Royals Authority

Long Live The Process

Tragedy, comedy, drama, and even a little poetry. It was as if someone dumped the complete works of Shakespeare into a blender. That was Game One of the 2015 World Series.

The temptation is to try to rank these Royals postseason games. And why not? Contests of such epic scale demand they are accurately assessed and sorted in some manner. But there have been so many, at this point it’s futile.

The Royals won in the 14th inning on an Eric Hosmer walkoff sacrifice fly. It was Tuesday night. Or Wednesday morning. Hell, it could’ve been December for all we knew. The game lasted forever. Except it didn’t. There was an end. We saw it. And tiredly celebrated.

The game opened against the bizarre backdrop of the news breaking on social media that Edinson Volquez’s father passed away earlier in the day. Some outlets said Volquez knew. The Royals said he didn’t. Fox, the broadcast rightsholders, properly remained mum.

The Royals, as their prerogative all October, hit Alcides Escobar leadoff and it continued to pay dividends. He launched the first pitch to left-center. We know all about what happens in that area in the postseason. Outfielders get a bit… disoriented. By the crowd noise, by the lights, by their nerves, by whatever, we’ve seen more key hits to that area seemingly than any other part of the yard. In this one, Michael Conforto and Yoenis Cespedes converged, then stopped, then kind of looked at each other. By that time, the only question was whether Escobar would stop at second.

He wouldn’t.

An opening pitch inside the park home run. On the first pitch to Escobar. Do the Mets even employ advance scouts? How can you even decide to throw a first pitch strike to Escobar?

From there, the game settled into a comfortable rhythm.

The Mets boarded their own singles train to scratch a run to tie the game in the fourth. Curtis Granderson homered in the fifth. It was around this point, it looked like Volquez was fading. His velocity has been up all month, seemingly “from Gatorade” as he liked to joke. Does the tank empty a little faster when he’s so amped up so early? You would think so, but Ned Yost had confidence to leave him in the game to continue working through the order for a third time.

In retrospect, it was probably the wrong call at the time, but given how events unfolded, it was the right call by the end of the game. Singles by Cespedes and Lucas Duda (beating the shift for the second time of the evening) set up first and third with no one out. A batter latter, Cespedes came home with the third run of the night on a sacrifice fly. The Royals were down two.

This is where the Royals appear to like to do things. Ben Zobrist takes the first pitch of the bottom of the inning down the line for a double. Lorenzo Cain follows with a single. Eric Hosmer brings in a run with a sac fly of his own. It’s 3-2. Cain swipes second, which should be a theme for as long as this series goes. We know the Royals have shelved their running game this October, but against the Mets, this would be prime time to break it back out. There are rumblings their catcher, Travis d’Arnaud, is battling a sore shoulder. They need to take advantage.

Thanks to the steal, the Royals tie the game on a Mike Moustakas single up the middle.

With the game now turned over to the bullpen, you figure the Royals would find a way to scratch out the win. You just didn’t think it would take so long. In the eighth, with Kelvin Herrera on the hill and two outs, Juan Lagares singled. Lagares did not start but entered the game for defensive purposes in the sixth after the circus in the outfield to open the game. He stole second. With two strikes, Wilmer Flores hit one down the first base line. It’s a play Hosmer has made millions of times. This time, the ball had a little extra spin and skidded away from his glove as he moved toward the line to field it. It was a deserved error. Hosmer could have gotten his body in front of the ball. Even if the spin handcuffed him, he could have at least kept it on the infield. Instead, the rare defensive blunder led to the Mets fourth run of the night.

The Mets turned to their setup man Tyler Clippard to open the eighth. He’s had a difficult time finding outs this October. The Royals, to absolutely no one’s surprise, began to make some noise. It was that man Zobrist again, with another double to lead off an inning.

This is where things went off the rails. With Cain at the plate, he squared and pushed at a ball at his eyeballs. Strike one. He squared again on the next pitch and fouled it back. Strike two. He then waved at another high fastball. Strike three. It was an awful at bat. Just awful. There is no other way to describe it. It was made worse when you realize Cain had attempted exactly no sacrifice bunts all year. In fact, over his entire career he’s sacrificed exactly one time. Once. Just horrific baseball. Anyway, forget the numbers. You do not let your number three hitter bunt in that situation. Never. If Cain was freelancing, Yost needed to be on the top step yelling at him to knock it off. If Yost called for it… I don’t even want to consider that.

Hosmer followed with a putrid plate appearance of his own. The Royals had a golden opportunity and left it on third. At that point, you could be excused if you thought the game was over. It certainly felt like the team let the air out of the stadium after squandering a half inning that started so full of promise.

We know the baseball axiom: “It’s not over, ’til it’s over.” That’s never felt more true when applying it to these Royals. Down to their final two outs, it’s Alex Gordon who pulls his team back from the precipice. A monster bomb to dead center field against Jeurys Familia, a closer who has been absolutely lights out the last couple of months. Salvation in one swing.

From there, the bullpen took over. What another amazing, yet routine, outing from the pen. Eight innings. Five hits. One run. And 12 strikeouts. Chris Young, slated to pitch in Game Four, came in and was brilliant, even pumping his fastball to 90 mph. That’s a velocity he hasn’t reached since 2009. World Series baseball, man.

