If you weren’t entertained, I can’t help you. That was a ballgame composed of equal parts frustration, anxiety, disbelief and ultimately…exhilaration. I’m sure other emotions and feelings were had along the way. I lost track.
What a wild, wild ballgame. For a moment, it had nothing. And then it had everything.
Despite all that happened in this game (and believe me, a lot happened) it finished the only way it could have ended…With Salvador Perez at the plate and the winning run 90 feet away. Turns out the baseball gods, so cruel in the early stages of the game, were simply having a good time. Just playing around.
Ahhhh yes…Perez, as noted so many times in the brief existence of this newsletter, is the heart and soul of this Royals team. It’s his Royals team. If anyone was going to drive in that winning run, after everything that happened in that game, it had to be Perez. It just had to be.
Naturally, Perez delivered with a shot down the third base line and into left field. The third baseman waved at the ball to his right, the winning run jumped on home plate and Perez threw both arms into the air as he ran to first to make it official. The final: 9-8, Royals. An early deficit. A late comeback. A walkoff. Wild Card vibes anyone?
Perez propelled his team to wins in five—five!—of the six wins on the homestand. With both the bat and with the glove. It was a tour de force from the Royals’ leader. A complete performance. Yeah, it’s early…but it’s not too early to appreciate the contributions Perez has already made to the 2021 Royals. Big hit after big hit. Key play after key play. He’s doing it all, and the Royals are winning.
The baseball gods are smiling.
The season is long and as it progresses, teams begin to take on an identity. While it’s still plenty early in 2021, it would appear that the identity of this Royals team is one of belief. No deficit is too large. No circumstance can’t be overcome. I may be getting ahead of myself—who knows how the next five months will unfold—but it certainly feels like this 2021 Royals ballclub is about the comeback. The fight. The never-say-die attitude. And that makes them a very dangerous team.
And the small ball shall lead you again to victory
While I hate the bunt and I wholeheartedly encourage you to hate the bunt along with me, I will begrudgingly accept that there is an appropriate time and place for the sacrifice. The levers that Mike Matheny pulled in the ninth were Yostian in nature. More 2014/2015 flashbacks!
Let’s begin with the pinch-running of Jarrod Dyson for Michael A. Taylor in the ninth inning. Perhaps a bit of a questionable move given that Taylor is faster than Dyson at this point in their respective careers, but one thing is certain: Dyson knows how to swipe a base. And that’s key in the situation. The pinch runner has to steal second. With Rays reliever Diego Castillo spraying baseballs down and wide, there was plenty of opportunity to run.
Baseball Savant has a leaderboard for running splits. It breaks down sprint speed to show what they call burst. While Taylor may be faster than Dyson at this point in his career, it’s likely that Dyson has the edge in burst. Which is important in swiping that bag. Neither has enough of a sample to show up in Savant at this point in 2021, but they conveniently ranked next to each other in 2020.
From about 35 feet to 70 feet, Dyson has the edge by almost 0.1 second. It seems like a small detail, but as we saw a number of times on Wednesday, those details matter. The pressure that Dyson brings on a pitcher and catcher are real.
Once Dyson stole second, it was a fine time to bunt. Especially given that Castillo was extremely wild. It felt like odds were good that there would be at least a chance for Dyson to break for home at some point over the next two batters if he could make it to third. And Hanser Alberto was able to do just that with a sacrifice.
That brought up Nicky Lopez. He was up in a similar situation two innings earlier and couldn’t bring the run home. This time, he squared to bunt and laid down a beaut. A safety squeeze as Dyson waited for the bunt to drop and then scampered home. Tie ballgame.
That was an 87 mph slider in the middle of the plate. Lopez coudn’t have had a better pitch to bunt. In case you were wondering.
The questions over the decisions (pinch running with Dyson over Taylor, bunting a runner over for Lopez) were mitigated by the outcome. The tumblers clicked into place. The plan came together.
