What a four-game series at The K. The Royals and Tigers split the honors, with Kansas City winning the first two and Detroit coming back to take the last pair. These teams feel evenly matched, so this is something we are going to see in the AL Central all summer.

The series could have turned out a little less in the Royals favor as Kelvin Herrera wobbled in the eighth inning on Friday night. When he entered the game, the Royals held a 4-0 lead and were working on a combined no-hitter thanks to a brilliant performance by Chris Young and the relief pitching of Ryan Madson. With Herrera followed by Wade Davis, this game all but over. Then, things started to unravel…

The no-no was intact after a leadoff walk to Alex Avila, but Nick Castellanos singled to left. Goodbye, no-hitter. Not really a huge deal as the Royals were in position to take their second straight from their division rivals. Then, Jose Iglesias followed with an infield single and the bases were loaded. After an Anthony Gose ground out plated a run, the Royals led 4-1.

Herrera didn’t seem to be himself and walked the next batter, Ian Kinsler, on four pitches. All four were up and out of the zone. With the bases loaded again, the Royals lead didn’t seem so safe.

Miguel Cabrera walked to the plate.

What happened next was, quite simply, the duel of the season.

Pitch One:
Fastball, 99 mph
Foul, Strike One

Herrera throws a variety of pitches, but will feature mostly a fastball, a two-seamer and a change. In his career, Herrera starts right-handed batters off with a fastball 58 percent of the time. With the bases loaded, Herrera must challenge Cabrera, so it makes perfect sense he is going with his bread and butter heater. After allowing four of the first five batters in the inning to reach base, he desperately needed to get ahead in the count. In his career, opposing hitters are hitting .206/.242/.320 when they fall behind in the count 0-1.

The first pitch was a little too good. I mean, it was grooved. Belt-high and right down the middle of the plate. Fortunately, it was 99 mph and all Cabrera could do was foul it off for strike one. A mistake pitch, but once Cabrera failed to square it up, the odds shifted strongly in Herrera’s favor.

Pitch Two:
Fastball, 97 mph
Foul, Strike Two

Herrera doesn’t really offer a cut fastball, but this pitch seemed to have a little more lateral movement than his normal fastball. Delivered higher in the zone than the first pitch Cabrera fouled off, this one rode in on his hands. Quickly. Frankly, it’s surprising he was able to stay in and get the bat head out enough to even foul it off. Against a mortal hitter, it would have caught the handle and split the bat in two. Against Cabrera, he fouled it straight back and off the mask of the home plate umpire.

The up and in location is where Herrera likes to work against right-handed hitters. It makes sense considering he’s throwing 100 mph. Keep it in on the hands where the batter can’t get extension. From Brooks Baseball, these are the zones where Herrera has worked the last two-plus seasons.

HerreraPlot

Pitch two was delivered in the area where Herrera throws most of his pitches to right-handers.

Pitch Three:
Fastball, 100 mph
Ball One

Under normal circumstances, this is where Herrera would spike a change to fish for that third strike. Especially after throwing the first two pitches in the plate appearance up in the zone. With the bases loaded, Herrera doesn’t want to take the chance that a pitch low in the zone bounces and gets by Salvador Perez. Worst case scenario would for a run to come in to score, cutting the lead to one, and putting the tying run at second base. So he went back to his heater. Instead of throwing it down in the zone, he threw it on the outside corner. Cabrera laid off for ball one, but it was an extremely gutsy take on his part. I think it was the only thing he could do.

Pitch3

With two strikes, Herrera throws his change 29 percent of the time. I’d bet Cabrera was thinking he’d get off-speed, saw fastball, and with the pitch hitting triple digits on the radar gun, couldn’t adjust in time to pull the trigger.

Pitch Four
Fastball, 99 mph
Ball Two

This was the only time in the plate appearance where Herrera seemed to overthrow his fastball. The pitch was delivered well up and out of the zone. As close as pitch three was to being a strike, there was no way Cabrera was going to offer at this one. Easy take.

Pitch Five
Fastball, 98 mph
Foul

After throwing the first four pitches belt-high or higher in the zone, Herrera decided to work down. A good location after the four pitches up, but a risky gambit. Cabrera’s heat map is not of a hitter from this universe. From Brooks Baseball, this is Cabrera’s heat map going back to 2012:

CabreraProfile

Herrera’s pitch didn’t catch the center, but it was down in the area where Cabrera hit’s .390. Risky. Basically, anything in the inner and lower quadrant of the strike zone his Cabrera’s happy place. That’s relative, of course. The whole damn zone except for the up and in portion is his happy place. The guy is just a great hitter.