The great thing about baseball is it’s a game where redemption is always a possibility. Screw up one inning, you can make a difference the next one. That’s where Eric Hosmer was with the bases loaded in the 14th. He just needed to get the ball to the outfield to bring home the run and victory. His second sac fly of the ball game came with a bat flip. Because how else could this one end? Escobar, who opened the scoring some five hours earlier, crossed home with the winning tally. Mission accomplished.

That was a helluva ballgame.

Prospect hounds love to sniff around the backfields in spring training. They measure the young talent to try to get a feel about which newcomers could contribute in the coming season. If you want to discuss prospects in the fall, Arizona and the Fall League is where you want to be. The World Series is serious business.

Except the Royals turned that conventional wisdom upside down this morning when they announced Raul Mondesi, Jr. would be on the World Series roster in place of designated burner, Terrance Gore.

The way Ned Yost manages never reaches state secret status. It doesn’t even rate secrecy status in a municipality or a hamlet. In October, Yost has been using Paulo Orlando as a defensive replacement for Alex Rios. Jarrod Dyson (and Gore) have been the featured pinch runners. Plus, with Gore off the roster, Mondesi fills that role, but gives Yost the added utility of his defense in the middle infield.

Then there’s the added uncertainty around Ben Zobrist and his availability for the next week. His wife is expecting and is due after the Series. Of course, infants like to arrive on their own schedule. We could have shades of Bret Saberhagen in ’85 again, pitching just ahead of his own son being born. Should Zobrist miss time, you could see where the Royals would start Christian Colon, hit him low in the order, and swap him out in the later innings, using Mondesi as a defensive replacement.

I would write something pithy about this being a new age Royals team that would call up a 20 year old playing above his level in Double-A, but if you had told me 16 months ago the Royals were going to be playing in their second consecutive World Series in 2015, I would flamed you on Twitter for being super mean. Instead, I’ll just nod, secure in the knowledge that Dayton Moore and his staff understand their team better than anyone, and they have a firm grasp on the current situation. As a sucker for rookies and their first major league base hits, I’ll be over here, spending a good chunk of the Series rooting for Mondesi to not only get a plate appearance, but to collect his first hit. Could you imagine?

Meanwhile, the rest of the roster is unchanged. You know the rotation. The batting order will be unchanged. The sequencing out of the bullpen… Yeah, that could be changed. Except for Wade Davis. As I write this, first pitch is five hours away. The only certainty (besides the lineup) is Wade Davis. And thank goodness for that.

Buckle up. Should be a helluva series.

Maybe it’s because I downloaded the Timehop app, but I’ve been having a lot of “one year ago this day” moments recently. On September 11, it was one year since my wife Laura was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. Then on September 30, one year since her surgery and the wild card game. And of course the whole 2015 Royals playoff run has been a distinct reminder of the 2014 playoff magic. Between last year’s ALCS and World Series, I wrote about the strange brew of my wife’s major health scare and the euphoria in Royals-land I’d been experiencing. I wrote that piece when a surprising turn of events had me getting ready to go to Kauffman for Game One of the World Series. It was all thanks to my wife’s recovery going smoothly and the generosity of my parents and hers. Friends, family, e-migos, and readers of this site responded so warmly to that post, and another wave of love and support, rushing in regularly since Laura’s diagnosis, crested.

The evening and night before the game, I made the solo, seven-hour drive from my Minneapolis-area house to my hometown of KC exhausted, grateful, and full of anticipation. I got to my parents house late, and by the time I was up the next day, family and friends were at work. It was a little strange to be alone but I welcomed a day to immerse myself in the city I’d grown so attached to and have a hard time being away from. I headed first to The Bunker in Westport in hopes of getting a Charlie Hustle KC heart t-shirt for Laura. A tornado of blue t-shirt-starved citizens had long beaten me to the punch. From there I strolled down Broadway for a bit. I of course had on Royals apparel, and a fellow pedestrian struck up a conversation. “Tonight’s the night!” he said. Turned out he would be in attendance too thanks to his daughter winning two tickets and a limousine ride to the game through a radio station. Neither one of us could believe our luck.

Next I meandered through the Nelson sculpture garden before getting a cup of the best coffee I know of at The Roasterie in Brookside. Then a long walk up the Trolley Trail, a familiar jogging path in my previous life. All day I’d felt the electric Royals buzz that I’d been sensing 500 miles away in Minnesota for a while. An unfamiliar nervous excitement built up as game time was getting closer. I felt nerves as if I was going to be playing in the game.

I grabbed our dinner at LC’s and met my brother and dad to carpool to the park. Barbecue and Boulevard taste pretty sweet in the Kauffman lot before a World Series game. We found our upper deck seats behind the plate and soaked it all in. The Royals in the World Series! I couldn’t wait to be a small part of the crowd roar that had been overwhelming my TV speakers all month.

But the game went off script. The Giants immediately scored three runs, and the crowd never got to take off. We tried to force it when Sal homered in the seventh, but it was too little, too late. The team that had waited for me to leave town before getting good broke their eight game playoff victory streak when I came back.

