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MISMATCH-UP OF THE WEEK: St. Louis Cardinals at Kansas City Royals…wait a minute, this isn’t Jim
Baker’s column
? Well, no, actually it’s the return of Prospectus Game
of the Week
.

Unlike Jim’s twice-weekly oeuvre, in which he previews both top-notch
match-ups and lopsided potential laughers, GotW was meant to pick choice
battles, riveting team match-ups, interesting pitching
battles–something compelling. The other mandate of GotW, however, is that
every team must be covered at least once during the season. Since a
Royals/Devil Rays breakdown could cause narcolepsy among non-members of
the Gotay and Cantu families, a Show-Me State tilt seemed appropriate.

Of course, there’s the beauty of baseball: Over a long season, any team can beat
any other team on a given day, no matter how wide the spread in talent between the two.
With the Cards coming into Sunday’s game atop the NL Central at 27-15 and
the Royals bringing up the rear in the AL Central at 12-31, any surprises
would be welcome.


Cardinals
SS David Eckstein .311
DH Larry Walker .272
1B Albert Pujols .335
CF Jim Edmonds .282
RF John Mabry .327
2B Mark Grudzielanek .336
3B Abraham Nunez .286
LF So Taguchi .246
C Einar Diaz .233

Most broadcasts I’ve chronicled this year
(through the magic of MLB
Extra Innings
) have, when listing both teams’ lineups, showed only batting average
next to the player’s name. One could argue that on-screen space is limited, and BA at least provides a metric
everyone can understand that fits easily into the frame. Maybe. But
looking only at batting averages, are we to conclude that Mark
Grudzielanek
is the best hitter on the Cardinals? That
John Mabry is vastly superior to Jim
Edmonds
?

Reducing the lettering size of players’ names and expanding the lineup
stats to include on-base and slugging averages would take little effort on
the part of TV production crews. Let’s
start a movement to get networks to post triple-slash stats–if we all
send our local baseball carrier a two-line e-mail asking politely, maybe
we can affect change. I never thought I’d see OBP posted on the scoreboard
at venerable Dodger Stadium, but it happened–this can, too. Such small changes
go a long way to educating the baseball fan base. (This concludes
the Official Game of the Week sermon; a close runner-up was a pre-game
Royals ad featuring Angel Berroa, David
DeJesus
and…Tony Pena. Enough ink has been spilled on the
extra-marital scandal that forced him out of the manager’s chair earlier
this month, but for U.L. Washington‘s sake, get the man
off the promos already!)

The Royals’ starter is Ryan Jensen, making his
first big-league appearance of the year after injuries prompted his call-up
from Triple-A. Signed as a minor-league free agent out of the Giants
system in November, Jensen went from 13-game winner in 2002 to throwing
just 13 1/3 innings in 2003-04. The Royals needed pitching depth, though,
so they took a chance. A finesse righty with an assortment of off-speed
pitches, Jensen added a new weapon to his arsenal while stranded in Fresno
for two years–a knuckleball. No Charlie Hough he, Jensen
added the knuckler to his repertoire rather than adopting it as his main
pitch. That’s an extreme rarity in today’s game; as infrequently as you’ll
see a Steve Sparks or Tim Wakefield
throwing mostly knucklers on a major-league mound nowadays, fewer pitchers
still will mix the knuckler with the standard
fastball/slider/curve/change-up menu. It makes sense, if you think about
it: If pure knuckleballers have trouble controlling the pitch, imagine how
tough it must be for a pitcher who only practices and throws it
occasionally.

Before the game, Jensen displayed the variety of grips he uses for his six
pitches (two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, curve, slider, change,
knuckler). It’s a fascinating feature that ends with his key to success:
“A located fastball for a strike is the best pitch you can ever have.”
Jensen doesn’t have it against leadoff hitter David
Eckstein
, as he misses on two heaters to go to 2-0. Eckstein
comes into the game hitting .311 with a .391 OBP–this is exactly the
situation he wants to be in, his likelihood of getting on base in front of
Larry Walker, Albert Pujols and Edmonds rising. But Jensen battles back with another
fastball to go to 2-1. A slider down induces a groundout to third base. Just
like that, Jensen’s first major-league game in two seasons has begun.

