Games » Chicago White SoxSep18
It changed the whole game
The Kansas City Star
That was Ned Yost’s response when I asked who should have covered third base in the eighth inning. Let’s set the scene: Chicago’s Paul Konerko came to the plate with two outs. Juan Pierre was on second base. Alexei Ramirez was on first and the score was 6-4. Konerko singled to left, and Pierre scored from second. Alex Gordon fielded the ball and came up ready to throw to third to gun down Ramirez, who made the mistake of trying to advance to third on a ball that was hit to shallow left field.
Alexei would have been dead, but no one on the Royals covered third. I asked Ned who had responsibility for the bag, and he said shortstop Yamaico Navarro. “It changed the whole game,” Yost said. Mike Moustakas was in the middle of the infield acting as the cutoff man. Throw Ramirez out at third, and A.J. Pierzynski never comes to the plate to hit the three-run bomb that drove in Ramirez and Konerko. No three-run bomb and the Royals would have had the tying run in scoring position in the ninth inning and maybe, maybe things come out differently.
There’s no way of knowing. Maybe the Royals still would have lost, but little stuff like covering a base can win or lose a ball game.
• Down by three runs in the seventh inning Melky, Cabrera stole second base after leading off with a single. Some people might criticize the move, but with nine outs left in the game, I thought it made sense to play for one run and get within striking distance.
• If you get out of small-ball mode too early (more on that shortly), you make it easy on the other side. Take your time delivering the ball, throw all your pitches and have your defense stand where they want. Keep playing small ball, and you get more slide steps, fastballs and defenders out of position.
• Chris Getz confirmed that the threat of him stealing helped Alcides Escobar get a hit a few games back. Chris said the pitcher showed him three different moves in an effort to pick him off. Getz said that in that case, you can’t multi-task like that and expect to be successful.
• The at-bat that hurt in the seventh was Johnny Giavotella’s strikeout. He had Eric Hosmer on third and Jeff Francoeur on second with one out. White Sox pitcher Jesse Crain knew Gio wanted a ball up so he could hit it to the outfield for at least a sacrifice fly and Crain got Johnny to go up out of the zone.
• In the third inning, catcher Brayan Pena was in trouble on a pop fly behind home plate. Here’s how you could tell: Brayan caught the ball facing the infield. Usually, when the ball goes straight back on a pop up, the catcher checks with the pitcher. The pitcher is pointing at the ball so the catcher knows which way to turn. The catcher then turns, locates the ball and waits for it to come back to him (the ball drifts back toward the infield). So at the time he makes the catch, the catcher should be facing the screen behind home plate, not the infield.
• A nice heads-up play that I didn’t want to go unnoticed: Alex Gordon broke up a double play by going to his right to take out the pivot man. He was out but still reached out and tagged the base. I thought I knew why, but Alex confirmed it afterward: He was demonstrating to the umpire that he was close enough to touch the base so the umpire wouldn’t also rule Billy Butler out at first. Smart play, even though the pitcher failed to cover first. There’s a lot of that going around.
The press box jinx
If you’re ever in the press box, and the game is being played quickly, do not mention it. Players are superstitious about no-hitters. Reporters feel the same about a fast game. I haven’t screwed this one up … yet. But I will.
According to Jason Kendall, when a hitter strikes out looking, he probably is guessing. I’m scared of Jason, so I’m going to agree. Once a hitter gets to two strikes, he’s supposed to protect the strike zone from everything: fastball, off-speed, in-out-up-down.
There are several tricks for getting this done, and here’s one: Look up and away. You can adjust in, but not away, down, but not up … and wait as long as you can to make up your mind. (Which, by the way, is why you need to keep an eye on the batter, especially with two strikes. It’s when he’s most likely to take a late ‘emergency hack’ and shoot the ball sideways into the crowd.)
Readers have asked whether the team keeps any kind of umpire ratings so coaches can match pitcher and strike zone. The difficulty of lining up the pitching rotation with the umpire rotation seems a bit mind-boggling. I asked Mitch Maier whether the home-plate umpire’s strike zone was commented on in team meetings. Mitch said it was a nightly subject of conversation, but only informally.
The players are aware of an umpire’s reputation for having a tight or wide zone. They then watch carefully for what the zone is that night. As a hitter comes back to the dugout, he will inform the others of what he’s seen, as in, “Heads up. He’s giving a ball off the outside corner tonight.”
And that’s the problem: The strike zone is a fluid thing, umpire to umpire, game to game and pitch to pitch. Everybody pretty much says they don’t care what the zone is, as long as it’s the same for everyone and stays consistent. If that pitch was ball in the third inning, don’t ring me up on it in the ninth.
I had been managing amateur ball a few years when a light went on over my head (give me three years to think about something and I’m pretty sharp.) So I called Clint Hurdle to get his reaction to my blindingly obvious insight. As a manager, there was very little I could do to prevent a loss if my team was getting blown out. There also was very little I could do to screw up a win if we were blowing out the other team. So managing really came down to what I did in games where the spread was three runs or fewer.
Clint said yes, that was true.
And in a three-run-or-less ball game, small ball probably will come into play at some point.
Clint said yes, that was also true.
So why don’t teams play more small ball? If it’s how you win the close ones — and in the playoffs, the pitching gets better, so there will be more close games — shouldn’t teams be perfecting the ability to manufacture runs? The “Moneyball” philosophy in Oakland got the A’s to the playoffs, but once there, they couldn’t manufacture runs against the better pitching. If at some point, playing for one was necessary to win a championship, why don’t more teams do it?
“The press conference afterward.” Clint said if he made moves and they didn’t work out (and sooner or later, a move won’t work out), the press would be all over him. Why did he signal for a bunt in the third? Why did he signal for a steal in the seventh? But if he sat on his hands, he could protect himself. “Hey, what can I do? The guys didn’t hit tonight.”
So even though a manager might be playing worse odds by doing nothing, he is less likely to get criticized. So when you see the Royals take risks, give credit to Ned Yost. It would be easier — and safer — to do nothing. It wouldn’t be better baseball, but it would give Ned cover.
And one more thing: Once the league got steroids out of the game, waiting for that three-run bomb might be a long wait. Without performance-enhancing drugs, the ability to play small ball will be even more important — and the Royals are ahead of the curve.