I wonder where I picked up my nervous habit of putting my hand to my chin.

I wonder where I picked up my nervous habit of putting my hand to my chin.

I tweeted after the game, “A bad World Series game in KC is still a World Series game in KC. Great night.” And I meant it. But after I sped back home the next morning, I spent a lot of time trying, and only half succeeding, to convince myself that the important thing was that I’d gotten to a game and that it was beside the point that the game itself had been a dud. I hung on every pitch of Games Two through Six from my couch.

On the morning of Game Seven, I couldn’t stand it. I tried hard to convince myself that it was OK not to be there, or that it was too late anyway. It didn’t work. I scoured Stub Hub for tickets, and, around 9:30, decided with Laura that I could splurge on a ticket if I could find one for $500 or less. Refresh, refresh, refresh, refresh, refresh…10:30…two tickets, $499 a piece! I called my dad as fast as I could and he was in. The printer is out of ink! I don’t have time to go buy ink! Maybe I can download them to my phone…yup, that works. Um, clothes, toothbrush, goodbye, I love you! On the road at 11:15. What is going on! I am not a spontaneous person! Are we going to make it by first pitch? Eat in the car, no water allowed, drive, drive, drive, this is really happening! Made great time. Don’t think I sped that much? In our seats, second to last row in the upper deck, in plenty of time. Did I really just do that?

I really did.

I had the same nerves as if I was playing, along with a new giddiness. I could not be still, knees and toes bouncing non-stop. The atmosphere was insane. The whole stadium stood for most of the game and held its collective breath on every pitch. I’m pretty sure the stadium lifted off and reached orbit after the Royals tied the score in the bottom of the second. The tension was sweetly agonizing all night. After Alex reached in the 9th, I realized I’d been jumping up and down during his entire run to third. (Alex continuing to home on the play didn’t even cross my mind, but my dad immediately said they should have sent him since Bumgarner seemed invincible.) Too much magic had brought the Royals to that point for it to end with Alex at third. What was one more slice of magic after the month they were having?

But Sal popped up. The roar silenced immediately and my hands covered my blue hat. After a few beats of disbelief, I heard a faint “let’s go Royals” chant start up. Perfect. I joined right in. Of course I was disappointed, but I wasn’t crushed. I didn’t have to try to convince myself that this had been a great night. I got to experience a level of energy, fun, and passion around baseball in Kansas City that, for me, had up to that point only existed in historical accounts.

And now, one year later, we get to do it again.

Ned Yost set his World Series rotation today, giving the Game One nod to Edinson Volquez.  The decision makes sense on several levels.

First, it puts Volquez on regular rest. Second, it puts the Royals’ most consistent post-season starter in position to get his team off to a positive World Series start.

Volquez pitched ten spectacular innings in the Toronto series and two agonizingly shaky frames.  He emerged from one of those shaky innings unscathed and did not emerge from the second such inning at all. In fact, Volquez was just one Troy Tulowitzki double off Kelvin Herrera away from finishing the ALCS with just two runs allowed in twelve innings against the highest scoring offense in the game.

The free agent signing that few were happy about has become the obvious choice to start the second Game One of a World Series to be played in Kansas City in the last twelve months.  Volquez is not likely to strike out double digit hitters like a hot Yordano Ventura might, nor is he likely to spin eight innings of complete domination that Johnny Cueto might.  However, he is quite simply the most likely starter on the staff to toss five, maybe six innings of quality baseball.  To look at it from a different direction, Volquez is the least likely to bury his team by pitching poorly early in the game.

With a rested bullpen going in and an off-day after Game Two, one would assume the Yost will be less likely to try to coax an extra inning out of Volquez as well.  Five good innings followed by a lead-off walk in the sixth?  Let’s have the relief corps up and ready, okay Ned?

Now, the angst portion of our headline comes from the announced Game Two starter:  Johnny Cueto.

Who will toe the slab on Wednesday night?  The distract (paranoid?) guy who could get no one out in Toronto or the guy who gave up two hits in eight innings to get his team to the ALCS?  Or maybe it will be the guy who pitched an ‘okay’ Game Two in the ALDS, giving up four runs over six innings.  Hell, if anyone has an idea, they are lying and that might well include Johnny Cueto himself.

There was talk – talk radio talk, so take it for what it’s worth – that Cueto should not start at all in the Series.  You almost have to start him.  Pitching in the post-season is the only reason the Royals traded for him to begin with and, ugly as it might be, they are 2-1 in games he started this post-season.  Plus, there is the tantalizing prospect of ALDS Game Five Cueto showing up.

Game Three in New York belongs to Yordano Ventura, which already has some national types wondering about his ability to control his emotions on the big stage in the big city. I don’t have near the problem with Ventura staring down Troy Tulowitzki (who, let’s face it, is a great player with an attitude) as I do with a first-base coach who never did anything of note on a major league diamond mouthing off about it.  Ventura might lose it or he might strike just the balance of emotional edge that makes him great.  We have all seen a calm, collected Ventura pitch just as bad as an irate Yordano and also seen an edgy Ventura be dominant.

