Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Inning.

It pays to have fortitude, intestinal or otherwise. Such as Delmon Young, for example. Yes, he could have lost sleep watching ESPN replay his misguided lunge at the dying fly ball followed by his blank stare at the third base umpire while Mark Teahan circled the bases as Joe Nathan glowered at him for the foolhardy effort at a heroic catch. Then again, maybe he did. Lack of sleep would explain some of his play.

The mistake evidently carried into Wednesday's ballgame and manifested itself in the middle innings. In the bottom of the fourth inning the Twins and Royals were deadlocked at 2-2. Livan had just gotten Tony Pena Jr to fly out to Cuddyer for the first out of the inning. This, of course, is the unexpected results from a batter hitting .164/.185/.205 in the 8th spot. Whether the Royals are philosophically against the sacrifice bunt (understandable since they have been outscored by 54 runs this year) and did not signal it in again or that Pena Jr made the decision on his own to swing away (which is strange because he has bunted 10 times with 4 base hits), whatever the case might be the option to swing with just the one strike and resulting in an unproductive out worked in the Twins favor. True, the danger still remained as the girthy Billy Butler resided at second and the speedy utility man Alberto Callapso was behind Butler at first and the Royals would have the top of the order with two outs remaining but this situation lent itself for a potential double play and Livan Hernandez was quite good at stranding base-runners (75% lob%).

But David DeJesus did what a good left-handed batter should do when he got the first offering from Livan, which was a thigh high fastball on the outer-half of the plate: he lined it to left for Delmon Young. Here's a bit of background on Delmon Young. Last year with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Young logged 1,134 innings in right field and threw out 11 base runners. According to the Fielding Bible, baserunners had the opportunity to advance 130 on plays to Delmon. Only 56 made the decision to advance and did so successfully (43%). Because of this, he was ranked #3 among right fielders for throwing (our very own Michael Cuddyer was #4 despite having more kills). When the Twins acquired Young this past off-season, the consensus was to move him to left where they would utilize both Cuddyer's and Young's arm as the best tandem corner outfielder arms in professional baseball. In 456 innings to date, Young has had 5 kills but 45% of baserunners are successful in their extra base exploits (27 advanced on 58 opportunities). Currently he is ranked 26. So when Delmon Young unleashed a throw from left field of a stadium in the far western portion of the Show-Me-State that split third and home on a frozen rope headed towards Topeka this continued his defensive downward spiral.

The Royals started to pick on him as if he were some kind of exposed nerve. Joey Gathright lofted a fly ball to him to score Callapso from third (who had moved up from second on Young's throwing error). Instead of attempting a play at the plate, Young wisely lobbed the ball into Mike Lamb who had repositioned himself in the same spot he was in a play prior. With two outs and DeJesus moved up to second on the throwing error on Young, Hernandez's left-on-base rate looked at jeopardy. Hernandez went to work on the Royals front-running MVP for the first half of the season in Alex Gordon. Ahead 1-2 to the young third baseman, Hernandez threw a 83 mph fastball up in the zone. Gordon lifted a routine fly ball to Young's direction, a step, maybe two, to his left. There was no indication that anything was wrong. Young seemed to have an eye and a glove on it. Then...he didn't. Gordon's ball hopped along the Kaufman grass as Young gave chase. DeJesus, who was running on contact, scored easily from second and was replaced at the two-bag by Gordon. The Royals had scratched out three runs thanks to the efforts of Delmon Young. Adding the three runs scored from Tuesday night's inside the park home run and Young is now responsible for six Royals runs this series.

But this game is more than just three players. It takes nine to win a ball game (along a handful of bad decisions from the opposing dugout). Certainly Royals manager Trey Hillman was handcuffed because the Twins had forced the Royals on Tuesday to use Ron Mahay (17 pitches), Jimmy Gobble (33 pitches) and closer Joakim Soria (31 pitches) for extended duty effectively rendering them useless on Wednesday. This meant that if necessary in the late innings, the Royals had no left-handed pitching to combat Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau with. But as the innings ticked by, that seemed like and afterthought then a concern. Throughout the game, Zack Greinke looked in control. In his 8 innings of work he had accumulated 8 strike outs (including Gomez and Casilla twice each) and allowed five hits and three earned runs. As Greinke reach 117 pitches through the 8th inning the 5 run lead looked safe. In 20 games this season the Royals have gone into the 8th inning with a lead and had yet to allow for the opposing team to come back, hell with a lead going into the 7th inning the Royals are 18-1. Time to relax and laugh about that silly little nine game losing streak, right?

