They say that a baseball team will usually have 50 games that they’re going to lose, no matter what. They’ll win 50 games just based on the law of averages. The other batch of 62 games, though, is up to the team.
For the first seven innings tonight, the Royals seemed resigned to let this one settled into the “50 losses” column. Then, as has been the case over and over in 2011, they came back to win, scoring the tying and winning runs on a Melky Cabrera hit in the bottom of the ninth.
The win demonstrates the importance of the so-called “little things.”
The starting pitching for both teams was strong all night. Josh Tomlin was efficient for the Indians, getting through 7.1 innings on 93 pitches. He allowed five hits and one walk and kept the Royals off the board. After allowing his only walk of the night with an out in the seventh inning, the Indians replaced him with Tony Sipp, who allowed two Chris Getz steals and walks to Alex Gordon and Billy Butler.
Here’s a little thing that helped tonight – timely (though still frustrating) substitutions and hustle.
After Butler walked, Ned Yost put Jarrod Dyson in to pinch run. At the time, it seemed odd since the Royals were down two runs, a single would have likely scored Gordon from second (or had a chance to at least) and it just seemed like it was taking the bat out of the lineup if the game went into extra innings. I can see the thought behind the move, as Jeff Francoeur was coming up with two outs and has been hitting well so far (and was, in fact, Baseball-Reference’s top WAR position player with 1.3 WAR coming into tonight’s game). A gap shot from Francoeur would make Dyson the lead run, where Butler would have been chugging into third had he stayed in.
Francoeur grounded up the middle, just within reach of Asdrubal Cabrera. He got up, flipped to second and Dyson beat it out. Rather than a Butler forceout, Dyson kept the inning going with his speed alone while Getz scored the first Royals run.
In the top half of the inning, the Royals got another little thing to help them out. Already up 2-0, the Indians got a double from Carlos Santana with one out. Louis Coleman put a ball in the dirt but Matt Treanor blocked it. Santana had to stay at second. Travis Hafner singled to center – a hit that would have scored a runner from third base – and Melky Cabrera came up firing. The ball beat Santana to the plate while Treanor blocked the plate and applied the tag. His block of the ball and the runner saved a run.
In the ninth, the Royals faced Chris Perez, one of the better closers in the league. With the bottom of the order coming up, it seemed like the Royals were out of luck. But Kila Ka’aihue doubled into the gap and Mike Aviles pinch ran for him. Mitch Maier pinch hit for Treanor and got his first hit of the year, sending Aviles to third. With nobody out, Alcides Escobar hit a sharp grounder to third and the Indians cut Aviles down at the plate.
Momentum seemed to shift on that play, as the Royals went from nobody out and a runner on third representing the tying run, to a situation where a grounder could be a game-ending double play.
So Chris Getz worked a walk that loaded the bases. Cabrera came up and singled, scoring two and splitting the series.
The Royals didn’t hit for most of the game, but they put it together when it mattered. None of their walks came before there was one out in the seventh inning. All the moves Yost made worked. O’Sullivan threw six strong innings. Louis Coleman worked two scoreless in his major league debut and Aaron Crow kept the Indians off the board despite a Grady Sizemore double.
The Dyson and Maier decisions worked tonight (though you could also see them being the wrong move). The Royals weren’t very patient tonight, but when they had to be, they zoned in.
So far the themes from spring training are still popping up – patience at the plate, aggression on the basepaths, and much improved defense (Gordon almost made another highlight catch in left field, but was a step short and trapped it, he later atoned by making a nice snag at first base in the ninth). For a team like the Royals, who have more homers than just three teams in the American League, getting runners on base and moving them around is going to be a key factor in scoring runs. Also, if the Royals are preventing runs, they don’t have to score as many either.
Right now, these elements are fitting together and it’s a lot of fun to watch. This group is learning ways to win, and while we don’t know how this year will end up yet, in the long-term, those lessons can lead to very good things.