However he does it – with or without emotion – a solid outing from Ventura will be needed in Game Three as the Royals will go with Chris Young for the next game. Young has done all that has been asked of him this post-season and done it well, but he won’t do it for very long.  Yost has shown that five innings is all he wants or expects to get from Young and thus having a bullpen that maybe only had to cover three innings the night before would be extremely helpful.

In the end, however, Cueto is everyone’s focus. He is the one whose mental make-up is questioned, whose ‘want’ has come under scrutiny.  He is also the one who could simply go out and win a game all on his own….or lose it in a hurry. Worried?  Uncertain? Those emotions are well warranted and probably apply to Ventura as well.

Volquez?

Well, who among us, back in April, thought he would be the Game One starter and, more importantly, would be the rotation member in whom we almost universally have the most confidence?   Not sure if you noticed, but Dayton Moore had a good off-season.

Game on, boys and girls.

 

It’s been a couple of days since the Royals won the 2015 American League pennant. Normally, it would have made sense to get a post up celebrating a return trip to the World Series as soon as possible. Yet Game Six was so special, it makes sense to have waited a couple of days. It wasn’t just a baseball game. It was a moment to be savored, shared and revisited. The Wild Card Game is the gold standard for this franchise. A once in a lifetime type of game that will resonate forever. Never to be replicated. Game Six of the 2015 ALCS comes damn close.

The Blue Jays annoy, yes, but they were a formidable opponent. The Royals had been on cruise control in the Central for months, and after the trade deadline when Toronto added David Price and Troy Tulowitzki, it was all but assumed the two teams would meet at some point in October. Baseball doesn’t always follow the script, but when it does, it can be of the highest order.

What a series. What a game.

The LoCain dash from first enters Royals pennant lore. It stands along with George Brett’s home run off Goose Gossage in Game Three of the 1980 ALCS, Jim Sandberg’s bases-clearing triple in Toronto in Game Seven of the 1985 ALCS, and Alex Gordon’s face-plant catch against Baltimore in Game Four of the 2014 ALCS. Four pennants. Four signature moments.

More on that in a moment.

Ned Yost’s bullpen management has left something to be desired this October. One year removed from masterfully figuring out which relief buttons to press, and when, Yost has backpedaled. In the ALCS in particular, he stuck with his starters (with the exception of Edinson Volquez in Game One and Chris Young in Game Four) too long, trying for some reason to squeeze another inning out of those arms, while the best bullpen in the game was idling. Yost narrowly escaped disaster in Game Six with this gambit.

Yordano Ventura pitched another gem through four innings. His only mistake was a belt-high fastball Jose Bautista put into orbit. In the fourth, Ventura wobbled, issuing back to back walks to open the frame. Let’s not kid ourselves. While the calendar said this was Game Six, it felt very much like a Game Seven. With the unpredictable Johnny Cueto set to take the mound the next game, while no one on the Royals would admit, there was an urgency to finishing the series.

So when Ventura put two runners on to start the inning, it felt like his leash suddenly should be getting short. Another alarm that should have been sounding in the dugout was the fact the Jays were, after the second walk, a batter away from flipping the order for the second time on the evening. The Times Through The Order Penalty is real, and in this series, it was spectacular. The Jays are the league’s best offense, and the best offense only got better when they faced a Royals starter for a third time in a game. To tempt fate with Ventura on the hill was especially foolhardy. Here is how Ventura does against the opposition each time through the order.

Split G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip tOPS+ sOPS+
1st PA in G, as SP 28 252 228 18 56 7 2 3 16 59 .246 .307 .333 .640 .315 84 83
2nd PA in G, as SP 28 244 220 27 53 6 1 5 22 58 .241 .316 .345 .661 .306 90 83
3rd PA in G, as SP 25 184 162 25 44 14 3 6 19 37 .272 .348 .506 .854 .314 143 122
4th+ PA in G, as SP 8 13 11 0 1 0 0 0 1 2 .091 .231 .091 .322 .111 -4 -9
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/26/2015.

That jump in his tOPS+ (OPS+ relative to his own total) and sOPS+ (OPS+ relative to the league average in that situation) should be a cause for concern in a general game in July, let alone a short series in October. The number that is really scary is the gain in slugging percentage – nearly 150 points from the second to the third time through the order. And I shouldn’t have to tell you the Jays lineup is stocked with thunder.

Another point to consider is Ventura’s swing and miss rate. He threw 77 pitches on the evening, but generated only four swings and misses, meaning the Jays had him measured. They simply weren’t missing when swinging on a pitch in the zone.

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There is an alarming cluster of foul balls on middle-middle pitches. His swings and misses were on chase pitches – balls either up or down and out of the zone. He was getting the called strike low in the zone, but the Jays batters were waiting for an elevated pitch. It was only a matter of time before they would be able to turn those fouls on pitches in the upper two-thirds into balls in play. Again, the Royals were entering the danger zone.

Ventura, however, rallied. He retired Ben Revere (one of the few Jays who doesn’t hit for power) on a fly to left for the second out. Up stepped Josh Donaldson. Gulp. He ripped a cut fastball down to the left side.

The ball left Donaldson’s bat at 113.8 mph. That was the hardest ball Donaldson hit all year. Go back and read those last two sentences again. Let that sink in for a moment. Get a cold drink of water and realize how close the Royals were to surrendering the lead in that situation. Donaldson is probably going to be the MVP of the AL. He has hit balls hard all year. He absolutely destroyed that pitch from Ventura.