Pitch Six:
89 mph, change-up
Ball Three

The only change of the entire plate appearance came on the sixth pitch. I’m not sold Herrera wanted to bounce the pitch for the reasons I stated above, but I do think he wanted to keep it low and possibly out of the zone to get Cabrera to chase. Maybe this would have been a better pitch if Herrera hadn’t thrown the previous pitch down in the zone that was fouled off. This would have been the pitch to throw after the first four pitches were all fastballs up. As it was, the change barely traveled 60 feet and, like the fourth pitch that was way up and out of the zone, this seemed like an easy take for Cabrera.

Herrera has limited the use of his two-seam fastball this year, instead going heavy on his fastball and change combo. When the count is even (like it was in this situation) against right-handed batters this season, Herrera will throw his change 24 percent of the time, while he will go to his fastball 70 percent of his pitches. In his career with the count even, he’s thrown his change just 14 percent of the time. Traditionally, he saves his change for when he’s ahead in the count to right-handers.

Here is the pitch plot for the first six pitches.

Pitch6

After jumping ahead 0-2, he went for the third strike with straight gas on the outer half. When Cabrera didn’t offer, Herrera went for changing the vertical eye level, sandwiching a strike with two pitches that weren’t close to the zone.

Pitch Seven:
Fastball, 100 mph
Foul

More accurately, according to Brooks Baseball, this pitch traveled at 100.6 mph. One pitch after his only change-up of the battle against Cabrera, Herrera uncorked his fastest pitch. Here is how the entire plate appearance looked from a velocity standpoint:

Herrera_Cabrera_Velo

Not a bad pitch by Herrera given the situation. While Cabrera could tie the game (or give his team the lead) with one swing, the potential for a walk was still a factor. In his career, Herrera had gone to a full count 100 times. He had walked 29 of those batters and whiffed 31. Given the teams involved and the stakes at play, you can understand he didn’t want to give in and lose this battle by surrendering a walk. Still, from Cabrera’s heat map above, the location of the seventh pitch was getting close to his happy zone.

Pitch7

At 100+ mph, the best Cabrera could do was to drop the barrel and get a piece of it for another foul.

Cabrera had faced Herrera 11 times prior to this encounter. He had collected just two hits and walked once. He had never struck out.

Pitch Eight
Fastball, 97 mph
Foul

Pitch Nine
Fastball, 98 mph
Foul

Pitches eight and nine were similar in velocity and location. Both were inside, out of the strike zone and at about the knees. The ninth pitch had a little more horizontal movement than the eighth, and was the pitch that Cabrera barely made contact with, dribbling it foul.

Either pitch would have been the fourth ball, resulting in a walk and a run scored, but I imagine in that situation it’s next to impossible to lay off those pitches. For one thing, they are very close to Cabrera’s happy zone where he can do the most damage. And for another, the pitch looks good for a split second, then rides laterally out of the zone. At the velocity Herrera’s throwing, it’s amazing anyone can actually adjust fast enough to make contact, no matter how feeble.

Here is how the entire plate appearance set up through the first nine pitches:

Pitch9

Which brings us to one of the best pitches I’ve ever seen.

Pitch Ten:
Fastball, 99 mph
Swinging Strike Three

After going low on the previous five pitches, and after going inside on the previous three, Herrera throws a perfect pitch: A belt-high fastball on the outer half.

Pitch10

When you go inside on any hitter with the kind of gas Herrera throws, it’s a difficult adjustment to get the barrel out in front to reach the pitch on the outer half of the plate. Herrera’s 10th pitch wasn’t thrown any harder. Nor did it have more lateral movement. It was simply a perfectly located pitch after the previous three were down and in.

The final pitch wasn’t just perfectly located given the previous sequence. It was perfectly located for Cabrera to swing and miss. Cabrera is one of the best hitters of the game. He’s off to an incredible start in 2015. Like all hitters, he has a weakness. His weakness is pitches on the upper and outer half of the zone. Here is a heat map going back to the start of 2012 of where Cabrera swings and misses.

CabreraWhiff

With the bases loaded and a full count, the situation dictated that Herrera had to stay in the zone. While allowing a single run wouldn’t have been the end of the world, he either wanted a ground ball for a double play or a strikeout. From the above heat map, we see the best place to locate a pitch to Cabrera for a swing and a miss is up in the zone and away. Exactly where Herrera placed his final pitch.

Perfection.

In the at bat, Cabrera saw nine fastballs of 97 mph or faster. He had ample opportunity to get his timing down against Herrera. Instead, thanks to the outstanding location of pitch ten, he was another victim.

And, as noted above, it was the first time Herrera had ever struck out Cabrera.

I’d love to embed the video of this plate appearance, but since MLB is rather draconian in their sharing, I’ll have to link to it here. It’s worth watching. Again. And again.

The Royals went on to win 4-1. In the long season ahead of 162 games, there will be similar pivotal moments, but this one, at least in the early weeks of the season, stands alone. Herrera’s gas. Cabrera’s power. Bases loaded. Central Division rivals. Game on the line.

Baseball.