Hillman reached into his bullpen and produced the 27-year-old Ramon Ramirez. Minus Soria, Ramirez has been the best right-handed reliever for Kansas City. In 21 innings of work, Ramirez has not allowed a home run while not issuing free passes (9% bb%) and striking out batters by the handfuls (29% k%). With Michael Cuddyer and Delmon Young both expected up in the 9th it seemed logical to think that Ramirez would be able to match-up well.

Michael Cuddyer is one guy that would like to see a new month. As superstition and arbitrary as it is, the month of May has not been kind to Cuddyer. In 110 plate appearances he is hitting just .214/.287.286 and he is chopping and beating more than half of his balls in to the ground (50%) resulting in a low .263 average on balls in play. Up until this at bat in the top of the ninth, Cuddyer showed no sign of improving his output. In his first at bat he grounded out to second and then he popped out to center and first in his subsequent at-bats. Naturally if you were a Royals fan reading this, you would have no cause for concern. After watching Ramirez's first offering, a 92 mph fastball, go high for a ball, he then let the second go for strike one. The third was dumped foul while the fourth, this time an 89 mph slider, was foul tipped for strike three.

One down.

As Jason Kubel strode to the plate, Trey Hillman maybe felt small pangs of regret. Sure, the lead was large and there were just two small outs left to get, but still this particular circumstance might not have sit right with a veteran manager in the mire of a 9-game losing streak. What Hillman knew was that Rameriz, while nearly unhittable to right-handed batters (.146/.239/.146, zero extra base hits in 46 plate appearances), he was susceptible to the left-handed ones (.297/.350/.378, two extra base hits in 40 plate appearances) and that Kubel hit righties substantially better (.267/.306/.463) than lefties (.176/.237/.176). If he were writing the script, this would not be the match-up Hillman would want. His two left-handed weapons in his bullpen arsenal were forced to watch from the side-lines as Kubel stroked a belt-high fastball through the right-side of the infield for a base hit.

One down, runner on first.

Redemption can be a beautiful thing in baseball. Unfortunately, Delmon Young can offer no salvation for the Twins in the ninth. After coaxing two walks in the earlier innings, Delmon swung out of his shoes on several of Ramirez's 87 mph sliders and ultimately retired himself on a low slider.

Two outs, runner on first.

Now with two outs and a five run lead any kind of Earl Weaveresque type statistical match-up has forsaken Hillman and the Royals as the left-handed batting Mike Lamb takes to the batters box. Like his left-handed brethren in Kubel that proceeded him, Lamb handles right-handed pitching much better (.266/.299/.339 versus .091/.130/.227). On a wild pitch change-up in the dirt, Kubel was given second. His run had little monetary value to the Royals (fractions of a penny). Lamb singled him home on the next pitch, a ground ball through the right side of the infield.

Two outs, runner on first, four run lead.

The fans, or rather the handful of them that a) showed up and b) stuck around this long, appear delirious. They have suffered through a 9-game losing streak and now are poised to finally move on to the next chapter of the season. Little victories mean everything to a franchise that struggles to stay above .500. Like the old Eddie Murphy "Raw" schtick: If you are starving in the desert and someone hands you a cracker, it is the best damn cracker you have ever had. The Twins, meanwhile, have given them back-to-back right-handers to face the hard-throwing Ramirez with just one out remaining. Brendan Harris, the Twins second baseman cum shortstop, has seen his numbers slowly drop from April to May. What's even stranger about Harris is his swing at home and away. In 99 plate appearances on the road Harris had hit fly balls just 28% of the time but in his 87 plate appearances at the Dome, Harris has skied 42% of balls. Here in Kansas City he adds to his road total as a fly ball drops in front of the right fielder Ross Gload.

Two outs, runners on first and second, four run lead.

Carlos Gomez marches to the plate. He is greeted with three straight sliders from Ramirez, two of which bounce in the dirt. As he has done nearly 60% of the time, Carlos Gomez redirects a 92 mph fastball back up the middle, splitting the converging Pena Jr and Callapso. Mike Lamb scores from second reducing the lead to three and bringing up the tying run to the plate.

Two outs, runners on first and second, three run lead.

After twenty pitches and four hits, Hillman had seen enough of Ramirez. Oh how he wished he had his relief ace available, the guy that is kept around for moments just like this. Three pitches or less to send the crowd home with a victory. Soria is not available. Hillman turns to Joel Peralta. Peralta has been one of the more reliable Kansas City relievers and one that has lasted on the roster since 2006. Ron Gardenhire pulled one of the few bench moves he had in Craig Monroe. In his career, Monroe has pinch hit 42 times and hit one home run. Peralta started Monroe off with a 86 mph slider for a ball then poured several 93-94 mph fastballs at various locations around the plate to Monroe - mostly away and then began to work his way inside as the count crept even. On Peralta's sixth offering of his outing, Monroe deposited it into the left field bleacher area to tie the game.