Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Razor's Edge: Old Man Hudson, the Wunderkind Royals and the Close Game We Wanted

As Kansas City’s third run crossed the plate, all Tim Hudson could do was watch. He had given up a run in the first, but until the sixth inning he had pitched magnificently in his World Series debut. Hudson was now in the dugout. The look on his face spoke an undeniable sense of disappointment. In his sixteen years as a Major League pitcher, the thirty-eight year old Hudson was finally in the fall classic for the first time. The game’s active wins leader sat silently, occasionally letting out a sigh as he was forced to accept his fate. He could not win this game for his team. Tim Hudson, closer to retirement than the prime of his career, had to do the hardest thing that any man with his competitive spirit could do- he had to watch and hope.

In game two, San Francisco got off to a great start, scoring on a first inning lead-off home run. While the game remained close, the sixth inning proved fatal. Friday night, as the series began anew in Northern California, it was the Royals’ offense that got started early. ‘Manufacturing runs’ has become a bit of a cliche when describing both of these teams, but that is essentially what they do. Alcides Escobar led off the game with a long double to left. Alex Gordon grounded out to first, allowing Escobar to advance to third. Lorenzo Cain then hit a soft ground ball to short. Running on contact, Escobar was far enough down the line that Brandon Crawford only had one play, and it wasn’t to home. Cain’s out produced a run, and quickly the Royals had the lead.

There were rumblings of confusion in the media earlier in the day. Kansas City manager Ned Yost had taken Nori Aoki out of the lineup and replaced him with the speedy Jarrod Dyson. Losing the designated hitter under National League rules, Yost was forced to think radically in developing his plan to steal back home field advantage. So without Aoki (who batted a pleasant .285 this year) or the power-source big man Billy Butler, the Royals had to focus on their premiere assets- speed and defense. As they has been all postseason, the Royals defense seems to stem from some clairvoyant knowledge of where the ball will be. In the first inning, Cain got a remarkable jump on a Buster Posey line drive to right. He tracked the ball down and only required a kneeling slide to make the play. The stellar defense was not all wearing grey and blue. In the next half inning, Kansas City had runners on first and second with no outs. Salvador Perez lined a two-strike pitch to left field. Travis Ishikawa initially misread the ball, but quickly rallied to get in place to make the play. Had the ball sailed past him, the Royals would likely have scored twice on the play.

Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie, an eleven-year veteran making his first World Series appearance, was pitching rather well himself. Through five innings, he had not allowed a run, and had only given up two hits. The sixth inning, however, would spell the end of the night for both veteran pitchers. Hudson started his half by forcing Guthrie to ground out softly to second baseman Joe Panik. Then things began to unravel. As the Royal’s lineup reset, Alcides Escobar led off with a single. Alex Gordon followed immediately with a double beyond the reach of center fielder Gregor Blanco. Escobar scored with little trouble. Hudson managed to get Lorenzo Cain to ground out, but his night would soon be over. Manager Bruce Bochy made the call and replaced Hudson with reliever Javier Lopez. Eric Hosmer, celebrating his twenty-fifth birthday Friday, stepped in with a chance to push the lead to three. He and Lopez battled for ten pitches, reaching a full count with two outs. It was the kind of scenario a kid dreams about growing up, and Hosmer got it on his birthday. On the eleventh pitch of the at bat, Hosmer threaded a hit just inches away from the pitcher’s glove and barely out of the reach of Brandon Crawford. The Royals’ bench erupted with cheers for their first baseman. His single had scored Gordon from second. The score was 3-0 with the threat of Kansas City’s unhittable bullpen looming.

In Guthrie’s half of the inning, the Giants quickly went to work to return the favor. Crawford singled to lead it off. Then Michael Morse, pinch hitting for Javier Lopez, doubled on a hard-hit ground ball beyond the glove of a diving Mike Moustakas. Crawford scored. Morse had most notably hit a pinch hit home run to tie game five of the National League Championship Series, and now he was doing similar damage in the World Series. The double ended Guthrie’s night. In came Kelvin Herrera, who was credited with the game two win. Herrera immediately walked Gregor Blanco. Joe Panik chopped a high ground ball back to the pitcher, who only had a play at first. With runners on second and third with only one out, the Giants looked ready to strike back with Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval due up. Posey grounded softly to second baseman Omar Infante, scoring Morse. In only a few moments, the game was close again. Herrera took a fast pitcher’s count against Sandoval, no balls and two strikes. Often the clutch offensive hero for San Francisco, Sandoval was surrounded by the cheers of eager fans awaiting another David Ortiz-esque fit of hitting. He took a hard rip at Herrera’s next pitch. It bounced fast along the first base line, but Eric Hosmer was waiting. He gathered the ground ball and stepped on first base to end the inning. The Giants were so close to tying the game, but they had at least drawn the lead back down to one.

