The Royalsâ€™ third-best starting pitcher threw fully a third of his pitches in Game One in the sixth inning, facing the meat of one of the best offenses of the last five years for the third time. Edinson Volquez walked the first two batters on nine pitches apiece, bringing the tying run to the plate in the person of Edwin Encarnacionâ€”who hit 39 home runs during the regular season. The case for leaving him in to start the inning was tenuous; the case for letting him face Encarnacion was nonexistent. The Royalsâ€™ 5-0 win on Friday night defied logical analysis, because no logical decision-making process leads to Volquez pitching his way through that sixth inning. Thereâ€™s no stone I can turn over in order to find Ned Yostâ€™s secret rationale for leaving Volquez in. He didnâ€™t have one. He simply got caught unprepared when Volquez got into trouble, and decided (once Volquez began working his way out of it) to let him keep going.
Thatâ€™s cool, because it gives us an opportunity to just leave strategies aside. We all want October to be about tactics. We donâ€™t want to admit the role of randomness (or at least, we donâ€™t want to just chalk the outcomes of games up to it), and if we spend too much time on the players and too little on the managers, we canâ€™t avoid talking about that randomness. Statistics have slayed the narrative that said there was a yawning gap between players in terms of clutchness. Theyâ€™ve shed light on the way dominant pitching performances sometimes boil down to making only a few mistakes, and having them hit right at somebody (at 109.4 mph). And hell, forget statistics: The close following of a long season that is possible in this modern age forces us to confront the wide variance players experience throughout the season. You never know when a superstar is going to have a bad three games, or when a utility player is going to catch the timing just right and yank a ball out of the park.
We know all of this, so we try to make October about the wrong reliever coming in, or a horrendously suboptimal batting order, or leaving a league-average starter out there to trudge through a juggernaut offenseâ€™s best hitters with an elevated pitch count. In truth, though, thatâ€™s not what most of October is about. More often, itâ€™s about moments produced by playersâ€”moments like these.
The Not-So-Costly Mistake
After walking Josh Donaldson, Volquez got ahead of Jose Bautista 0-2. Bautista fouled off a changeup that felt a little dangerous, running low and in, but not as low and not as far in as heâ€™d wanted it. The next pitch, though, was the first Moment. Volquez threw another changeup, at 89 mph, that hung in the worst possible place to which one could pitch Bautista. It was thigh-high, and only missed the very middle of home plate by an inch or two in. If Bautista had been taking batting practice, looking for nothing other than that kind of pitch, swinging easy, it would have been the perfect offering to put somewhere on the other side of the nearest county line. It was a mistake in Bautistaâ€™s happy zone, plain and simple. Bautista fouled it away. He ended up walking, of course, but he easily could have homered on that pitch.
Maybe Volquezâ€™s delivery fooled him. Maybe the fact that Volquez was working (somewhat uncharacteristically) in the upper 90s with his sinker all night had Bautista gearing up to make sure the heat didnâ€™t freeze him. Maybe Bautistaâ€™s eyes lit up a little too much when he recognized his opportunity, and got too big in the early phase of his swing, slowing his delivery of lumber to rawhide. Maybe, as so often happens, it was simply a miss, one of the thousand pitches and swings per season that miss making magic together by just a fraction of a millimeter, or an even smaller fraction of a second. However it happened, though, Volquez escaped damage on a pitch he must have wanted back before his fingers even lost the feeling of the just-released stitches on the ball.