And Mike Moustakas saved the day.

OK. So Ventura got through the fifth inning. The Royals are holding on to a one-run lead. That should be enough for Ventura, right? Not so fast. For some reason, he returns for the sixth. To face… GULP… Bautista for a third time. Ventura gets him on a fly ball. Now, Edwin Encarnacion. This Jays lineup, man… It does not take a holiday. Encarnacion doubles and finally (Finally!) Yost comes from the dugout to get the ball from his starter.

The questionable bullpen management continued in the eighth. With rain approaching the Royals went with Ryan Madson in the top of the inning. The postgame reasoning was completely understandable. The cover was off the tarp. The Royals surely knew a delay was imminent. They didn’t want to get Wade Davis into the game only to have to shut him down for an extended period. They wanted to steal an inning against Madson.

The only problem is, sometimes the Baseball Gods don’t want you to be able to steal an inning. The Jays lineup had turned over again and the eighth inning was to feature the top three hitters. Revere singles on a grounder to the hole at shortstop. Donaldson gets caught looking.

Let’s not turn into a crowd with pitchforks regarding Madson. He has pitched extremely well for the team this year. For the first two batters of the inning, he made great pitches. It was not an egregious decision by Yost to bring him into the game. It seems the final three in the bullpen is a combination of Madson and Herrera for the seventh and eighth and Davis for the ninth. It’s reads like a bullpen-by-numbers, but I don’t think that’s necessarily so. In this game, Yost needed to put out a fire in the sixth. It was a fire Yost started by not removing his starter in a timely fashion, but still… In that situation, Yost likes to go with Herrera. Never mind the inherited runner numbers – Herrera  allowed eight of 20 to score in the regular season, a 40 percent rate that was highest among regular relievers – when Yost needs a big out, he trusts Herrera.

Anyway, Madson looked good for the first two batters. The pitch Revere hit was up and on the outer half that was placed in just about the only spot where the Royals couldn’t get him out. The curse of the BABIP Gods. His pitches to Donaldson were up, but he was thoroughly overmatched by the sequencing and after swinging and missing a 90 mph cutter and fouling off a 94 mph fastball, he watched a 97 mph fastball go by for the third strike.

One out. A runner on. A three run lead. Jose Bautista coming up.

The Big Book Of Baseball Management states you save your reliever for the ninth inning. The footnote to that chapter says you can bring your closer in earlier in October. If there was ever a situation, it was this one. Rain coming or no. You have the heart of the best lineup in the AL. You have the best reliever in baseball. Don’t play around. Bring him in.

I don’t have to tell you what happened next.

Even after the Bautista home run, Yost allowed Madson to pitch to Encarnacion. The Royals were fortunate he only reached base on a walk. So in a case where the Royals wanted to save their best reliever in case a rain delay happened, they were forced into using their best reliever just ahead of that delay.

After about a 45 minute break, the game resumed. And then, for the second time this October, Lorenzo Cain did his thing.

That play was amazing on so many levels. Let’s start with the fact it was the only time all year a player scored from first on a single when he wasn’t running on the pitch. Wrap your head around that little stat nugget for a moment.

Next, by now you have read all the stories about how third base coach Mike Jirschle knew about Bautista’s tendency in right field to loft a throw to second base in that same situation. Jirsch was windmilling Cain from about the moment he was between second and third. Watching the play unfold from the stands, I thought Jirsch was insane. That he had lost his mind in the excitement of the moment. Then, seeing the ball from right field floating toward second base, I understood.

Credit to Jirsch for the send. Credit to LoCain for flying. The man got faster as he cruised the 270 feet necessary to put the Royals into their second consecutive World Series.

Just an amazing play all around. My favorite part may be the reaction of Eric Hosmer when he realized what just happened.

With a one run lead, there was still a ballgame to close out. And after nearly an hour on the sidelines, Davis returned to send the Royals back to nirvana. Not surprisingly, he stumbled, allowing a first pitch single and a walk. The lead runner stole second and third. Runners were at the corners for pinch hitter Dioneer Navarro. Let’s be perfectly honest. The Royals caught a break. With the count 1-1, Davis got a called strike on a pitch outside the zone. To Davis’ credit, he went right back. Same pitch, same location. This time, Navarro swung and missed. One out.

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You can barely see the plot of the fourth pitch. That’s how close it was. With the zone expanded, Navarro had no chance.

Davis got the exact same call on Revere. This time, Davis went down with a curve that Revere missed for the second out.

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The Blue Jays weren’t happy, and they probably had every right to feel that way. From Brooks Baseball, here is home plate umpire Jeff Nelson’s strike zone on left-handed batters.

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The Royals were the only team to put a pitch in that area all night. It just so happened that two of them came in the ninth inning. A break, for sure.

With two outs, the tying run at third and the go-ahead run at second, up stepped Donaldson. I’m sure you recall Donaldson was the third baseman who stretched out for Salvador Perez’s grounder down the line in the Wild Card Game last year. The hit that kicked off this over year long celebration of baseball in Kansas City. Once again, with the Royals season in the balance, Donaldson would play a central role. The Baseball Gods have a wicked sense of humor.

