Games » Seattle MarinersJul26
How you lose a ball game
The Kansas City Star
I hadn’t been to many Ned Yost post-game press conferences before I picked up this pattern: if Ned was talking about his starting pitcher keeping the ball down in the zone, he was talking about a win. If Ned was talking about his starting pitcher throwing the ball up in the zone, he was talking about a loss.
After this game, Ned Yost was talking about his starting pitcher throwing the ball up in the zone.
First inning: During his first at bat Alcides Escobar turns back toward the umpire after a pitch up in the zone. Esky appears to ask a question, then nods. Turning back toward the umpire is frowned upon if the hitter is complaining about the call. Complaining is supposed to be done while staring straight ahead or looking down. That way the fans don’t know the hitter is unhappy. Some of the dirt-smoothing you see hitters do with their feet is really an excuse to talk to the umpire while appearing to manicure the batter’s box.
But Esky’s nod probably means he was asking a question. The hitters often want to know if that’s the extent of the zone on a borderline pitch. Get a pitch up or away and the hitter may ask, “Is that as far as you’re going to go?” The hitter is trying to find out the limit of the zone and get the umpire to commit to that limit.
On the other hand, Alcides could’ve been asking if the salmon in Seattle is as good as they say — but I like my version better.
In the bottom of the inning Luis Mendoza, a sinkerball pitcher, is having trouble getting the ball down in the zone. There can be several reasons for that — over-striding is one — but here’s another reason you may not have considered: the mound in the visiting bullpen is supposed to be the same as the mound on the field, but that hasn’t always been the case.
If the slope or dirt or surface hardness of the bullpen mound is different from the game mound, that can throw a visiting pitcher off, at least for an inning or two. I’m not saying this is what happened in Seattle — their mounds may be identical — but I am saying it’s been known to happen. (Hey, if I can make up imaginary conversations between Alcides Escobar and the home plate umpire I can certainly conjure up a tricky grounds crew.) Whatever the reason, Mendoza is up in the zone and gets whacked around for two runs.
Jeff Francoeur picks up another outfield assist when he’s fooled on a fly ball and lets it drop in front of him. Fortunately, the runner on first, Casper Wells, is also fooled, doesn’t advance in time and Frenchy forces him out at second base. In this game both Francoeur and Alex Gordon can be seen attempting to deke runners on balls that are going to drop for hits. Both outfielders hold their gloves up as if they’re going to make the catch in an attempt to freeze the runner and prevent further advance.
Second inning: Mike Moustakas is out on a 3-1 play at first base, but the play forces Jason Vargas to sprint to cover the bag. When the pitcher sprints to cover, you can often see infielders waiting for him on the mound afterwards. The plan is to slow the game down and allow the pitcher to catch his breath before delivering the next pitch.
When a pitcher is winded, he sometimes won’t bend over as deeply on his follow through. That can mean the pitch will be up in the zone. Vargas is still gasping when he delivers a changeup to Salvador Perez. The pitch is in the middle of the zone and Perez hits a line drive — right at the left fielder.
Third inning:Vargas strikes out Eric Hosmer on a 3-2 85-mph cutter. The Seattle pitcher is adding and subtracting: when he gets in a fastball count — and hitters know a fastball is coming — Vargas still disrupts their timing by adding or subtracting a few miles an hour off the expected pitch. Pitchers who do this often take a few miles an hour off the pitch in a big situation, figuring the hitter’s adrenaline will have him over-aggressive and out in front.
In the bottom of the inning Mendoza gets the first two hitters on a total of three pitches. Kyle Seager then takes what is sometimes considered a selfish at-bat — he swings at the first pitch. Seager pops up and Mendoza is off the mound in four pitches. Instead of taking one or even two strikes for the good of his team, Seager’s at-bat puts Jason Vargas right back on the mound without much rest between innings.
Fourth inning: The two may be entirely unrelated, but Seager’s at-bat is followed by the only inning in which Vargas struggles. Gordon grounds out, but Vargas has to throw eight pitches to him, Lorenzo Cain walks and Vargas then falls behind Billy Butler, 3-0. Ned Yost likes to give the 3-0 green light to hitters with some power who can do some damage on a grooved fastball. Billy gets the green light and doubles in Cain.
