seventh, all the wasted opportunities came to bear when Swisher connected off Ramon Ramirez – shortly after Jim Thome doubled for his 2000th career hit – for a go-ahead homer. I’ll take the blame on this one; when Ramirez entered the game, I mentioned to the small but hardy group of Royals fans that joined me at the park today that he had not surrendered a home run all season.
And then, in the top of the 8th, came one of the weirdest managerial moves I’ve ever seen. After Grudzielanek struck out against Octavio Dotel, we watched as Alex Gordon trudged from the on-deck circle back to the dugout. We waited for him to return, perhaps with a new bat or helmet or something. We wondered why Jose Guillen was walking to the plate instead. We heard the PA announcer overhead informing us that Guillen was pinch-hitting for Gordon, but it didn’t register. Until at some point it did, and we all turned to each other, a row of Royals fans all with their mouths open but no sound coming out.
Jose Guillen was pinch-hitting for…Alex Gordon.
Alex Gordon, who’s hitting .280/.365/.492 against right-handed pitching.
Gordon, who’s just a tick behind David DeJesus as the best hitter on the team against right-handers.
With Guillen, who’s hitting .257/.275/.420 against RHP.
I dare say it’s unusual to deliberately give up the platoon advantage when pinch-hitting in any situation, unless the batter is a pitcher or his dad used to manage the club but quit in the middle of the night or something. But to pinch-hit for one of your best hitters in a key situation and surrender the platoon advantage at the same time…I’m sorry, but this doesn’t add up.
I suspect there is more to the story here. After the game Hillman said, “I didn’t really like the way Alex was swinging the bat today.” O-kay. If you say so, Trey. Gordon walked in the first inning. He struck out in the third inning – both those at-bats against a left-hander, and we all know Gordon has had trouble against left-handers this year. Against Carrasco in the fifth, he hit a soft line drive that Cabrera caught – not a screaming line drive, but certainly one that would have gotten through for a hit had it been placed better. Miguel Olivo, to that point, had a worse game than Gordon – and he’s garbage against right-handed hitters. But for some reason Hillman decided that Gordon was the problem.
There has to be more to the story here. Maybe Gordon wasn't showing enough effort, or he was insubordinate, or he made a pass at one of Hillman’s relatives. But somehow he has gotten on Hillman’s bad side. That’s the only explanation that makes sense here. Whatever the explanation is, it’s not good for Royals fans. Either we have yet another clubhouse crisis that needs to be defused, or our manager is just astonishingly stupid. There’s no way to spin this as a positive going forward.
But today, it was brilliant. Rarely in the annals of Royals history has such a clearly bad move played a more significant role in helping the Royals win. Guillen got hit by a pitch. He stole second base – yeah, it finally worked, Trey, and it still didn’t factor in the outcome. Gload worked a walk from Matt Thornton, against whom lefties are hitting .132 this year. And Esteban German, getting a chance to prove that the last two seasons were not a fluke, ripped one past Joe Crede, and Gload came around from first to score the go-ahead run.
If you think I’m done ripping on Trey Hillman, think again. As early as the sixth inning, I turned to the boys and said, “you know, if we have the lead in the 8th and Hillman doesn’t use Soria for two innings, he’s never going to use him for two innings.” Soria hasn’t pitched since the All-Star Game on Tuesday. His two set-up men, Ramirez and Mahay, both pitched yesterday. (In fact, Soria’s the only guy in the pen who didn’t pitch on Friday or Saturday.) The Royals’ starting pitcher didn’t make it past three innings for the second time in three days. Soria is the only fresh reliever in the pen. It’s a tight game on the road against a team that kills us in their park. The Sox have their leadoff hitter due up to start the 8th. If you’re not going to use Soria for the two-inning save here, when are you?
Mahay came in to pitch the 8th. Cabrera hit a line-drive right at DeJesus. Pierzynski hit a ground-rule double to right-center. Carlos Quentin walked. And only then did Soria get up in the pen and start throwing lightly.
Brian Anderson singled through the 5-6 hole to leftfield. And Trey Hillman got to play the genius, because replacing German (who had moved to third) in leftfield was Guillen – who launched a one-hop missile to the plate. Pierzynski didn’t even bother to slide – he just pulled up as Olivo tagged him. He looked more surprised than anything else, like he had just been the victim of the hidden-ball trick or something. Mahay struck out Thome, and that was it.
I mean, yeah, there was still an inning to play, but it was time for the Mexicutioner to restore order and sanity, and he did. Konerko managed to hit Soria’s first pitch of the ninth to medium-depth centerfield; the next two hitters both struck out on curveballs that were so wicked that Olivo had to tag both batters because each strikeout pitch bounced.
(Now that Soria has a nickname, is it time we named his pitches as well? At the very least, I propose we name the Mexicutioner’s weapon of choice – that ridiculous slow curveball that batters know they’re going to get with two strikes and still can’t resist – the Guillotine. Why the Guillotine? Because it’s sharp, it drops straight down, and it dispatches its victims with lethal efficiency.)
So the curse is broken. Despite my presence at the park, despite one of Hillman’s worst games in a season rife with bad ones, the Royals won. A special thanks to the guys who came to the game with me, and congratulations to Brian Sobek, who by virtue of outlasting the competition in the Obscure Royals Trivia contest I dreamed up, won himself a Mexicutioner T-shirt courtesy of my friends at 810 WHB.