Just a few days ago it was hard not to think the Kansas City Royals could not only take the series with the Detroit Tigers this weekend at Kauffman Stadium, but take on the world. The Royals inexplicably won a game on Monday night that they probably shouldn’t have and that had become the Royals mantra this year; fight back and win the unattainable. Royals Hall of Fame broadcaster Denny Matthews had even mentioned numerous times this year that these things only happen when you are destined to win, when luck is on your side. With all that said, it appears the Royals luck might have just ran out, as they have lost two heart breakers this weekend against Detroit.
Friday night the Royals went out, a full house at ‘The K’, thunderstix and optimism in tow, and essentially crapped the bed. Jason Vargas had possibly his worst outing as a Royal, the offense was abysmal and the Tigers showed why they are a mainstay in the playoffs. I’m not sure there was anything positive to take away from Friday night’s game, other than after being on the roster for almost three weeks manager Ned Yost remembered Johnny Giavotella was on his bench, as Gio would take over second base late in the game. In fact, Yost emptied the bench, giving his regulars some rest or to feed them milk and cookies, I’m not for sure. Either way, Friday night should have been a night to drink away any memories of the game and let it die out in a field somewhere, never to be seen or heard from ever again.
Saturday felt like the definition of a ‘must-win’ game as any would feel. If the Royals didn’t come away with a victory on Saturday they might as well concede the division to the Tigers. Things started out hopeful, as James Shields was dealing and looked to be on the top of his game. But the little voice in the back of my head went off in the bottom of the first inning. After a leadoff double from Alcides Escobar, Nori Aoki(who has been the Royals hottest hitter, just 13 for his last 16 plate appearances coming into the contest) stepped up to the dish and proceeded to put down a sacrifice bunt. Yep, the Royals have a runner in scoring position, a guy with speed that could score on a hit to the outfield and instead Aoki chose to bunt him over and give the Tigers a free out. After the game Yost would say Aoki did this on his own, but this still falls on Neddy. As manager you need to stress(especially to guys like Escobar and Aoki who do like to bunt) that in that situation go ahead and swing away. This looked even worse as Josh Willingham and Alex Gordon would follow with strike outs and Escobar would be stranded at third base.
This was compounded in the third inning when Aoki would step back up to the plate with runners on first and second(two speedy runners in Jarrod Dyson and Escobar, mind you) and would lay down a sacrifice AGAIN! We would find out later this sacrifice was called for from the dugout and shows yet again that Yost has a hard time thinking outside of his outdated box. Once again, a hit to the outfield will get the runner home from second, but more importantly you are taking the bat out of the hands of the hottest hitter in baseball this week! Once again the Royals would not score a run as Willingham would continue his craptacular day at the plate with another strikeout against the Tigers Max Scherzer. I don’t understand using the sacrifice bunt this early in the game. I get that the Royals aren’t an offensive juggernaut and have trouble at times scoring runs. But to take the bat out of the hands of a batter and give up an out seems ludicrous, especially when the percentages say you have a better chance of scoring by letting the guy hit rather than pushing the runners up. So there was two big opportunities Kansas City had to score early on in the game that was flushed away because of poor tactical decisions. I know for years smarter baseball men than me have advocated the sacrifice bunt, but in today’s game it seems to be more effective late in the game when you need just one run to either tie or put your team ahead. In my eyes, a sacrifice bunt early on is the equivalent of a rally killer.
The sixth inning was possibly a major turning point in this game and one that will haunt Royals fans for years to come. With one out and runners on second and third, Omar Infante would hit a light liner to Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler, who would then try to double off Eric Hosmer at second base. Only the ball would sail past shortstop Eugenio Suarez. Seeing this at third base was Salvador Perez, who was walking back to the base before taking off once he saw the ball go past Suarez. It seemed as if the Royals had taken a lead in the game but the only problem was Perez never stepped back on the bag, which he needed to do to score from third. Detroit’s bench noticed this, as Tigers Manager Brad Ausmus would come out and question the call. This is where things got kooky. The Tigers would appeal the call, as Scherzer would throw over to third base, where the umpire called Perez safe. But if you were watching at home, you didn’t see this. Great camera work, FOX, as they wouldn’t show this footage till much later in the game. After a conference by the umpires, Ausmus would ask for a review, which the umps would walk over to do. The only issue was the play was non-reviewable, as tag up plays are not part of the replay process. The umpires were told that as well while talking to the replay officials from New York. Meanwhile, the replay was shown at the stadium, clearly showing that Perez never stepped back on third base before trotting home. The umpires would huddle again and then declare Perez out. The main argument in all of this wasn’t that the wrong call was made; Perez never touched the base, therefore he should be out. The issue was more how this was handled by the officials. Why call Perez safe when the Tigers appealed? It seemed as if they thought he was out as well but wanted to get the play reviewed to make sure. Hopefully the call wasn’t influenced by the replay showed on CrownVision or by Royals first base coach Rusty Kuntz making a comment to one of the officials that Perez never touched the bag. The call was correct; the execution could have used some work.
This leads us to the ninth inning. The Royals are down 3-2 with runners on base, 2 outs. Josh Willingham, who struggled mightily on this day, was scheduled to bat, but Yost decided to go to his bench. With Joe Nathan on the hill for Detroit, it would seem to make sense to go with the guy who was 6 for 14 career against Nathan, not the batter who was 1 for 11 against him. It seemed to be wise to go with the guy hitting .264 instead of the one slumming it at a .190 clip. Nope, Neddy went Raul Ibanez over Billy Butler, despite the fact Butler’s numbers all the way around are better than the guy who had batted twice the entire month of September. You can imagine how this turned out, as Ibanez grounded out to end the game. After the game Yost would say he was looking for a “professional at bat”, which he why he chose Ibanez. I get the thinking, but I think you would get the same from Butler, despite his latest struggles. In my mind you go with the guy who gives you the best chance to win; Ibanez should never be that choice. This was just another bad call for the manager who seems to be wilting under the pressure of a pennant race. Yes, we knew of this before now. Now we are seeing it with our own eyes, like Milwaukee before us.
With only 8 games left in the regular season(and the Cleveland make-up game that will finish on Monday) the Royals still have a solid chance of reaching the postseason. But at this point a division title looks out of the question, as Detroit has owned Kansas City and only has Minnesota and Chicago left on their schedule. The Royals are left with a series against Cleveland that will be no walk in the park and the final 4 in Chicago. The Royals will have Oakland and Seattle to contend with for the two Wild Card spots, as Oakland has 3 against the Angels and 4 against the Rangers, while Seattle has 4 against Toronto and 3 against the Angels. It is too soon to say it is over but if the Royals catatonic offense doesn’t wake up and the defense continues to stumble, then the Royals are going to have a hard time picking up wins within the next week. Add in Yost’s questionable tactical decisions and you have a recipe for disaster for the last week of the season. This current series against Detroit was supposed to be an opportunity for the Royals to lay claim to the American League Central and show the baseball world that they deserved the respect they covet. Instead we are left wondering if there is enough gas in the tank to even get them to the postseason. At this point Kansas City needs to decide; are they contenders or pretenders?