Donaldson smashed another one to Moustakas. Just like the clincher in 2014, Moose powered a throw across the diamond, into the glove of Hosmer. The draft cornerstones of the Dayton Moore regime hooking up once again to send the Royals to their second consecutive World Series.

Back to back.

What a game. What a series. What a season.

What a 12 months of baseball in Kansas City.

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Another postseason day off and another postseason day with little in the way of news. The series returns to Kauffman with Yordano Ventura on the mound Friday.

After winning the first two at The K, the Royals were able to take one of three north of the border. After the first two wins, it would have been nice to close the series out without the return trip to Kansas City, but it feels like getting a win in Toronto was a good result. The Royals now have two chances to put the series away on home turf.

Ventura met the media ahead of his Game Six start but didn’t offer much in the way of interest. As McCullough points out, the young Royals flamethrower has yet to author a notable postseason performance this October. Playoff statistics are fraught with small sample size caveats, but it’s impossible to escape the fact Ventura has allowed 16 hits in just over 12 innings of work while walking six. It’s too many baserunners. On the other hand, he’s whiffed 16. We’ve seen an electric Ventura who has been prone to leaving hittable pitches in the zone.

You don’t need me to write that Ventura has been in this position before. We all remember Game Six of the 2014 World Series. It’s not exactly the same situation – the Royals returned from San Francisco needing to win both games, this time they need just one win and have two opportunities to secure it – nevertheless, there is something comforting to hear “Game Six starter, Yordano Ventura.”

If it feels like the pressure is on Ventura (at least from a fan’s perspective) it’s because we all know who’s lurking in a potential Game Seven. After watching the train wreck on the mound in Toronto, who could openly get excited about a Johnny Cueto start in another elimination game? As masterful as he was in the ALDS against Houston in the fifth game, there was absolutely nothing to like about his start at Rogers Center. Therein lies the problem: Which Johnny Cueto will show up? Your guess is as good as mine. We can psychoanalyze all day long, but the only way we will know the definitive answer is when he actually puts the ball in his right hand and let’s it fly. Which is exactly why fans are so nervous about having Cueto on the mound in Game Seven.

If you look at the offensive numbers through five, it looks like the Royals are cruising. They have outscored the Jays 34-23 and own a .296/.335/.450 line. Toronto has countered hitting .239/.330/.374. Again, the small sample size caveat applies here, but I bring it up to point out that ahead of Game Five, the Royals offense was in fine form. The top third of the order – Alcides Escobar, Ben Zobrist, and Lorenzo Cain – have been brilliant. Alex Gordon shouldn’t be hitting eighth (everyone knows this) but there is something comforting about having his bat anchoring the lower half of the order and setting the table for the top. It’s not the smartest way to draw up the lineup, but like most everything Ned Yost does in October, it just seems to work.

Speaking of Yost, a post at Fangraphs confirms what many suspected about his handling of his starters this October – He’s been a lot more patient, often with poor results. While it’s certainly understandable that Yost trusts in his guys, in the short season of the playoff series, and with the best bullpen in baseball just a phone call away, Yost has been at times too slow to go to the hook for his starters. The way he handled Chris Young in Game Four was perfection. Once the order turned over a third time, he was removed at the first baserunner. That just happened to be the leadoff hitter in the fifth inning. Still, it was a perfectly deployed strategy to not allow Young to face Josh Donaldson and possibly Jose Bautista a third time. In Game Five, the opposite was true. In the sixth inning of a 1-0 game, the order turned over a third time. Yes, Volquez had pitched brilliantly through the first five, but with a fully rested (at least for the trustworthy arms) bullpen at his disposal, Yost waited too long. The Jays tallied a run on three walks and a hit batter. Inexcusable given the situation.

The only thing I can come up with on why this happens is the manager is falling into some sort of starting pitching bias. Chris Young is a guy who generally can give you five innings at the most. So when he starts showing signs of a struggle in the fourth, Yost goes to the bullpen. However, starters like Volquez and Cueto routinely go deeper into games. They can give you seven strong innings, so they should be able to escape the sixth, right? We saw such a high wire act in Game One when Volquez needed 37 pitches to survive the sixth. If you’re being honest, the Royals were fortunate that didn’t blow up and turn the game in the Jays favor.

You have to think today with Ventura on the mound, and with the lessons of Volquez in Game Five and Cueto in Game Three, Yost will have a quicker hook. Again, his prime relievers are rested and ready to go. He can mix and match to get multiple innings from some and still have a stocked pen in the eventuality the series goes the full seven.

This is a difficult series to get an accurate read. It would have been nice if this series was like the NLCS for the Mets, where they simply destroyed the Cubs. But that was never in the plan here. The Royals and the Jays were the top two teams in the AL and they figured to stand toe to toe and slug it out from there. Both teams are landing haymakers. One team will be standing at the end. Game on.

Back in Game One, Edinson Volquez pitched five brilliant innings, then floundered into choppy waters in the sixth.  In that game, after an agonizing 30 minute-37 pitch frame, the Royals emerged unscathed and took the game.  Yesterday, Volquez was not brilliant, but was very good for five innings and entered the sixth with his team down 1-0. Unlike the first game, the Royals did not emerge unscathed.