The pickup artists
The baseball hasn’t been especially clean the last few days. A lot of mistakes from the Royals. But one thing that we’ve heard through these games is about how guys are looking to pick their teammates up. Make an error on defense? Someone on the club is looking to help make it right. Fail to execute offensively in a key situation like moving a runner? Ditto.
In the seventh inning, the Royals were threatening. Andrew Benintendi led off with a single. Michael A. Taylor followed with a walk. Matheny summoned lefty-killer Alberto off the bench to face the southpaw Jeffrey Springs. With the Royals facing a plethora of left-handed starters on the homestand, Alberto had seen plenty of playing time. Yet he hadn’t exactly killed those lefties (or righties for that matter), hitting a collective .174/.208/.304 in 24 plate appearances.
But that’s why Alberto is here. Not just for the starts, but for that situation: to come off the bench against a left-handed reliever late in the game. Again, Matheny’s move paid off as Alberto drove a triple to right, tying the game. It was a fantastic plate appearance. Huge. He fouled off a couple down and in, spit on two more low and away; finally worked to get one up and out of the plate he could drive the other way.
With no outs, the Royals were 90 feet from their first lead of the night. The Rays brought the infield in. Nicky Lopez hit a soft grounder down the first base line. With the contact play not on at that moment, Alberto held. One out.
Whit Merrifield was next. He was having a miserable series. This could be a shot of redemption. He hit a sharp grounder to short. This time, the contact play was on. Alberto was gunned down at the plate.
It was bleak. The Royals went from the potential go-ahead run 90 feet away and no outs to a runner on first and two down.
Carlos Santana decided it was time to pick his teammates up.
An 85 mph center-cut sinker and Santana jumped all over it. That inning alone was almost a microcosm for the entire game. And just another example of a Royal picking up his teammates.
I talked about the identity of the 2021 Royals in the open. The attitude that they can dig themselves out of any hole. Add the fact that they look to pick each other up as another trait of this team. Again, it’s eerily reminiscent of the Royals of six and seven years ago. The team matters.
Slammin’ in the sixth
I’ve watched a lot of baseball. Not as much as Denny Mathews to be sure, but I’ve seen my share of games. Royals games specifically. Royals games at Kauffman Stadium to be even more exact. I’ve never seen an inning like the sixth.
First, Carlos Santana hit a deep fly out to right-center that Brett Phillips made a fine play on for the opening out. On a warmer night, maybe it would’ve found a few extra feet and exited the yard. It was crushed, but not crushed enough. It wasn’t to be.
Then things got weird.
Perez launched one off the padding in right. He thought it was gone. Live, my reaction was that it hit the rail just beyond the padding on the top of the wall. Matheny said everyone in the dugout thought it was gone. But on replay, it was obvious the ball was inches short. Perez, who was in his home run trot, was tagged out between first and second.
Then Soler shot one into the night. It too hit the padding on the top of the wall. This time in left. He got a double out of it. Three baseballs in a row were absolutely obliterated. And the Royals had nothing to show for it.
We are talking about missing out on back-to-back-to-back home runs by a matter of inches. Just an amazing turn of events that the results from those three plate appearances were two hits, two outs and no runs.
For a fun comparison, the Santana home run in the seventh had an exit velocity of 104.6 mph and traveled 379 feet. The baseball gods love to mess with you.
Junis grinds through five
Do you remember who started this game? Right! Jakob Junis. The fastball wasn’t working for Junis out of the chute. Maybe it was the cold, but his velocity was down on the first couple of batters and he wasn’t locating. To my untrained eye, he just didn’t look comfortable out there. Rays batters were on notice, sitting dead red and crushing.
In the first, Junis allowed four balls in play off the fastball. Three of the four went for hits—a pair of doubles and a home run. None of the hits were cheapies. And the lone out, a 90.5 mph lineout off the bat of Willy Adames, had an xBA of .950. The hard contact set a theme that would carry through the night.
