Man, did it feel good to type out the words after Royals Today…
- If Tuesday night was a miracle wrapped up into a single game, last night has me starting to believe that the Almighty has more in store for the Royals than simply an ALDS berth. It started right before the game, when I was talking with my 11-year-old daughter and she was telling me about all the new friends she was making in sixth grade now that the four local elementary schools had merged at the middle school level. She told me one of her new friends’ first name, and then said, “and she had a really fun last name – BI-AN-CA-LA-NA.”
I responded like I had been shot.
Tuesday night it was Room 2323. Last night it was a classmate named Biancalana. This is getting spooky, my friends. And if you don’t think so based on that story, you have to think so based on the game itself.
- The one button that Ned Yost keeps pushing no matter how many times it burns him is the “WHO TO PITCH IN SIXTH INNING” button. As Brian Bannister tweeted, “The dreaded 6th. Too late for a starter…too early for a reliever.” Well, if you’re Ned Yost.
Jason Vargas had pitched as well as we had any right to expect, taking full advantage of his outfield defense – Lorenzo Cain had two brilliant catches in the first two innings alone – to keep the Angels off the bases. He couldn’t keep them from trotting around them, though, giving up home runs to David Freese and Chris Ianetta, but at least he had the presence of mind to give them up with no one on base.
I probably wouldn’t have let him start the sixth inning, although I could see a case for it given that Kole Calhoun, one of only two left-handed hitters in the Angels’ lineup, batted second in the inning. But after Calhoun singled with one out there’s no way on earth that Vargas should have been left in there to face the heart of the Angels lineup – Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Howie Kendrick – all of whom bat right-handed.
Vargas got Trout to fly out harmlessly, and to the Royals’ credit it’s possible that they have hit upon a weakness in Trout’s game the same way they hit upon a weakness in Jon Lester’s game on Tuesday. Sam Miller certainly thinks so. But Vargas was clearly surviving on guile at that point; when he fell behind Pujols 3-1 I was literally hoping that he would walk Pujols just to guarantee that Yost would pull Vargas from the game before he gave up the go-ahead run.
Sure enough, Vargas walked Pujols, and sure enough, Yost came out of the dugout and walked to the mound…and left Jason Vargas in the game. I can not comprehend why this particular situation – two outs in the sixth inning with men on base – continues to yield the same lack of urgency from Yost, even after repeated instances of the Royals letting a game get away from them while their best relievers watch from the bullpen.
I mean, if you don’t believe me, how about a future Hall of Famer?
So Vargas was left in to face Howie Kendrick, and he threw ball one, and then Kendrick smoked a line drive that hit off the right-centerfield wall and drove in two runs and the Royals lost 4-2.
Or he would have, if not for one of the most remarkable catches I have ever seen.
It’s not just the confusion and chaos of having two outfielders converge on a flyball at the same time. It’s not just that Lorenzo Cain may have shielded Nori Aoki from seeing the ball with his own fruitless effort to snag it. It’s that Aoki’s face smashed into the wall at the same time the ball hit his glove. If one of you who has watched a super slow-mo angle of the catch a dozen times can answer this for me, but is it possible Aoki’s face hit the wall before he had secured the ball in his glove? And it’s not like the ball hit his glove in the webbing – he had to squeeze tight to prevent it from falling out.
It’s not the greatest catch I’ve ever seen. It’s not the most difficult catch I’ve ever seen. It’s not the most crucial catch I’ve ever seen. But I can’t think of another play in Royals history that combines all three elements together. At least not in the outfield – George Brett’s diving, spinning grab of a Lloyd Moseby groundball and then throwing from foul territory to nail Damaso Garcia at the plate in Game 3 of the 1985 ALCS might have been more amazing, all things considered. But even that came in the third inning, and it only saved one run, and the Royals were leading by a run at the time.
This was a great play, is what I’m saying. And unexpected. And, let’s be honest, stone-cold lucky. Aoki could try to recreate that play 10 times and maybe he’d catch it once. Ned Yost could have left Vargas in that game ten times and maybe he wouldn’t be the goat once. Yordano Ventura gives up that bomb to Brandon Moss ten times and maybe the Royals win that game once.
What I’m saying is, the Royals are living a charmed life right now.
- The Royals’ outfield put on a highlight show, and Alex Gordon wasn’t even involved. Aoki is the Royals’ fourth-best outfielder, and while he twice made catchable fly balls look almost uncatchable with his circuitous routes, he also saved the game and Ned Yost’s hide in one fell swoop.
I’m not kidding. I may want to get a picture of that catch blown up and framed on my wall. Maybe I’ll put it right next to Dyson sliding into third base. The way the last few days have gone, I’m going to need a long wall.
- Yost not only lucked out with Aoki’s catch, but because when Kelvin Herrera did come in to start the seventh only to walk David Freese on five pitches before coming out with a strained forearm, he did so with no one on base instead of doing that to Kendrick in the sixth inning and really making a mess.
Herrera’s injury obviously hurts the team, and while the results of the MRI are unknown as I write this, you have to assume it’s severe enough to keep him out a while. Herrera pitched in just nine games total in 2009 and 2010 because of forearm/elbow issues, and if you remember what happened to Danny Duffy or Luke Hochevar, where upon blowing out their UCL we learned that they had been pitching with a partial tear for years, you have to wonder if the same fate is about to befall Herrera.
I feel for Herrera, and this hurts the team, but not as much as losing Wade Davis or Greg Holland would. Herrera’s ERA is spectacular, but his peripherals not nearly as much; his ERA is 1.41, but his FIP is 2.69 because his strikeout rate is just average, and his xFIP is 3.50 because every pitcher is going to give up a home run eventually, and so far this year Herrera hasn’t. The emergence of Brandon Finnegan gives the Royals a new seventh inning option if they need it. It just complicates what happens before the seventh inning, which of course has been Yost’s problem all along.
