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.