The Rays just destroyed the Junis fastball. The Adames first inning lineout was the weakest contact they made on the pitch. All told, Rays batters put eight fastballs in play. Here’s how hard those pitches were hit, grouped by inning:
The fly outs were deep and the liner and grounder were hit directly at defenders. So while the Rays were tracking the fastball, Junis was able to navigate successfully. After the Phillips single to lead off the second, he retired the next nine batters. He stumbled a bit in the fifth, giving up a pair of singles and a walk with some of Royals defensive zaniness thrown in, but by that point he had almost completely abandoned the fastball. In the fifth inning, Junis showed the pitch just four times. None were put in play.
Overall, his fastball velocity was down 1.2 mph from his average. His spin rates were likewise down across the board. It was a difficult outing, but like Keller’s the previous evening, one wonders how the cold conditions played a factor. Junis has shown enough this season that one subpar outing is no reason to even consider his spot in the rotation. He’s not going anywhere for the time being.
Let’s focus on a couple of positives for a moment. Junis had a 28 percent CSW% (Called Strikes and Whiffs) on his cutter/slider. Despite the struggles, it was a pitch that was still largely working. And while Rays batters were jamming on the fastball, they were less successful against the slider/cutter. They put six in play with an average exit velocity of 90.5 mph. Only one went for a base hit.
Let’s not forget the way he bounced back from that rough first frame. He knew the Royals bullpen was thin and he would need to give his team some innings.
“I’m proud of batting, keeping the team in the game and getting through five innings,” Junis said after the game. “Especially not diving into that bullpen too early because I know those guys need a break.”
After a 28 pitch first inning, Junis rebounded with 23 pitches for the second and third combined. It was a tremendous effort for him to ground out those middle innings of his outing to save the bullpen. Without Junis getting through five, I doubt the Royals are in a position to win late.
Finally, Junis threw 12 changeups according to Baseball Savant. He said it was the best it ever felt. This was his best pitch of the night.
Fantastic fade on the pitch. Maybe it was off the plate. Maybe it nicked the edge. Terrific location no matter what.
I thought Junis accurately summed up his (and the Royals’) night.
“I couldn’t get the cutter to move like I wanted and I was kind of battling my command a little bit,” Junis said. “It was just one of those outings where you gotta grind, you gotta do whatever you can…scratch, claw, throw whatever you can to get up there to get some outs. I think that was just a pure grind it out kind of outing tonight.”
After all this, I should mention Soler breaking out of his slump, the swing Hunter Dozier put on his home run in the second and the bullpen bending but failing to break.
What. A. Game.
Minnesota 12, Oakland 13 — 10 innings
You thought the Royals game was bonkers? Check the highlights in this one. The A’s tied the game at 10 on a sac fly in the bottom of the ninth against Alex Colome. The Twins took the lead in their half of the 10th thanks to the free runner on second and a Byron Buxton home run. Colome returned for the 10th and got the first two batters.
Then, insanity. A walk, another walk, an error by the second baseman and finally a throwing error from the third baseman. The A’s plated three to walk it off without a base hit.
Crushing loss for the Twins. The A’s have now won 11 in a row.
Pittsburgh 3, Detroit 2 — 7 innings
Pittsburgh 2, Detroit 5 — 7 innings
The Tigers split a doubleheader against the Pirates. Pittsburgh plated their three runs in the fifth in the first game for the victory.
Spencer Turnbull made his season debut after recovering from Covid and whiffed six in five innings of work as Detroit snapped a five-game losing streak.
Chicago at Cleveland — Postponed
With the White Sox and Cleveland postponed, the Royals pick up a half-game in the standings. It’s never too early.
The Royals have a well-deserved day off. Don’t we all need one after watching that on Wednesday?
The Royals head on the road starting Friday for a 10 game road trip, stopping in Detroit, Pittsburgh and Minnesota.