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A Good Ol' Fashioned Pitchers' Duel
It's hard to ask for more from Kris Bubic and Brandon Woodruff lived up to his billing.
When it started to become clear that the Royals were going to get the two aces on the Brewers, fans were mentally preparing for the team to score very little. And looking ahead, it looked like this would be an opportunity for a great matchup between Danny Duffy and Brandon Woodruff to start the series, two pitchers who qualified for the ERA title and had ERAs below 2.00. Of course, Duffy went on the injured list on Monday and Kris Bubic was pressed into action.
And it would have been hard for anyone to be better. Early on, it was easy to see that Bubic had the good stuff going. There’s a fine line between nibbling and pitching on the edges, and sometimes it’s hard to say which is which, but it sure looked like Bubic had a gameplan early to stay on the edges and not leave anything over the middle of the plate. This was his first inning:
It’s hard to argue with that. He caught Kolten Wong looking, got a soft lineout from Lorenzo Cain and then a weak ground ball from Christian Yelich, just back from the IL. If you missed the game and think there are some missing pitches, you’d be wrong. He threw eight to get through the first. Then you saw a stark contrast in the bottom of the first with Woodruff just pounding the middle of the zone to Whit Merrifield and Carlos Santana before getting Benintendi on a couple pitches around the edges. He only took five pitches.
I think you could tell that Bubic was starting to feel it in the second inning because he inched a little closer to the middle of the plate, but by this point he was already doing such a good job of doing my two basic tenets of pitching - changing eye level and changing timing - that he could get away with it. In the bottom half of the second inning, the Royals had one of the closest things to a rally in the first seven innings from either team when they had two runners on base before the rain came.
As it turned out, the rain delay lasted 21 minutes and didn’t cost either pitcher their start, but it was 7:35 or so on a 7:10 start. That was right on the border of a “come on, man” moment with why they would even start the game. As I said, luckily it didn’t last long enough for either starter to get pulled, but it could have easily changed the game.
I was a little concerned heading into the top of the third that Bubic might lose what he had as he relies quite a bit on command. He hadn’t pitched in about half an hour when he took the mound and I was a little surprised at how he started Travis Shaw with seven fastballs, mostly at the belt or higher. And then on the eighth pitch, I have to admit that I giggled. I love a same side changeup.
After that plate appearance, he really settled back in for a bit, and even threw a couple more left on left changeups, including this one to Yelich that is just unfair for a guy in his first game back still working on getting his timing back.
He didn’t find himself any trouble at all until the sixth inning when he was starting to get to about his pitch count from his last relief outing on Thursday when he came in for Daniel Lynch. There’s a telltale sign that a pitcher is wearing down and it’s when they start missing arm side and up. It’s a bad combination.
One thing that I always believe a pitcher can do in these situations, especially when they have a good one, is to go to their changeup. The reason I think that (and it’s not universally true, but for a guy like Bubic I think it applies) is because to execute the pitch, you really need to get all the way through your motion, which is often not happening when you’re starting to wear out. And after walking Luis Urias after getting ahead 0-2, he did try to go to the changeup, but missed arm side and high yet again. I was pretty convinced it was time to go get him.
But he stuck with that changeup after a fastball and he put it exactly where he needed to in order to get a ground ball to Kelvin Gutierrez who was able to start a clean double play (more on that defense in a bit). He did walk another batter and was continuing to show big time signs of fatigue, but another soft lineout off the bat of Lorenzo Cain ended what passed for a threat from the Brewers and it was pretty clear his night was over.
The changeup was obviously working for him, and when he’s really good, that’s likely to be the case. But I loved the way he located his fastball and how he used his curve to keep hitters honest on his changeup a little bit. In all, he limited hard contact incredibly well with an average exit velocity of just 82.8 MPH and only two hard hit balls allowed all game, both to Pablo Reyes of all people. I love the changeup for him because it’s such low spin that I’m sure hitters think they can square it up, but it’s just…gone.
Bubic has now thrown 17.2 consecutive scoreless innings and has definitely secured his spot for another start at least with a truly outstanding outing.
And the bullpen sort of just kept on doing what they’ve been doing (sans Wade Davis) over the last week or so. Now in the last six games, the Royals bullpen has given up just two runs in 19.1 innings and both were in that very difficult ninth inning on Sunday. Scott Barlow was nails as usual and Tyler Zuber looked good while Jake Brentz got his man to eventually earn his first big league win.
Then, in spite of a bloop single from Cain with one out, Josh Staumont closed the door with two strikeouts, including one of Daniel Vogelbach that ended up getting put on Avisail Garcia’s line. Why is that, you ask? It’s because Garcia argued a bit too much on a check swing after being pretty blatant about disliking a call. You almost never see a cleanup hitter with two outs and two strikes in the ninth getting ejected. And then Vogelbach had to come in cold and prepare for 98 from Staumont only to get the hammer and whiff on the only pitch he saw. Here’s that pitch to Garcia that started the fireworks.
Since a bit of a slow start in the strikeout department, presumably due to recovering from having Covid, Staumont has really picked it up. Now in 12 innings over his last 12 games, he’s allowed seven hits with 18 strikeouts. That’s a 35.3 percent strikeout rate and that will certainly play.
And in the end, the Royals didn’t allow a single runner to even reach second base, which is just incredible. They picked up their first home win in May. Sad but true, but good to be off the schneid. Tonight is a big game for them. At some point, they need to get back to winning streaks and not just treading water and in spite of the Tigers sweeping the Royals in Detroit, if they can somehow win tonight, they have a chance to make a move toward .500 this weekend.
Woodruff Amazed, But Royals Bats Made Contact
You can’t talk about a game like this without mentioning the other pitcher and Woodruff was really outstanding last night. He’s one of those pitchers who gives hitters a difficult choice. They can either take a few pitches and get down 0-2 almost every time or swing early and make weak contact and hope the ball gets through. Heading into last night, Woodruff threw a first pitch strike 2/3 of the time with the big league average just below 60 percent. He threw pitches in the zone 48.7 percent of the time compared to the big league average of 42.2 percent.
So yeah, he’s in the zone. A lot. But his stuff is so good that the contact a hitter makes just isn’t very good. The Royals, not surprisingly, chose to swing early and often. Again, I’m not saying this is wrong in any way. But I was impressed with the way they were at least able to get bat on ball against him. In 98 pitches, he got seven swings and misses from Royals hitters. That’s a season low. He came into the game with a whiff percentage of 30.2 percent and only had a 15.2 percent whiff rate last night.
Don’t be too surprised to see a similar approach tonight against Corbin Burnes, though Burnes doesn’t put as many pitches in the zone and typically gets even more whiffs than Woodruff. It’s an even tougher test, if that seems possible.
Royals Defense Finally Shines
It feels like all season long, the defense has been such a liability. At -15 defensive runs saved, they entered yesterday ranked 27th in baseball. We’ve seen issues at literally every position on the field. Think about what Merrifield has dealt with and some issues with Nicky Lopez at shortstop, ill-advised outfield dives, dropped popups and all of that. But last night was finally a night where the Royals flashed some leather. Maybe it was the presence of Cain to remind them, but whatever it was, they were great. Check out this play from Merrifield:
And this one:
And this great tag by Santana on a bad throw from Gutierrez:
The news here for the defense is pretty good actually. Merrifield appears to maybe have just been going through a defensive slump as he’s actually looked a lot better for awhile now. They’re about to get Adalberto Mondesi back and having Gutierrez at third base over Hunter Dozier for however long that lasts will definitely help the defense. So while there may not be the highlights like what we saw last night, maybe the defense can finally start to hold up their end of the bargain.