If Herrera is going to miss more than a week or two, he can be taken off the ALDS roster and replaced immediately, but if that’s the case he will be ineligible to return until the World Series. The easy and snarky answer to who would replace him would be Aaron Crow, but I’m hopeful that even the Royals have gotten tired of his performance in September, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Louis Coleman instead. I don’t like the idea of Coleman pitching meaningful innings any more than you do, but you can carry one guy like Coleman in the playoffs, for games that are blowouts (in the hypothetical situation that the Royals would ever play one) or strictly to get right-handed hitters out.
- Aside from the abominable decision to stick with Vargas against Kendrick, I actually don’t have a huge beef with Yost’s bullpen management. He replaced Herrera with Finnegan, then went to Wade Davis with two outs in the seventh and stuck with him in the eighth.
Yost got a lot of attention for not going to Holland in a tie game in the ninth, and yes, that is the percentage move. But I’m not going to come down too harshly on Yost for a decision almost every manager would make. Tim Collins was kind of an inspired choice there; if you’re going to use Collins, that’s how you use him, not as a lefty specialist.
The only issue I really had with Yost was that, with two outs and a man on second base, he replaced Collins with Frasor. He did so presumably to get the platoon advantage with C.J. Cron at the plate, but Frasor has a small platoon split and Collins has none to speak of whatsoever – he’s gotten RHB (.675 OPS) out in his career better than LHB (.702 OPS). More to the point, Collins’ primary weakness is his command, and in that situation a walk is essentially meaningless. The winning run is in scoring position; one single can beat you, while it would take three walks to do the same. That’s a situation to bring Collins into the game, not pull him out.
It worked out, as Frasor did his best impression of Collins, walking Cron before retiring Ianetta on a fly out. Duffy pitched the tenth, and when you give a starting pitcher a clean inning, you’re giving him the best chance to succeed. Duffy gave up a single to Calhoun – the rare hit from a LHB off Duffy – but once again the Royals retired the Angels’ 2-3-4 hitters. And Holland was there to pitch the 11th, and if he was distracted by the birth of his son the night before, he didn’t show it.
In 1985, a Royals pitcher became a father one night and closed out a victory the next night. In 2014, a Royals pitcher became a father one night and closed out a vicory the next night. The stakes and the achievement weren’t quite the same as when Bret Saberhagen pitched a shutout in Game 7 of the World Series, but once again, the signs are all there.
- I said before he series that I thought I’d prefer playing the Angels to the Orioles in large part because I’d rather match up with Mike Scioscia than Buck Showalter, and last night was a perfect explanation as to why.
With the game tied in the seventh, after Herrera walked leadoff hitter David Freese, Erick Aybar bunted back to the pitcher. If the intention was to bunt it back to the pitcher, I’d almost understand, because the pitcher on the mound had been in the majors barely a month and might panic and throw the ball away – except, of course, that pitcher was Brandon Finnegan, who has balls of adamantium. The runner moved to second with one out. He did not score.
In the eighth, Ianetta led off with a walk against Davis. The Angels put on the bunt again, and even when the count was 2-0 and it was clear Davis was having difficulty throwing strikes, Scioscia didn’t take the bunt off. Even when the count got to 3-1, he kept the bunt on – in a situation in which 1) a walk was highly likely and 2) if you did swing away, you were in literally the best hitter’s count possible.
Calhoun popped the bunt up for an easy out; Moustakas could have turned a double play if he had dropped it. The runner moved up anyway on a wild pitch, and then Trout walked, which underscored 1) that Davis, at least early on, didn’t have his command; and 2) how pointless advancing the runner to second base would have been even if they had gotten the bunt down.
The Angels did not score. And for good measure, they also got the leadoff hitter on in the ninth when Collins grazed the shoestrings of Gordon Beckham’s back foot with a pitch. Erick Aybar bunted Beckham to second. The Angels did not score.
Ned Yost drives me crazy, and in September the Royals bunted at in opportune times. But for the season, the Royals only had seven more sacrifice bunts (33 to 26) than the Angels, even though the Angels had the best offense in the league. (ALL NINE HITTERS in their lineup yesterday had an OPS+ above 100. The Royals, by comparsion, had two.)
If Yost had called those bunts, in those situations, and hadn’t taken off the bunt on a 3-1 count, and the Royals had lost by one run, this column would be ten times longer and have a much more focused subject matter. Scioscia killed his team with his managing choices in the late innings. As a Royals fan, I thank him.
- While the winning run came on a home run, the story of the Royals’ other two runs was, once again, about their speed. In the third inning, Moustakas walked with two outs, and Jered Weaver threw over to first base at least three or four times – enough that I openly wondered whether the Royals’ speed game was just completely getting into the heads of their opponents. I mean, when you’re worried about Mike Moustakas…you’re probably not focusing on the #1 priority, which is the batter at the plate. And then Weaver hung a breaking ball that Escobar blasted into the corner for a run.
In the fifth, Alex Gordon hit a fly ball in front of Trout…and when Trout appeared to briefly lose the ball in the lights, Gordon turned the corner hard and made it into second safely. This allowed him to move up on two fly balls, the first by Salvador Perez that almost went out, and the second by Omar Infante.
The Royals had a runner on third base with one out three times in their last two games with Nori Aoki, Christian Colon, and Infante – three of the team’s best contact hitters – at the plate. All three found a way to get the run home. All three runs proved indispensible.
Put the ball in play. Run like hell. Then put the ball in play again. I don’t know how it keeps working, but it keeps working. And the Royals need to win just two of their next four games to move on to the ALCS.