In the bottom half, the Royals give the run right back (when your team scores it’s psychologically important to throw a “shutdown” inning afterwards) and the score is 3-1, Mariners.
Sixth inning: Ryan Lefebvre and Rex Hudler are talking about Vargas and how he seems “sneaky fast.” This is how you refer to a pitcher who doesn’t throw that hard according to the radar gun, but still seems able to blow fastballs past hitters. Guys who are sneaky fast usually have something in their delivery that hides the ball a long time. Vargas has an inward turn, his back is almost completely turned to the plate during his delivery.
When fans see an inward turn, they can also assume the pitcher is slow to the plate — that turn takes time. But despite his slow delivery time, Alex Gordon on first base is having a hard time reading Vargas, sometimes breaking back to the bag as Vargas delivers home.
In the bottom of the sixth, the Mariners put together two doubles and score one run. After a wild pitch moves Carlos Peguero to third, Salvador Perez blocks three consecutive sliders in the dirt, preventing a fifth run from scoring.
Seventh inning: Jeff Francoeur grounds out, 6-3. In his first at-bat Jeff struck out looking, in his second at-bat, he struck out swinging. Francoer is trying to fix a hole in his swing that has him missing hittable pitches. Kevin Seitzer says Jeff is coming underneath the ball and a loop in a hitter’s swing means he’ll have a hard time hitting pitches up in the zone or on the inside half — and it’s not so hot on pitches away, either. A loop means the bat head is dropping (think of a golf swing) and the hitter has a hard time hitting anything but a pitch down in the zone.
Eighth inning: Yuniesky Betancourt makes an error on a potential double play ball. Yuni probably makes the error because it was a potential double play ball. Had there been two down, Betancourt probably would’ve squared his body up and kept the ball in front of him. Because it’s a possible double play ball, Yuni is playing it off to his left side, preparing to continue spinning to his left, reverse pivot and throw the ball to second. A passed ball allows both runners to move up and, with the infield in and one down, the Mariners put on the contact play.
Casper Wells hits the ball to Escobar, Alcides throws home in plenty of time to beat the runner coming down the line — Dustin Ackley — and Ackley retreats to third. Perez tags Ackley before he makes it back to the bag and then alertly throws out Wells who was trying to sneak into second base while the play was being made at third base.
Ninth inning: Billy Butler gets only the second Royals hit of the game, his 201st double. Royals lose, 4-1.
Watching the base runner
(I was reminded of this when I saw an Angels runner peel off during a double play in Anaheim.)
On a potential 4-6-3 or 6-4-3 double play, most fans follow the ball. But there’s something to be learned from watching the runner approaching second. Even when they know they’re going to be out, good ballplayers run as hard as they can. If the runner can get to the pivot man, they might save their team an out at first base.
Runners are supposed to slide hard at the pivot man’s feet. Few runners want to injure a middle infielder, but they don’t mind flipping one or forcing the infielder to jump over them. Either one disrupts the throw. Even making the pivot man move sideways to avoid contact or step back to keep the base in between themselves and the sliding runner takes something off the throw to first and lessens the chance of a double play.
That’s what a good base runner does. Far too often you see a ballplayer make a half-hearted effort to get to the pivot man, then veer off to the side which provides and easy throwing lane to complete a double play.
Even when both ballplayers are doing the right thing, it’s a delicate balance: the runner slides hard at the pivot man’s feet and it’s the pivot man’s job to get out of the way. On the defensive side, the pivot man forces the runner to get down and out of the way by dropping his arm angle down and throwing at the runner’s head. Neither player is trying to injure the other. They’re just doing what they have to do. The other player is expected to protect himself.
But there are times when someone goes too far in breaking up the double play. If a runner gets down and then does a pop-up slide into the pivot man, that might start a fight. That’s an easy way to trap an infielder’s foot and then use the body to blow out a knee or break a leg. Less dirty, but still cheating, is leaving a hand out to the side that just happens to hook the pivot man’s leg or foot.
The double play can be a thing of beauty, but you can learn a lot by not keeping your eye on the ball.