Walk, hit by pitch, walk and walk is no way to make a living on the mound and that is what Volquez did to begin the frame. Relieved by Kelvin Herrera, he could only watch as Troy Tulowitzki ripped a one out double (more good hitting than bad pitching on that one, by the way) to plate three more runs.  Game over, basically.

My wife asked me ‘what happened?’ and the only real answer I could come up with is the Royals simply got beat yesterday.  They ran into a good pitcher having a great night and handed a great offensive team four free baserunners to play with – in a row.  Momma said there would be days like this.

Did Volquez get squeezed in that sixth inning?  Here’s the strike zone plot courtesy of Brooks Baseball for the at-bat against the purveyor of sunshine and goodness, Jose Bautista:

6th Inning Bautista

 

You want way more and way better on the above?  Click this link for an absolutely tremendous article by BasedBall.

And the following plate appearance by Edwin Encarnacion:

6th Inning Edwin

It would not be uncommon to get a few of those calls, but it is not uncommon not to, either.  Big name hitters on their home turf?  That’s a tough called strike to get sometimes.

The Royals did muster something of a challenge in the eight when Salvador Perez hit a two out solo homer followed by singles by Gordon and Rios.  You wonder what might have been if Alcides Escobar’s liner (fliner more accurately?) had found a home outside of Happy Bautista’s glove, but it was not to be.  The Royals got beat, turn the page.

The national storyline now seems to be turning towards an almost expectation that the Blue Jays are going to waltz through Game Six. There was already talk on MLB Radio speculating about whether Ned Yost could actually hand the ball to Johnny Cueto for Game Seven.  My question is, how comfortable does John Gibbons feel about handing the ball to David Price for Game Six?

Do you think, with Price warming in the pen in the seventh yesterday that the Royals hurt themselves by not forcing Gibbons to pitch Price in relief yesterday (and thus go with Marcus Stroman on short rest tomorrow night) or help themselves?  Playoff demons?  David Price has more than a few and the last time he threw a pitch to the Royals, they were spraying the ball around Kaufmann with large amounts of authority.

Having annointed Yordano Ventura a big game pitcher prior to the start of the post-season and subsequently been disappointed by my proclamation, I still feel good about a Ventura-Price showdown in Kansas City.  That is all feel and no fact, mind you, but I feel good about Game Six.  It is quite obviously, the game the Royals need to win as all the pressure will rain down on them should this series go to Game Seven.  It is time for a Ventura gem.

Cueto in Game Seven?  Don’t worry about it.  Royals win in six.

Unlike Monday night in Toronto, on Tuesday the Royals grabbed the quick lead and never let go.

The script was the same for the opening scene. Just like so many others this October, Alcides Escobar started the game by reaching base. Yes, he swung at the first pitch, but he missed that one. What we now call #PeakEsky was reached on the next pitch when he squared to bunt against the RA Dickey knuckleball and pushed one down the third base line, reaching when Josh Donaldson couldn’t get a handle. Ben Zobrist needed just two pitches to measure the knuckler before got one belt-high and sent it to the right of center.

A walk by Lorenzo Cain, a steal, a single by Eric Hosmer, and a passed ball netted another run. A Kendrys Morales ground out and a Mike Moustakas sacrifice fly checked the “productive outs” square off the Royals Offense bingo card and the Royals finished the inning with four runs.

Such a typical Royals offensive barrage. They needed just 22 pitches to power to four first inning runs. Quite simply, this is who they are. This is who they’ve been, especially in the postseason. The gameplan seems to be to swing early and often, attempting to “ambush” the starting pitcher. With the only AL team in the postseason with experience, maybe they’re trying to string together some early hits to rattle the cage. Maybe they’re just in a damn hurry to score some early runs to turn the game over to the bullpen. Maybe they’re so good at making contact, this is the best way to approach the game.

Sometimes the ambush works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Credit to this team they have actively changed their approach when it hasn’t, saving some of their best plate appearances for the later innings of close games. They didn’t really need to make that change on Tuesday.

With a four run lead before he set foot on the mound, Chris Young was tasked with holding the lead long enough to get hand it over to the bullpen. It seems weird to have that mindset about a starting pitcher, but if anyone was going to struggle in Toronto against the Blue Jays, you would figure it to be a starting pitcher with a profile like Young. He’s been an inspired free agent signing by Dayton Moore and company, providing much needed rotation depth. But pitting an extreme fly ball pitcher – his 59 percent fly ball rate is the highest in baseball among pitchers with more than 120 innings – against a power-mad team like the Blue Jays, seems like a recipe for trouble.

It wasn’t. Not even close.

As Young has all season, he’s proved the doubters (like me) wrong. Another brilliant effort. He threw 78 pitches on the afternoon. Fifty of them were fastballs, averaging just under 88 mph. Another 28 were sliders, clocking in at 80 mph. He threw a first pitch strike to 11 of 19 batters faced and recorded 10 swings and misses.

