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Lorenzo Cain beats the odds

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Thursday, June 13, 2013, at 10:19 p.m.

It seems like it was only yesterday that I was saying the Royals were 2-31 when trailing after eight innings. It probably seems that way because it was only yesterday that I pointed out that the Royals were 2-31 when trailing after eight innings.

You can now make that 3-31.

Down 2-0 to the Detroit Tigers, down to their last out and down to their last strike; Lorenzo Cain hit an 0-2 splitter over the fence in left-center field. Nobody was sure it was going to carry out of the park, including manager Ned Yost—as the ball flew through the air Ned was already making plans in case Cain’s hit turned out to be a double—but that heat you may have been cursing Wednesday afternoon helped the ball carry into the seats.

Cain’s victim was Detroit closer, Jose Valverde. With the score then tied, the next batter was David Lough. He hit a bouncing ball to third baseman Miguel Cabrera—and Cabrera dropped the ball. Lough was safe on an E5. At that point the Tigers chose to bring in left-handed reliever Phil Coke. Valverde is right-handed and slow to the plate, and if the Tigers didn’t change pitchers the Royals were going to steal second and put the winning run in scoring position. Phil Coke is left-handed and that’s an advantage when you’re trying to stop a base stealer—which he proved immediately by picking off Lough.

At that point Prince Fielder dropped the ball and Lough was safe at second. Detroit manager Jim Leyland had another reason for bringing in the left-handed throwing Coke: he wanted him to face the left-handed hitting Mike Moustakas. With the winning run in scoring position, Mike hit a pop fly to left to end the ninth inning.

On to the tenth.

Ned Yost brought in closer Greg Holland. You can use your closer in a tie game at home to give you two chances to win the game: the bottom of the tenth—if Greg got the job done—and the bottom of the eleventh, no matter what the other team does in the top half of the inning.

Greg got the job done.

Miguel Tejada—who pinch hit for Elliot Johnson in the eighth—started off the tenth inning with his second single of the game. Alcides Escobar sacrificed Tejada to second, Alex Gordon’s groundout to first allowed Tejada to move up to third and that’s when Royals first baseman and barbeque sauce spokes-model, Eric Hosmer, hit the game winner—a single up the middle. Tejada crossed the plate with the winning run which allowed the Royals to beat Detroit 3-2, take the series 2-1, wind up a 7-2 home stand and put them three games under .500.

Anyone who already gave up on this team is missing some good baseball.

(After Hosmer’s game winner, the Royals pummeled each other silly and Eric came out of the pile with what looked like blood streaming down his head. It was actually Billy Butler’s barbeque sauce—someone dumped some on Hosmer’s head in celebration. Eric said some of it got in his eyes and he could say with some authority that barbeque sauce in the eyes stings. Hosmer also said he’d have to watch a replay to figure out who the culprit was. I don’t think this thing is over.)

James Shields, the best 2-6 pitcher in baseball

OK, actually I’ve got no idea if there are other 2-6 pitchers who are currently pitching their behinds off, but the Royals sure have one. Shields threw seven innings against one of the best lineups in baseball, gave up two runs and lowered his ERA while doing it—he’s now down to 2.79, but hasn’t won a game since April 30th.

There’s a lot of talk about hard luck, but it may be more accurate to talk about hard opponents. Number one pitchers often face other number one pitchers—as long as the rotations match up. Shields has now faced Justin Verlander twice, Chris Sale twice, R.A. Dickey, Clay Buccholz, Andy Pettitte and Adam Wainwright.

What makes Verlander tough

After the game I asked Elliot Johnson if Justin Verlander’s ability to change speeds on his fastball was a big reason he’s so tough to hit. After all, you might work your way into a good hitter’s count, figure you’re about to see a fastball, but not know which fastball you’re getting: the 91 MPH version of one of those 100 MPH heaters.

Elliot said that was the least of the problems a hitter had to deal with; Verlander is tough because he truly can throw any pitch in any count—and they’re all good pitches. Trying to cover every pitch and every speed is difficult and, at times, impossible. At one point Mike Moustakas got a 92 MPH fastball followed by an 83 MPH changeup and was so far out in front, he threw his bat all the way to the Royals dugout.

Most people will tell you that when Verlander—or any other top-of-the-line pitcher—is dealing, the best thing you can do is make him work, get his pitch count up and get him out of the game as early as you can. The Royals got Verlander out of the game after seven innings and then went to work. It’s not a great plan: when the Royals trail after seven they’re 7-24, but sometimes it’s the best plan available.

Signs it’s going to be a low-scoring game

When managers start bunting and bringing their infield in early in a game, it usually means they believe one run is going to be important. The fact that Jim Leyland had Torii Hunter sacrifice bunt in the first inning is a sign of respect for James Shields. Leyland believed runs were going to be hard to come by and he was right.

Hunter’s first-inning bunt moved Avisail Garcia from second to third and paid off when Prince Fielder dumped a flare just beyond the infield. With Alex Gordon charging in it’s highly unlikely Garcia scores from second base on that hit. The fact that Leyland had the Tigers lay down three sacrifice bunts while Shields was on the mound tells you Detroit was scrambling for runs all day.

The sinker and the shortstop

Before the Verlander-Shields matchup I was talking with Rusty Kuntz—pretty much a daily occurrence—and he said that you can tell when a right-handed sinkerballer is on by the position of the shortstop. When a right-handed sinkerball pitcher throws his two-seamer, it breaks down and in to a right-handed hitter. If the pitcher has a good sinker going that day right-handed hitters will have a hard time doing anything but pulling the ball on the ground; that means lots of business for your third baseman and shortstop.

So if the shortstop is positioned more toward third base, that’s a good sign—the sinker is getting down and in on righties. If the shortstop is moved over toward second base, that’s a bad sign—the sinker is staying out over the plate and has a better chance of being hit up the middle.

Rusty said it’s true of all right-handed sinkerball pitchers: check the shortstop and you’ll know what the sinker is doing. (There’s a reason I talk to that dude every day and information like this is on the list.)

A very fast intentional walk

Tuesday night against the Tigers, Kelvin Herrera had to issue an intentional walk, so he did it at 90 miles an hour. Pitchers throw so much from 60 feet six inches that they can struggle with any other throw. It’s not uncommon to see them throw the ball away when they have to throw it to a base—it’s an unusual distance for guys who spend most their time throwing from the mound.

The same thing applies to an intentional walk: they’re lobbing the ball in there, so it’s an unusual release point. Because of that you’ll see pitchers come perilously close to throwing the ball away or struggle with their control after issuing the intentional walk.

Some pitchers—and Tuesday night that included Herrera—solve the problem by making those intentional walk throws firm and Kelvin was lighting up the gun on his throws to home plate. Gotta wonder what it’s like to have the kind of arm that allows you to play catch at 90 miles an hour.

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