Jensen starts Larry Walker with two more fastballs, then
snaps off a big curve that has Walker way out in front for strike two. Two
things jump out right away: Jensen’s not afraid to mix different pitches
on different counts, and he’s a very quick worker–both among my
favorite traits when watching a pitcher operate. After another fastball
is fouled off to keep the count at 1-2, Jensen shakes off catcher John
Buck
‘s sign, then accepts another. Could he? Would he? Yes–it’s
a wobbling butterfly that floats up and away from Walker–strike three!
Buck looks nearly as perplexed as Walker as he snags the pitch with his
glove facing down, not knowing where it’s going to break. I already
had my one diatribe for the year on knucklers and why more failed
pitching prospects should learn them last
month
, so I’ll just add this: Get more knuckleballers in the game,
because it’s damn entertaining to watch…

…and then Jensen hits Albert Pujols with an 0-2
knuckler, as if to squelch aspiring Niekros before they can finish
grooming their fingernails to throw the pitch. Jim
Edmonds
follows with a four-pitch walk, and suddenly a routine
first inning now looks like the kind of trouble you’d expect from a
29-year-old soft-tosser making his return to the bigs after two years
away. John Mabry then makes Jensen sweat. The righty gets
away with two hanging curves mixed with a fastball to move the count to
1-2. Six pitches later, Jensen’s thrown everything but the slider, Mabry’s
still up, and the count is full. The payoff pitch? Slider, down and in,
swung on and missed, strike three. I am officially rooting for Ryan
Jensen.


Royals
SS Angel Berroa .253
CF David DeJesus .257
DH Mike Sweeney .322
1B Matt Stairs .267
RF Emil Brown .224
3B Mark Teahen .246
LF Matt Diaz .235
C John Buck .202
2B Ruben Gotay .232

Other than the general crappiness of the lineup, what jumps out here is deploying Berroa–.291 OBP and all–in the leadoff spot. Of course
Berroa’s hitting .310 since interim manager Bob Schaefer moved him there,
so who knows? There are few viable options anywhere on the roster as is.
Berroa works an eight-pitch at-bat of his own, then lines a single to
right on a low fastball from Royals starter Jeff
Suppan
–In Bob We Trust.

David DeJesus, one of the best young players in a Royals
organization largely devoid of top-shelf talent, is the #2 hitter. The idea of
moving DeJesus to the second slot, Lefebvre explains, is to take advantage
of the hole on the right side with a lefty hitter when Berroa reaches
base. This makes some sense–if the hitter can pull the ball, of course.
DeJesus doesn’t, hitting a tailor-made double-play ball to Eckstein…only
Eckstein boots it, and everyone’s safe. Eckstein looks disgusted with
himself.

He may get a reprieve, though. Mike Sweeney pops out on a
tricky 0-1 change-up. Then Suppan breaks out his nastiest pitch, a big,
sweeping curve that bites into the dirt when it’s working. Cleanup hitter
and notable
Canadian
Matt Stairs tries to pull the pitch, tapping
out to first for the second out. Only Emil Brown–the
replacement-level poster child for not letting heady spring training
performances influence roster decisions–stands in the way of Eckstein
escaping his gaffe, and the inning.

Suppan’s curve looks poised to send Brown back to the dugout. A big yakker
on 1-1 has Brown flailing at air for strike two. Suppan then comes back
with another curve, low and off the plate, which Brown fouls off to stay
alive. Next pitch–a slider, identical location to the last pitch. Brown
reaches out and slices it down the line for a two-run double. In pitching,
as in real estate, it’s location, location, location. Suppan bought a
semi-detached termite ranch on a charming half-acre minefield with that
pitch.

It gets worse for the Cards. On Suppan’s 30th pitch of the inning, rookie
third baseman Mark Teahen laces a double down the
left-field line to make it 3-0. Eckstein comes over to talk to Suppan, but
instead of comforting the pitcher, it’s Suppan patting Eckstein
reassuringly, telling him they’ll get those runs back. Meanwhile, the
Cards’ shortstop looks despondent. Three runs doesn’t look too awful,
though, when Matt Diaz goes to 2-0, then hits an easy
bouncer to Eckstein for the third out…only Eckstein throws it wide of
first for another error, scoring Teahen. Color man Paul Splittorff astutely notes that
Pujols was leaning the wrong way when he stretched for the throw and
probably should have made the play, even given the off-target delivery. Meanwhile Eckstein looks like he wants to crawl into a hole
for a week. Suppan throws his second poorly-located slider of the inning,
this one a hanger over the plate on 2-0 that Buck lines over the
right-centerfield wall for a two-run homer to make it 6-0 Royals. Make it
a month of solitary for Eckstein.

