Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
All year, the Royals have been known for their terrific run prevention, which has been driven by a defense that is probably the very best in baseball. Multiple players will likely win Gold Gloves, and others will certainly be in contention for one. The defensive metrics love them, and the eyeballs love them. There is no question that the Royals have an elite defense.
However, possessing that elite defense doesn’t make the Royals immune to defensive slumps.
As we saw in September, even good defenders can go through periods of poor performance. In their 26 games last month, the Royals committed 23 errors. Now, errors are hardly a comprehensive measure of defensive prowess, but I think it’s fair to say the Royals’ defense was well below their normally excellent level.
Eric Hosmer had a handful of errors in his first several games back from the disabled list. Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar booted a few routine plays. Omar Infante struggled to play up to his standards. Even Alex Gordon misjudged a couple of fly balls that led to opponents’ scoring opportunities. There were still great plays, to be sure, but it seemed like they were vastly outnumbered by the misplays. Toward the end of September, they started to tighten things up again, but the team’s defense essentially disappeared for quite a while.
Following last night’s victory, I think we can say the Royals’ defense is back.
In the first game of the ALDS, Lorenzo Cain made a pair of highlight catches with relative ease. Nori Aoki also made a pair of highlight catches, but with the kind of awkwardness only Nori Aoki can pull off. Last night, we saw Hosmer start a 3-6-3 double play that was only made possible thanks to an outstanding turn by Escobar, after a high throw nearly pulled him off the bag, but he settled himself before making a strong and accurate throw back to first.
Topping it all off, though, was the play that saved the game for the Royals.
In the bottom of the eighth, with the score tied at 1, C.J. Cron led off with a double off of Wade Davis. Colin Cowgill entered the game as a pinch runner, and while he isn’t the fastest guy on the team, Cowgill tends to be a smart baserunner. The Angels’ number 9 hitter came to the plate, and some may have been expecting a sacrifice bunt. Chris Iannetta was not bunting, and instead decided to swing away. This is what happened:
Jarrod Dyson had just entered the game for defense, so of course he was given a chance to make an impact right away. The ball was well to Dyson’s right, so his momentum wasn’t carrying him directly into the throw. He still was able to stop himself from fading too far toward left field, then change direction and get behind the throw to third. It wasn’t perfectly on line, but the strength was there.
As a brief aside, I’ve always loved Dyson’s arm. Some people see him as a small defender and automatically assume he doesn’t have enough arm strength to make the necessary throws from deep in the outfield, but I think we can put that silly little myth to bed now.
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Back to the throw. Because it was off line, Escobar started to follow the ball’s path in case he needed to make a quick cutoff before turning and getting it to the base. But Moustakas saw the ball coming in and knew he could only make a play if the ball went through, so he didn’t call for the cut. Escobar did a great job of getting out of the way of the ball just in time, so Moose could read the hop off the dirt.
At this point, Moustakas took the play into his own hands. He had to come off the bag to field the throw, and then made an insanely quick move back to third, putting the tag right on Cowgill’s hand before he could arrive safely.
Each player involved had to make slight adjustments in the blink of an eye. Dyson changing direction. Escobar pulling up short of the ball. Moose not calling for the cutoff, then diving back to third. Each adjustment was critical to converting the play, and if anything had gone wrong, the Angels would’ve had a man on third with less than two outs and the top of the order coming to the plate.
That play saved the game for the Royals, and thanks to some heroics from Hosmer in the 11th inning, that play helped give the Royals a chance to come home Sunday night with an opportunity to grab a spot in the American League Championship Series.
The Royals are in the position they are in due to many things, perhaps chief among them, their amazing defensive play this season. The defense may not have been quite as great last month, but they appear to be bouncing back at the perfect time, when the lights are shining brightest.