With Encarnacion at the plate, no outs, two on, Volquez was utterly fearless. His second pitch to Encarnacion was his 20th of the inning, but he showed no sign of nibbling, fighting his mechanics, or mistrusting his stuff. He got ahead with two hard sinkers inside, each of which Encarnacion fouled off. Then he buried a changeup in the dirt just off the outside corner, and Encarnacion laid off. To Donaldson, Volquez had alternated his changeup and curveball in an attempt to invite a mistimed swing. To Bautista, he had doubled, then tripled up his change, trying to catch the slugger expecting him to go back to his heat when he wasnâ€™t really doing so. In this situation, then, he had Encarnacion set up to try something else. On 1-2, Volquez threw a 96 mph sinker over the outside corner, freezing Encarnacion for an enormous out. It was a perfectly executed pitch, and everything that led up to it made it work precisely according to plan. Encarnacion was caught thinking about those two sinkers inside, and about pulling the ball over the fence to tie the game. The ball he watched go by was up just enough to have been hittable, but to hit it, Encarnacion would have had to be ready to go with it and barrel it up on a line to right field. He wasnâ€™t, so Volquez won the confrontation.
The Atom Ball
Chris Colabello was up next, and Volquez provided him with a steady diet of his hottest heat. He started by busting him inside (foul ball; Colabello does most of his damage on inside pitches, so he swings at them even when they run off the plate and onto his hands), then tried to go away, but missed twice. In a 2-1 count, he threw a changeup for a strike, and Colabello, fooled, swung over the top. That pitch took some guts, especially given the inconsistency of Volquezâ€™s changeup command on Friday night, and particularly late in the game. It worked, though, drawing the count even. Then it was two more heaters, well-located in the relatively safe space at the upper inside corner of the zone. Colabello fouled them both off.
A small miss, letting one of those balls wander a little too far down toward Colabelloâ€™s belt, and the game could have been tied, or at least closer to it. To the credit of both Volquez and Salvador Perez, though, they chose to throw those pitches, knowing that when Volquez had missed throughout the inning, heâ€™d missed up. He was pitching slightly above his usual velocity band, even as he ran his tank down to empty. The risk of getting too much on top of one was fairly small.
Volquez tried another changeup, then, this time low and out of the zone. Colabello saw him coming and laid off. On 3-2, Volquez found the wrong location with another sinker. This one was right about belt-high, on the inner portion but not the inner edge. Colabello swung at pitches in that zone over 75 percent of the time this year. He whiffed on 16.3 percent of those swings, his lowest whiff rate on swings in any area of the strike zone. He slugged .625 when a pitch in that zone ended an at-bat. This time, though, Colabello hit a ball only moderately hard, on a line to Alex Gordon in left field. It was an easy play. Two outs. This one could be nothing more than a bad break, but it felt like Colabello was slightly off-balance, guarding against the changeups away Volquez had shown him earlier in the battle.
Seven Deadly Sinkers
To Troy Tulowitzki, Volquez elected not to try anything within two area codes of cute. He threw him seven pitches, at the following speeds: 96, 96, 96, 96, 97, 97, and 96 mph. The first two just barely missed the outside corner, at the knees. The third was chest-high on the inside corner for a called strike. The fourth was another ball (inside). The fifth was another called strike, at the top of the zone. The sixth was a foul ball, on another one boring low and in. The seventh was a third called strike on a pitch just below the letters. Kauffman Stadium exploded.
It was a simple exercise in focusing on location, and in changing a hitterâ€™s eye level with every pitch. Whether Volquez didnâ€™t trust his secondary pitches as he reached what must have been a very high level of fatigue or simply knew he could beat the (apparently diminished, even if he says heâ€™s healthy) Tulowitzki with pure velocity doesnâ€™t really matter. The fact is that he had the temerity to throw seven straight sinkers to a hitter with power, when that hitter represented the tying run. And it worked. Maybe thatâ€™s Tulowitzkiâ€™s fault. (He certainly should have protected the plate better with two strikes, having seen basically the pitch that punched him out twice already in the sequence. Maybe heâ€™s more hurt than heâ€™s letting on, and the strain of the swing necessary to catch up to and punish a pitch thrown that hard to that spot is more than he can manage.) Maybe itâ€™s luck. Maybe it would have ended disastrously next time. This time around, it worked, and the game was basically over at that moment.
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