Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Royals Today: 7/2/2008.

If the Kentucky Derby is the fastest two minutes in sports, I’m about to give you the fastest 35 minutes in sportswriting - known around here as "lunchtime." The following may not be particularly insightful or well-written, but eating gruel every now and then just makes real food taste even better, no?

- I’ve ripped Hillman a few times for certain decisions he has made, and I can state with complete confidence that he has cost the Royals two games this season – June 10th against the Rangers, and May 28th against the Twins – when the Royals blew huge leads in the late innings because of bad choices about which reliever to use. But those two games have, I think, had a greater impact on the psyche of the team and the fan base than on the team’s record. Other than those two games, the Royals have lost just one game all season that they were leading after 7 innings.

Monday night, Hillman's decisions won the game. Some of his moves were, I thought, questionable, particularly pulling Greinke for Horacio Ramirez after just 86 pitches after Greinke got crushed for four runs in the fifth. But Horacio threw a scoreless inning, and brother Ramon threw two more.

Hillman made a risky call for an intentional walk in the bottom of the 8th, men on second and third, one out. I don’t usually like an intentional walk that loads the bases, because you’re banking that the next batter’s OBP will be less than the current batter’s batting average. And walking one right-handed hitter (Melvin Mora) for another (Ramon Hernandez) makes little sense.

But with the Royals down by a run already, the value of an insurance run in that situation is enormous (as forthcoming events would prove), and you can argue that putting the double play in order with a slow hitter at the plate justified the move. Ramirez isn’t a huge groundball pitcher – although he hasn’t allowed a homer in over 40 innings this year – but he got the one he needed in that situation, setting up Olivo’s heroics.

It may seem like a no-brainer in retrospect, but the mere fact that Olivo was batting in the ninth is the reason why Hillman, at the very least, has shown more managerial acumen than the man he replaced. Mark Teahen isn’t a great hitter, but neither is he the kind of hitter that’s routinely pinch-hit for in the ninth inning. Buddy Bell, I suspect, would have let him bat. Hillman, on the other hand, isn’t afraid of using all the bullets in his gun, and I love him for it. The Royals have a four-man bench, DeJesus was out, and by pinch-hitting Olivo in that spot necessitated using German on defense should the game continue, which meant that the only player left in reserve would be Tony Pena Jr. Then consider that Olivo’s your backup catcher, and burning him in that spot would lock John Buck into the game no matter how banged up he got – there are all sorts of reasons why Buddy Bell would find a reason not to use Olivo there.

The other field boss of a major professional sports franchise in Kansas City once said, “you play…to win…the game,” and has received an unbelievable amount of crap for that. And yes, on the surface what Herm Edwards said sounds like something Ralph Wiggum would have come up with. But it’s easy to miss Herm’s point. You play to win the game – you don’t play to not lose the game. A lot of managers would have left Olivo in reserve out of fear. And it’s not even a fear of losing the game, but the fear of losing embarrassingly, because of the one-in-a-thousand chance that Buck gets hurt and Ross Gload has to don the tools of ignorance or something. Managers don’t want to be embarrassed; some managers, I hate to say, would rather lose cleanly than gamble that they might lose ugly.

Hillman isn’t afraid. He needed a home run, his backup catcher happens to have a career .293/.324/.539 line against LHP with 28 homers in a little over 500 at-bats, and he took his shot. Make that 29 homers. Throw in two scoreless innings from the suddenly unhittable Ron Mahay, and it was only a matter of time before the Mexicutioner would mete out his punishment.

Hillman was given two right-handed hitting swing-from-the-heels catchers by his boss, and had to figure out how to use them such that he would continue to develop the incumbent while not offending the new arrival. Halfway through the season, Buck is on pace for over 400 plate appearances (more than last year, when his competition was Jason LaRue) - and Olivo is on pace for about 370. Hillman has found regular playing time for both of them, starting Olivo at DH 18 times even without a third catcher on the roster.

- Olivo saved the Royals from a heaping dose of what-ifs. They stranded 11 guys, and after singling his first two times up, Billy Butler rolled into a double play (complete with a questionable call at first) in the sixth right before the next four batters reached base against (need I say it, ex-Royal) Ryan Bukvich. Greinke gave up three consecutive two-out RBI hits before closing out the fifth.

The formula nonetheless worked so well that the Royals tried again last night, spotting the O’s a five-run lead after six innings. The comeback fell two runs short, but the mere fact that the Royals aren’t laying down after falling well behind is a comforting, and unusual, sight to see.

- Mike Aviles’ momma said there’d be days like this. He single-handedly killed the comeback, by flying out to shallow center with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth, then rolling into a double play after the first two batters reached in the 7th. In those two innings the Royals had six hits (including a homer) and a walk…and scored one run. Aviles hit into two double plays in the game, doubling his career total.

But it’s the two defensive misplays that have to worry you – the failure to throw out a runner at the plate in the second, the bizarre fielder’s choice-but-everyone’s-safe play in the third that allowed the Orioles to score four two-out runs. They have to worry you, because while the Royals realize Aviles is never going to be a defensive standout, if he doesn’t play shortstop any better than Pena handles the bat, they’ll move on to someone else.

I think the Royals should ride out the season with Aviles as the starter, but if you’re going to keep Pena on the roster, don’t you think you ought to use him? Pena hasn’t so much as stepped on the field in the last six games. A few months ago I advocated a platoon of sorts between Pena and Callaspo, which would translate very well to Aviles. Pena should start when Hochevar is on the mound, given Luke’s groundball tendencies. Aviles starts when Meche and Greinke, both power pitchers who get flyballs, start. Either one can start when Bannister or Davies are on the mound, after taking into account the opposing starter, prevailing wind conditions, and a Ouija board.

But at the very least, Pena should be out there every fifth day. If he had been out there last night, the Royals likely would have won.

Thirty-five minutes. Close to 1200 words, and absolutely nothing consequential to say. Yeah, I’d say I was made to be a blogger.