Young made it a point to work inside against the Jays right-handed thunder. His pitch plot from Brooks Baseball against those hitters reveals a plan he executed fairly well. Note the cluster of dark red (fouls) on the inside, just off the zone and also notice the absence of any pitch on the outer quarter of the plate.

Young_ALCS3

The Jays bats weren’t able to get full extension, neutralizing their power. Most of the contact came against Young’s slider.

Young was simply brilliant. Calm and composed, he was the anti-Cueto. Before the game, I said best-case scenario would be for him to go five innings and allow just two runs. He didn’t quite make five, but with the Royals bullpen depth, it doesn’t really matter so much. The only time Young found himself in trouble was when he faced the top of the Jays order for the second time. He got the first two outs of the fifth and the order turned over for a third time. Ben Revere singled, and with the bats of Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista looming, Ned Yost rightly summoned the bullpen calvary.

It was a tremendous effort from Young. Following the game, he talked about the loss of his father and how he’s dealt with the sorrow through these last couple of weeks. Brilliantly chronicled by McCullough, it’s required reading.

After Dickey was removed from the game in the second, the Royals bats fell silent against old friend Liam Hendriks. The Jays desperately needed a band-aid, and Hendriks provided it, picking Escobar off second to get out of the second inning without throwing a pitch and then delivering four solid innings. It was his longest outing of the season.

If Hendriks applied the band-aid, the rest of the bullpen ripped it right off over the next three frames. The next three Blue Jay relievers couldn’t get anyone out without handing over some runs. A tight 5-2 game turned into a 14-2 laugher. If the goal was to escape Toronto with a minimum of one win, consider mission accomplished. They own a 3-1 series lead and have three chances to close out the series, the final two of which could come at Kauffman Stadium*.

*If necessary.

The Royals now stand one game away from a return trip to the World Series. They are one game away from mounting a successful defense of their AL Championship. They are one game away from establishing themselves as a mini-dynasty. These are amazing baseball times.

One had to expect there would be a game like last night at some point in the ALCS.  You know, one where the Blue Jays just score too many runs.  When a 95 win team with the best record in the first half of the season faces a 93 win team with the best record in the second half of the season, expecting a sweep is simply not realistic.

It would have been unreasonable to expect Johnny Cueto to throw another eight inning two hit gem, but reasonable to expect something other than a two inning eight run four walk disaster that he ended up providing in front of a national audience that no doubt included the five or six men contemplating throwing millions of dollars at him this off-season.

Cueto simply could not locate a pitch.  Were the Royals being too cute with multiple signs and Perez waiting to the last second to set his target?  Were they a little too worried about what the Blue Jays may or may not be doing?  I don’t know, maybe.  I do know Cueto was awful last night.

That said, this is a talented Toronto lineup that scored 137 more runs this season than any other team.  They were due, after amassing just three runs in the first two games to explode and they did.  They are a dramatically better team playing in Rogers Centre than anywhere else and it showed. It was bound to happen.

Now, the Royals did not curl up in a ball and whimper.

Kris Medlen, after serving up a giant home run to Josh Donaldson (possibly the only player in the league who makes me say ‘you know Eric Hosmer’s haircut isn’t that bad’) allowed only one other run in FIVE big innings of relief. He was tagged for a solo shot by Ryan Goins, but was otherwise pretty much untouchable.  The outing was huge in that it allowed Ned Yost to save really all of his bullpen for better days.

On the offensive side, down seven, the Royals scratched a couple of runs across in the fifth courtesy of Alcides Escobar and Ben Zobrist, who accounted for six of the team’s eight runs and seven of their fifteen hits. They could not muster any other challenge in sixth, allowing the Blue Jays to milk an extra four outs out of the only marginally effective Marcus Stroman.

In the end, however, the Royals made it interesting, plating four runs in the top of the ninth with still two outs to play with. I did not truly feel as though Kansas City was going to make it all the way back, but it was enough to force Toronto to go  to their closer to finish the game.  In fact, despite leading by six and seven runs most of the night and winning by three, the Blue Jays did use their top three relievers last night, while the Royals saved everyone that they would use in a close game.  That could prove to be an important fact today and tomorrow.

More than anything, last night’s contest pointed out just how different these two teams are.  The Royals had 15 hits and one walk, the Blue Jays 11 hits and six walks. The Jays scored six of their runs via the long ball, the Royals just two (and that in the game’s last inning). Also, at least one Blue Jay thinks it is cool to wear eye black..indoors…at night.

Last night’s game was an example of what we all knew this series would be:  a test to see if the Royals can put the ball in play more than the Blue Jays can hit it over the fence.

As Craig detailed yesterday, the Royals will send Chris Young to the mound this afternoon and hope the tall soft thrower who believes in the fly ball can somehow keep those balls on Lorenzo Cain’s side of the fence.  In turn the Blue Jays will throw knuckle balling R.A. Dickey out in hopes he can guide the Royals’ balls towards Troy Tulowitzki’s glove, where we know the induce glare of indoor baseball will not effect the Toronto shortstop.

The baseball post-season is littered with unlikely heroes. The Royals need Chris Young, the exact opposite kind of pitcher one would logically like to see facing the Blue Jays in Toronto, to be one of those unlikely heroes and give them a stranglehold on this series.

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