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Why pitching the ninth is different
Here’s what’s wrong with Joakim Soria: He throws his off-speed pitches too much. He doesn’t throw his off-speed pitches enough. It’s pitch selection. It’s pitch location. He’s pitching behind in the count. He’s hurt. He’s fine. His fastball has lost its hop or he’s pitching poorly on purpose because he wants to get traded.
(That last theory was thrown out by some sports-talk-radio fans. I’m not sure how pitching poorly makes another team want you, but maybe the fans can explain that in their next postgame phone call … if they’re not too busy denying that man ever landed on the moon.)
Joakim says he doesn’t know why he’s pitching poorly, but he plans to figure it out in some other role.
As of Sunday, Aaron Crow was going to get the first shot at closing. When Crow was asked about it, he admitted that pitching the ninth would be a challenge, and then in the same breath said the ninth was like any other inning. So maybe he hasn’t decided how he feels about it. I sure hope he can pitch the ninth as if it were any other inning, but a lot of people (me included) think it’s not.
Luke Hochevar hit the first batter of the game (and that batter scored). Then after being handed a 3-1 lead, Luke walked the first batter of the second inning. Then after being handed a 6-1 lead, Luke walked the first two batters of the third inning (and they both scored). Everett Teaford gave up a seventh-inning home run, and Louis Coleman gave up two home runs in the eigth. But who got booed off the field?
Joakim wasn’t the only pitcher to have a bad day on the mound, but because he pitched last, everyone remembers what he did. There’s a reason closers get big bucks, and it’s not because the ninth is like any other inning.
The fact that Joakim has no idea why things have gone bad explains baseball superstition. Adding a pitch can hurt the other ones, and attempting to improve your swing can put you in slump. When players are going good, they’re never 100 percent sure why they’re going good.
So the logical course of action is to change absolutely nothing. Leave your house at the same time every day. Drive the same route to the ballpark. Eat the same food. Put your uniform on in the same way. And if you’re dating someone, for God’s sake, don’t break up with her.
If you’re scuffling, the opposite is true. Change anything and everything … and I’ve known relationships to break over an 0-20.
A sense of perspective
Joakim was asked one of those “Is this the end of the world as we know it?” questions and responded by saying, “I’m not dying.” Soria said his wife was healthy, his kids were healthy and he just has a situation at work to deal with. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. Listen to him talk, and it’s clear he cares a lot, but on a day when we’re thinking about fallen servicemen and women and saying goodbye to Paul Splittorff, it’s good to remember we’re talking about baseball.
A couple of good moments
Watch Eric Hosmer on defense when a single sends a runner to the plate. He gets in the cutoff position, and if he doesn’t actually cut off the ball, he fakes a cut. This decoy freezes the runner at first base. It kept Bobby Abreu from advancing after his RBI single in Sunday’s first inning. The next play was a 1-4-3 double play that would not have been possible if Eric hadn’t deked the runner.
Eric also struggled with a pop fly in the sun, but he made the catch after avoiding the first-base coach and the railing. Eric said that when a game starts at 3:10 p.m., the sun is in unusual places compared with games that start at midday or at night.
And Chris Getz had an 11-pitch at-bat in the fifth inning that probably got Angels starter Ervin Santana out of the game an inning earlier. Even though the at-bat ended with a 4-3 put-out, that plate appearance helped the Royals score two runs against middle relief in the seventh.
Pena’s play at the plate
Before the game, I walked up to catcher Brayan Pena, and he said, “I’ve been expecting you. Pull up a chair and sit down.” (Being asked to sit down in the clubhouse is a big deal. It means you have something important to talk about, otherwise reporters are expected to stand. It’s this way in every clubhouse I’ve ever been in.)
Anyway, my showing up made Brayan again go through the play at the plate that ended Sunday afternoon’s game against the Rangers. It’s not much fun to explain how you screwed up, and it’s a lot less fun to explain it over and over. The short version is Brayan lost track of where his feet were.
Brayan was receiving the ball from right field, which meant the runner, Mike Napoli, was coming at his blind side. Brayan thought he was out in front of the plate, but when his feet shifted after receiving the throw, he ended up behind the plate.
Brayan said that wasn’t an excuse. It’s his responsibility to have his feet in the right position. Brayan has been asked whether he was avoiding contact, but Brayan’s blocked the plate many times before, and it’s unlikely that anyone who can’t stand contact would become a catcher.
After the play, Brayan initially thought Napoli was out, and Brayan spiked the ball when the umpire’s call went the other way. After seeing the replay, Brayan found the umpire, Mike Estabrook, and apologized. He also apologized to Joakim Soria and the rest of his teammates.
Brayan said he was so upset about the play that he didn’t sleep Sunday night. It was clear Brayan wasn’t enjoying talking about the play again, but he thought it was his duty to talk to me.
Brayan made a mistake in Sunday’s game, but since then he’s done everything right.
(By the way: I heard a sports-talk-radio guy describe this play with disgust, saying a slow guy scored from first base on a single, and he couldn’t believe no error was given to the Royals. This is putting the worst possible interpretation on the play. The ball was hit into the right-field corner and was scored a single only because the batter failed to run the play out after the Napoli crossed the plate.
The slow guy, Napoli, was in motion and almost to second base when the ball was put in play, so scoring from almost-second on a double isn’t exactly mind-boggling. Even so, Napoli should have been out, but there was no error on the play. Nobody dropped the ball or threw wildly. It was a tag play, and the tag was late. Making it sound worse than it was does a disservice to the players and the listeners. There’s enough things going wrong with the Royals right now without inventing new ones.)
After Sunday’s game, a reader asked me about accountability. I should expand on the answer I gave him because it can help fans understand what they see and hear.
Managers, coaches and teammates will rarely criticize a player publicly. It happens, but’s is considered “throwing a player under the bus” and frowned on. So a player can throw to the wrong base, get picked off twice and wear his pants backward, and most of the time the manager will defend him … publicly. In private, it’s a different story. The manager will air a player out, but he will do it behind closed doors.
The same goes for teammates. Criticism is supposed to remain private.
So if you see a player do something dumb, don’t assume that nothing happened to him because the manager didn’t get up at the postgame news conference and talk about just how dumb the player was. Eventually all these guys are held accountable.
There’s a line of players and coaches who are trying to take these big-league jobs away, and most of the people here don’t forget that. And if someone does forget that, a teammate or coach will remind them.