A wobbly start from Yordano Ventura. A big game from Kendrys Morales. Rain. And the Houston defense.
That’s your Game One of the ALDS in a nutshell.
The residual benefit of the rain delay is that Ventura will be able to start Game Four. Yes, he got off to a wobbly start in Game One, but he’s still the pitcher the Royals need on the mound late in a playoff series. And think about this: In a five game series, in the fourth game Ventura is either pitching to keep Kansas City around for another game, or he’s going for the advance to the LCS.
No, he wasn’t at his best on Thursday. The leadoff hit by Jose Altuve seemed to push him off his game enough that he issued the walk to George Springer. Carlos Correa hit the ball hard enough that Altuve had to stop at third, loading the bases. Sometimes, the key moment in the game comes in the very first inning and credit to Ventura that he was able to minimize the damage to just two runs. Good thing the Royals were playing the infield back (as they should) as Rasmus smoked a grounder to the left of Zobrist at second.
After the game, both managers talked about their “60 minute” rule with starting pitchers in a rain delay. In other words, once the delay stretches to around an hour, that’s when they decide to go to the bullpen. With three runs on the board against Ventura, and a strong and rested bullpen at his disposal. this was the right move by Yost.
On the other hand, AJ Hinch went back with his starter, post delay, and he continued to shut down the Royals. I felt a key was in the third inning, which was McHugh’s first inning after about an hour on the sidelines. He struck out Alex Rios on three pitches and Alcides Escobar swung at the first pitch to ground out. Ben Zobrist at least battled and saw seven pitches before he grounded out. Still, this is where the Royals aggressiveness at the plate can kill them. So often we see situations where the Royals should be able to take advantage of a starting pitcher, yet they swing themselves out of an inning.
The guy who didn’t hurt himself with some monster swings was Kendrys Morales. He absolutely squared up his first home run down the right field line. The second had more arc. Both were beautiful. Sadly, they came with no one on base. The first Morales bomb came leading off the inning, so no complaints there. The second home run came two batters after Lorenzo Cain was robbed by Altuve with a great play at second. How many Altuves does it take to make a great play? One is enough I guess. Great reaction and extension from the Astro second baseman. Had that ball gotten through, Morales would have been up with a runner on. Would McHugh have pitched him differently with a man on first? Probably. So a second home run in that situation was no sure thing. Still, it would have been optimal had Morales been able to bring home another run. A tie game would have felt a little better.
The Royals had two more chances to score. The inning after the Morales blast, they had runners at first and second with one out. Escobar laced a sinking liner, but Jake Marisnick dove and got the out. According to StatCast, the Astros center fielder got his first step off just 0.4 seconds after Escobar made contact, a ridiculous jump. He hit a max speed of 19 mph and his route efficiency (which I absolutely love) was 95.5 percent. In other words, it took a near perfect play to catch that ball.
The next opportunity was in the eighth, when the Royals strung together back to back two out singles. This is a spot for Eric Hosmer. In “high leverage” situations, Hosmer hits .354/.431/.655, best on the team. That’s not just best on the Royals, that’s among the strongest effort in the league. Hinch countered with a lefty, and Hosmer fouled out to third. Threat over. Game over.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Chris Young. A guy who couldn’t get a major league job comes out of the bullpen and strikes out six of the first seven batters he faces. Sure, he gives up a home run to Springer, but what a great performance. That situation was why he was on the roster. After seeing Ventura’s heat the first time through the order, they got to face the soft stuff from Young. He had the Astros completely confused. I love it when a plan comes together.
The plan would have looked better had the offense not been so tepid. Yes, there were plenty of hard hit balls, but many were right at the Astro defense. BABIP giveth and BABIP taketh away, I guess. It just wasn’t the Royals night at the plate.
Post game, there was much discussion about how the 2015 Astros have taken on some of the characteristics of the 2014 Royals. That’s a nice narrative, I suppose. The Astros certainly flashed the leather to get you thinking. Plus, a lockdown postseason start combined with effective relief work… Sure, maybe for a game they did. Can they sustain it? All I know is Friday’s game is now firmly in the “must win” category. A loss would mean you’re traveling to Houston to face Dallas Keuchel in an elimination game. Yeah. That’s a suboptimal situation.
So it’s up to Johnny Cueto to get this team back to level. This is exactly why the Royals went out and made the deal for Cueto. They didn’t need him to help win the division, that was pretty much in the bag at the trade deadline. No, this move was made with October in mind. Never mind he didn’t get the ball in Game One. By pushing him to Game Two, the Royals did so knowing he would either need to step up and be the stopper, or he had the opportunity to extend a lead in a short series. So it’s the former and not the latter. Time to see if the trade pays a dividend.