Can the Cards come back? This is a team that led the National League in
runs scored heading into Sunday’s game. It’s also a vastly diminished
lineup without Scott Rolen. The All-Star third baseman’s
injury–he’s out a minimum of six weeks after suffering a slight tear in
the labrum of his left shoulder–has reduced the Cards to playing
Abraham Nunez, the same Abraham Nunez with a career line
of .237/.304/.312. Tony La Russa’s fetish for multi-position, no-hit
utility men is going to come back and bite him eventually. Of course if
Walt Jocketty keeps adding big bats to the lineup and the rest of the NL
Central can’t even muster a second over-.500 team, William Hung at third base
may not make a difference.

It will on this day, though. After Jensen was forced to wait 27 minutes
while the Royals batted in the first, the Cards let him off the hook with
a 1-2-3 Grudzielanek/Nunez/So Taguchi inning of futility. (While we’re here,
La Russa’s efforts to spot Reggie Sanders in advantageous
match-ups is admirable–but should the Cards really play Nunez and
Taguchi over Sanders, given that Mabry can play third base?)

There’s little in the way of taut situations or rollicking action to speak
of for the next seven innings. Suppan would go on to strike out five in
five innings’ work, all on that nasty curveball. The nine hits and two
homers he gives up around those strikeouts showed his inability to get
batters out with his other pitches. Actually, that’s not entirely true.
The Royals hit four grounders during the course of the game that should
have gone for routine outs. Unfortunately all four turned into errors–one
by Grudzielanek, three by Eckstein (giving him four for the series, seven
in his last 10 games). Meanwhile Jensen earned his first big-league win in
three seasons, going five respectable innings, yielding two runs, three
hits and three walks, with three strikeouts. The Royals would go on to win
easily, 9-2. Mismatch-up of the week? Sure–just not the way people
expected.

Some quick thoughts:

  • As Royals devotee Rany Jazayerli notes, K.C. has a shot at assembling the
    worst one-run record over the span of a decade by any team in modern major-league history. Thanks to BP’s James Click, here are the franchises with
    the worst records in one-run games over a 10-year span dating back to 1900
    (overlapping teams) eliminated:

    
    1904-1913 Brooklyn Dodgers: 195-309 (.387)
    1925-1934 Boston Braves: 194-293 (.398)
    1922-1931 Philadelphia Phillies: 172-255 (.403)
    1995-2004 Kansas City Royals: 164-204 (.406)
    

    The 1995 Royals were pretty good in one-run situations; if you replace
    1995 with 2005, the 1996-2005 Royals stand at 145-233, or .384. Barring a
    turnaround, the 1996-2005 Royals would be the worst one-run team in the
    history of baseball.

  • In addition to the pre-game feature showing Jensen’s grips for each of his
    six pitches, the broadcast did a great job of utilizing their multiple
    camera angles and their editing capabilities. Royals cameras showed
    freeze-frame shots of Jensen’s grip just as he was releasing the slider,
    curve and knuckleball that Jensen used to get his three strikeouts.

    Later, when Leo Nunez came into the game, the cameras
    showed a great slow-motion sequence of the young pitcher going through his
    delivery. The 21-year-old Royal reliever–who looks about 12 given his
    baby face and 6’0″, 160 pounds-when-soaking-wet frame–looked to have a
    violent delivery at first glance. But when play-by-play man Ryan Lefebvre asked his broadcast
    partner about Nunez’s mechanics, Splittorff showed Nunez’s
    balance at the top of his delivery, as well as the young pitcher’s
    consistent release point. Being something of a closet junkie when it comes
    to pitching
    mechanics, I
    found the analysis both insightful and amazing to look at–no small feat
    for a medium that pays John Kruk‘s salary. Lefebvre and Splittorff
    did a commendable job throughout the broadcast.

Set Your VCRs and TiVos: The next Prospectus Game of the Week will feature
the Baltimore Orioles playing host to the Detroit Tigers, Sunday May 29,
1:30 p.m. ET (Channel 737 on MLB Extra Innings for DirecTV). Two lefties
with different pedigrees will do battle, as erratic but intriguing
prospect Wil Ledezma battles rejuvenated former failed
prospect Bruce Chen. Swipe some left-handed
pinking shears
and tune in.

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