In one of the more peculiar decisions Ned Yost has made this postseason, he decided to leave Kelvin Herrera in to pitch the seventh frame. This would normally not be a big deal, but the pitcher’s spot was due up fourth in the top of the inning. Following a Jarrod Dyson single, Herrera walked into the batter’s box for the first time. This was not just his first time this series, nor this season. It was the first time Herrera had stepped up to bat in his professional career. With the fleet-footed Dyson on the basepath, logic might have removed Herrera for a pinch runner, perhaps Nori Aoki or Billy Butler. Yost left his pitcher in, and it was clear from the start he was over-matched. A smile broke on Herrera’s face as he made awkward contact with a pitch from the newly-inserted reliever Sergio Romo. On the next pitch, he struck out. The baserunner was wasted, but I suppose Kelvin Herrera has the peace of mind knowing he batted in a World Series game. The strategy was to allow Herrera to continue into the bottom half, but that soon turned south. He walked Hunter Pence to start the inning. Brandon Belt struck out on a foul tip. Then, with little protest, Herrera was replaced on the mound.

In to pitch for the Royals was twenty-one year old Brandon Finnegan, who made a wild bit of baseball history. Back in June, Finnegan was in pitching for Texas Christian University in the College World Series. Drafted by the Royals earlier that month, he made his debut with the team in early September. Kansas City’s wild ride to the American League pennant created a possibility that was manifested Friday night. As he replaced Kelvin Herrera as pitcher in the seventh inning, Brandon Finnegan became the first player in history to pitch in both the College World Series and the World Series in the same year. He forced Juan Perez, taking over for Travis Ishikawa, to line out to left fielder Alex Gordon. With the tying run still on first, Brandon Crawford pushed to a full count against the rookie pitcher. Finnegan had offered only breaking ball pitches to Crawford. The sixth such pitch was ninety-five miles per hour. Crawford swung, but he had no chance. The kid had gotten out of the jam and held on to the lead.  After the game, the Baseball Hall of Fame asked for his cap, which Finnegan gladly handed over.

The Giants’ last gasp was set to come in the ninth, as Posey, Sandoval and Pence were due up. Greg Holland had other plans. On eight pitches, Holland squashed any chance of a rally. Posey popped out to left. Sandoval and Pence each grounded back to the pitcher to end the game. The Royals, who after game one were thought to be dead in the waters of McCovey Cove, had taken home field advantage back from the Giants.

As for Tim Hudson, his first World Series start ended with a loss. Barring the series stretches to seven games, it will likely be Hudson’s last appearance this season. His long and somewhat-under-appreciated career nearing its end, Friday night was perhaps his only World Series start. As the game descended to its finish, the camera kept panning back to him, where only a blank stare toward the field could be returned. His head resting on the back wall of the dugout, Tim Hudson’s solid performance will sadly go down only as an ‘L’ in the record books. Hudson was a member of those overachieving Oakland teams at the turn of the century. He, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder were integral parts of the early “Moneyball” years. Hudson was traded to Atlanta after the 2004 season, where he pitched until this past offseason when he signed as a free agent with San Francisco. He is the only one of the three without a World Series ring. For the aging veteran, he must now do that same difficult thing he did last night- watch and hope.

There is a long-standing debate about momentum in sports. Can a team carry a positive vibe from game to game, giving an edge of some sort? It is very difficult to say. In baseball, there are so many games, and each one holds its own irrational bounces and freak circumstances. If anything, this series is proof that momentum does not exist. The Royals simply took advantage of more chances than the Giants. So far, that has been the story of this World Series. Baseball in its purest form is largely about exploiting the shortcomings of your opponent. This is why teams shift defensively against pull-hitters or pitch around a decent hitter because the next guy is prone to grounding into double plays. Ned Yost’s managerial tactics have been borderline wacky at times, but ends to this point have somewhat justified the means. The Royals, the darlings of this October, now sit two wins away from the once-thought impossible.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Carpe Noctem: The Geoff Blum Story

A baseball season can seem so long that a single plate appearance can seem largely insignificant. As summer's long days turn cold and th...